Tripartite talks involving the Centre, Manipur government and the United Naga Council (UNC) on Tuesday failed to end the three month-long blockade of the national highways that connect the Imphal Valley with the rest of India. The next meeting is slated for March 25 though assembly elections are scheduled in Manipur on March 4 and 8. The UNC’s refusal to relent on the economic blockade has ominous implications for the elections, given the polarised environment.
At the heart of the confrontation is Manipur’s ethnic politics, which is shaped by geography. A decision by the Congress-led government to bifurcate a hill district in October was opposed by the Nagas, who saw the move as an attempt to divide what they perceive as exclusively their territory. In fact, the UNC insists that the decision, which Imphal claims was taken for administrative reasons, was “land grab”. The state government, unfazed by Naga opposition, went ahead and created six more districts subsequently increasing the number of administrative units from nine to 16. The Naga-non-Naga/hill-valley divide is old and significantly influenced by politics in neighbouring Nagaland. The notion of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland championed by the insurgent group, NSCN, includes the hill districts of Manipur, populated predominantly by Naga tribes. Politics in Imphal Valley — the non-hill parts of the state and home to the Meitei community — views the UNC opposition through the prism of Naga separatist politics.
If tribal and ethnic loyalties had shaped political views in the past, the rise of the BJP in the state, especially in the Imphal Valley, which is predominantly Hindu, has added a new dimension to Manipur’s electoral politics. The Naga People’s Front, which holds office in Nagaland, is a member of the NDA and the North-East Democratic Alliance and the BJP is accused by the Ibobi Singh government of siding with Naga interests. The Imphal Valley sends 40 MLAs to the 60-member Manipur assembly while the hill districts elect the rest. Chief Minister Ibobi Singh appears focussed on sweeping the Imphal Valley seats — the Meitei-Naga divide and the hill-valley face-off work well with the Congress tactic for the assembly election. The inability of Naga politicians to present their legitimate concerns regarding political autonomy within the framework of a more inclusive politics independent of NSCN agendas has only hardened suspicions regarding their demands in Imphal. This deep divide has caused enormous hardships to people living in Imphal Valley and the hill districts. However, a resolution to Manipur’s political dilemmas is possible only if all parties recognise the need for a new political imagination that looks beyond primordial identities and loyalties.