By Ratnadip Choudhury
N RAMANDRA SINGH and his wife Savitri Devi live in the Singjamei locality of Imphal. They have two LPG connections, a Royal Enfield motorcycle and a Tata Indica car. Yet, these days Savitri does her cooking on logs and charcoal, while her husband rides his old bicycle.
Manipur is reeling under an economic blockade that started on 31 July. A counter blockade started on 21 August. Together, they created an acute scarcity of essential items. Prices shot up due to the forced closure of NH- 39 that links capital Imphal with Dimapur in Nagaland.
The bone of contention is the issue of the creation of a new district — the Special Area Demarcated Autonomous Region (SADAR) Hills — carving out three subdivisions of Kangpokpi, Saikul and Saitu Gamphazol from the district of Senapati. The Kuki demand for creation of the SADAR hills district is longstanding. On the other hand, Nagas in the four hill districts of Manipur — Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel and Senapati — vehemently oppose bifurcation of Naga-inhabited areas.
The apex Naga body in Manipur, the United Naga Council (UNC), is adamant that it will not give an inch of land from Naga villages for the new district. Meiteis living in the Imphal valley too might retaliate. The Okram Ibobi Singh government must take the blame for its failure to act.
“In 10 years as CM, Ibobi has taken the state from the frying pan into the fire. Every time there’s a crisis, he waits for it to die down. This might boomerang in the Assembly polls,” says Rishikanta Sharma, a retired school teacher.
In Gamgiphai, scene of the first blockade, roads are dug up, charred vehicles are strewn around, huge boulders obstruct stretches of roads — a virtual battle zone. “In 1982, the Manipur government had cleared the decision to create a separate SADAR Hills district. We just want its implementation,” reacts Ngamkhohao Haokip, president of SADAR Hill Districthood Demand Committee (SHDDC). In 2000, the Nipamacha Singh cabinet reaffirmed the earlier decision but subsequent Congress governments have put it in cold storage.
“SADAR Hills was there during British rule and during Commissioner’s rule, with some villages from here and there, which disturbed cohesiveness,” says former chief minister and Rajya Sabha MP Rishang Keishing.“That can still be rectified.”
But the Nagas are unrelenting. “The Naga people need to be consulted. It seems that Ibobi is trying to divide the hill tribes. We are not against the Kukis but they have to understand that they are playing into Ibobi’s hands,” reacts a top UNC leader from Senapati on condition of anonymity. The Manipur government had committed in 1992 to promote basic human rights and to assiduously work to ensure the peaceful co-existence of the tribals, particularly the Nagas staying in Manipur. The Nagas feel that bifurcation of Naga-inhabited areas would be a breach of that agreement. The Kukis disagree. “We are not asking for a separate homeland, we are only asking for a new district for better development of the area,” says 57-year-old Phalneiting Sitlhou from Kangpokpi, the proposed headquarters of SADAR Hills.
The buck stops at Ibobi Singh. A high-level committee has been given three months to come up with a solution but by then Manipur might go for early polls. This is why it looks as if the CM is trying to buy time.
Another complication is that in Manipur all the revenue districts are in the valley and the non-revenue districts are in the hills. SADAR Hills includes some areas of the valley too. Demarcating land in the hills therefore could meet with stiff resistance from the Meitei farmers there.
With inputs from Sharatchandra Sharma in Imphal and Prakhar Jain in New Delhi.
Ratnadip Choudhury is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.