On the evening of October 29, social media groups in Manipur buzzed with a sensational piece of news reported primarily by Pakistani publications: that two men from the state had declared its independence from India and set up a “government in exile” in the United Kingdom.

The next morning, a local newspaper ran a clarification by the state’s titular king, Leishemba Sanajaoba, on whose behalf the two men claimed to be acting. Sanajaoba was quoted as saying that he was not part of the rebellion.

A video also emerged shortly where Sanajaoba, part of the Meitei royal family which once ruled the state, is seen denying any connection to the affair. Leaders of Manipur’s majority Meitei community also played down the development. “This is not to be taken seriously,” said Heigrujam Nabashyam, the president of the Pan Meitei Convention, a platform that claims to represent Meiteis from across India.

The two men have been now booked for waging war against the state.

A strained relationship

While this episode could very well be dismissed as a misadventure, Manipur’s fraught relationship with the Centre could indeed be tested all over again as a consequence of the Naga peace talks.

Manipur’s merger with the Indian union in 1949 was not a cordial affair. The princely state’s king was put under house arrest and isolated from his advisors when he signed the merger agreement, ostensibly under duress.

Over the years, this led to a separatist insurgency that attracted the full wrath of the Indian security apparatus. Alleged human rights abuses by Indian forces meant those sentiments never quite went away – armed Meitei groups continue to be in operation and at war with India. In fact, they are among the few ethnic groups in the region who have never reached some sort of truce with the Indian government. Besides, the state’s multi-ethnic society has meant that it has, over the decades, become a site for competing ethnic nationalisms, each with its own armed groups.

As the October 31 deadline for a final settlement to the Naga political conundrum approaches, tempers in Manipur are running high again over reports that parts of the state’s hill areas will be converted into a Naga satellite territorial area council – governed in some measure by a proposed bicameral Naga parliament.

The police pushing back protestors in Imphal earlier this month.

Valley rumblings

On October 23, thousands of women poured into the streets of Imphal holding banners and placards warning against any solution that affected Manipur’s “integrity”.

Naga nationalists have long claimed vast swathes of Manipur’s hills as part of its imagined homeland of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland. While territorial integration is unlikely to be part of the proposed solution, Naga-dominated areas of Manipur and Nagaland will undergo some cosmetic administrative changes.

But Meitei outfits say they are opposed to that. “We will not accept any arrangement that will by-pass the state Assembly and distort the cultural and political identity of Manipur,” insisted Khuraijam Athouba, general secretary of the United Committee Manipur, a powerful civil society group that represents Meitei interests. “If that is the case, we will stop having anything to do with the Indian government.”

On October 31, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, an umbrella body of valley-based civil society groups, has called for a “cease-work” protest— a shutdown. “October 31 is a crucial day for the people of Manipur,” said Athouba, who is part of the committee. “We have asked people to come out to the streets and protest as they wait for the verdict in Delhi.”

Meitei women protesting in Imphal.

Protest in the hills

In Manipur, though, Naga nationalism competes not just with Meitei nationalism – but also with the Kukis. In fact, contestations between Naga and Kuki nationalism are even more direct. Large parts of the imagined Kuki homeland in Manipur’s hills overlap with Nagalim – leading to years of bitter conflict and bloodshed. Now, it seems to have reached a climax with Kukis fearing that parts of their “homeland” will also be included in the Naga satellite council.

On October 30, Kuki-dominated areas in the state witnessed well-attended protest rallies against the government’s “one-sided solution”. “This appeasement policy has emboldened the NSCN (IM) as a result of which now they are claiming territory,” said Sominthang Doungel, vice-president of Kuki Inpi, the tribe’s apex body, referring to the largest Naga armed group the NationalSocialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah)

Doungel said the Kukis were not opposed to a solution to the vexed Naga issue, but insisted it should not come “at the cost of the Kukis”. “Such a solution will not be tolerated and be opposed.”

Kuki armed groups are also currently in talks with the Indian government.

A Kuki protest rally in Churachandpur.

A state on the alert

As expected, the Manipur administration is on the alert. Chief secretary J Suresh Babu said the state had requested additional forces. “Fifteen companies have been allotted to us,” he said.

In certain “sensitive” districts, officials of the police and civil administration have been barred from going on leave.

In the past, Manipuris have reacted violently to being affected by the Naga peace process. In 2001, when the ceasefire with NSCN (IM) was extended to Manipur, the Imphal Valley exploded: Meitei protesters poured into the streets of Imphal, targeting government installations, and finally burning down the state Assembly building with legislators inside. Two legislators reportedly suffered 50% burns.In retaliatory firing by security forces, 18 protesters lost their lives while scores of others were injured.

With the stakes even higher this time, the state will witness heavy police deployment during the October 31 shutdown, Babu said. “We hope things remain peaceful,” said the official.