2 January 2017

Drawing lines in Manipur.

by Priya Ravichandran

The Manipur government headed by Chief Minister O. Ibobi Singh created seven new districts last week in Manipur. The move claimed to have been done for administrative convenience, and efficiency in carrying out development work, was part of an election promise made 5 years ago. The bifurcation has come at the end of a year-long struggle between the ethnic hill dwelling tribes and the valley based government over land, identity and political footprint within the state.

The Ibobi government which enjoys the support of the majority Meitei groups passed three bills last year. This included a Manipur people’s bill that wanted to define Manipuris as only those people who according to census resided in the state from 1951, and a land reform bill that was designed to give Meitei people permission to buy and sell land in the hill region. The former would have alienated most hill tribes without documentation, and given that Manipur was a union territory until 1972, what documentation was available would have been sparse. The latter is prohibited per current tribal laws, and permission from the Hill Districts would have ordinarily been required for the bill to pass.

Protests against these bills have brought together the Kuki & Naga tribes, and has increased demand for a sixth schedule status for the state which would give greater autonomy for the tribal districts.

Against this backdrop, the Ibobi Singh governments decision to create these 7 new districts, including Jiribam and Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills) last week needs to seen from three angles.

One, With state elections to be held in 2017, the congress government is clearly pandering to disgruntled Kuki’s and other tribal groups, in a move that they hope would get them reelected to a state they have dominated for the last 15 years. The Naga groups living primarily in the north of Manipur, under the aegis of the United Naga Council, launched an economic blockade on November 2nd of this year, severely disrupting normal life. The blockade was against the creation of Jiribam and Sadar hills (Kangpokpi) district; two districts that the Nagas believed would cut through their territory. Bifurcation of these districts has now the potential to increase tensions, but the story on the ground is that ethnic groups including Kuki’s welcome the decision.

Two, The BJP is hoping to open its account in Manipur, post victories in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The biggest roadblock to its campaign has been the 2015 framework agreement the union government signed with the NSCN (IM), and the secrecy surrounding the details of the agreement. The worry that the agreement could lead to shuffling of state boundaries between Nagaland and Manipur is high. The congress government has campaigned on the idea that the party has ties with the Naga groups and victory would disrupt the state. The congress government with its division of districts that favor Kuki’s and other tribal groups has essentially decided to be politically savvy about how it uses its power.

Three, The current blockade, if it continues, will force the central government to take a stance against the UNC, and the Naga groups backing the blockade. The ambush and killing of military personnel by suspected Naga tribes, will also increase pressure on the union government to push for a resolution of conflict. More importantly it might have to make its stance clear on the issue of creation of separate Naga administered districts. Extended conflict situation also can impact cross border trade with South East Asia. Extended theaters of conflict is bound to raise questions about the framework agreement & its validity. None of this will help the BJP to decisively win in the state

The congress government is not entirely out of the woods yet. Its purpose for the creation of these districts, at this late a stage in its five-year term has come into question. The new districts might help in streamlining development and distribution of economic benefits. However, after 15 years, the entrenchment, corruption, and lack of economic or infrastructural development, the congress is running out of political mileage in the state. The arrival of smaller, more dynamic parties like Irom Sharmila’s PRJA will likely lead to an interesting result.

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