Finally, it's curtains for the two-month-long economic blockade in Manipur. This comes ostensibly on the request of the Prime Minister and Union home minister to the Naga Students' Federation. The student body relented, but not before publicly castigating Union home secretary G.K. Pillai for fomenting discord when he announced some days ago that force would be used to break the blockade. So while one section of Delhi is talking tough, (and I suppose that is what got the Nagas into a huddle about ending the economic cordon), the other is showing its soft underbelly.
Henceforth, those in a position to blackmail the state will be called for talks and "requested" or "appealed" to refrain from breaking the law. The court had earlier declared the economic blockade illegal. And rightly so! No group or individual can hold an entire state and its people to ransom, no matter how weighty the issue. But politically, things have reached a flashpoint. Those with any grievance will now want to talk directly to the PM of this country and no one less.
Whether the blockade on NH39 was called to protest the hill council elections or as a show of solidarity with NSCN (I-M) leader Th. Muivah who was not allowed to visit his natal habitat has become the current polemics as if the reasons for the act are more important than the act itself.
The Nagaland Peoples' Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) now blames the media for mixing up the issues. They say the blockade has nothing to do with Muivah's visit but everything to do with an election imposed on an unwilling people. But were the people really against the autonomous council elections? If so, would over 58 per cent have come out to vote? In the first phase of the polls as many as 72 per cent voted. Are there hidden variables here that we are missing?
It is common today to speak of the hills of Manipur as if those are inhabited by a homogenous group with a common ideology and a familiar homeland. But even as the Nagas take up strong positions, other groups who also have a claim to homelands in Manipur are getting restive at the propensity of a few to punish the many without any regard for the fact that they too might have a viewpoint.
The Nagas of Manipur have every right to demand the revocation of an election they feel is of no benefit to them. But they cannot ignore the views of other indigenous communities.
The argument that unlike the ADCs created under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution, the Manipur Hill Areas District Council Act, (1971) does not provide legislative and judicial powers to the ADCs but merely vests limited administrative powers under the pervasive control of the state government, has its merits.
Further amendments to the 1971 Act empower the ADCs to make recommendations to the state government to legislate on matters concerning welfare of Scheduled Tribes, such as (a) appointment or succession of chiefs (b) inheritance of property (c) marriage & divorce and (d) social customs. The ADCs are, however, not empowered to generate their own revenue but are dependent on grants-in-aid from the state government.
The Nagas see this as a placebo which only mimics a "real" legislation for empowerment of tribal bodies in a manner that grants them sufficient financial and administrative autonomy.
The Bodoland Territorial Council is the model that every minority tribal group living within a geographical territory ruled by a dominant "plains" community, is striving at.
This gives them enough money to play around with and perhaps to create public assets, which at the moment are completely invisible in the hill areas of Manipur, particularly in Ukhrul. In fact, it would have been an eye-opener for Muivah to see his sleepy little hamlet, Somdal, in the very same condition when he left it four decades ago.
Except for the special intervention made by the International Fund for Agricultural Development's poverty alleviation project for the past 10 years, nothing has changed for the people of Ukhrul, Senapati, Chandel and Churachandpur.
Those in the government counter the allegation by saying that militants do not allow development to happen. This is the typical argument of a political system and a bureaucracy that has learnt to cover up its inadequacies, albeit with a fig leaf.
The way Manipur is administered today gives every militant group the alibi for extortion. So it is possible that the NSCN (I-M) is asking for a cut from development funds. But so do the three dozen-odd Meitei outfits in the valley. The fact of the matter is that development has not been equitable.
As is the familiar scenario in all northeastern states, development funds are cornered by a minuscule ruling elite located in the state capitals, and by those ideologically close to this power centre. Development is simply a process of converting "government" funds into private investments. A meagre amount that can be spared goes towards development.
Hence, when any group perceives it is on a losing wicket because it has no grip on the political economy and virtually no profile to engage in rent-seeking in the manner that those vested with political authority do, they begin to use identity as leverage for greater political and financial autonomy. This is the all-too-familiar story of every "homeland" claim in the Northeast. But as stated earlier, Manipur hills are not the exclusive homelands of the Nagas. There are the Kukis who form a fairly good chunk of the tribal population but who were at the receiving end of the ethnic cleansing by Nagas in the early 1990s. Do they not have a right to articulate their own arguments on the inadequacy or otherwise of the autonomous councils under the present arrangement? While calling for the economic blockade, were the Kukis and other tribes consulted or were they simply bulldozed into endorsing the diktat of Ansam?
Meanwhile, there is continued exodus of Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis and others from the state of Manipur because it is becoming unliveable. Healthcare has collapsed after the recent blockade. Essential commodities are available at a price no longer affordable to the ordinary citizen.
The neighbouring states of Assam and Meghalaya are bearing the brunt of this exodus. Shillong, with an area of 10 square km is housing a Naga Tangkhul population of nearly 3,000 and counting. Guwahati with a bigger size might have more. Pilangkata, near Beltola, supposedly belonging to Meghalaya but located in the heart of Assam has become an area of domicile for a large number of Tangkhul Nagas.
The population will only grow as more and more Tangkhuls find it easier to live, work and conduct their businesses in these states outside "Nagalim". But at what cost to the host states? Hardened ideologies and behavioural traits are often hard to jettison. Is it not possible that these new "homelands" might become the next theatres of more contumacious inter-ethnic conflicts?
I have never understood why the Nagas of Nagaland who ostensibly take up the cause of their Naga brethren in Manipur with so much fervour have also served "quit notices" on the Tangkhuls in Nagaland? This is a difficult equation to crack.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)