26/12/2016 6:06 PM IST | Updated 26/12/2016 9:33 PM IST

What's Behind The Paralysing Manipur Blockade

Nearly 60 days on, it has left the state paralysed.


Nearly 60 days on, the ongoing economic blockade in Manipur by the United Naga Council (UNC) has left the state crippled and life paralysed following the government's decision to carve out new districts in the state.

The blockade, on NH 2 and NH 37, began as a protest against the government's decision to make SADAR Hills and Jiribam into full-fledged districts. Planned as a four-day protest initially, the blockade now continues indefinitely.

That has led to an acute shortage of supplies in the valley where mostly the ethnic groups Meiteis and the Kukis live. The two national highways enter the state from Nagaland and Assam respectively and pass through the hill districts before reaching the Imphal Valley.

In recent weeks, the prices of essential commodities have shot up and medical supplies are running alarmingly low. Adding to the trouble is the cash crunch caused by demonetisation. On the medical emergency in Manipur, Hindustan Times reports: "Hospitals in Imphal Valley are running short on many life-saving drugs, there is a scarcity of oxygen, and operations and other services are getting adversely affected."

The blockade has also stoked the already existing divide between valley (mostly Meiteis and Kukis) and the hill (Nagas) populace.

Why did the UNC call for the economic blockade?

SADAR hills (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region) is located in the extended foothills of the Imphal valley. The government has said it wants to bifurcate the Senapati district to give the Sadar hills subdivision the status of a full-fledged district thus giving in to the demands of the residents of the subdivision, predominantly Kukis, but also some Nepalis. There had been mutual ethnic cleaning campaigns between the Kukis and the Nagas in the 1990s that resulted in the concentration of Kukis and aligned tribes in the foothills adjoining the valley.

Since then SADAR hills has virtually been a district with headquarters at Kangpokpi. The UNC sees SADAR hills as a part of the greater homeland for Nagas and views the Kukis as outsiders who have been allowed to live there by the Nagas, thus echoing the sentiments of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), the underground Naga group that has been in peace talks with the government since 1997.

The other enclave to be given district status is Jiribam on the Assam border where mostly the Meiteis live.

The UNC wanted the government to give a definitive assurance that these new districts would not be created and when their demand was not met started a blockade from Novermber 1.

What has the government done about it so far?

There were counter-threats from the group wanting district status for SADAR hills and ultimately the Ibobi government split seven of the state's nine existing districts.

The government seems to have sat up and taken notice of the blockade only after the matter took a violent turn on 15 December when three police personnel were killed and nine others injured in two ambushes.

On 18 December, angry residents torched 22 cars, buses and other vehicles as a protest against the blockade. Thankfully, there were no casualties.

While Nagas demanded President's rule, curfew was instantly imposed in various parts of the state and mobile internet services were suspended to prevent the spread of inflammatory rumours. The Centre rushed 4,000 paramilitary personnel to Manipur.

According to News18, around 70 heavily armed men suspected to be from the NSCN-IM attacked seven posts of the Indian Reserve Battalion and snatched 20 weapons from the security personnel in Noney district of Imphal on 17 December.

On 23 December, MoS Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, visited the state to review the situation, called it a "humanitarian crisis" and asked the state government to act.

Why was it so important to make SADAR Hills and Jiribam full-fledged districts?

The government said it was for "administrative convenience". The Nagas claim the creation of seven districts was a ploy for electoral gains. With the assembly elections in Manipur scheduled for 2017, the Congress may have felt that creation of more districts would work in its favour. A piece in the New Indian Express says: "If the Congress divided the growing tribal unity, particularly between Kukis and Nagas, by upgrading Sadar Hills to a full-fledged district, it managed to reach out to the dominant Meitei (Manipuri) community by cashing in on the ethnic fire, which was a consequence of the decision on Sadar Hills."

Perhaps, finding ways to end the economic blockade which would ease the suffering of people and restoring peace would win it better support.

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