Manipur, also known as the Switzerland of India, is a State that has been continuously calling for attention. Economic blockades, disruptions, large-scale rioting, violent attacks, continuing strikes, protests and resultant deaths, have become a way of life. The tiny, yet picturesque land, is home to numerous armed insurgent groups with conflicting agendas. Coupled with contradictory cultures and varied interests, the State, which shares borders with Myamnar, has become a melting pot of viciousness and revolt. The failure of the country to bring lasting peace in Manipur where the National flag was hoisted for the first time in the Indian subcontinent (on 14 April 1944 at Moirang) should rankle hard.
The latest economic blockade, which began on November 1, has been on for nearly two months and shows no signs of abating. Apart from bringing normal life to a standstill and the skyrocketing prices of essentials, it is now taking a violent turn. On December 22, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh took the State government to task for failing to discharge its “constitutional” duties, while on the next day, his deputy, Kiren Rijuju, met Chief Minister Okrom Ibobi Singh urging him to restore normalcy and take steps to end the “worrisome” conditions, which have triggered a “humanitarian crisis”.
Bed of Insurgency
Since 1964, insurgent movements have been active in Manipur. The United National Liberation Front, founded during the year, espoused separation from India and formation of a new country called Manipur, dismissing that the inclusion with India was involuntary. Over time, many similar groups with conflicting goals have taken shape. The State currently has over 70 armed groups promoting their specific causes and have no qualms in resorting to violent methods. This has made Manipur the most violent State in the Northeast with over 20,000 killed and many widowed.
Most of these groups represent the interests of the diverse population of Manipur. While the hills are predominantly inhabited by the Naga, Kuki and Zomi tribes; the Imphal valley is home to the Meiteis, who constitute the majority. The Nagas come in second and the Kukis next.
The People’s Liberation Army of Manipur, People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak and the Kangleipak Communist Party came up between 1977 and 1980; the rise of Naga nationalism led to the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) and the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K); and the Kuki tribals formed their own insurgent groups to protect their interests, especially from the Naga onslaught. The People’s United Liberation Front stands up for the ‘Pangals’, the Muslims of Manipur.
Reacting to continuing conflict in various parts from 1970, the State government started declaring different parts as “disturbed areas”. In 1980, the whole of Manipur was declared a “disturbed area” by the Government of India.
In 1980, The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 (AFSPA) was enforced in Manipur, and it continues to this day. This has further increased the alienation in the State, since the Act provides the Army with immunity for their actions. The situation was best captured by an Army officer, then posted to Manipur, who stated that “Imphal, the capital for Manipur, today, is like Saigon during the Vietnam war and nobody can explain why so many paramilitary forces are stationed in such a small area.”
The Manipuris have long accused the Army of human rights violations under AFSPA, including arbitrary killings and forced disappearances. The continuing application of the Act has led to numerous protests, the most well-known being the hunger strike by Irom Sharmila Chanu, which lasted over nearly 16 years from November 2, 2000 to August 9, 2016.
Another unforgettable image of protests from Manipur came in on July 15, 2004, when 12 women stood naked in front of the Kangla Fort at Imphal, where the Assam Rifles was stationed, with a banner reading ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. The protest was against the alleged murder and rape of Thangjam Manorama by the Assam Rifles, who the armed forces claimed was a militant of the banned People’s Liberation Army. “We are all Manorama’s mothers”, the protesters screamed with their stark naked bodies. Consequent to this shocking protest, the Assam Rifles left the Kangla Fort and AFSPA was withdrawn from seven Assembly areas.
On India gaining independence, Nagaland, then known as Naga Hills, was made a part of the State of Assam. But many Nagas claim that part of their rightful homeland is now spread over many north-eastern States and Myanmar. Based on this claim, NSCN-IM and NSCN – K have been espousing the cause of ‘Greater Nagaland’ or ‘Nagalim’, an independent State consisting of all the Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar.
On August 3, 2015, the Government of India and the NSCN-IM agreed on a framework for peace. The NSCN-IM wants Senapati and Ukrul, the two Naga-dominated districts in Manipur to be included in Greater Nagaland, and this has been bitterly opposed by the other two dominant communities — Meiteis and Kukis — who are against upsetting the territorial integrity of Manipur in any way. The issue of integration of Naga inhabited areas has resulted in the death of hundreds in the last few years.
Blockade of 2011
Manipur saw its longest-ever economic blockade in 2011, lasting over 120 days from August 1, 2011 to November 28, 2011.
First, the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee clamped an indefinite economic blockade of the two National Highways passing through the State demanding that Sadar Hills be upgraded to a full district from August 1, 2011 to October 31, 2011.
Protesting against any move to create the Sadar Hills district, the United Naga Council (UNC) launched a counter-blockade from August 21, 2011 till November 28, 2011.
The two National Highways – NH 2 (Imphal-Dimapur highway) and NH 37 (Imphal-Silchar highway) — are the lifelines of landlocked Manipur. There is also a 100-km road from Moreh, on the Myanmar border. All these three roads pass through the Naga-dominated areas to reach the Imphal Valley, thus enabling the Nagas to effectively cut off essential supplies to the Meitei-dominated valley.
Manipur has again been in a state of unrest since November 1, 2016, when the UNC, which represents the Nagas and is backed by the NSCN – IM, blocked both NH2 and NH37 to protest against the Manipur government’s move to create two new districts, Jiribam and Sadar Hills.
The Nagas believe that these move favours the Meiteis and Kukis. They are also bitter because the decision was taken without discussions with them and the Hill Area Committees (HAC). Under Article 371 (C) of the Constitution, it’s mandatory to consult the HAC on all legislative matters concerning the hill areas of the State. Adding to their sense of slight is the fact that the Nagas consider Sadar Hills their ancestral homeland.
Instead of dousing the raging fire, the State government on December 9 notified the creation of seven new districts, including Jiribam and Sadar Hills, for “administrative convenience”. The Meiteis and Kukis were happy but it meant that the Nagas felt neglected. Their protests intensified and the government responded by arresting UNC president Gaidon Kamei and Publicity Secretary Stephen Lamkang.
The ensuing Assembly elections have meant both the Congress and the BJP putting politics first resulting in the continuance of the crisis in this sensitive State.