Manipur imbroglio: Tripartite talks with Centre, UNC have only shifted focus from real issues
The future course of politics in Manipur would depend on UNC lifting the economic blockade or Manipur government revoking its decision to create new districts.
The recent tripartite talks held in New Delhi on the Manipur imbroglio have shifted the focus from the vexed issue of "Naga (inhabited) areas" to the revocation of the Manipur government’s decision to create seven new districts in the contested area.
But contrary to the popular expectation that the talks would result in the lifting of the economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) in the area, thus easing the process of holding Assembly elections in Manipur due in March, the latest development has threatened to worsen the ongoing ethnic tension.
Satyendra Garg, joint secretary North East, Ministry of Home Affairs, was quoted by The Hindu just after the tripartite talks held on 3 February between the Manipur government, Government of India and the UNC:
“Substantial progress has been made on the issues of economic blockade and creation of new districts. Some issues need more discussion at the organisational level. Both the Manipur government and the UNC have asked for time,” Garg said.
The report also stated, quoting an unnamed official familiar with the talks, that a breakthrough could be on the horizon as the Manipur government had conceded to UNC’s demand to partially roll back its decision of creating seven new districts in the contested area.
Despite the Union Government’s claim to have attained substantial progress in the talks, several reasons reveal that not much has changed on the ground following the talks.
Rebuilding the bridge of trust
After the economic blockade was imposed by the UNC on the non-Nagas dwelling in the valleys of Manipur, the Government of India saw a massive loss of trust in it from these victims. Much of the fuel to it was provided by the Centre’s delay in sending para-military forces to Manipur.
Pradip Phanjoubam, an intellectual from Manipur, wrote in The Indian Express about this delay: “It should have done this at least a month ago, when as a consequence of an indefinite blockade on the lifelines of Manipur by the United Naga Council (UNC) over the anticipated creation of two new administrative districts, signs of retaliation from those at the receiving end of the blockade began showing.”
The tripartite talks hardly succeeded in winning back the trust. Elangbam Johnson, president of United Committee of Manipur (UCM), a civil society organisation seen with a competing stand to UNC told Firstpost that he finds it hard to believe that the Manipur government, as reported, would concede to roll back its decision of creating the seven new districts.
“The officials in the Manipur government who participated in the talks have not issued any statement till now. So, we have no reason to believe that the Manipur government has consented to roll back its decision to create seven new districts,” Johnson said.
He also said that the UCM has sent a clear message to the Centre that no decision risking the territorial integrity of Manipur should be taken or else the situation will boil up.
Resolving the acrimony
The tripartite talks which claim to have achieved substantial progress in resolving the present imbroglio could not contribute to resolving even the basic differences between the Naga and non-Naga communities that had emerged from two different interpretations of local history.
“Manipur has 2,000 years of written history and a 1,500-year-old oral history beyond that. But nowhere in history, it is mentioned that any tract of land belongs to a certain nomenclature of an ethnic group, as claimed by the UNC,” Johnson added.
On the other hand, the UNC has been firm on its stand: “Nagas and tribal people in the present state of Manipur were self-governed and self-administered people.”
It has also been maintaining that, the then Meitei Kingdom was merged with the Indian Union along with tribal areas without their consent, through deception, and under protest of the Nagas and other tribal people.
Since then, the story of the Nagas and tribal people in Manipur has been one of marginalisation, victimisation, discrimination and domination.
The tripartite talk could hardly do anything to resolve this acrimony.
After the talks, the debate on the issue of Manipur imbroglio shifted to whether or not the Manipur government conceded to revoke its decision to create the seven new districts. It is seen in contrast with the earlier debate; whether or not the UNC would lift the economic blockade to make life and the elections easier in the state.
But this shift is seen as inconsequential as the economic blockade continues along with escalated tension between the Naga and the non-Naga groups.
Milan Shimray, general secretary, UNC, told Firstpost that a meeting of the leaders of the organisation will be held on Tuesday and without hinting at whether the economic blockade will be lifted after the meeting, he said, “The outcome of the tripartite talks would be critically explored."
On the other hand, UCM leader Johnson said, “We have cautioned the Manipur government not to backtrack on its decision of creating seven new districts. We cannot succumb to the pressures of NSCN (IM) and accept a wrongly prescribed history.”
Similar anxiety exists among the Kuki tribe, another non-Naga ethnic group in the state.
George Guite, a leader of the Kuki State Demand Committee told Firstpost that if the Manipur government decides to retreat from its decision to create seven new districts, then the repercussions would be too large as the demand to create some of these districts for administrative convenience goes almost four decades back.
Where it all started
Last year, Manipur government, in a bid to appease the non-Naga ethnic groups, decided to create seven new districts, including two Naga (inhabited) districts.
The decision faced stiff resistance from many in the Naga society, resulting in an economic blockade in Manipur.
UNC called for the blockade, saying in a press release that it sees this decision as an arbitrary bifurcation of Naga land without their knowledge and consent.
Protesting the creation of Sadar Hills and Jiribam district, it further said that the land and the Nagas are inseparable, adding that the Nagas are the owner of their land and they will not let anyone decide for them.
Since then, the creation of new districts has become the bone of contention between the Nagas and non-Nagas of Manipur.
Even as the Nagas view this decision as an infringement upon their rights over "ancestral land", the Meitei and Kuki groups support and see it as an assertion of Manipur’s territorial integrity.
The economic blockade started on 1 November last year and continues till date.
Where does it all end?
The economic blockade has not only resulted in a scarcity of food and other necessary items in the valley but has also caused much anxiety about conducting free and fair elections in the state.
Professor Bimal Akoijam of Jawaharlal Nehru University told Firstpost that there are nearly 12 Assembly constituencies in Manipur where UNC and NSCN (IM) have a strong influence. Since they have already declared the Okram Ibobi Singh-led Congress as an enemy of the Nagas, Congress candidates may find it difficult to contest from these constituencies.
The Manipur government finds itself in a catch-22 situation on its decision to create seven new districts, as revoking it as demanded by the UNC would be seen as succumbing to the pressures of NSCN (IM) and thus would make way for an escalation of the tension. On the other hand, sticking to it as demanded by the non-Naga groups is likely to result in continuance of the economic blockade.
No wonder the Manipur government has maintained stoic silence about what decision was arrived at in the tripartite talks, leaving space for speculation.
Hence, Tuesday's meeting among UNC leaders holds much significance, where the "updates of the tripartite talks would be critically explored".
The future course of politics in Manipur would depend upon whether or not UNC lifts the economic blockade unconditionally or whether the Manipur government decides to revoke its decision to create the new districts.
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