The continuing ethnic conflict between the Nagas and the Meiteis in the tiny state of Manipur in Northeast India is a huge set back for India’s much advertised ‘Act East’ policy.
On December 23, the government of India was compelled to dispatch its Minister of State for Home Affairs to Manipur for stocktaking. The minister revealed that 154 companies of Central Paramilitary Forces (CPMFs) have so far been deployed to contain the ethnic violence in the state and remove the economic blockade of Manipur imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) against the state government policy of creating several new districts for allegedly administrative reasons, which, however, impinge on Naga interests. The blockade has produced a humanitarian crisis for the people of Manipur denying them essential supplies for a decent living.
India’s ambitious ‘Act East’ policy for the development of its Northeastern region by building trade, cultural and other links with Southeast Asia depends on successful development policies in the seven crucial northeastern states including Manipur which has a major artery and gateway from Moreh on the international border with Myanmar leading into Southeast Asia.
However, the irreconcilable ethnic conflict between the Meitei and Naga communities in Manipur has disabled India from pursuing that policy.
With a total population of 2.7 million and a total land area of 22,327 sq. kms, Manipur has a complex mix of several ethnicities, faiths and languages. About 60 percent of the majority Meitei population inhabit about 10 percent of the total land area; the remaining about 40 percent of the ethnic communities such as the Nagas, Kukis and others inhabit about 90 percent of the total land area.
This is an unequal distribution of land and population ratio between the Meiteis and the ethnic tribal people in Manipur.
While the indigenous ethnic tribal communities can legally purchase and own landed property in the Valley but the Valley-based Meites are not allowed to do so in the Hills reserved for the tribals as policy. They also enjoy reservation in government jobs which the Meiteis do not have.
The mainly Hindu Meitei community who dominate the Valley are in charge of state power, while the predominantly Christian Nagas, Kukis and other indigenous communities who live in the Hill areas surrounding the Valley in 90 percent of the total Hill areas have no political power except for the District Autonomous Councils with limited administrative powers.
Manipur is connected to India mainly through National Highways numbers 2 and 53, which are now blockaded by the United Naga Council (UNC), a Manipuri Naga political organization, which opposes the recent state government decision to bifurcate several districts in the state ostensibly for administrative reasons; a decision, which is perceived by the Nagas as an attempt to divide and rule them ahead of the impending state assembly elections in early 2017.
The blockades in force for nearly two months deprive the people in the Valley of essential supplies for a decent livelihood. They are masterminded by the UNC and cause huge hardship to the Valley residents, who are not involved in politics. The humanitarian crisis needs urgent attention. However, some Valley residents were forced respond with a counter-blockade leading to ethnic violence.
The central government in New Delhi led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Manipur state government led by the Opposition Congress party have largely been inactive in containing the blockades and violence though the central government has just despatched the Union Minister of State for Home Affairs to Manipur.
The territory of one of the newly created districts, the Sadar Hills district which is dominated by the Kuki ethnicity, is viewed by the Nagas as part of their ‘traditional and exclusive homelands’. In 2001, the Nagas had attempted ethnic cleansing of Kukis in the area, leading to over a thousand killings.
The creation of some of the new districts is thus perceived as not in the interests of the Nagas who view it as part of a divide and rule policy by the Congress-led state government to disempower them from effectively participating in the forthcoming state assembly elections in early 2017.
The ruling BJP in New Delhi and Congress in Imphal state capital, have their own divergent political interests given the impending state assembly elections.
The lack of trust between the Meiteis and Nagas, though a relatively recent phenomenon, is a serious problem. Additionally, the Nagas have felt a historical antipathy to the Kukis, further aggravating the conflict scenario in Manipur.
In recent violence, the Nagas killed five Meitei policemen on their way to Tengnoupal town, which was followed by a major incident in which 70 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-Issac-Muivah) led Thuingaleng Muivah, attacked an India Reserve battalion outpost in Tengnoupal and decamped with a large quantity of sophisticated weapons.
On December 16, the state capital Imphal observed total shutdown protesting the killing of the Meitei policemen in the earlier incident.
On December 19, a Meitei mob in Khurai, an outlying township in Manipur’s Imphal East district, attacked a convoy of 21 vehicles and destroyed them in protest against the indefinite economic blockades since 1 November organized by the United Naga Council (UNC).
Nagas feel that the decision to create the new districts is detrimental to their demand for an autonomous state of ‘Nagalim’ bringing together Nagas inhabiting the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The UNC blockade has put severe pressure on ordinary Manipuris who are already suffering from the difficulties heaped upon them by the government of India’s demonetization policy.
The government of India’s document titled ‘North Eastern Region (NER): Vision 2020’ was put out in 2008.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempted to speed up the development process in the region by bringing the recalcitrant Naga extremists led by Thuingaleng Muivah’s National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) for talks in New Delhi. Although a ‘framework document’ was reportedly prepared, it was kept secret and never placed in the public domain giving rise to doubts whether it existed at all. A responsible officer of the government confirmed its nonexistence.
The Naga discontent has remained and was displayed in the Manipur conflict discussed here.
The discord between the Nagas and the Meiteis is not of recent origin and is not likely to go away in the near future.
The government of India needs to discuss the problem in an open and public manner involving both communities.
The British who departed India in 1947, had wanted to create a ‘Crown Colony’ of all ethnic communities in India’s Northeast and the then Burmese borderlands for direct British rule. They had felt that Hindu Indians were not capable of ruling the region properly.
The record of Indian rule in the Northeast has been dismal and seems to prove the British right. The the induction of the army into the Naga areas in 1955 to tackle the insurgency led to multiple insurgencies in the region.
The Naga and Meitei conflicts are interrelated and must be discussed together and not separately. They must be brought to realize their need to live together as trusting neighbors. The intellectual resources for doing this are available in the region and not in New Delhi.
There is no future in fratricidal warfare, which does immense harm to the region.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must produce some out-of-the-box thinking to make success of his ‘Act East’ policy.