The United Naga Council's decision to lift its blockade of two crucial national highways leading into Manipur ahead of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Imphal visit this weekend is hardly a cause for relief in the State. The Naga groups ended the 100-day blockade with the threat of another one, if the government made any move in favour of a competing territorial demand by the Kukis. The Kukis are demanding a separate district in an area of Manipur that the Nagas claim as part of their ‘Nagalim' demand. The UNC says it decided to call off the blockade after a meeting with Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram on November 22, at which he gave the assurance that the Manipur government would not be allowed to take any unilateral decision on the issue of a Kuki district. Meanwhile, the Kukis have threatened to carry out their own blockade if the promise of a district for them, contained in a written assurance from Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, does not materialise. The rhetoric on both sides is only likely to become more strident as the State heads towards elections, due early next year. Manipur's Congress government appears content to muddle through the conflicting demands, perhaps betting that this is the best course to win the backing of the majority Meitei community in the coming elections. In any case, it does not have an entirely free hand to resolve the issue. The resolution of ethnic territorial demands in Manipur is inextricably linked to the Centre's negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), a process so opaque since it began in 1997 that it has added much to the suspicions and tensions between the ethnic groups in the region.
A three-day bandh called against the blockade by a Meitei secessionist group — the Kangleipak Communist Party — and a bomb explosion in Imphal on Wednesday that killed one person underline the fact that Manipur is one of the most troubled States in that region today, given its ethnic tensions and a host of insurgencies, run by shadowy militant groups that are little more than criminal gangs. The Centre has shown an alarming disinterest bordering on apathy about Manipur's problems. The only possible excuse is that the UPA government is too beset by its problems to pay attention to a faraway State. Prime Minister Singh's December 3 visit is an opportunity to demonstrate renewed focus on Manipur. He must send a clear message that the politics of blackmail, whether through blockades or bombs, will not be allowed to succeed, and that the way forward is in building an inclusive vision for the region, rather than one based on narrow ethnic identities.