The immediate catalyst for the tensions that lashed Manipur and Nagaland in recent months was the announcement, in April, of elections to the six Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the hill districts of Manipur. First created in 1968 under the Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution specifically for the hill districts of Manipur, the demand for these bodies led to the framing of the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act in 1971. Yet elections to the councils, held every five years, last took place only in 1988 for Senapati and 1984 in the other hill districts.
In 2009, the Indigenous Democratic Front (IDF), a hill-based organisation, started to agitate for ADC elections to be held as soon as possible, in accordance with a 2008 amendment to the 1971 Act.
However, other hill-based groups, including the Zeliangrong Union (ZU) and the Movement for Tribal People’s Rights, Manipur (MTPRM), comprising both Naga and some non-Naga groups, protested against this demand. In February of this year, the All Naga Students’ Association of Manipur (ANSAM) and the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga organisations in Manipur, likewise submitted a memorandum to the state government to amend the Act. According to the Naga groups, certain sections in the Manipur post-amendment act give considerable powers to the district councils regarding rights to land, forest and succession to the chief’s post. Up until this point, these matters have fallen under the supervision of village authorities, where protesting groups feel they should remain.
Seemingly oblivious of the simmering tension, however, an end-March meeting of the Manipur state cabinet recommended a two-phase election to the ADCs, in late May and early June. Following Imphal’s refusal to accede to their demands, the UNC and other Naga groups launched a number of agitations, culminating on 11 April when ANSAM called an indefinite economic blockade along National Highways 39 and 53. Still, it should be noted that other tribal groups did support the ADC elections. The Manipur Tribal Council and the Kuki Inpi Manipur (KIM), for instance, stressed that polls were need to uplift the tribal community. While many would see what is transpiring in Manipur and elsewhere solely along ethnic lines, other factors, including politics, also play critical roles.
On 28 April, two days after the State Election Commission issued a notification for the first phase of ADC elections in Manipur, NSCN-IM leader Thuingaleng Muivah announced that he would be visiting his native village of Somdal in Manipur and other Naga-inhabited areas. The announcement threw the state government into a frenzy, and the cabinet quickly barred Muivah from entering Manipur. Even as the proposed homecoming eclipsed all else, the ruling Congress party announced 71 nominees for the first phase of the ADC elections, and the state government began to crack down on public assembly and to seal the state borders.
Eventually, on 3 May various Naga organisations jointly served an ultimatum to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to prevail on Imphal to scrap the ban on Muivah’s entry. These groups also resolved to ensure safe transit of Muivah to his native village. The Nagaland-based Naga Students Federation (NSF) too joined the fray, restricting the movement of vehicles registered in Manipur in their state, after an NSF delegation heading towards a village in Senapati was denied entry by police commandos. By then, the economic blockade had already been in effect for 25 days. On 4 May, even as suspected NSCN-IM cadres set fire to nearly a half-dozen Imphal-bound trucks in Nagaland, the Manipur cabinet re-affirmed its earlier decision to bar Muivah from Manipur – as well as to hold the ADC election as scheduled.
Other Manipur groups were no less vocal. Valley-based organisations too announced their opposition to Muivah’s visit, blocking the movement of commercial vehicles in the valley heading to the hill areas. Amidst this uproar, on 5 May, Muivah reached Viswema, on the Naga side of the border, where he camped for the night seemingly en route to Manipur. Things changed quickly the next day, however, when Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi Singh went to New Delhi to lay out the reasons behind his government’s stance against Muivah’s visit. In their attempt to foil a rally organised by thousands of Naga at Mao Gate to protest the Manipur cabinet’s decision, security forces fired tear-gas shells, mock bombs and live bullets, killing two students. As people living in and around Mao fled in anticipation of a major showdown, the independent Naga MLAs faxed their resignation letters to the speaker of the Manipur Legislative Assembly.
As the turmoil continued, the first phase of the ADC polls was held, as planned, on 26 May, with 134 candidates contesting 39 out of 72 constituencies in the three districts holding elections. The lone candidates in the remaining 33 constituencies had already been declared uncontested winners. By all accounts, the voting was largely peaceful, with only a few isolated incidents of booth capture at some locations in Churachandpur, Sadar Hills and Chandel, with these districts recording 90, 75 and 48.3 percent voter turnout, respectively. While reports stated that there was no voter turnout in the Naga-inhabited areas of the Sadar Hills, high polling as recorded in the Kuki-inhabited areas. Re-polling was held in 21 polling stations across the three districts on 29 and 31 May.
The second phase of the ADC elections was held on 2 June in Ukhrul, Tamenglong and Senapati districts. Voting took place in 30 out of 72 constituencies, with candidates being declared elected uncontested in 36; no candidate stood in six constituencies in Senapati. In Ukhrul, elections took place during a 72-hour bandh called by the Tangkhul Coordination Committee, under the aegis of the UNC, where turnout subsequently hovered near zero. Out of a total of 24 constituencies in Ukhrul, 20 seats were filled without contest.
On 15 June, the Naga Students’ Federation, giving in to pressure from student organisations in Mizoram and Assam, and after meeting with Prime Minister Singh, ‘temporarily’ lifted its ban on Manipur vehicles travelling the section of NH 39 falling in Nagaland. Three days later, 69 days after the economic blockade was launched, on 18 June ANSAM also announced a ‘temporary’ suspension of its economic blockade. While this ended the political and humanitarian crisis in Manipur, both the blockade and Muivah’s proposed visit have left a deep mark on the psyche of the people, as well as the political equations of this tiny state.
~ Thingnam Anjulika Samom is a freelance journalist based in Impal, Manipur.