There are things that the union government can do to stay relevant in Manipur post 2017 election, and make sure Manipur doesn’t fall off the map once again.
The United Naga Council (UNC) led economic blockade in Manipur crossed 60 days on January 1st, 2017. The blockade was announced on November 1st, 2016.
What was initially a protest against the creation of Sadar & Jiribam revenue districts in the state has now become a full-fledged hijacking of the state. The Manipur government on December 8th defying the blockade created seven new districts including the long promised Sadar hills (Kangpokpi) and Jiribam revenue districts. Escalation of violence, and retaliation by Meitei groups, led to curfew and revoking of net access. The restrictions have since been lifted, and phone access restored. The blockade, however continues and is likely to interfere with assembly elections in the state.
The current Manipur assembly, under the aegis of congress chief minister Ibobi singh will complete its term in March. Assembly elections were to be scheduled this month. The UNC, which has long served as an apex body of the NSCN (IM), is now demanding president’s rule for the state. Post that, they want creation of the revenue districts to be withdrawn and an agreement that Naga territories within Manipur will remain whole.
The new districts have been a political trump card for the Congress. It has managed to retain the loyalty of the Meitei groups, while successfully appealing to the Kuki and minority Naga groups in the region. If and when the election goes forward, the congress is certain to come back to power, perhaps not as a majority, but in some combination.
The BJP has been making inroads in the state, but the lack of a coherent stance, vacillation in condemning the blockade and ties with the NPF in Nagaland makes its place in the state considerably weaker. It also has not earned any brownie points with the peace agreement with NSCN (IM).
Assuming congress comes back into power, and the blockade runs out of steam at some point, there are three things that the BJP and by extension the union government can move forward on, to ensure it remains relevant in Manipur, and to take a lead in ensuring Manipur remains strategically relevant in the region.
- AFSPA has to be brought back to the table, and gradual withdrawal of the notorious act has to be negotiated. This has to happen side-by-side with renewed talks with all major tribal parties in the state, and parties with interests in the state. Alternate COIN forces have to be readied and the state has to be pushed to invest more in local police forces. Violence in the state is partly a result of dissatisfied groups exploiting the many existing tensions, and partly a result of the public dissonance between the state and the union on issues of law and order. Better coördination and a firm policy on how to deal with repeated blockades will help a little.
- The BJP led framework accord of 2015 that was signed with a lot of pomp and circumstance with NSCN (IM) has to be made public. Only full knowledge of the accord can end speculation on stories that the government has conceded to let the creation of a Nagalim territory. NSCN (IM) has continued to recruit and train Nagas in camps across northern Manipur and on the border between Manipur and Nagaland. The union government should actively include Manipur in the conversation to solve the Naga issue.
- The union government should focus on the strategic importance of Manipur in its ‘Act East’ Policy and work towards creating the necessary infrastructure and institutions within the state.
The intersectionality of tribal nation, state and country has become a part of the growing narrative of Manipur. The issue however with the ongoing blockade and with the more than 80 bandhs, and dozen highway blockades that the state has witnessed since 2009, is a lack of meaningful imagination on what can benefit the state. Political parties in the state have had very little incentive to push for development in the state. 15 years of almost single party rule, 60 years of AFSPA, and an absolutely apathetic center has kept Manipur behind in all aspects of development. There are things that can be done for Manipur and the region in general without having to be in the driver’s seat.