With the Assembly elections approaching, Manipur may once again be heading towards another cycle of violence, the with law and order situation rapidly deteriorating in the state.
The latest flashpoint is the creation of seven new districts in the state by chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh, announced on December 8.
Manipur has been simmering for months over a tussle between the Naga-dominated hill districts and the Imphal valley, mostly comprising Meiteis - the two distinct geographical and ethnic divisions in the state.
Till now, Manipur has had four valley and five hill districts. While the Naga tribals dominated the hill districts comprising a major portion of Manipuri territory, it is the valley dominated by the Meitei community with more than half the state's population that has enjoyed more representation in the Assembly.
No wonder it is the Meiteis who have historically enjoyed power in Manipur politics ever since it merged with independent India in 1949.
Naga dissent in hills
The Naga tribals have been opposed to a series of decisions by the Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in the state, terming them “anti-tribal” and politically motivated.
They have accused the state government of covertly adding portions of tribal land traditionally held by the Nagas to carve out the new districts. They also oppose three Bills passed by the state government in Manipur Assembly last year - the Protection of Manipur People’s Bill, 2015; Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill and the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill.
Observers believe that all three bills passed by the Congress are aimed at retaining its hold on the majority Meitei votebank in the Imphal valley.
The tribal areas in Manipur are protected under Article 371C of the Constitution. It means non-tribals are barred from purchasing land in tribal reserves. However, there is no bar on tribals buying land anywhere else in the state. For long, this has been a sticky issue in Meitei-dominated Manipur politics.
|The Ibobi Singh-led Congress government in the state is already facing anti-incumbency. (Photo: India Today)
With the elections approaching, land reforms being pushed by Ibobi Singh’s government means that non-tribals (Meiteis) too would now be able to buy tribal land in the hill districts.
The Naga tribals have erupted in protest terming the move as a “covert attempt” by the Meitei-majority state government to grab tribal land. The residences of several MPs and MLAs were torched by protesters in violent agitations that have been continuing since August last year.
The state government crackdown killing nine protesters in police firing in the hill district of Churachandrapur only worsened the situation, with the Naga tribals now seek total separation from Manipur.
Meitei backlash in valley
The United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Nagas residing in Manipur which has been leading the tribal protests in the state, has enforced a painful economic blockade on the Imphal valley.
Highways leading to Imphal have been blocked since November creating shortage of essential commodities and fuel. Coupled with the Centre’s demonetisation announcement, patience finally gave way to desperation as residents in Imphal erupted in counter protests this week.
Protesters have attacked several vehicles coming from the Naga-dominated hill districts towards Imphal and set them on fire. Following that, fresh curfew has been imposed and Imphal West district administration has shut down internet services to curb further spread of violence through rumour-mongering.
Naga accord and rise of BJP
Observers say that it is the rise of the BJP as a strong alternative to the 14-year Ibobi Singh-led Congress rule in the state that has led to the three time CM announcing new decisions to woo the Hindu-dominated Meitei votebank, thereby antagonising the Naga tribals.
That the BJP is making rapid inroads in the state was evident when the party bagged 10 seats against the Congress's tally of 12 in the Imphal municipal corporation polls held in June this year.
However, the saffron party is playing a balancing act in the state by tying up with the Naga People’s Front (NPF), active in the tribal hill districts. Whether the BJP is able to dethrone Ibobi Singh, who is facing stiff anti-incumbency, will depend on how fine a balancing act the party is able to pull off.
While the BJP government at the Centre signed the historic Naga peace accord with the NSCN (IM) last year, the latter is backing the often violent protests by the United Naga Council (UNC) in the hill districts, imposing an indefinite economic blockade on Imphal valley that has in-turn antagonised the majority Meiteis who will eventually be the deciding factor in the upcoming state elections.