Tinderbox of Manipur

THE CURIOUS CASE OF ‘ECONOMIC BLOCKADES’ IN #MANIPUR, AND THE CREATION OF THE NEW DISTRICTS

Manipur became part of the postcolonial Indian state in 1949 and was only made a fully fledged state in the year 1972. Just like any other political formation in Southeast Asia, Manipur is home to diverse heterogeneous population speaking various languages, professing different faiths and identification to various nationalities. The Meiteis and the Pangals/Manipuri Muslims along with some tribes inhabits the small Imphal valley, while two major conglomerations of communities identified as Schedule tribes according to the Indian constitution, the Kukis and the Nagas dominate the hill districts of the state. The state also has a considerable population of Nepalis, Marwaris and Sikh communities who have migrated into the region along with the colonization of the state in the second half of the 19th century. Since 1970s, the state had witness several waves of confrontations and tensions between various communities that inhabit the region. Several conflicting demands and political visions often made it difficult to arrive at a consensus. The demand to upgrade the SADAR Hills (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region) subdivision into a full-fledged revenue district is one of the many longstanding demands which date back to 1971. In 1971, during the process for granting full-fledged statehood to Manipur, the government of India promulgated an Act of Parliament, called Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Act, 1971 (vide Section 4 of Sub-Section 3, Bill No. 76 of 26/12/1971) for safeguarding the hill areas and protection of the tribal communities in Manipur.

The Act provides for creation of six Autonomous District Councils in the hill areas of Manipur for an ultimate conversion into full-fledged district, viz.: Manipur North Autonomous District (Senapati), Sadar Hills Autonomous District (Sadar Hills), Manipur East Autonomous District (Ukhrul), Tengnoupal Autonomous District (Chandel), Manipur South Autonomous District (Churachandpur) and Manipur West Autonomous District (Tamenglong). Thus, a notification was issued by S.M. Krishnamurty, the then chief secretary to the government of Manipur (vide No. 28/1/71 of dated 14/02/1972). Subsequently, Manipur attained full-fledged statehood in 1972 under Article 371-C of the constitution of India. And, out of the six created autonomous councils five of them were given full-fledged district, But Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council was not granted the status of a full-fledged district.

History of SADAR Hill district demand agitations

The idea of a separate Sadar Hills administrative division was first conceived way back in 1933 by J.C. Higgins, the then Political Agent in Manipur. A separate administration of the hill districts of Manipur state was first put to practice in the year 1907. The document, ‘Rules for the Management of Manipur State’, framed by the Judicial Department of Eastern Bengal and Assam in the month of April, 1907 clearly described the powerful position of the Political Agent in the State. He was empowered to intervene in almost all the affairs of the state and he was also given the sole responsibility for administering the hills. The ‘Thanas’ (police posts/garrisons) set up by the Meitei kings since the time of Maharaja Gambhir Singh was subsequently withdrawn from the hill districts. After the Kuki Uprising, 1917-19 which nearly wiped out the authority of the Manipur state and the British Raj in the various hill regions, the British rulers felt the necessity of strict administrative and revenue control of the hill regions of Manipur state and hence thereby divided the hills into South-East and North-East subdivisions with its headquarters at Tamenglong and Ukhrul respectively. Subsequently in 1933, the British created the SADAR subdivision with its headquarters at Kangpokpi for administrative convenience. In 1969 Manipur was still a Union territory (Part C) and was divided into five districts: Central (Imphal), North (Karong), South (Churachandpur), East (Ukhrul) and West (Tamenglong). The reorganization of districts placed Sadar Hills as a sub-division of the North District (Karong). To fulfill the aspirations of the hill people the Government of India enacted the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971. Section 3 of the Act divides the hill areas into six Autonomous District Councils or Hills Districts including Sadar Hills. Chandel, Tengnoupal and Chakpikarong continued to remain as hill sub-divisions under Central District. In the following years the four Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), Senapati, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur, were upgraded to a full revenue district. In 1974 three Subdivisions, Chakpikarong, Chandel, and Tengnoupal Hills, were merged and put under a separate Hill revenue district with its headquarters at Tengnoupal, which was later shifted to Chandel. The Manipur North District came into existence on November 14, 1969 with its headquarters at Karong. Later the district headquarters was shifted to Senapati on December 13, 1976. In July 15, 1983, the district came to be known as Senapati District. Sadar Hills continues to be under the North District of Manipur awaiting to be declared as a fully fledged revenue district even though it has a fully functional ADC since 1971.

This led to the beginning of a long drawn struggle demanding the creation of fully fledged revenue district which culminated in the recent decision of the state cabinet to create the new districts on 9th December, 2016. The earliest demand for the creation of Sadar Hills district came from the Kuki Chiefs Zonal Council meeting held on September 3, 1970. The leaders of Kuki Chiefs Zonal Council subsequently met the then Home Minister KC Pant in July 1971, and placed their demands for the creation of a separate district. The delegates of the Kuki Chiefs Zonal Council again held a meeting with Security Commissioner on October 6, 1971 at Kholjang village. The Nayal Commission in 1974, not only recommended for the creation of Sadar Hills district, but also suggested for the inclusion of some adjoining areas of Senapati and Ukhrul for administrative convenience and development.

Due to the failure of the various negotiations the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) was formed in 1974 to demand a full-fledge revenue district status for the Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council, consisting of Saikul, Kangpokpi and Saitu subdivisions. The Government of Manipur made many attempts to initiate the bureaucratic process of creating SADAR hills revenue district since 1980s. The first attempt was made by Rishang Keishing’s Congress government in 1982. The ministry introduced an ordinance in the legislative assembly to declare Sadar Hills as a district and it was signed by the Governor of Manipur but the ordinance was withdrawn due to opposition from the then Manipur Naga Council (renamed as UNC or United Naga Council). The opposition of the Naga bodies to the creation of the new district was because of the fact that it challenged their political vision of a separate/autonomous/sovereign Naga homeland or Nagalim and that they considered the Kukis and other communities living in the region as ‘foreigners’ (a position UNC maintains even today in the recent press interview in New Dehi). This finally led to the brutal Kuki-Naga ethnic conflict in early 1990s when ethnic cleansing was used as a political tool. In 1990-91, RK Ranbir Singh’s United Front Government made fresh attempt to upgrade Sadar Hills to a full revenue district. Similarly the succeeding Congress ministry of RK Dorendro Singh also failed to deliver upon the promises. W Nipamacha Singh’s Congress ministry fixed a date in October 1997 to inaugurate Sadar Hills as a revenue district and necessary steps were taken by the government such as construction of buildings (a secretariat building and a sports complex), and upgrading of necessary government departments. By 1998, all the adequate infrastructures and offices of a fully fledged district was put in place however the W. Nipamacha government did not take the final decision.

The movement demanding the inauguration of Sadar hills districts used various methods such as public petitioning, numerous demonstrations, strikes, bandhs and most recently economic blockades. It has also consumed the lives of two youths, Seikeng Haokip in 1981 and Lalminlien Sitlhou, a young student in 2008.

ECONOMIC BLOCKADES AND COUNTER BLOCKADES

Economic blockades on the national highways ( NH-2 and NH-37) have become a modus operandi to put pressure on the government in the past and in more recent years by both the Kuki and Naga civil societies. In 2010, UNC and ANSAM imposed a 67 days economic blockade demanding the implementation of Sixth Schedule in the hill areas and conducting of election of ADCs. Subsequently this record was broken by the 92 days economic blockade imposed by SHDDC (Sadar hills districts demand committee) pressurizing the Manipur government to meet their demands. The United Naga Council (UNC) announced on October 30 that a 48-hour “total shut down” will be imposed followed by indefinite economic blockade on National Highways including a ban on the construction of Trans Asian Railways between Jiribam to Tupul and other National projects in all the “Naga territories” in Manipur with effect from the midnight of October 30 as a dissuasive measure to prevent the government from declaring Sadar Hills and Jiribam as full-fledged revenue districts. Following the 48 hour total shut down, Economic blockades were enforced on the two national highways NH-2 and NH- 37 from November 1. But the move of the UNC ended up driving a wedge between the inhabitants of the hill districts and the Imphal valley. The recent cash crunch in the state as a consequence of the Demonetization policy might have also contributed to the spiraling anger among the inhabitants of the valley. Subsequently, counter economic blockades were launched in the valley districts against the economic blockade. Meanwhile the JAC (Joint Action Committee) Sadar Hills issued a stern warning that it would launch an intense form of agitation including an indefinite economic blockade along the National Highway within Sadar Hills from November 20 if the State Government continues to ignore the demand that Sadar Hills be declared a full-fledged district. Finally the Government of Manipur through a gazette notification on December 8, 2016 (No.16/20/2016-R) declared the creation of new districts by bifurcating 7 out of the 9 existing districts. This led to the further intensification of the rift between the government and the UNC.

 

NH-39 (now renamed as NH-2) and its strategic importance-

Dimapur-Kohima-Imphal road 1944…Photo taken from the digital files of WW2 British empire and the commonwealth forces in Far East-SE Asia,1939-46)

National highway 39 (renamed NH-2) connects Dimapur, the closest railway station; Kohima once an Angami village and now the capital of Nagaland state and Imphal. Tales of travel through this road reveal the myopic socio political and ethnic divisions that unfortunately marred this beautiful region. On one hand the highway is often considered dangerous and wild, and on the other hand it is serving the state of Manipur as the main artery which feed the entire economy of the state. The dimensions and the nature of this route changed throughout history, rising from obscurity to occupy strategic importance beginning from the first half of the 19th century. The kingdom of Manipur was well connected with the various polities in Burma, as well as with the principality of Cachar. Routes from the Imphal valley leading to Burma and Cachar were well defined, regulated and protected by the rulers of Manipur. Taxes were regularly collected in these routes and duties were levied from the trading transactions that took place along these routes. On the other hand the route through the Naga Hills leading to the Assam plains was not defined nor protected by the rulers of Manipur. However, Cheitharon Kumpapa , the chronicle of the Ningthoucha rulers in Manipur recorded various cart tracks or undefined routes into the Naga Hills leading to Assam. These routes were seldom used, but they were used by cattle traders and political exiles. The rulers of Manipur also used these routes to carry out raids and annual punitive expeditions against various tribes. The Cheitharon Kumpapa recorded such expeditions and also commented on the ever changing treacherous maze leading into the Naga Hills.

With the penetration of the colonial state in this region, and especially after the first Anglo-Burmese wars, an effort was made by both the British authorities as well as the rulers of Manipur to lay out a direct route from British controlled Assam to the kingdom of Manipur through the Naga Hills. Thanas were installed along the route and garrisoned with Manipuri sepoys to protect the route from any harassment from the various Naga tribes. Maharaja Gambir Singh of Manipur also used these thanas to extend a more territorial control over Naga Hills. By the mid of 19th century, this route replaced the route between Cachar and Imphal valley as the most important route connecting Manipur with territories in the west. Political agents took this route to travel to Manipur and many of them left accounts of their journey to Manipur through the Naga Hills.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the route was established as the major route connecting the now princely state of Manipur and British India. However it remained a ‘kucha road’, often shifting its course and directions every year; and it was almost impossible to navigate during the monsoon season. The Japanese invasion of the region during the Second World War had major implications on the history of transport and technology in the region. Before the actual invasion, war preparation began with great enthusiasm. If Imphal, with a garrison of nearly 120,000 allied soldiers and 8 airstrips fell to the Japanese, the Allied command feared that Calcutta would come under the direct range of the Japanese Mitsubishi bombers. The defense of Imphal was quite crucial for the defense of British Indian territories. To defend Imphal, the most critical issue was to build all weather, motorable and pucca road connecting Imphal and British India through which Allied soldiers, tanks, ammunitions and other rations could be easily moved into Imphal. Hence the Allied engineers with the assistance of labor supplied by the Maharaja of Manipur and various Naga chieftains began the project of laying out the motorable all weather pucca road connecting British India and Imphal valley. The road which was constructed as a part of the war preparation, to resist the advancing Japanese army played a very important role in the defense of Imphal as well as the defeat of the Japanese army in the twin battle of Kohima and Imphal in 1944. The road emerged as the lifeline for the Allied army resisting the Japanese army who invaded Manipur from three sides- Tiddim, Ukhrul and Kabow. Japanese forces in order to defeat the allied garrison in Imphal realized that it was necessary to blockade the road connecting Imphal and Dimapur as well as to control this road in order to cut off the Allied garrisons from any type of reinforcement from Assam, and choke and starve the enemy to defeat. The road was defended by a small garrison of Gurkha and Assam regiment in the village of Kohima.

On 6th April 1944 the sound of mortars was first heard in the village of Kohima. The Japanese made an unsuccessful attempt to control the Dimapur-Imphal road by occupying Kohima. The Battle of Kohima was a disaster for the Japanese resulting in the death of thousands of Japanese soldiers and as well as failure to control the road which was crucial to crush the Allied garrisons in Imphal. Without any Japanese blockade, it was now possible to send reinforcements as well as rations to relieve the Allied garrisons in Imphal, ultimately resulting in the defeat of the three columns of the Japanese invading army. The Japanese invasion of the region resulted in the complete transformation of this route. From being an obscure cart track it was transformed into an all weather motorable pucca road, which played a critical role in the end of Japanese dream of a pan-Asian Empire. The road which is today known as NH 39 (now NH2) continues to serve as the main artery connecting the economically backward state of Manipur with the rest of the country. Landslides along the road or economic blockades by various organizations can have major repercussions on the economy of the state. The emerging economic importance of the road post WW2 also led to the physical dislocation of many villages along the road. After the war, the road which was now a pucca all weather roads became economically very essential for the region. Hence over a period of time many villagers belonging to many tribes move downhill towards the highway setting up commercial establishments such as haats, rice hotels, inns, shops, vegetable vendors and churches. Today if one travel along this road from Dimapur to Imphal, the landscape is quite different from what the colonial archive or the various 19th century travelogues once described. It is no more a wild landscape with dense dark forest inhabited by ‘barbaric headhunting tribes’. Now it is lined with urban or semi urban landscape throughout the highway. One could see numerous churches as well as army posts along the highway reflecting the Christianization as well as militarization of the region. The history of this road clearly underlines the strategic importance of this particular road to the economic life of the landlocked state of Manipur, and the effectiveness of blockading this road as a method of political protest.

ARGUMENTS AND COUNTER ARGUMENTS

The UNC alleged that the clandestine manner in which the decision to create the new districts was taken violates the 4 memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed between the Naga people and the Government of Manipur (GoM). They are 1. Signed on 14th December 1981, between the Government of Manipur (GoM) and All Naga Students’ Association, Manipur (ANSAM); 2. Signed on 10th November 1992 between GoM and Naga Students’ Federation (NSF); 3. Signed on 27th September 1996, between the Government of Manipur and United Naga Council (UNC) and ANSAM; 4. Signed on 23rd June 1998 between the GoM and UNC and ANSAM; and also written assurance given by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India on 24th November 2011. The UNC also argued that the Hill Area Committee was not kept in the loop thereby violating article 371 C of the constitution which clearly spells out that the Hill Area committee cannot be bypassed in any matters concerning the tribal areas.

With election just round the corner political motives for declaring the inauguration of these new districts cannot be entirely ruled out. But the current Congress government has stuck to their narrative that the decision was taken solely for administrative convenience. They argued that the Hill Area committee was not consulted as the creation of the seven new districts was carried out through an executive order. The argument is that they were acting according to their prescribed constitutional power assigned to state executive in Article 166 of the Constitution. This is the legal nitty-gritties of the arguments given by both the opposing parties. However the government’s decision, though technically not unconstitutional, raises serious moral as well as ethical concerns from many corners. This decision though welcomed by many has proved counterproductive risking the fragile communal harmony in the state. In the past hostility between various communities are usually withdrawn during festive seasons like Christmas, however this year it seems we are going ahead with a really somber Christmas.

It won’t be too much to say that the government should have consulted all the stake holders before taking the decision and the UNC needs to be more accommodative. In order to settle any issue, efforts and compromises have to be made from both the sides. Remember Southeast Asia is highly heterogeneous in terms of demographic profile, so it is impossible to create a separate homeland for a homogenous ethnic community. Both the arguments and the counter arguments posed by the Government of Manipur and UNC have their own limitations. The Government on their part might argue that it was a legitimate move for administrative convenience. But was it a responsible decision? Meanwhile the UNC has accused the government of taking decisions without due consideration and consultation against the norms of democratic practices. But it’s no secret that the details of the Indo-Naga Frame Work Agreement signed   between the Government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN- IM) on August 3, 2015 are not in the public domain and this has caused apprehensions and anxiety to the other stake holders such as Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh who are kept out of any discussion. Doesn’t it sound hypocritical on the part of NSCN (IM) and UNC to expect transparency when the Indo- Naga framework agreement is itself shrouded in mystery and secrecy? Also if at all UNC is a responsible and a democratic body as it claims to be, the economic blockade should be immediately lifted and dialogue should be initiated with the Manipur government and other stake holders. The honorable Supreme court of India , the High court of Guwahati and the High court of Manipur have intervened in various occasions arguing that economic blockades violates various constitutional provisions. Besides the questions of Iegality and illegality economic blockades are inhuman and people in both the hills and the valley suffer alike reeling under the grind of monstrous steep hike in the price of essential commodities and demonetization.

OPPOSING IDEAS

On an ideational level the current imbroglio in Manipur reflects the tension between conflicting ideas of various communities settling in Manipur. Some valley based civil societies as well as sections of the hill population have welcomed the government’s decision and reasserted their faith in the idea of Manipur. While sections of Naga civil societies have not minced their words regarding their commitment to the idea of Manipur and have at times openly fomented secessionist idea. At the heart of the issue lies the issue of Naga nationalism, Naga homeland and control over land. The effects of the Naga movement which started in the Naga Hills in erstwhile undivided British Assam trickled down to Manipur. The first Naga movement for secession from Manipur was started as early as 1948 by a Mao Naga leader Athinkho Daiho who started the Naga National League in 1948. The NSCN (IM) has opposed the creation of the new districts arguing that it might jeopardize the Indo-Naga solution based on the Frame Work Agreement signed   between the Government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN- IM) on August 3, 2015.

Tangential as it might seem to the topic under discussion, there has been a growing tendency in Manipur to constantly seek the intervention of the central authorities to resolve even small issues in the state. The state authorities are to be held accountable for this tendency to some extent since the government never deals with any issue honestly and rationally. Disheartened and disillusioned with the state Government’s attitude the UNC has asked for the imposition of President Rule in the state under Article 356. But is this a healthy exercise? President rule have been imposed on 8 instances in Manipur since 1972 and the last such instance was in June, 2001. Critics of Article 356 have argued that it is not only undemocratic but against the spirit of federalism. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar while replying to the critics of this provision in the Constituent Assembly hoped that the drastic power conferred by Article 356 would remain a ‘’dead letter’’ and would only be used as the last resort. Moreover most of the organizations and communities in the region are demanding various forms of autonomy from the central government and it is ironic that we keep on inviting interventions from the central government. It is high time that we look for pragmatic, honest and rational solution to our own problems and not take recourse to Article 356 for every issue.

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