Valley versus hill
A week before two Naga boys – Chakho and Loshou – were killed by the paramilitary Manipur Police Commandos at Mao Gate, on the Manipur-Nagaland border; a week before 4000 people from Senapati District in Manipur were displaced from their homes to languish in makeshift camps, hospitals and homes of relatives around Nagaland; a week before Thuingaleng Muivah, the longtime Naga militant leader, attempted to visit his home village of Somdal, in Manipur; a week before 6 May 2010, when those two deaths started the recent flood of bottled-up sentiment in the Northeast – the signs of the Ibobi Singh-led Manipur government setting itself against a section of its own people were there for all to see.
Since 12 April, the All Naga Students' Association of Manipur (ANSAM), along with a few other groups, had imposed an economic blockade on Manipur, in support of their demands regarding the Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in the hill areas of Manipur (see accompanying article, 'Peoples under siege'). But from 5 pm on 2 May, after the Imphal government banned Muivah from entering the state, the government imposed Section 144, legislation prohibiting all gatherings in the hill districts of Manipur (where Manipur's Naga population is concentrated), and deployed extra security forces. It then went on to block the Mao Gate road – National Highway 39, the first point of entry from Nagaland into Manipur, prohibiting all vehicles from Nagaland and beyond from entering Manipur. Backed by armoured cars, advanced weaponry and bulletproof armour, paramilitary troops set up bunkers surrounding the Mao Gate area, rolled in boulders and locked down the road completely. In the event, Muivah stayed out.
Manipur is already conflict-riddled. But thanks to Ibobi Singh's government, today Manipur stands closer to being called a communal state, where a Hindu government rules the valley and the 'uncivilised' people inhabit the many hill tracts. When on 20 May, in the midst of the recent surge in unrest, the Congress party MP from Manipur, Thokchom Meinya, appeared on a nationally broadcast news show during prime time to declare that Manipur is a Hindu state, it was another reminder of how his Chief Minister, Ibobi Singh, has invented himself as the Narendra Modi of the Northeast. While Hindutva ideology has defined Modi's politics, Ibobi Singh has managed to blend in permutations of ethnic politics, religion and colonial stereotypes of hill versus valley (where the latter is considered the obvious seat of power) to govern present-day Manipur. The consequences have been disastrous, and they will likely get worse.
Manipur is one of the most multi-ethnic states in India, and it requires a confident government to talk to all ethnic groups amidst longstanding demands, varying topography, armed groups or religious beliefs. The state is a miniature of India at large, with numerous identities and as many if not more demands. Unfortunately, the stories of persecution and discrimination too remain the same, centring on allegations of anti-hill racism and discrimination by the ethnic Meitei, the dominant valley inhabitants. The basic grievance revolves around how the Imphal Valley and the Meitei community have dominated the politics and history of the state for decades, if not centuries.
On the one hand, the hill people allege that Meitei officials dominate the state's governance structure, and point out how state development funds rarely reach the hill districts. The minimum a state is expected to provide, they argue, is roads, hospitals, schools and a proper allotment of state funds; but that even this does not happen. On the other hand, the Meitei say that it would be unfair to dub the government's action the will of the valley's communities at large – its inhabitants, too, have been victims of state oppression, including under the Ibobi Singh government, they say.
Beyond the valley
It is important to understand the political and historical process of state formation in Manipur, how the seven Meitei clans were subjugated through war and conquest, and eventually converted to Vaishnavism, established as the state religion during the early 18th century. Historians and political commentators in the Imphal Valley are critical of how the state's history has centred on the Kangla Fort, the traditional seat of Meitei sovereigns, thereby reinforcing a stereotyped 'valley centric' approach. Any history with a kingdom generates nostalgia, but nostalgia that glorifies a hegemonic structure is dangerous because it reinforces a history in which one group dominates over the rest. Suppression by force is of course the easiest method for governments in violent places such as Manipur, but it starts a disastrous progression of legitimacy through force.
The crisis in Manipur today is not one of poor governance and ethnic politics. Rather, it is the refusal of those who represent the state of Manipur to let go of a hegemonic politics that uses a militarised establishment and keeps power, culture and history trapped in the valley floor. The fact is that the issue of Manipur's 'territorial integrity' is to be found in the hands of both the valley and hill people. Both groups will ultimately have to decide whether this territorial integrity is actually the most pressing demand, when any vision of a shared history and politics of the people who inhabit the valley and hills has, eventually, disintegrated.
The economic blockade that started on 12 April brought immediate concerns to the fore for both people from the hill and valley: food, fuel, medicines. But it also reminded all involved of a sharp sense of divide, where the people of the hills have little if anything to do with the valley's authored history – and, therefore, governance. Neither do the valley people occupy themselves with the hill people in their daily routines, other than to include the hill areas under the critical rubric of Manipur's territorial integrity.
There is a longstanding demand for Nagalim – a greater Naga homeland including Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and even Burma – but this demand for a Greater Nagaland had nothing to do with the present crisis. The economic blockade addressed the crisis of governance resulting from the announcement of the Autonomous District Council (ADC) elections in the hill districts of Manipur. The Imphal government's refusal to talk to groups who have called the economic blockade, and instead to request the Guwahati High Court to order arrest warrants on leaders who called the blockade, reflects how dialogue between people and government, or even people to people, has become an impossible aspiration in Manipur today. Each group chokes on its aspirations amidst this polarised reality, between being free from or integrated into Manipur. The Imphal government, meanwhile, has made its priorities very clear: elections in the ADC and power are more important for it than food, medicine and fuel for the ordinary citizens – or perhaps Ibobi Singh is nursing the vain hope that the suffering caused by the blockade will make the people see his government as a saviour.
When the Manipur government blocked National Highway 39 on 1 May, it put a stop to yet another opportunity to engage with Muivah and kick-start a dialogue about the aspirations of the people – both those who inhabit the hill and those who live in the valley. The Mao Gate violence five days later, and the economic blockade in general, now promises to etch a sad line in the sand, creating a social divide for the foreseeable future. One could argue that the central government was at fault in the first place, for having originally extended permission to Muivah to visit his home village. Some would also certainly question Muivah's motives behind trying to make that visit in the first place, after a break of some four decades.
Neither of these questions, however, detracts from the fact that, during the aftermath of Muivah's attempt, New Delhi has yet again mishandled a critical political issue in the Northeast. Its vacillation and inability to intervene decisively has now succeeded in re-setting the Northeast on fire, even though New Delhi officials have conveniently shifted the blame onto the 'divisive' people of Manipur to deal with the fallout. A functioning central government that keeps track of issues of the Northwest would have questioned why an elected state government is unable – rather, unrepentant and unwilling – to talk with a group of students and peacefully address their demands.
For Manipur to be democratic, it is essential to admit that its fate is intertwined with that of the Naga peace process, and more now than ever before. The state has one of the largest Naga communities outside Nagaland, and many of the landmark cases against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, and the larger violation of human rights by the state, were from the hills of Manipur. The struggle for justice by the Naga of Manipur has often emerged as a longing for a Naga homeland, where all Naga can live under a common administration. Irrespective of being divided along lines of administrative jurisdiction, beliefs or political ideologies, all Naga people have come together to support the peace process that started in 1997. The Imphal government cannot do justice to the entirety of the people of Manipur if it decides to remain oblivious to this simple fact.
From peace campaigns such as the Journey of Conscience of the late 1990s, which travelled all over India and the Northeast, today the Naga have initiated a reconciliation campaign, called A Journey of Common Hope. Different formulations and permutations have been proffered regarding concepts of homeland, territoriality, self-determination and sovereignty – a conversation that now has a life of its own. Naturally, the Naga community and the government, both at the Centre and in the states of the Northeast, do not agree on all issues. But shutting down a highway, blockading people from each other, even if they are destined to meet in a heated argument, and terrorising one section in a brutal attempt to force submission – this is not the democracy one expects of an elected government of a state of the Northeast of India.