The North East Indian state of Manipur neighbouring Myanmar is once again in the grip of a severe humanitarian crisis due to a crushing economic blockade imposed by the Nagas living in the four hill districts of the state.
The Nagas form over a third of the state’s population and dwell in the hills that encircle the Imphal Valley where more than 60 per cent of the state’s population, mostly the majority Meiteis of the state, live.
Two national highways - NH 2 (earlier NH 39) that links Manipur with Assam through Nagaland, and NH 37 that connects the state with Assam through Mizoram - are the lifelines of the state (see map of Manipur).
Landlocked Manipur, bound by Nagaland to its north, Mizoram to its south, Assam to its west and Myanmar to its east, is critically dependant on supplies that come in through these two highways.
Since both these highways pass through the Naga-dominated hill districts before reaching the 2,000-square-kilometer Imphal Valley, the Nagas can, and have been, holding the Meiteis to ransom. There is little love lost between the Nagas, who are predominantly Christian, and the Meiteis who are mostly Vaishnavites.
The root cause of the conflict between the two communities is the Nagas’ demand for Nagalim, or greater Nagaland, incorporating the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur (the hill districts of Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Chandel of Manipur), Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Myanmar with the present-day state of Nagaland (see map of Nagalim). The Meiteis are sensitive about maintaining the territorial integrity of their state, and this has led to many clashes and loss of countless lives.
The Nagas in the hills of Manipur have, many times in the past, blocked the highways, leading to Imphal Valley and held the Meiteis to ransom. Since 1 November , the Nagas under the banner of the United Naga Council (UNC) have blocked the two highways to protest the state government’s bid to create two new districts.
The two proposed districts - Sadar Hills and Jiribam - to be carved out of the Naga-inhabited existing hill districts of Senapati and Tamenglong respectively, drew vociferous opposition from the Nagas.
The Nagas’ opposition, however, appears specious. The Nagas are opposing the formation of the two districts on the grounds that the Manipur government has no jurisdiction over Naga-inhabited areas of the state! This has been the consistent and flawed stance of the Nagas of Manipur, who have been strident in their demand for integration of their lands with present-day Nagaland.
The Nagas in Manipur have, while diabolically availing themselves of various welfare schemes and development projects initiated by the state government, been refusing to acknowledge themselves as citizens of Manipur and have been challenging the state government’s writ in their areas.
The UNC’s blockade has resulted in a severe shortage of fuel, essential commodities and even medicines in the Imphal Valley. Petrol is being sold for Rs 350 a litre in black in the Valley, while LPG cylinders have been going for Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 each.
Prices of rice, sugar, cooking oil and other commodities have skyrocketed up to 10 times their normal rates. School buses have stopped ferrying children to schools on the eve of the annual examinations due to non-availability of fuel.
The Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in the state has failed miserably to deal with the crisis. The state government, now as in the past, has been loathe to use force to lift the blockade of the highways.
It has only deployed the state police and paramilitary forces intermittently to escort convoys of goods-laden trucks and oil tankers from Assam and Nagaland into the Valley. These efforts have been too few and far between.
Ultimately, the full bench of the Manipur High Court directed the state government on Friday (25 November) to “neutralise the blockade” by deploying state police and paramilitary forces on the highways to ensure “free and untrammelled” movement of goods and passenger vehicles.
While it is yet to be seen how decisively the state government acts, past experience shows that the Congress government in that state has been extremely wary of dealing firmly with the Nagas and their illegal and unconstitutional acts.
In late 2011, the UNC had imposed another blockade of the highways that led to a severe humanitarian crisis in the state. They lifted the blockade on their own after 121 long days!
That time, too, the state government did little to provide armed escorts to goods and passenger vehicles and patrols on the two highways to counter the blockade. The state government pusillanimous stance has emboldened the Nagas to hold the Valley to ransom through similar, albeit short-term, blockades repeatedly since then.
It is not difficult at all to ensure free movement of vehicles on the two highways. Manipur has enough security forces - the army, paramilitary forces like the BSF, the CRPF and the Assam Rifles, as well the state police with its own commandos - to impose the writ of the state.
But, senior state officials state that doing so would lead to clashes with the Nagas in the hills and even an outbreak of violence that could lead to a bigger crisis for the state. A former chief secretary of the state who did not want to be named said:
The policy has been to desist from doing anything that would provoke the Nagas in the hills, even if that results in untold sufferings for the people in the Valley...
A senior functionary of the BJP in the state who preferred anonymity said that tough measures were necessary to uphold the rule of the law-
Blocking national highways, as per a Supreme Court order, is illegal and a criminal offence. But the Congress government has been allowing the UNC to violate the law of the land with impunity. ...This cannot go on...
He, added that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has asked the state government to end the crisis by taking strong steps.
Residents of Imphal Valley are, meanwhile, fed up with the frequent disruptions, sufferings and miseries imposed on them by the Nagas in the hills. A leader of the influential All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation (AMUCO) warned-
We have reached the tipping point. That is why a counter-blockade (stopping movement of all goods from the Valley to the hills, which are dependant on the agricultural produce of the Valley) has been imposed by some Valley people. If our sufferings continue, we will revolt and there will be bloodshed...
The Nagas in the hills of Manipur have not only imposed a lot of sufferings on the people of the Valley, they have also been allowed to get away with open defiance of the state government and state authority.
In many parts of the hills, they run their own parallel administration and are closely aligned with the faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) led by Thuingaleng Muivah, who belongs to the Tangkhul tribe of the Nagas who inhabit the Ukhrul district of Manipur.
The Congress government’s soft-pedalling of this issue, feel citizens of the state, will further embolden the Nagas and lead to the ultimate vivisection of the state. The AMUCO leader said-
What we need is a strong government which enforces the rule of the law. No one is above the law and no tribe or community can hold others to ransom and inflict such cruelty on others...
The people of the Valley, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of Manipur and are the end of their tether, harbour the same sentiments and want the state government to act to end their sufferings.
But the Congress government in the state is afflicted by a strange paralysis that, incidentally, characterised the UPA II regime in New Delhi. The only hope for the long-suffering people of Manipur is, thus, a regime change after the Assembly elections next year.
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