Manipur is still burning, but who cares?

A reorganisation that expands Imphal valley deeper into the surrounding hills and merges the rest of the hill areas with Mizoram and Nagaland may even suit all. But is it on the BJP's priority list?

A house set on fire by rioters in Manipur (Photo for representational purpose; courtesy: @ashoswai/Twitter)
A house set on fire by rioters in Manipur (Photo for representational purpose; courtesy: @ashoswai/Twitter)

Herald View

The state of Manipur, which erupted in ethnic violence more than seven months ago, is still burning. But it has gone off media headlines long since, and both the Centre and N. Biren Singh’s state government have been busy affecting a fake normalcy.

The state cabinet has legalised the sale and trade of liquor in Manipur, a dry state since 1991, when insurgent groups enforced prohibition. Biren Singh must feel emboldened because the valley, now ‘cleansed’ of tribals, is loyal to him.

By regulating liquor sales in the state, Singh said, the state expects to rake up annual revenues of Rs 600 crore. As further evidence of normalcy, Union home minister Amit Shah announced a ‘historic’ peace agreement with the UNLF (United National Liberation Front), a valley-based separatist outfit that has been demanding an independent Manipur from the mid-1960s.

Modi–Shah, as every child knows, rarely say or do things less grand than ‘historic’, but it turns out the agreement was signed with an inconsequential Pambei faction of the UNLF; the more powerful Koirang faction, still based in Myanmar, has denounced the “betrayal”.

Even more farcical was the state government function in Imphal to felicitate the Pambei faction, where the UNLF general secretary declared that there would be no surrender of arms till the question of Manipur’s sovereignty had been settled.

The U-turn, even by the Pambei faction that signed the peace deal, appears to have escaped the attention of the national media, preoccupied as it was with the recent state assembly elections. New Delhi and Imphal have also been quietly patronising the three-yearold militant group of Arambai Tenggol, which also talks Manipuri nationalism.

Messrs Shah and Singh have been conspicuously silent on these insurgents and their demand for Manipur’s ‘sovereignty’. For those who care to see, there are other disturbing reminders of the fact that the situation in Manipur is anything but ‘normal’.

Militant groups have the run of the state, but only sporadically will you find a report in the national media of the violent incidents that continue to rack the state. On 4 December, for example, the central paramilitary force Assam Rifles recovered the bulletriddled bodies of 13 Meitei men in the forested, Kuki–Zomi-dominated village of Leithu, in the state’s Tengnoupal district, near its porous border with Myanmar.

Unconfirmed reports suggest the group was trying to sneak into Myanmar, presumably to join Meitei insurgents there. The seemingly irreconcilable ethnic divide between Imphal valley and the hills has also strengthened the hill tribes’ demand for a separate administration.

Their demand received a fillip this week following the victory of the four-year-old political party ZPM (Zoram People’s Movement) in neighbouring Mizoram. The president of ZPM and chief minister-designate Lalduhoma, a former IPS officer and member of Parliament, has suggested that Article 3 of the Indian Constitution allows Parliament to expand, reduce or alter the territory of states.

States have been reorganised in the past and new states created under the provision, and a solution to Manipur’s ethnic crisis, he asserted, is already available. His party, Lalduhoma said, would welcome the Kuki–Zo tribes of Manipur if they wished to merge with Mizoram.

The longer New Delhi delays a political settlement, the more painful it’s likely to get. Given the continued violence and hardened feelings on both sides of the ethnic divide, a reorganisation of Manipur appears unavoidable. But is the Centre even interested in remapping the region? More than the prospect of peace, it may be weighing the political fallout.

A reorganisation that possibly expands Imphal valley deeper into the surrounding hills and merges the rest of the hill areas with Mizoram and Nagaland may even suit the BJP, but clearly New Delhi does not see it as a pressing issue.

Never even mind that the state seems to have turned into a slaughterhouse, while Delhi ponders at leisure the costs and political benefits of a real settlement.

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