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Whose Manipur Is It, Anyway?

Age-old faultlines lie at the root of the current unrest.

31/12/2016 2:53 PM IST | Updated 03/01/2017 8:54 AM IST
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Okram Ibobi Singh, Chief Minister of Manipur

The current unrest in Manipur has a deeper structural problem that remains unanswered. Though "bandhs" and "economic blockades" are not new to the state, the present one is more of an implosion of the underlying problem; it's an expression of the people's anger at the government's apathy to the political situation in the state. At the core of it is a larger resentment to the idea of Manipur that shadows a huge section of the people in the state. The present scenario is a sign of a greater peril that the state is moving towards—communal tensions that are often an outcome of political games. There are two strands of politics that need to be dislodged in order to break the impasse.

Ibobi's game plan

With the state assembly election just months away, Chief Minister Ibobi Singh played vote bank politics by proposing to create the Sardar Hills district out of Senapati district leading to a protest by the UNC (United Naga Council). But what sent a shockwave across the state was the immediate creation of seven new districts, leading to the "economic blockades" on the two lifelines of the state by the UNC. However, this was not the first time Ibobi has acted to position himself at a political vantage point by masterminding communal tension in order to garner the majority votes in the state. The latest fiasco came when he was losing support at the political front because many political stalwarts were being attracted to the BJP fold.

The highly influential Meitei intellectuals have myopically focused on blaming the Nagas for the political imbroglio... Such opinions only add fuel to the burning situation.

He pulled another stunt successfully before the last election too, in 2010, when the Congress party was at a low just before the assembly polls. He found an opportune moment when Th. Muivah, the leader of NSCN (IM), was on his way to visit his ancestral village, Somdal, in Manipur. He sent an army contingent to stop him from entering the state. The Naga public confronted the state forces, and consequently some civilians were killed and many injured. The incident eventually took on a communal flavour. Around the same time, the NPF (Naga People's Front) was moving into Manipur for the first time. Since the Meiteis have been very apprehensive of the whole Naga movement and its possible impact on the state boundaries, the whole valley votes were consolidated in favour of the Congress. The irony was that just before the incident the whole valley was echoing with voices wanting to throw out the Ibobi government. This time around too, despite all the chants against Ibobi and the dissensions within the party, he seems to be moving towards another term in office. Some people really know how to be in power, no matter the cost!

The politics of representation

The hill-valley divide has largely been about the politics of representation. Despite covering more than two-thirds of the land mass of the state, the hills have only 20 representatives among the 60 assembly seats; 40 seats are from the valley. And over the years, by virtue of state power being vested in the valley, a biased portrayal of the state's situation gets perpetuated. Even in recent times, the highly influential Meitei intellectuals have myopically focused on blaming the UNC (United Naga Council) and the larger Naga political movement for the political imbroglio in the state. Such opinions only add fuel to the burning situation. The state's problem is much more complex than is being shown.

Until recently, the Meitei politics have been exclusivist— they have promoted the Meitei culture, language and literature as the only image of Manipur.

For long, the hill people have been resisting the hegemonic dominance of valley politics. As long as the majority Meitei population has been favoured by the divisive politics, even the intellectuals within the community have been silent, unfortunately. Or perhaps, in the Gramscian sense, they are merely the intellectuals formed by the ruling class, hence the need to fall in line. Only now do we hear of them talking in terms of "shared homeland" or "equal stakeholders", etc. The Greater Nagalim demand has certainly woken up some conscience!

Until recently, the Meitei politics have been exclusivist— they have promoted the Meitei culture, language and literature as the only image of Manipur. It is in the last few years that they realised the need to be "inclusive", finding the resistance too strong to contain. A classic example is the expansion of the term "Manipuri" to identify everyone from the state. The irony is that the term Manipuri is only synonymous with Meiteis, and hence an exclusive term which the Meiteis themselves have zealously guarded in its usage for all these years. It is interesting to watch this drama unfold the contradiction within!

With recurrent bandhs, protests and economic blockades, many people have wondered aloud if Manipur is cracking up rather than building up. Everyone suffers from such roadblocks, even those who resort to such actions. But such measures become the desperate way to be heard. What the public fails to understand is that it is those in power who play politics to break them. We need to rise beyond divisive politics. If we want to imagine Manipur as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious state then we need to recognise the distinctiveness of other people's cultures. This effort has not been at the forefront as it should have. All the communities have to play a role here, but the Meiteis have a greater role in contributing towards creating communal harmony by virtue of being the majority community.

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