"What the Congress government did not do for you in 15 years, we will do in just 15 months," Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said in Imphal, while addressing a mammoth rally ahead of the 2017 Manipur Assembly election.
It was always going to be a tough promise to keep. For by then, Manipur was already cut off deeply from different sides by decades-long ethnic tension and conflict among the Meiteis, Nagas and Kukis who are the major constituents of the state's population.
Economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council was hindering the flow of food and necessary goods to the valleys of the state where the Meiteis dwelled, and it was running into its fifth month.
The pain of losing nine young men to police and civilian clashes was also still poignant in the hills. Their bodies weren't buried for nearly two years, as the people, caught up in emotional fervour, vowed not to bid farewell to their mortal remains until the cause for which they had laid their lives was fulfilled.
The task of fulfilling all these promises was handed over to chief minister Nongthongbam Biren Singh, who heads the first BJP-led government in Manipur. In his first ever interview with any national mediam Biren Singh speaks of the challenges ahead, and how he plans to heal the bleeding wounds of Manipur.
The Framework of agreement, that was signed between the government of India and the insurgent group NSCN(IM) to continue the peace process has been the issue around which the present politics of Manipur revolves. But there's still palpable fear among the people of the state that the Centre has compromised the territorial integrity of the state in the secret 'Framework of Agreement'. How do you think the people will react to it, when the government decides to spill the beans?
The Naga peace process is no more a reason to fear for the Manipuris. Their main fears were over questions of the state's territorial integrity. The NSCN(IM) has long been demanding that Naga inhabitated areas of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh should be merged to create a greater Nagalim. But Prime Minister Naredra Modi has already assured people of Manipur that territorial disintegration of the state won't happen at any cost.
BJP national president Amit Shah has also assured us of the same. The central government has given assurances to NSCN(IM) to get them to attend talks, but they are definitely not related to Manipur's territorial integration. The government is working keeping in mind the issues of all sections of people. I have complete trust in our leaders.
But the NSCN(IM) has repeatedly been claiming that the government agreed to their demand for Nagalim?
That is their demand. NSCN(IM) has every right to state what they want. But it's the government of India and the government of Manipur that will actually decide whether the area in question will be given to them or not. We will not do that, since Nagas and Meiteis are brothers, and all of us will stay together.
Religion and ethnicity cannot be the basis of formation any political boundary. That way Kashmir should have been with Pakistan and West Bengal with Bangladesh. Meiteis and Tangkhul Nagas have been staying together for time immemorial. We have been bounded together by history. The very fact that there were no Tangkhul Nagas in Nagaland until before some of them shifted to that state during the movement period, stands as evidence that they historically belong to Manipur and not Nagaland. One should remember that Rishan Kaising, a Naga leader, was Manipur's longest serving chief minister.
But will they agree? We can see economic blockades are imposed by Naga groups at the slightest provocation.
Only a few Nagas who have guns with them are demanding disintegration of Manipur. But I will not blame them, as there are also reasons as to why they have revolted. Meiteis, who have been following the path of conservative Hinduism, had traditions that amount to untouchability. These traditions hurt their sentiments. Even today there are some people who are following these old traditions, which date back to the time we had monarchy in Manipur.
We understand their pain and we have tried to persuade them that it was monarchy that made Meiteis behave that way and they should not be angry with us. In reality, the eiteis and Nagas are brothers by blood; we are one. Today's generation don't follow those archaic norms anymore. I believe that they will agree.
Your government has been seen making conscious efforts to bring the Meiteis who live in the plains and the Nagas and the Kukis who dwell in the hills closer. How have these efforts paid off?
People say that development is the only condition for social harmony. But in my view exchange of views and mutual trust is also equally important. This effort was missing from the earlier government. Meiteis are the bigger community in the state and therefore have the responsibility of an elder brother. The present situation demands more from the Meiteis. We have to forgive small mistakes in the larger interest of the state.
Soon after assuming office, my target was to persuade the leaders of the United Naga Council to lift the five-month-long economic blockade, as it was our pre-election assurance. I assured them that talks on the issues they have been struggling for will go on. I told them that issues will always exist, but as a society, we can't remain immersed in these issues. We have to move on for a better future for our next generation. I have assured them that I will do whatever I can for them within the limits set by the Constitution. They expressed their trust in me, and lifted the blockade after I assured them the jailed UNC leader will be released. It was major success for us, because by then almost all the efforts to lift the ban had failed for various reasons.
My next target is to establish markets run by women in every hill district of Manipur in the first 100 days of my government. The five-centuries-old 'Ema Market' in Imphal, which is also run by women will be the model for these markets. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has allotted an amount of Rs 150 crores for this project. I hope equality in development is necessary to create emotional attachment.
These efforts have evidently borne fruit. When I went to Ukhrul, a Naga-dominated district and also the birth place of Muivah, I was overwhelmed to see a gigantic crowd come to greet me. I saw that the people had trust in me, and I stepped out of my security cover to speak with them. This moved them too. It was an unprecedented turnout for a chief minister of Manipur who is Meitei by birth. Such an emotional fervor never touched us earlier. Now I can see many plain-dwellers going to the hills without any fear or doubt. Situations are changing fast.
In the Kuki dominated hills of Manipur, people have been preserving the dead bodies of nine young men who were killed in police firing since over 600 days as a part of their struggle for a separate state. Is this situation not keeping the flame of tension burning in the state?
This is one of the examples that makes the apathy of the earlier regime evident. As per law, no dead body can be preserved for more than 48 hours. But the nine persons in question died in 2015 in police firing during an agitation. It was the responsibility of the state to convince the people to observe the last rites of the dead. But it was not done, as if there was no government at all!
The nine persons died when a law and order situation erupted in the hill district of Churachandpur, due to a misunderstanding that people of the valleys want to drive away the hill dwellers, and this came about due to three bills that were passed in the Manipur Assembly in 2015. The people refused to bury the dead till their demand was met. My next responsibility is to persuade the people to conduct a burial.
The Centre has proposed to amend the Citizenship Act to allow religious minorities living in neighboring countries to take citizenship in India. Many northeastern states have opposed this amendment, as it would lead to a further influx of migrants to the region from Bangladesh. In Manipur, resistance movements against this bill were seen in recent times.
I think the Centre will consider protecting the socio-cultural identity of the people of Manipur. Even the Constitution of India allows such provisions for safeguarding the interests of the societies who are linguistic minorities and are minorities in terms of population. Modiji understands all the issues and I have trust that he will consider this aspect before taking any decision in this direction.
BJP has assured the people of Manipur to provide them with a system like the Inner Line Permit. This will deny people from other parts of India the right to settle in Manipur.
Manipur's hills are already protected by such a law. No outsider can buy land there. Hills form 92 percent of Manipur's land area; the remaining 8 percent are plains. The people in the valleys fear a rampant influx of people, that would mean their own cultural existence would be extinct. Influx from Myanmar and Bangladesh has happened in Manipur. So we feel that an act is needed to prevent unabated migration. The bill only regulate further influx; it will not have retrospective effect, ie the people who already have migrated from other parts of India to Manipur will continue to stay here. We will abide by all constitutional norms while drafting it.
Updated Date: May 21, 2017 16:26 PM