With the Election Commission announcing the dates for assembly elections in five states, the focus now shifts to the challenges of actually conducting the polls. One poll-bound state that might prove tricky is Manipur.
Manipur has been experiencing periodic blockades and violence for the past two years. A punishing economic blockade imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) since the beginning of November, in turn, sparked off counter-blockades by Meitei groups. All of this has meant increasing hardship for the ordinary people as a supply of essentials has been severely curtailed. It all started with an agitation for an Inner Line Permit (ILP) system for Manipur by the Joint Committee on Inner Line Permit System (JCILPS), to restrict entry of ‘outsiders’ into the state. The ILP which is already enforced in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram is a special permit required to enter certain restricted areas in the country. It was first introduced by the British, restricting entry into these areas to protect their commercial interests.
Many Meiteis, who have a dominant presence in the valley district, give the example of Bishnupur, which has a large number of North Indian population. This reflects their distress over outsiders who migrate to the valley districts.
JCILPS put pressure on the Manipur government to pass three anti-migrant bills that encapsulated the ILP demand. Acceding to the demand of JCILPS, the Congress government in Manipur passed The Protection of Manipur People Bill, 2015, The Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill, 2015 and The Manipur Shops and Establishments (Second Amendment) Bill, 2015 in a special session of the assembly on August 31st last year, to protect the indigenous people inhabiting the valley districts of the state.
This issue brought ‘hills versus valley’ divide into the limelight, as the very day the bills were passed, protesters, mainly comprising hill tribal organisations, torched five houses belonging to Congress legislators. Among them were the dwellings of Health and Family Welfare Minister Phungzathang Tonsing and Lok Sabha member from Outer Manipur Thangso Baite, in Churachandpur district. The violence and resultant police action left at least nine people dead. According to the tribes inhabiting the hills of Manipur, these three bills would directly undermine the existing safeguards for the tribal hill areas regarding land ownership and population influx, as the primary threat to the tribal people comes not from outside the State but from the Meitei people of the Valley itself.
Uprising tension between hill and valley tribes was at its peak when the Manipur government announced the creation of seven new districts by bifurcating existing ones. All hill districts were majorly affected by the split which further intensified the existing tension in the state. Nagas believe the bifurcation is a clear ploy to divide them by appropriating Naga villages and merging them with non-Naga areas. They also accuse Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of Congress, of using such methods to win a fourth consecutive term.
Correspondingly, the Nagas have increasingly come to be viewed as having the support of the BJP-led central government, something that was accentuated by the Centre’s signing of a peace accord with the NSCN (I-M) Naga insurgent outfit in 2015. Add to this BJP’s poaching of some big Manipur Congress leaders, there are indications that the party is trying to do an Assam or an Arunachal Pradesh in Manipur. Elections, of course, will demand open and safe thoroughfares. Even otherwise, it’s unacceptable that the people of Manipur are repeatedly held hostage to crushing blockade politics.