Manipur: no exit at the end of the road

By M. S. Prabhakara
The Hindu
May 20 2010

The Mao Gate confrontation is just one instance of the bind which absolutist ideologies can lock themselves into.

Pradip Phanjoubam, Editor of the English Daily Imphal Free Press, bicycles to his office and everywhere else in Imphal. Sananami Yambem, who recently took voluntary retirement from NABARD, walks. So do many others in Imphal and other places in Manipur who for long had used motorised transport.

These choices have been forced on them. NH-39 is the principal highway from the rest of India into the State. NH-53 (the New Cachar Road) linking Cachar in Assam to Imphal is another lifeline, though it is longer and less preferred. There is yet another point of entry, going all the way into Mizoram and entering Churachandpur district.

The uniqueness of the political geography of the State is that Manipur is at the end of a receiving chain of roads, and on the edge of the periphery of the Indian state. Most essential goods come into Manipur; few goods considered essential by the rest of the country leave it. Blockade of highways leading into and out of Manipur, which has become a routine phenomenon, only hurts the State, not the rest of the country. This is not the case, for instance, with Assam, a well known candidate for such coercive blockades. When there is a blockade in Assam, Delhi has to resolve the real or imagined grievance that led to the blockade. Blockades of Manipur do not inspire such a sense of urgency.

Following the intensification of the ongoing blockade of NH-39 since early April (on an entirely different issue) at Mao Gate on Manipur's northern border with Nagaland by Naga organisations protesting against the Manipur government's resolve to bar the entry of Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M), into the State, and the violence that accompanied it, supplies of essential goods from the rest of India have virtually stopped. Petrol now sells in the so-called black market for about Rs. 200 a litre. So, bicycles that were once the normal mode of transport and indeed defined the State are returning to the roads, though they are sure to disappear when the blockade is lifted.

The blockade is not unique. For the people of Manipur as well as those from outside the State doing business in Manipur, blockades at Mao Gate imposed by one or the other organisation in Nagaland have become a fact of life. Road transporters moving goods into or out of the State have always paid tolls at various points to one or other militant group, self-proclaimed or real. These impediments by their nature were temporary and one could buy relief on the spot.

Things are rather complicated when larger political issues are involved. In the present instance, the NSCN(I-M) general secretary planned to travel to Somdal, his ancestral village in Ukhrul district, whose overwhelmingly Tangkhul Naga population supports the call by the NSCN(I-M) for the “integration of Naga inhabited areas outside Nagaland into a single political unit,” in other words, Nagalim, or greater Nagaland.

Inherent in this demand for an enlarged Naga Land — this form is used to differentiate the putative ‘Nagalim' from the present State of Nagaland — is the disintegration and effacement of the present State of Manipur. In the Naga nationalist imagination whose political programme has not always followed a rigid trajectory, such a formal acknowledgement of the territoriality of Naga nationalist imagination is the first step in the attainment of its final objective, a sovereign and independent Naga Land, Nagalim.

This fundamentally undermines the Manipuri nationalist imagination as articulated by the majority of the people in the Valley. In its more extreme form, this at least in theory requires an acknowledgement of the skulduggery that was inherent in the “manipulated merger” of Manipur in India in October 1949, though such an acknowledgement would not necessarily entail “the restoration of the sovereign and independent status of Manipur.” But this certainly militates against the Naga nationalist imagination whose very ‘reason for existence' is the disintegration of the present political and geographical State of Manipur. A rock and a hard place can well be the metaphor for such contending, and equally fervid, nationalist imaginations that, curiously, are united in their rejection of the broader, and (in their perspective) oppressively inclusive, Indian nationalist imagination.

June 18, the day in 2001 when many parts of Imphal went up in flames and virtually all the “people of Manipur” (a fraught expression that needs to be qualified and defined, which is not always possible given space constraints) rose in revolt against the Government of India's decision to make the annual periodic extension of ceasefire against the NSCN(I-M) applicable “without territorial limits to all Naga-inhabited areas” perhaps saw the first organised expression of the united resolve of the people of the Valley to resist with violence, if necessary, moves to diminish the political and territorial entity of Manipur.

The coming into being of the United Committee of Manipur (UCM) now means no initiative can be taken to resolve the Naga issue without the fullest consultations, not merely with the State government but also ‘civil society' organisations. The emergence of the UCM also challenged the generally accepted view (outside the State and the region) that while the Meitei people inhabited the Imphal Valley, four of the outlying districts (Senapati, Ukhrul, Chandel, and Tamenglong) were Naga inhabited while the fifth, Churachandpur, was Kuki inhabited.

The reality is, however, more complex. Whatever may have been the population profile of these districts in historic times or in the wake of the colonial conquest or even at the time of Independence, now it is decidedly a mix of non-Naga ethnic groups, tribal and non-tribal, with the predominant Naga stream itself divided and sub-divided in terms of clans and others. People from one part of the State have moved to settle in other parts of the State, with the result that the once near-absolute correlation between a district and the people who inhabit the district no more obtains.

Even Ukhrul district, viewed as overwhelmingly inhabited by one Naga tribe, the Tangkhul, now has a significant presence of other people, in particular the Kuki. In Senapati district, supposedly inhabited overwhelmingly by the Mao Naga, Kuki people dominate the Sadar sub-division. They also have many political demands for ‘recognition', assertion of territoriality and demarcation of an exclusive political space. Much the same points may be made in respect of Tamenglong and Chandel districts. A further complexity of switching of tribal identities is a marked feature of the identity politics, which is especially marked in Chandel district.

So, Mr. Muivah, for years accustomed to having his way with the government of India, is unlikely to make his way, to Manipur, technically his home State. It was Mr. Muivah, above all, who made territoriality central to the nationalist imagination of the Naga people as sovereignty. Though ever since the beginning of the Naga struggle for freedom these two have been seen as two sides of the same coin, and without the one the other is not complete, it was the NSCN under Mr. Muivah that invested territoriality with its intensity and urgency. This has also made any compromise difficult.

The intensity of the blockade and confrontation at Mao Gate, which even the State government is not taking any initiative to resolve, is just one instance of the bind which absolutist ideologies with an all or nothing mindset can lock themselves into. There is a lesson in this for exclusivist nationalisms of every hue in the region. There is a lesson for exclusivist Manipuri nationalists, too, though by definition they cannot undertake any programme of blockade, which of its nature will be against the well-being of the very people whose cause they espouse.

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