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It's Advantage Ibobi as Manipur Grapples With 'Economic Blockade'

Imphal: A heavily-guarded Assam rifle convoy was supposed to take about 700 members of the Naga community in Imphal to their homes in Ukhrul on December 22. But hours before the departure, intelligence officials warned them against the move. The message was clear: the highway to Ukhrul via Imphal East was too dangerous a road to take, especially with so many Naga people. The plan was thus aborted.

It is a dark Christmas for Imphal’s Naga population. Imphal’s Tanghkhul lane, which is usually decked up in Christmas brightness, only has solace to offer; solace to those who even after several attempts to go back home to Ukhrul and other hill districts, have failed to do so.

Generally, around this time there is a huge rush with people moving from the state capital to their homes in hill districts. But this time all roads to Ukhrul are blocked.

This is a counter to the ‘economic blockade’ called by the United Naga Council, which has crippled Imphal for the last 50 days. In this shutdown, more than 50 vehicles going towards the Naga hill districts were torched.

The chatter — “they didn’t let us celebrate our festival, we won’t let them celebrate Christmas” — is appearing to become too real and the administration is scared that an all-out battle might break out any moment.

Angry people set vehicles afire in Imphal East district on December 18 in protest against the United Naga Council (UNC)’s indefinite economic blockade. (PTI Photo)

November 1 was an auspicious day in Manipur. Meiteis celebrated Ningol Chakouba, an important festival in which married women are invited to their maternal homes and Kukis mark Kut, their harvest festival. But something else happened that day, which threw the festive atmosphere right out of the window: the United Naga Council (UNC) began its indefinite ‘economic blockade’.

Since November 1, trucks carrying supplies to Imphal were stopped at National Highway 2 and 37, the two lifelines of the valley. Even the Trans-Asian Highway wasn’t spared. The ‘economic blockade’ was upgraded to a ‘total shutdown’ on November 25 after the arrest of UNC president Gaidon Kamei and information secretary Stephen Lamkang.

Over 53 days later, Imphal valley is hungry, without any essential supplies and also very, very angry. Mobile internet has been suspended, police presence increased and reinforcements of central paramilitary forces sent. The town remains under curfew, though it is being lifted from time to time to allow people to buy essential commodities. Unlike the rest of the country, where queues can only be found outside ATMs, in Imphal there is a queue everywhere.

Cashless transactions are not possible since mobile internet is down. So during the brief lifting of the curfew, residents have to run to the few working ATMs, wait in queue, withdraw money and then queue up once again to fill up petrol.

Why ‘economic blockade’ hits Imphal so hard?

Imphal, the capital of Manipur, is a valley. The approach roads go through National Highways 2 and 37. Apart from that, there is a 100-km road from Moreh on the Myanmar border. All three roads cross the Naga-inhabited hills to reach the valley.

‘Economic Blockade’ has been the favourite tool to create pressure on the capital town for all the hill groups. The valley, which caters to almost 90% of the population of the state, has a majority of Meiteis. The hills which have 90% of land are mostly the Naga, Kukis and the other hill tribes.

Why did UNC call for ‘economic blockade’?

The ‘economic blockade’ was imposed by the UNC on November 1 against the state government’s proposed move to create new districts of Jiribam and Sadar Hills. But the Manipur government went ahead and announced seven new districts. The UNC is up in arms against the creation of two new districts — Sadar Hills district carved out of Senapati and Jiribam in Imphal East. They allege the new districts encroach on ancestral land of the Nagas.

A delegation of UNC leaders also met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and asked for the imposition of President’s Rule in the state. Adani Mao, a senior UNC leader, said: “We appeal for imposing President’s Rule in Manipur as the state government has failed completely on all fronts and law and order has deteriorated. Creation of seven new districts is a ploy by the Manipur Chief Minister for electoral gains.”

Congress CM emerges stronger?

Okram Ibobi Singh is on the verge of finishing his third term as Chief Minister. He looked down and out for much of the last couple of years, but seems to be back in the game once again. According to a senior journalist based out of Imphal, “It is clearly advantage Ibobi Singh in Manipur now. He has gone one up against the UNC by announcing the new districts. Now, except for UNC, all are happy. Even Kukis who were against the government for much of the last couple of years, are now back after their long-time demand of Sadar Hills district was granted.”

There are 40 seats in the valley districts in an assembly of 60. Ibobi has the backing of two of the three dominant communities of Manipur. Political experts feel this can surely see him through in upcoming elections in early 2017. These trends are being corroborated by the fact that some of the leaders, including MLAs who had quit Congress to move to the BJP, are coming back; a kind of ‘ghar wapsi’ BJP would not like to encourage.

Worried BJP?

The morning after Sarbananda Sonowal became the Chief Minister of Assam, Ram Madhav was in Manipur. This shows how serious the party is to gain strength in Manipur, which has a dominant Hindu population and is seen as a natural ground for the BJP. But in the last two years, the BJP is caught in a rather precarious situation. For the first time the perception that has gone out is that the party is closer to those in the hills and not in the valley.

The much publicised ‘Naga Talks’ meant the BJP would be seen with suspicion in the valley. Manipur has always been against ceding the Naga districts to the cause of the ‘Greater Nagalim’, one of the main demands of the Nagas. The Chief Minister has alleged that the BJP-led central government has not made any attempt to convince the Nagas to lift the blockade.

The Last Word

After Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur probably remains the most disturbed state in the country. But while the entire country is talking ‘digital economy’, internet has been banned in Manipur. While the rest of the state gears up to celebrate Christmas, Manipur just hopes that it doesn’t bring civil war with it.