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Manipur diverse ethnic landscape also determines its peculiar politics

Manipur’s Sharp Ethnic Fault-lines and How They Can Influence the Election Results

This article first appeared in The Wire and the original can be read here

The battlelines are becoming clearer, now that the uncertainties surrounding the BJP tickets for the forthcoming election to the 12th Manipur Assembly is more of less settled. The picture emerging is close to anticipation of many observers, though dismissed haughtily all along by the BJP itself, living as it always was, under the illusion that it can have the cake and eat it too.

The ruling party will have its share to eat no doubt, but the important question is, after having to let go of what it could not hold on to as reserve, would its remaining share still be bigger than those of opponents. There are claims and counterclaims on what the ruling party’s fate would be, but by all indications, the contest is promising not to be cakewalk for the BJP.

The trend has been for those who missed the BJP ticket to migrate to two parties in particular waiting in the sidelines – The Janata Dal (U) and the National People’s Party. There are also the Republican Party India and Shiv Sena picking up some each. The Congress so far has admitted only a very few, including prominently a sitting BJP legislator whose BJP ticket went to a defector from the Congress.

JD(U) entry

The JD(U), little heard of in Manipur politics till only very recently, reaped the richest harvest of BJP migrants. The Manipur unit of this Bihar headquartered political party was launched by sitting Congress MLA, Khumukcham Joykishan Singh, who left the party and went his one way. Joykishan was earlier a BJP legislator in the 10th Assembly before switching to the Congress in the 11th Assembly.

Joykishan’s new move of launching the JD(U) is probably in the belief that in Manipur’s badly fractured electorate will most likely deliver a hung verdict, and therefore his best bargain would be as a king maker rather than be part of a team contesting to form the government. The party which began with only himself as the assured candidate, announced its first list of 29 candidates two days after the BJP announced its, and by the deadline of filing of nomination for the final phase voting February 11, the list would in all likelihood have grown longer.

The NPP netted the second most. The party announced a list of 20 before the migration from BJP began, and after it, the list has increased to 41. RPI has a list of five and the Shiv Sena four.

Apart from these parties enlisting from the BJP out migration, the Congress has in two lists so far announced 50 candidates, and in the rest their spokesperson said they will be deciding seat sharing arrangements with their five left front pre-poll allies. The Naga People’s Front, which won four seats the last time, has also announced a list of 10 candidates, and this list is unlikely to increase as the party has a following only in Naga dominated constituencies.

All this notwithstanding, exactly how many political parties would be in the fray and how many candidates each of them would be fielding will only be known after the nomination deadlines. In the meantime, there are some trying hard to explain away the BJP’s rank erosion claiming the BJP and JD(U) are the “A” and “B” teams of the same force as they are allies at the centre, forgetting there are other contenders in each constituency, and that the vote counts of “A” and “B” individually will be less than when “A” and “B” were one.

Ethnic fault-lines

While these shifting battlelines crystallise, a tour of other meta narratives of ethnic fault-lines in Manipur will be helpful. Some of these divisions are also bitter, sometimes dangerously so. These fissures are over above the more universal rural-urban, rich-poor divides, literacy levels etc. If in much of the rest of India caste is important, here caste is virtually non-existent but in its place are these impenetrable ethnic identity boundaries. There is also a very distinct hill-valley divide premised on the tribal and non-tribal duality, and all the accompanying senses of mistrust, rivalry, deprivation, anger at economic disparity and more.

Of Manipur’s 60 Assembly seats, 20 are in the hills and 40 in the central Imphal Valley where the state capital Imphal is located. Of the 20 hill seats, 19 are reserved for scheduled tribes and one, that of Kangpokpi in the foothills, is a general seat. This latter seat, together with two other constituencies (each a sub-division in administrative classifications) flanking it, Saikul and Saitu, once formed a buffer ring around the valley separating the valley from the higher and more rugged mountains beyond. The British colonial administration classified this buffer as Sadar Hills, which was treated as neither hill nor valley.

Of the 40 seats in the valley, one is reserved for scheduled castes. With one seat in the hill falling in the general and one in the valley in the reserved categories, the aggregate remains as, 20 reserved seats and 40 general. The seat distribution corresponds roughly with the population distribution.

The other peculiarity is, Imphal Valley is, in area, only one tenth of the state, and the surrounding hills make for the rest 90 percent. The population concentration however is in the reverse order.

The hills are homes of the Naga and Chin-Kuki groups of tribes and modern land revenue system is not applicable here. Instead, tradition land ownership is what are in vogue here. This tradition is also vastly different between the Nagas and Kukis. Generally, in the former, village land is owned by the village as a community, and in the latter, the village itself and its land are owned by the village chief. The law forbids non-tribal from acquiring land in the hills.

Modern land revenue system, defined by the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960, is followed in the valley, therefore government owns all land and individual lease their plots of land from the government and pay taxes for them. It is also open to settlement by all citizens of the country, therefore, although the indigenous community, the Meiteis are in the majority, it has a very cosmopolitan mix of population. Meitei candidates have also won these seats so far, but every domicile has the right of franchise and to contest for these seats.

Sadar Hills and frictions within

The Sadar Hills question is a convenient cue to understanding the ethnic tensions in Manipur and also for a glimpse into the character of its politics, therefore this elaboration. Even at the time of Manipur’s traumatic World War II experience, when troops of the advancing Japanese Imperial Army and Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, fought a bitter, devastating battles with the British forces for four months on Manipur soil, Sadar Hills was very sparsely populated, but now it is dominated by Nepalis and Kukis with a few Naga villages as well.

Of Sadar Hill’s three sub-divisions of Saitu, Kangpokpi and Saikul (each also an Assembly constituency), the central Kangpokpi through which one of Manipur’s important lifelines, National Highway-2 (formerly NH-39), connecting this landlocked state with Nagaland and Assam, is left as general seat, allowing its non-tribal Nepali domiciles to vote and contest. However, although the Nepalis are now more numerous, the constituency has been won by a Nepali candidate only once in the state’s legislative history as a full-fledged state since 1972.

Districts creation fallouts

Sadar Hills was once a part of the Naga dominated Senapati district but its Kuki population for long demanded a district status separate from Naga dominated Senapati district. Many prolonged and crippling blockades along NH-2 accompanied these demands, and finally, in December 2016 barely three months ahead of the February 2017 elections, the then Congress government led by Okram Ibobi, conceded to the demand and made Sadar Hills a district after renaming it Kangpokpi on the plea the Sadar Hills was already practically functioning as a separate district though official a part of Senapati district. In the same move, the Ibobi government also bifurcated six more districts to create seven new districts including Kangpokpi, citing the need for more administrative ease and efficiency.

The move was welcomed by non-Naga districts, but was vehemently opposed by many powerful Naga civil society organisations, saying this was designed to encroach on Naga’s ancestral homeland, a reference to the demand for a unified Naga homeland made up of territories Nagas consider theirs extending into all states neighbouring Nagaland, and even Myanmar. This is a very emotive issue, opposed vehemently by non-Naga communities sharing the same homeland in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and has been a prominent campaign point by both sides in elections after elections in these states, especially Manipur.

The 2016 creation of seven new district, was met with a blockade of NH-2 and also on NH-37 which connects Imphal with the Barak Valley in Assam, by Naga civil society bodies, dovetailing the earlier blockade by Kukis demanding precisely the opposite – the creation of Sadar Hills as a new district.

The district creation decision backfired on the Congress, and its electoral prospect in the Naga dominated districts slumped with Naga civil society bodies and allegedly also militant groups forbidding the party. It is also unlikely to be a coincidence that the fortune of the Naga People’s Front, a Kohima headquartered political party, and a new entrant in Manipur electoral politics, rose, in the wake of this controversy, managing in the end to return four MLAs for the first time.

ADC agitation and Muivah visit

The Nagas disenchantment with the Congress has also to do with another earlier incident in May 2010. After decades of hiatus the then Congress government, decided to revive the six Autonomous District Councils in the Manipur hills, a local self-governance mechanism in lieu of the Panchayat system implemented in the valley. Powerful Naga civil bodies again opposed this and instead wanted an “alternative arrangement”, an administrative unit, autonomous of Manipur state, for the Nagas of Manipur and embarked on blockading the state along its lifelines.

It is again unlikely to be a coincidence, that amidst this agitation, Thuingaleng Muivah, the leader of the most powerful Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), wanted to visit his village Somdal in Ukhrul district Manipur on May 3 and also hold two public meetings, first in Ukhrul district headquarters on May 8 and two days later on May 10 at Senapati district headquarters.

The then Union home minister, P. Chidambaram had sent a telegram to chief minister Ibobi, asking him to make security arrangements for Muivah’s visit and the public rallies. Chief minister Ibobi put his foot down and decided to block Muivah’s entry into the state at that juncture. Protest against this decision at Mao gate resulted in the death of two students on May 6.

Despite shrinking support in Naga areas, Congress still returned as the single largest party in the 2017 election with 28 MLAs, three short of majority mark, leaving its nearest rival BJP to be content with 21. However, as we have seen, it was the BJP which formed the government with the support of other non-Congress parties, including the NPF.

Interestingly, not long after the BJP led coalition government was installed, the blockade by Naga civil bodies also ended even though the district creation decision over which the blockade was called, was never rescinded. This was also perhaps influenced by the fact the NPF had then become a partner in the ruling coalition.

The Sadar Hills issue highlights most succinctly the complex, bitter and multi-layered frictions between ethnic groups in the hills, as well as between these groups and the Manipur state, but obviously there are numerous more symptoms of the same ailment, all of which need not be profiled here.

Hill-Valley friction

There is yet another important dimension to the ethnic frictions in Manipur, one that illustrates the hypothesis that conflicts are more often than not, predestined by geography. This embedded conflict should be obvious from a study of the topography of Manipur. It is a mountainous state with a central valley, flat alluvial and very well irrigated, therefore suitable for agriculture, making it a case study of what Yale professor James C. Scott called a Zomian theatre in his 2009 book “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia”.

Zomia is a term coined by Dutch scholar of Asian borderland studies, Willem Schendel, denoting the mountainous massifs of northern SE Asia and its inhabitants stretching across northern Thailand, Myanmar to Vietnam and Yunnan and more, and it includes much of Northeast India. This geography is marked by vast mountainous expanses punctuated by fertile riverine valleys.

In a crux, these valleys become melting pots of identities as people descend into them, and because of their suitability for stable rice agriculture, economic disparities between them and the surrounding hills become inevitable. The valleys are also where rudimentary state formation happen, in keeping with Friedrich Angles prediction in his classic, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, that at its basic, the state is also a mechanism for managing surplus. Scott calls these Zomian states “Paddy States”. The conflict theatre between “state carrying” populations in the valleys and “non-state hillmen” still living on subsistent slash and burn farming, hunting and gathering, is thus foretold.

British Colonial administration

Arrival of the modern state, in the case of the Northeast, marked by takeover by the British in 1826 complicated the scenario. The colonial government with its primary interest in revenue was quick to separate productive flatlands from non-revenue “wild” hills. The creation of an “Inner Line” by the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, 1873, in Assam by the British is a case in point. This line separated hills from the agricultural plains in the British province of Assam, which virtually meant the entire Northeast of today with the exception of Manipur and Tripura which were independent kingdoms. The hills beyond the Inner Line were left unadministered under the broad gaze of the governor, while the agrarian plains came directly under the colonial administration.

In Manipur too, after the British defeated and entered the kingdom in 1891, this tried system was introduced, although without formally drawing an Inner Line separating the hills from the revenue plains of the valley. From 1907 onwards, after the coronation of Maharaja Sir Churachand upon his attaining adulthood, the hills were left largely unadministered but under the broad gaze of the British Political Agent (the equivalent of a governor as Manipur was left as a Princely State and not completely absorbed as British territory) who also assumed the title President Manipur State Durbar, and the revenue affairs of the plains were put under the charge of the Maharaja’s Darbar.

Instead of the Inner Line, however, as I have outlined earlier, the Sadar Hills belt was created to demarcate the hills from the plains territory. This crystalised the hill-valley duality further, and now it has come to be internalised so much so that a great section of the population have come to believe this was an intrinsic feature from “time immemorial”.

Democracy as divider

Democracy further accentuated these divisive trends. The contest for power under it, with a premium on building vote banks, often requiring resorts to negative campaigns, have only made matters worse. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in his 2003 book “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad”, democracy will have to be predicated by a culture of liberalism or else it can actually be dangerous for democracy demands building vote banks and enclaves.

Zakaria takes the example of Yugoslavia, which held together as a nation all the while under a Communist dictatorship but disintegrated violently on ethnic lines not long after the country switched to democracy. Manipur, and the rest of the Northeast has seen, and continues to see, this phenomenon at work, though they have proven much more resilient than Yugoslavia.

Economic disparity between the hills and valleys, as in Manipur, are a reality. The hills have always suffered from a sense of being discriminated and oppression by the more prosperous valley communities. This problem cannot simply be dismissed as misplaced citing equal allocations of funds for both regions. Maybe asymmetric investments, calculated to bring parity is what is called for. In Scott’s words, this is so because the “terrain friction” on the road to development is much greater in the mountains than in the plains. One of his lectures to promote his book named above, was provocatively but illustratively titled as “Why Civilisations Cannot Climb Mountains”.

Valley’s sense of seige

There is also another reality to be tackled, and sure to be reflected in these elections as well. This has to do with a growing reverse sense of being unfairly handicapped amongst the valley communities. In Manipur, the valley community Meiteis now have come to suffer from a sense of siege, and of losing their land and jobs to constant migration and settlement from the hills and elsewhere on what they consider as their traditional domain. A sizeable section among them are now demanding protection, including not the least by having the community within the Schedule Tribes fold.

All these interplays of insecurities and hurts will reflect in the election ahead as campaigns heat up after nomination filing. They will surely find reflections in the election manifestos to. However, as of now, only two parties, NPP and Congress, have published theirs. The rest, including that of a major player, the BJP, is still awaited. It is predictable, that parties whose support bases extend beyond these ethnic barriers will try strike a balance so as not to alienate any of them, while those like the NPF, will have no worries about the need for moderation as they function largely within the fences of single ethnic enclaves. The results on March 10 will hence also be a barometer to gauge which of the parties in contention are able to transcend these barriers and fault-lines.

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