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The BJP's Real Manipur Test Begins Now

"Change" and "equal development" have a different undertone in the state.

21/03/2017 8:57 PM IST | Updated 24/03/2017 9:19 AM IST
BIJU BORO via Getty Images

Manipur's new Chief Minister N Biren Singh won the floor test by a voice vote, securing 32 votes out of 60. The BJP leader emphasised that the election results are a mandate for "change" and a call for "equal development." However both "change" and "equal development" have a different undertone in Manipur.

Manipur's tendency to protect its identity has kept it outside the mainstream. The British found it almost impossible to penetrate the tribal areas and hence it predominantly remained outside the Raj. Then, during the Nehruvian era, the entire Northeast was viewed only as a "buffer zone" between India and China.

The ethnic divide between the hill tribes and the valley dwellers (Meiteis) is strong. Any attempt towards initiating inclusive programs may have a backlash.

That changed during NDA I, which envisioned an economic and psychological integration of this region. Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought in the department of Development of North-Eastern Region (DoNER). But the popular impression is that this is just another "agency" between the states and the Centre, with no accountability on how the funds transferred from the Centre are being used.

With this background, it remains to be seen whether the BJP can deliver on Modi's promise of developing Manipur in 15 months.

Collective consciousness?

Biren Singh's comment on "equal development" had a subtext—to progress across the state, with special emphasis on the hill districts.

The ethnic divide between the hill tribes and the valley dwellers (Meiteis) is strong. Any attempt towards initiating inclusive programs may have a backlash. Agreements between the government and these ethnic groups add to further suspicion.

For instance, for the Valley dwellers the BJP- NSCN (IM) Framework Agreement signed in August 2015 is viewed as legitimising the Naga demand of territorial integration, while the Inner Line Permit (ILP) and three bills of 2015—Protection of Manipur People's Bill, Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Bill, and Manipur Shop & Establishment Bill—are seen as attempts to dilute the protected tribal identity.

Even as Modi assured that the Naga Peace Accord was in the interests of the state, apprehensions over the actual content of the Framework Agreement remain.

Similarly the demand for Scheduled Tribe status to Meiteis has been vehemently protested. The hill tribes perceived this as a covert attempt to dilute the tribal culture, identity and threaten their landholdings. The hill tribes feel this will end their exclusivity vis-à-vis the valley.

As the Northeast-based RAIOT puts it—acceptance or rejection of "Manipuri" as a pan-ethnic name is not a given. While the Meitei easily subscribe to the Manipuri tag, the hill tribes do not relate to it due to its Sanskritic roots.

Trade benefits—for whom?

With the Act East policy, Manipur came to be considered as a transit to Myanmar and further Southeast. However, while free flow of trade with the ASEAN region received positive attention, it's unclear how the benefits will accrue to Manipur's economy.

Although the border post at Moreh handles a significant amount of trade between India and Myanmar, trends indicate Burmese businesspersons and Chinese and Southeast Asian manufacturers wielding the upper hand.

For the Act East policy to accrue benefits to Manipur, the state administration should be given enough autonomy to execute it keeping the ground realities in mind.

The Indo Myanmar border is mired with security breaches and illegal trade.

As per a 2013 Rediff.com report, the Maoists have been receiving arms through the India-Myanmar border. The BJP's national security cell had recommended an immediate border sealing. But that's been a far from easy task.

Consider this—the Indo Myanmar lines are superimposed on the bordering socio-cultural groups dividing several tribes. Due to the Free Movement Regime (FMR), the tribes can travel 16km across the boundary without visa restrictions resulting in:

● Insurgents crossing over to Myanmar

● Smuggling of arms and narcotics.

Even as Modi floated the ambitious goal of developing Moreh as one of the 100 new "smart cities", basic connectivity here, even to the rest of Manipur, remains dismal. The NH-102 and NH-37 are in a sorry state. A 24-hour power supply to traders remain a distant dream

So the real test in Manipur will be the steps the BJP takes to close these gaps while being mindful of the ethnic and sociocultural sensitivities.

Interestingly these ethnic groups have not severed their personal contacts with each other. So the unique resolution will call for translating these individualised contacts of the two ethnic groups into harmonious and peacefully co-existing political entities.

For the Act East policy to accrue benefits to Manipur, the state administration should be given enough autonomy to execute it keeping the ground realities in mind.

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