Even before the news on the fast-paced, controversial developments on the Manipur Assembly election verdict and its outcome — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forming the government after winning only 21 seats in a 60-member House — could sink in, the crippling blockade of two highways leading to the State, called by the United Naga Council (UNC) last November, ended. The BJP’s national leaders camping in Imphal had promised to lift the blockade within 48 hours of coming to power. As the development on the ground largely followed the script, the new State government, run by an old Congress hand, N. Biren Singh, brought some relief. But for how long? The wheels-within-wheels nature of the government formation itself is an indication that administering the State could be anything but easy for Mr. Singh.
The Naga question
How is he going to resolve the Naga issue? Four MLAs of the Naga People’s Front have joined the BJP-led government, with the winner from Mao (Losii Dikho) made a minister, and the rest given posts of parliamentary secretaries with minister of state rank. A rollback of the creation of new districts will obviously appease the Nagas in the hills, but not the Kukis, the other major tribal group living in the hill districts, who have got a new district, Kangpokpi (culled out from areas of Naga-dominated Senapati district, and a fact which hasn’t gone down well with the Nagas). There’s Kuki representation in the Cabinet.
The Nagas too are in wait-and-watch mode. The UNC operates under the patronage of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) with which the Centre signed a “framework agreement” in 2015 to solve the decades-old Naga insurgency. Though the “agreement” is shrouded in secrecy, the Nagas have never kept their demands secret. They want all Naga-inhabited territories in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland to come under “Greater Nagalim” which all States barring Nagaland vehemently oppose. On March 22, addressing his cadres, NSCN(I-M) general secretary T. Muivah said the framework agreement “recognises the unique history, the identity, the sovereignty, the territories of the Nagas. It also recognises the legitimate right of the Nagas to integration of all Naga territories.” But in the same breath, giving a breather to the Centre, he talked about “co-existence” of “two entities” and shared sovereignty.
With Naga partners in the coalition, Mr. Singh will have to tread cautiously to keep the peace. Or, since the BJP rules both the Centre and the State, does it become the Centre’s headache?
In Delhi, after the UNC signed a tripartite agreement with the Union and State governments to call off the blockade, a Home Ministry official admitted that “there are many stakeholders,” while saying, “at the moment there is nothing like a rollback”.
Even if the Naga issue is resolved with the help of Delhi, the “shared sovereignty” condition won’t please the Meiteis in the valley who comprise roughly 60% of the population but live in a tenth of the area of Manipur. The hill tribes are roughly 40% of the population and they live in hill districts which are spread over 90% of Manipur’s total area.
On the Inner Line permit issue too, Mr. Singh has to walk the tightrope. It’s a Meitei demand, that outsiders be allowed access to the State only by using Inner Line permits, and since they, despite being in a majority, already feel constricted in their own State, their voice has to be heard. On the other hand, the Nagas and Kukis, who have long complained that the administration is leaning towards Meiteis, are uneasy about it, and there have been widespread protests for and against it. Even if the problem with the NSCN(I-M) is sorted out, there’s the NSCN (Khaplang) faction, which broke the ceasefire with the Centre, to contend with — and a host of other insurgent groups each fighting their own cause including the valley-based People’s Liberation Army.
Mr. Singh will be under pressure to get the Centre to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which has been in place in the State since 1980, and against which Irom Sharmila recently ended a 16-year hunger strike.
Manipur may be craving for peace, but the problems are too many and too tangled to be sorted out easily, which the BJP is about to find out.
BJP’s growing ambitions
What worked for Manipur may not necessarily work in the other States of the region, each with their sets of tribes, different cultures, eating habits and social mores. The BJP’s homogenous social systems are unlikely to work in this disparate region.
While both Assam and Manipur have a sizeable Hindu/Vaishnav population, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are predominantly Christian States, and will be wary of the BJP’s brand of politics. The people and the Church must have taken note of two developments with unease: the Modi government’s announcement that December 25 will be observed as Good Governance Day and the Assam government’s recent notice planning to make Sanskrit compulsory till Class VIII, even if that means the State will have to hire teachers from elsewhere.