In Manipur, the tensions of a month and a half came to head this weekend. The state government’s plan to carve out seven new districts in the hill areas has ignited old resentments between Naga and non-Naga ethnic groups. It bodes ill for a state that has a long history of ethnic violence, which stemmed largely from competing claims to land.

This phase of acrimony began on November 1, when the United Naga Council, a conglomeration of Naga groups, launched an economic blockade of two arterial highways leading into the state. It demanded the repeal of contentious bills passed by the government last year and protested against the proposed new districts.

Unfazed, the government cleared the formation of the districts on December 8, after a hasty midnight meeting of the state cabinet. It prompted a bout of ambushes on policemen and Indian Reserve Battalion posts, allegedly carried out by Naga militant groups. Some of these incidents have been attributed to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah faction), currently under a ceasefire and in peace talks with the Centre.

Meanwhile, the pains of the blockade, made worse by demonetisation and the ensuing cash crunch, raised tempers among other communities. It led to the worrying spectacle of Meitei mobs surrounding churches and torching buses bound for the Naga-dominated Ukhrul district.

On Sunday, Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh announced an internet shutdown in Imphal West district, apparently to quell the flow of rumours that were fuelling violence. Parts of Imphal West and East districts went under curfew. Once again, hasty law and order measures have been used to paper over divides that run deep.

Between hill and valley

The troubled hill areas are home to various faultlines of identity. To begin with, the last two years have seen the sharpening of differences between people of the hills and of the valley in Manipur.

It started with protests in the Imphal Valley, which is dominated by Meiteis, who demanded an inner line permit system for all of Manipur, to protect the lands and livelihoods of the state’s inhabitants from the influx of outsiders. The inner line permit is document that people outside the state must acquire before travelling to areas deemed protected by the government.

On August 31, the state government rushed through three bills which effectively put in place and the inner line permit system, preventing outsiders from buying land or running businesses in the state, in order to protect the “indigenous people of the state”.

It rattled tribal communities of the hill districts, which were cordoned off from the Imphal Valley with their own set of rights and protections. The bills, they felt, threatened the distinct identity of the hill areas, and the blanket protections only enabled people from the densely populated plains to encroach on the hills. The fear was that they would become “foreigners in our own land”.

The hill areas broke out in violent protest; the government and security apparatus responded with force, killing nine people in the town of Churachandpur, many of them teenagers. For over a year now, the town has refused to bury the nine bodies, a long and defiant mourning that has gone largely unheeded by the state government.

Besides, the tribal lands enjoy autonomies under Article 371C of the Constitution and the powers of the state legislature are limited by the Hill Areas Committee. Any law affecting these districts must be vetted by the committee, a rule that the state government overlooked when passing the three bills last year and when creating the new districts.

The contentions of the last two years gave rise to the perception that Singh’s government was firmly ranged against tribal interests, and responded only to Meitei demands. Now, a Congress government growing jittery ahead of the assembly polls and desperate to retain its hold on the hill areas, has created the seven districts apparently in answer to a long standing local demand. But in doing so, the chief minister is seen be wooing Kukis and Meiteis, at the expense of Naga interests.

The Naga question

The Naga-dominated areas of Manipur have long been part of the Naga nationalist imagination, which does not recognise modern-day boundaries between states and nations. Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim, included present-day Nagaland, contiguous parts of Myanmar as well as Naga dominated areas of surrounding states such Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. This imagined homeland has inspired a long and violent movement of secession.

Over the last decade and a half, the Centre has managed to bring the largest militant group, the NSCN (IM), to the talks table and a “framework agreement” for a lasting solution to the Naga question was signed last year. The solution, it was suggested, would work towards a greater integration of Naga areas, including those in the surrounding states.

The new districts created by Singh break up the old Naga-dominated districts such as Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel and Senapati. Incidentally, the NSCN (IM) chief, Thuingaleng Muivah, is a Thangkul Naga from Ukhrul. The attacks now attributed to the NSCN (IM) are particularly troubling since they could spell the unravelling of the peace process and mark the group’s return to arms after an interregnum of nearly two decades.

Meanwhile, the sharpening rift between Nagas and other ethnic communities could also work to the electoral advantage of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has made inroads into the North East by tying up with other regional parties. It is an ally of the Naga People’s Front in Nagaland, which is looking to expand its footprint in Manipur.

The electoral calculations of both national parties could prove dangerous for the troubled region. Manipur has seen decades of violent militancy, as each ethnic group raised its own army to fight for its own particular homeland. A semblance of peace has been stitched together through separate ceasefire or suspension of operation agreements with most of these armies. But it is a fragile equilibrium, which no government should take for granted.