By Veronica Khangchian
At midnight of October 31, 2011, the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee (SHDDC) lifted the longest ever economic blockade in the history of Manipur after 92 days, following the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the State Government. The Sadar Hills area in Senapati District was to be upgraded to a full-fledged Kuki District at the earliest, after the submission of the report by the District Re-organisation Committee. The Kukis have been demanding district status for the area since the early 1970s, with the bifurcation of the Kangpoki sub-division of the Naga majority Senapati District, to form a Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills District. The agreement was signed ahead of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s visit to Manipur on November 2, 2011.
The SHDDC had imposed an economic blockade on the two National Highways (NH) – NH-39 (renamed NH 2, Imphal-Dimapur) and NH-53 (renamed NH 37, Imphal-Jiribam) – of Manipur started on August 1, 2011. The long blockade resulted in four deaths and several injuries in confrontations between blockade supporters and the Security Forces (SFs). The blockade was converted into a general strike following the mowing down of three women in an accident. On August 2, on the second day of the economic blockade, three blockade supporters were rammed by an oil tanker at Kanglatongbi in Senapati District, when the driver lost control after the tanker came under attack from blockade supporters. Again, a truck driver who was critically injured by blockade supporters on NH-53 on August 3, 2011, succumbed to his injuries on August 13. On August 4, the blockade witnessed more violent incidents as the offices of the Additional Deputy Commissioner (Kangpokpi), Sub Divisional Officer (Siatu Gamphajol), Public Health Engineering Department Executive Engineer (Kangpokpi) and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Kangpokpi), were set ablaze, and three vehicles at Gangpijang along Saikul Road and another two cars at Hengbung in Senapati District, were vandalized.
Inclusive of Government buildings and private vehicles vandalized or destroyed, properties worth INR 2.45 billion are estimated to have been lost during the course of 92 days blockade imposed by SHDDC. According to a Government report, the State exchequer suffered a loss of INR 25.7 million every day during the course of the economic blockade. Further, at least 20 Government offices and around 45 private vehicles were set on fire by blockade supporters. Prices of essential commodities in the Imphal Valley soared as a result of shortages, with LPG cylinders sold in the black market for up to INR 1,600 per cylinder and petrol at INR 120 a litre.
Meanwhile, the Nagas, under the leadership of the United Naga Council (UNC), launched a counter-blockade on August 21, on all highways in the State, including NH 150, which links Manipur with Kohima in Nagaland and Aizawl in Mizoram, in opposition to the SHDDC demand. Sadar Hills is currently under Senapati District, where the Nagas constitute a majority, and the Naga organisations oppose bifurcation.
On October 30, 2011, a Manipur Government report indicated that Manipur Police had, till that date, registered 48 First Information Reports (FIRs) for violent acts related with the economic blockade called by SHDDC, and nine cases related to the counter-blockade by UNC.
The October 31 MoU comes as a blow to the Nagas led by the UNC in Manipur, as they interpret it as a policy to further divide the Naga homeland and frustrate their ultimate goal of integration of Naga areas under one administrative unit. The Nagas have made no secret of their resentment. On November 1, 2011, reacting strongly to the signing of the MoU between the Government of Manipur (GoM) and the SHDDC, the two main Naga bodies in the State, the UNC and the All Naga Students Association Manipur (ANSAM), took a decision to escalate their agitation. Condemning the manner in which the GoM had executed the agreement, without the consensus and consent of the Nagas, the UNC alleged that the Government had failed to abide by the four MoUs signed with the Naga people in 1981, 1992, 1996 and 1998. Significantly, the MoU of 1998 states that “Resolution to the conflict on the issue of the Sadar Hills will be brought about through a consensus of the people concerned in the interest of bringing about lasting peace and harmony between the Nagas and the Kukis”. This MoU also agreed to honor the preceding agreements of 1981, 1992, 1996, which recognized the issue of land as the bone of contention between the Kukis and the Nagas. The 1992 MoU also guaranteed that no part of the Naga area would be bartered away under any circumstance.
The Nagas have now declared that their ongoing economic blockade would continue until further notice and that their agitation would intensify. The UNC enforced a three day bandh (total shutdown) from midnight of November 3 till November 6, 2011. The bandh turned violent on November 4, when at least 10 persons, mostly woman bandh supporters, were injured while engaging in a scuffle with the SFs at Noney along National Highway-53 in Tamenglong District.
Reacting to the Naga opposition, the SHDDC, on November 3, warned that it would resume its economic blockade unless both the Central and State Governments acted on the written assurance of the MoU signed between the committee and the State Government. A memorandum addressed to Union Home Minister Chidambaram noted,
The 40-years old demand for Complete Implementation of Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (ADC) Act, 1971, in respect of Sadar Hills Autonomous District Council has been suspended following a MoU signed between the Government of Manipur and SHDDC on October 31, 2011, and after due consideration of your appeals to withdraw the economic blockade imposed by SHDDC with the assurance to urge the Government of Manipur to act in time.
According to the ADC Act, 1971, all the Hill Areas were to be divided into six autonomous Districts, with the ultimate goal of full-fledged District status. These six autonomous Districts included Churachandpur, Senapati, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills) and Chandel. Of the six autonomous Districts, Sadar Hills remains the only one that has not been accorded a full-fledged District status. Unlike the other five districts, it still remains an ADC, under the supervision of the Senapati District administration in all matters concerning executive, legislative, judicial and financial functioning.
The Kukis and the Nagas of Manipur share a bloody history of ethnic conflict, reaching deep into the British colonial era, and beyond. The animus was widely manifested through the 1990s (1992-1997), when over 1,000 people were killed in Kuki-Naga clashes in the Hill Districts, because the Nagas reportedly served a ‘quit notice’ to the Kukis to vacate the Naga-settled areas. The Nagas believed that they had the right over the land, as they were the original settlers in the Manipur Hills, while the Kukis migrated into the region after they were driven out from Myanmar’s Chin Hills, their ancestral land, in the 19th century.
Many a time in the past, these conflicts have been played out on the State’s highways, affecting thousands of people. The economic blockade has, in fact, become part of the ‘culture’ of the State. The turf war between the warring groups has literally held the majority of Manipur’s 2,166,788 people to ransom, as the landlocked State depends on supplies of almost all essential commodities from outside the region through trucks plying on these highways.
In April 2010 as well, when the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, made an attempt to enter Manipur to visit his birth place at Somdal in Ukhrul District, this was opposed by both the Meiteis and Kukis, who saw his visit as an endorsement of the ‘greater Nagaland’ concept, which sought the incorporation of all ‘Naga dominated’ areas in Manipur as well. Later, on April 11, 2010, ANSAM and the Naga Students’ Federation (NSF) initiated an indefinite blockade on NH-39 and NH-53, protesting elections to the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in Manipur hills and the Manipur Government’s decision to ban Muivah’s entry. The blockade continued for 69 days, resulting in an unprecedented crisis in Manipur. The United Committee Manipur (UCM), formed by the Meiteis, also ‘banned’ all vehicles plying between Imphal and other Hill Districts of the State, in protest against the decision of the Union Government to allow Muivah to visit Manipur. Two protestors were killed and another 80 were injured during clashes between the protestors and the Police at Mao Bazaar area in Senapati District on May 6, 2010. The SFs also arrested at least 28 protestors during follow-up operations. Following the incident, the Naga Peoples Convention held at Tahamzam in Senapati District under the aegis of the UNC on July 1, 2010, resolved to sever all ties with the Manipur Government, and began to demand an ‘alternative arrangement’ for the Nagas of Manipur through the intervention of the Government of India. Explaining its stand on what it meant by “alternative administrative arrangement of the Nagas”, the UNC, on December 12, 2010, asserted that there was nothing anti-State or anti-national in their demand. The ultimate demand of the Nagas as a whole was always the integration of all Naga areas. The demand for “alternative administrative arrangements” concerned only the Nagas of Manipur.
In 2001, Manipur had witnessed a round of tremendous turmoil following the Centre’s decision to extend ceasefire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim “without territorial limits”, i.e., beyond Nagaland. On June 18, 2001, 13 civilians were killed and over 50 were injured in Imphal as Police fire on demonstrators protesting the extension of the cease-fire area. The protestors feared that the truce extension was the first step towards a bifurcation of the State for merger with Nagaland. During this phase of agitation, mobs stormed Government buildings and torched the State Assembly Hall, Chief Minister’s Secretariat, and residences of State Legislators and the Speaker of the Assembly. The UCM had spearheaded the stir against the truce ‘without territorial limits’. The stir left 18 persons dead, including the 13 killed in Police firing. The protests died down only after India’s then Home Minister L.K Advani on July 27, 2001, announced that the three words “without territorial limits” would be dropped from the agreement signed with the NSCN-IM, regarding the scope of the cease-fire. While the Meiteis took out celebratory marches with the review of the ceasefire, the Nagas in Manipur blocked highways, enforced general strikes and took out torch rallies in protest. The Kukis were also threatened by these developments when a new Kuki body, the Kuki Nampi International, was formed on July 29, 2001, with a view to integrating Kuki ethnic groups scattered worldwide under one umbrella and to safeguard the rights and interests of the Kukis.
In 2005, ANSAM carried out an economic blockade against the decision of the Government of Manipur to declare June 18 as “State Integrity Day” and a State holiday. This was to commemorate the June 18, 2001, incident, when 13 Meitei civilians were killed. The economic blockade, which started from June 18, 2005, lasted for 55 days (till August 11). UCM had been urging the State Government to declare a general holiday on June 18 to observe ‘Manipur Integrity Day’.
With a rapidly improving general security scenario and declining residual militancy, the “culture of economic blockades” has the potential to provide the insurgents fertile grounds to revive rapidly dwindling support among the masses. Sandwiched between the demands of the Kukis and Nagas, the Government faces a tricky situation. Granting the demands of either side is likely to create more violence and even, in the worst case, to trigger another possible ethnic clash between the two communities, as their turf wars continue unabated.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management