One of the major promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the recently held assembly elections in Manipur was to end the economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) within 48 hours. After taking oath as the new Chief Minister of Manipur on 15 March 2017, BJP's Nongthombam Biren Singh sent the state government’s representatives to the Senapati district headquarters to hold a tripartite dialogue with representatives of the UNC and the Central Government on 19 March.
The BJP government of Manipur was represented by Additional Chief Secretary Suresh Babu and Commissioner (Home) Radha Kumar; the central government was represented by Joint Secretary, Joint Secretary (North East Division), Ministry of Home Affairs, Satyendra Garg; and the UNC was represented by its three former presidents and general secretary. At the end of the meeting, the UNC agreed to lift the four-month-long economic blockade. The participants at the meeting also agreed to non-adherence of the four memoranda of understanding signed between the Nagas and the Government of India. The state government agreed to start consultations with all stakeholders to redress the tensions arising from the creation of new districts and to hold the next round of tripartite dialogue within a month.
The positive news has been that the end of the economic blockade will bring tremendous relief to the people of Manipur and will also bring significant improvement in the state’s economy. It will also bring an end to the severe inconvenience faced by visitors and business people from outside the state. Therefore, this is one first major achievement in Manipur for the BJP government.
On the other hand, the tripartite agreement could cause a different wave of unrest and tension in the state. Interpreted literally, the tripartite agreement means that the government of Manipur acknowledges that it breached the agreements reached between the Nagas and the Government of India. It can be construed that the Manipur government apologises to the UNC and is now ready to consider the interests of the Naga people.
If the agreement is to be implemented in letter and spirit, there are three possible scenarios. First, the state government may have to roll back all the seven new districts the Congress government created on 8 December 2016. According to Congress's Okram Ibobi Singh-led former government in Manipur, the new districts - Jiribam, Kangpokpi (in place of Sadar Hills), Tengoupal, Pherzawl, Kakching, Noney and Kamjong - were created purely for administrative convenience. The Ibobi government also said that the decision was neither in favour of any particular group nor against any community. For former Chief Minister Singh, Manipur is like a ‘mini India’ where different communities reside. Ibobi argued that land belongs to the government and not to any particular community, and therefore, no super power of the world can break up Manipur. Rolling back the new districts could also directly or indirectly mean the acceptance of the UNC’s claim that the creation of the new districts was destroying the ancestral land of the Nagas.
Revocation of the new districts will be a terrible blow for the people, particularly those from Sadar Hills who have demanded its creation for over four decades since 1972 when the Indian parliament passed the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971. According to the Act, all the hill areas were to be divided into six autonomous districts, with the ultimate goal of a full-fledged district each, including Sadar Hills. The five other autonomous districts - Manipur South (Churachandpur); Manipur North (Senapati); Manipur East (Ukhrul); Manipur West (Tamenglong); Tengnoupal (Chandel) - have all been upgraded to full-fledged districts since then.
The second possibility is that the boundaries of the new districts will need to be redrawn after consulting all stakeholders, including the Nagas, in line with the UNC’s demand. If this is to be implemented, the UNC will demand the amalgamation of all Naga inhabited areas with the Naga dominated districts, particularly Senapati and Tamenglong.
The third possibility is that the Indian government will honour the “Framework Agreement” which it signed with the NSCN-IM on 3 August 2015. Although details have not been made public, it appears that the central government might be considering some kind of a supra state or alternative arrangement for the Nagas with a certain degree of autonomy. Alternatively, it can also be a step toward the fulfilment of NSCN-IM’s demand for greater or southern Nagaland.
If the first and second probabilities were to come true, there could be several forms of counter agitations, similar to the economic blockade imposed by the UNC. There is a possibility of simmering tension and violence along ethnic lines, particularly between the Kukis and the Nagas in Tengnoupal and Kangpokpi districts. In an event of the third probability, the majority Meitei population of the state are likely to agitate agitations, like in the past.
Though finding an amicable solution is easier said than done, both the state government and the central government need to take a judicious step to address this heavily polarised and sensitive issue. The manner in which the UNC demands are handled and addressed will also largely determine the fate of the BJP government in Manipur.