On Sunday, tripartite talks were held in Senapati district in the Manipur hills. The United Naga Council, which a conglomerate of Naga groups, representatives from the Union home ministry and members of the new Manipur government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, were in attendance. This time, the talks ended with an agreement: the 139-day economic blockade launched by the United Naga Council on two key highways would be lifted.
“The previous government did not want to talk about issues,” said Seth Shatsang, president of the All Naga Students’ Association Manipur and one of the signatories to the agreement. “Now, the government of India has agreed to consult all stakeholders, that is the process.”
The blockade, which cut off essential supplies to the state for nearly five months, was in protest against the Congress government’s decision to create seven new districts, carved out of older Naga-dominated districts. A particular sticking point had been the creation of the Kangpokpi district, where Kukis are the dominant group.
In the current spirit of conciliation, Naga leaders held in prison for months have been released unconditionally and tripartite talks have been planned again for next month. Naga demands now hinge on four memorandums of understanding signed between council and the government over the decades. It has caused some unease among Kuki groups.
The Nagas and the Kukis, the two largest tribes of the Manipur hills, have long fought for their respective ethnic homelands in the region. The Kuki and Naga homelands overlapped spatially, bringing the two groups into violent conflict with each other as well as the government. Among other Kuki demands was the creation of the Sadar Hills District, articulated as far back as 1971. Kangpokpi district is an abridged version of the original district demanded. But in the intervening years, successive governments had made assurances to both groups.
Back in February, S Milan, general secretary of the United Naga Council had told Scroll.in that the creation of the new districts went against the spirit of the MoUs. “It was put down in MoUs in 1981, 1992, 1996, 1998. The ministry of home affairs gave us a written assurance that if at all such [a district] were to be, the Naga people must be consulted.”
The agreement signed on March 19 seemed to have gone a long way in assuaging some of these grievances. “Non-adherence to the MoUs – the government has recognised this was a violation,” said Shatsang.
During the months of the blockade, the Nagas had said they would only back down if the new districts were rolled back. Now, they have taken a softer line. “We cannot spell out [demands for] rollback etc now,” said Shatsang. The offer of talks was good enough for now.
In Kangpokpi district, Kuki organisations are also confident that the decision to create the new districts would be reversed. “Once it is created, it is difficult to roll back,” said Lamcha Chongloi, general secretary of the Kuki Students’ Organisation, Kangpokpi district.
The unease lay elsewhere. “If the blockade is lifted, it is very good. But the conditions they have laid down – with respect to the four MoUs – we are not very happy with them,” said Chongloi. “If they want to talk about MoUs, we [the Kukis] have more MoUs than there are between the government and the UNC.”
In the agreement signed on March 19, it was said that the government of Manipur would “start consultation with all stakeholders”. It does not spell out whom this word includes. “We will participate in talks if the government invites us,” said Chongloi.
In Imphal, the freshly minted BJP government is in an expansive mood. Lifting the blockade had been one of the BJP’s campaign promises and now arguably one of its first political successes. “This [the talks] is an initiative from our newly formed government,” said Thongam Biswajit, a BJP minister. Going ahead, all steps would be taken without “imposing on stakeholders” .
“How we have to solve this kind of problem is very simple,” he said. “Many groups have their own demands, but we have to continue the dialogue between Naga people and Kuki people and Meitei people. We need proper understanding.”
It helps, perhaps, that the Naga People’s Front, which was backed by the United Naga Council during the elections, is now in a coalition with the BJP and its legislators have been given ministerial berths. Indeed, before the elections, Naga blockaders had even expressed the hope that a BJP and Naga People’s Front coalition would come to power and address their political demands.
Apart from territorial demands, residents of the hill districts, both Kangpokpi and the Naga-dominated Senapati, had complained of being done out of government funds. The Nagas said they went primarily to the Meitei-dominated districts of the Imphal Valley. The Kukis said they went to Senapati. Across the backward hill districts, it is the same grievance that the lack of funds have kept these remote areas backward while the valley was developed better.
The BJP government has promised to correct this disparity. “We have already given assurance that there will be more emphasis on the hill districts,” said Biswajit. The topographical differences between the hills and the valley would be accounted for, he said. If more funds were needed for the same amount of work in the hills, they would be granted.
Under the Congress government, a series of legislative decisions had alienated the hill districts from Imphal. First, the three bills that amounted to an inner line permit system over the whole state, had triggered violent protests in Churachandpur, another hill district. Then the Nagas were up in arms over the seven new districts, created without consulting them or the hill areas council.
Successive rounds of tripartite talks had failed under the previous dispensation. In November, the state government had refused to send its representatives to the talks. In February, the parties had been on the brink of an agreement, until a fresh misunderstanding cropped up between the Nagas and the state government.
The BJP now says it is keen to “listen to the other side” – the hill districts and their tribes. It remains to be seen if it succeeds better than the Congress.