Manipur has been reeling under the economic blockade imposed by the Nagas for quite some time now.
Even as the Nagas took time out to celebrate Christmas towards the year-end, the state continued to suffer with basic supplies hard to come by.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. So Romila Laishram, a prominent women’s activist of the northeastern state of Manipur, who also runs a shelter for destitute women, now buys legs and entrails of chicken from the local market. These become ingredients for the broth she makes for the women she cares for and her family members. The broth substitutes for the proteins in pulses, milk and eggs that she can no longer afford. Tens of thousands of women like her staying in Imphal Valley, which houses the eponymous capital of the state, are struggling similarly to make ends meet.
These are desperate times for Imphal Valley, which is in the midst of yet another severe humanitarian crisis. Life has come to a complete standstill, thanks to fuel stations going dry, cooking gas disappearing from the markets, shops running out of rice, pulses, cooking oil and other essential commodities, and hospitals contemplating shutting down due to lack of medicines and oxygen cylinders. All due to an economic blockade imposed by the Nagas living in the hills surrounding the valley, on the Meiteis, the dominant ethnic group of the state.
The blockade was imposed on 1 November by the Nagas under the banner of the United Naga Council (UNC), in opposition to the state government's proposal to carve out two new districts in the hills to accommodate the demands of the Kukis, another tribe of Manipur that has a longstanding feud with the Nagas.
The Nagas said the proposal was a ploy to divide their homeland. When the state’s chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, a Meitei, announced the formation of not two but seven new districts, incensed Nagas, who are all Christians, took it as a challenge and intensified the blockade against the Vaishnavite Meiteis.
But the humanitarian crisis in Imphal Valley that they have precipitated could not keep the Nagas from celebrating Christmas. Even in the valley, prayer services took place in Naga churches; choirs sang joyfully, and the sounds of laughter and merry-making, as well as the delectable aroma of meat, delicacies and freshly-baked cakes, wafted out of Naga homes.
Manipur is bound by Nagaland to its north, Mizoram to its south, Assam to its west and Myanmar to its east. The Meiteis form 53 per cent of the state’s population. The two lifelines of the state are National Highway 2 (NH-2) and National Highway 37 (NH-37). The NH-2 traverses through Nagaland and then winds its way down south through the Naga-inhabited hill district of Senapati, to reach state capital Imphal. The NH-37 originates in southern Assam’s Barak Valley and traverses west, again through the Naga-inhabited Tamenglong district, to reach Imphal.
The overwhelming majority of Meiteis are Vaishnavites. The tribals, nearly all Christians, are largely divided into Kukis, Nagas, neo-Nagas, Hmars and Mizos, apart from a few smaller tribes. The Nagas form about 12 per cent of the state’s population, the neo-Nagas about 1.6 per cent, the Kukis a little over 10 per cent, the Hmars and Mizos about 2.2 per cent, and the smaller tribes about 6 per cent.
The largest group among the Nagas, the Tangkhuls (mostly Baptists) have come to dominate, and dictate the narrative of the Nagas of Manipur.
In 1945, the newly formed entity called the Naga National Council (NNC) demanded autonomy within the Indian Union. But in October 1949, when Angami Zapu Phizo took over as NNC chairman, the organisation started demanding secession from India and launched a full-scale insurgency in March 1952. It was a long, bitter and bloody war that cost hundreds of lives.
In 1975, the NNC signed the Shillong Accord, under which the Naga insurgent group agreed to accept the Indian Constitution, give up arms as well as the demand for sovereignty.
But in 1980, three hardliners – Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Chisi Swu and S S Khaplang – got together and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN). Their aim was to relaunch the insurgency for the establishment of a sovereign Christian nation of Nagalim (or greater Nagaland comprising Naga-inhabited areas of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar).
The NSCN received active help from China and Pakistan in the form of training, arms supply and provision of safe refuge in (then) East Pakistan. The NSCN split into two factions in April 1988, one headed by Khaplang and the other by Muivah-Swu. The split was over disagreement on commencing dialogue with the Indian government. The split was followed by violent clashes between the two factions that cost many lives.
On July 1997, the NSCN faction led by Muivah and Swu signed a ceasefire agreement with the Government of India. Since then, more than 90 rounds of peace talks have been held. Khaplang also signed a ceasefire agreement in 2001, but unilaterally abrogated it in March 2016, leading to the resumption of violence between NSCN (K) cadres and Indian security forces.
The “Nagalim” that the NSCN still dreams of comprises 1,20,000 sq km of land (a little less than the total size of Tamil Nadu), but Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have been vehemently opposed to this demand. They say there aren't any historical records of the tribes who now collectively call themselves Nagas having ever lived or lorded over the territories they claim as their own.
It is the demand for Nagalim that spawned the Naga-Meitei conflict. Though the NSCN claims large parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur as Naga territory, it is in Manipur that this claim finds the most strident articulation. And that can mainly be attributed to the personal interests and ambitions of just one person – Thuingaleng Muivah, the 82-year-old general secretary of the NSCN faction. Muivah is a Tangkhul (of Manipur).
Though the Nagas claim they are one people, they are riven by tribal feuds and divides and, at the end of the day, it is tribal loyalties that matter the most. Given this, Muivah knows that the Naga tribes of present-day Nagaland will not accept him as their leader since he belongs to a tribe from another state.
It is imperative for him, then, to get at least the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur integrated into Nagaland so that after a final peace accord is signed with the government (and such an accord, he knows, has to be within the ambit of the Indian Constitution), he emerges as a leader of all Nagas and can enjoy the spoils of power.
The Nagas of Manipur, at the behest of the NSCN (I-M), started propagating an artificial narrative that the Meitei kings (they are the oldest royal dynasty with their lineage dating back to 33 CE) never ruled over the hills of what constitutes Manipur today, and ever since Independence, the Nagas have been looked down upon and discriminated against by the Meiteis. Hence, they say, they don’t want to be part of Manipur but of Nagaland or Nagalim.
Elangbam Johnson, who heads the United Committee Manipur, the state’s most influential civil society organisation, said:
This narrative is pure fiction...The boundaries of the kingdom of Manipur actually extended much beyond the boundaries of the present-day state of Manipur. After Manipur became a British protectorate, the kingdom was divided into eight sub-divisions—five in the hills and three in the valley—purely based on topography and for administrative convenience. Before that, there was no hill-valley divide. Ancient records show that the hill tribes used to pay taxes to Meitei kings, contribute their men during military campaigns and tribals who call themselves Nagas today served as ministers in the royal council too.
The Nagas of Manipur are organised under the United Naga Council (UNC), which has close ties with Muivah. Many of the top UNC leaders are Tangkhul. The UNC has been spearheading the movement for the Naga-inhabited hill districts to break away from Manipur and become part of Nagalim. The UNC spokesperson K Paul claimed:
We, the Nagas, have endured centuries of humiliation, deprivation, neglect and worse. We have no desire to be part of Manipur and be slaves of the Meiteis any longer. It is the fundamental right of all the Nagas to live together as one.
These attempts by the Nagas to slice away large parts of Manipur using a false narrative has become a highly emotive issue for the Meiteis. The Nagas have resorted to measures which are not only unconstitutional (like not allowing the state machinery to function in the hills) but also brutal and inhuman (like imposing an economic blockade on the Meiteis).
In the last two months, the Nagas have thwarted most attempts of the state to bring in convoys of goods-carrying trucks with the help of police and paramilitary escorts. Women and children have squatted on the highways, and trucks attempting to break through the cordon have been vandalised and torched. The blockade has only been intensified after the chief minister created seven new districts in the state, and also after two top office-bearers of the UNC were arrested for blocking highways, which has been deemed illegal and a punishable offence by the Supreme Court.
Christmas in Imphal
Imphal looks like a ghost town even during the day with most shops shuttered (they have long run out of things to sell) and few vehicles plying on the roads (thanks to non-availability of fuel). Hospitals are facing a grave crisis with stocks of critical drugs running out; many have shifted their ailing relatives and friends out of the state by air. The residents of Imphal Valley have had to cut down on many things, including food, and even the best hotels in the capital have shaven many items off their menus.
However, on Christmas Eve at the Tangkhul Baptist Church in Imphal, the pastor, Reverend Ngamlei Zimik, delivered an address asking the congregation to follow the path shown by Christ. He also came down heavily on the Meiteis from the pulpit, had many nasty things to say about the decision to make 25 December ‘good governance day’ and appealed to all Christians to maintain unity.
The Tangkhul Baptist Church is a member of the Manipur Baptist Convention that describes itself as “a convention of Christ-centered tribes and communities promoting love, unity, peace and service while fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ”. The UNC, which fervently believes in the ‘Nagalim for Christ’ goal, seems to have abandoned the professed Christian values held so dearly by the Church.
And even as the Nagas celebrated the day, the famous and ancient Govindajee temple and Ramji temple in Imphal were visited by a small trickle of devotees. The Meiteis have become weary from want. These two temples are famous for the prasad they offer; the priests there say they have had to drastically cut down on the offerings to the deities as well. Thanks to the selfish ambitions of one man (Muivah), who has not only killed countless in his career as a rebel, but also swears by the Bible.
Pope Francis, in his ‘Urbi et Orbi’ (Christmas Day message) this year, called for spreading love and peace among people “scarred by harsh conflicts”. The spirit of Christmas, other senior clergymen from around the world reminded the faithful, is the “Christian spirit of giving, forgiving and sharing”. These messages have been totally lost on the Nagas.
Thus, the Meiteis are being made to suffer. Romila Laishram fears that soon even the chicken legs and entrails would not be available. Because the price of chicken (Rs 320 a kg now) will rise, taking it out of reach of most people. How will she then provide the protein fix to her family and the women in her shelter? She says she’ll soon contact a distant cousin who’s a plant physiologist in Pune to ask if there’s a process to extract protein from grass. She’ll have to call him because she can’t mail him. “Internet services have been shut down in the valley, you know,” she says resignedly.