Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh has a history of jumping guns. In 2004, he could not wait for then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seated alongside with him on the dais, to declare the conversion of the Manipur University into a Central University. (The PM was in Imphal then to assuage the hurt feelings of the Manipuris following the rape and murder of Manorama Devi by personnel of the Assam Rifles). In his welcome address Ibobi announced the conversion.
This time also he jumped the gun by making it public that the ongoing economic blockade that the United Naga Council had imposed from 1 November last year, would be called off and Gaidon Kamei and SK Stephen, president and information secretary respectively of the UNC, who are now under judicial custody, would be released.
Before this, the chief judicial magistrate, Imphal East, had allowed the two leaders to be flown to Delhi to participate in the tripartite talks. The meeting took place on 3 February with Satyandra Garg, joint secretary in the Union home ministry in charge of the North-east presiding and J Suresh Babu, additional chief secretary (home) of the state government.
The latter had made it clear that the state government cannot do anything about the rolling back of the creation of the two districts of Kangpokpi and Jiribam because of the code of conduct imposed for the assembly election next month and the decision, if any, will have to be taken by the new government that will be formed.
And it was also agreed that once the blockade was lifted the two UNC leaders would be freed. This was at a private conversation between the additional chief secretary and this correspondent. But, by evening social media was filled with news clips of the announcement of the chief minister that the blockade was going to be lifted as told to a representative of a national weekly. On the next day, 7 February, the UNC held a presidential council meeting at Senapati and came out with the statement that the blockade would continue, come what may. By evening the state government had extended the custody of Gaidon and Kamei by 15 more days. And it appeared the situation was back to square one.
Speaking to The Statesman from an unknown location over phone, S Milan, general secretary of the UNC, said that Ibobi had jumped the gun by announcing the impending lifting of the blockade for, according to him, the agreement reached at Delhi was that the two leaders would return to Senapati and first seek the consent of all the stakeholders, namely different Naga civil societies, church leaders and Naga tribal village chiefs before taking the final decision. Adding that perhaps Ibobi had the coming elections in mind.
Milan also said that the core issue behind the blockade had never been understood even by the media. He elaborated that since the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms Act is not applicable in the hill tribal areas, the state government is bound by law to first consult the people or Nagas who are the actual owners of the land before any developmental construction is commissioned.
He also lamented the fact that Ibobi had dragged in the name of the NSCN(I-M) into the current crisis revolving around the creation of the Kangpokpi District (Sadar Hills) stating that the former dates back to 1981, even before the NSCN(I-M) came into existence. And that it is a political movement beyond the purview of the normal Indian laws in an obvious reference to the summon by the Manipur High Court to him and other office-bearers. He said that the person who had filed the PIL before the Court over the blockade issue should instead file a PIL against Ibobi for ignoring four memorandum of understandings the UNC and the government had signed between 1981 and 2011 to maintain status quo.
Milan also said that the UNC respects the 2000 years of Manipur’s history in an obvious respect to the Meiteis but their expectations should not be belied at the same time and that the blockade was not targeted against any community as it is being used only as a tool to attract the attention of the competent authorities. Before signing off, Milan said that both he and Ibobi are helpless as, if the creation of the two districts is rolled back, Ibobi would be killed by the Kukis and the Meiteis and the same fate awaits him if he calls off the blockade.
He suggested a way out that perhaps Ibobi can give a commitment to honour the four MOUs signed before Manipur High Court and leave its implementation to the next government that takes office in March. Then, perhaps he could close the Pandora’s box that he opened.
But that apart, it is the sincerity of the BJP government at the Centre and the state Congress government over resolving or breaking the blockade. In 2011 when P Chidambaram was the Union home minister, he sought a daily status report on the blockade that was on knowing full well that law and order is a state subject. While, on the other hand, Union home minister Rajnath Singh, currently holding talks with the NSCN(I-M) and which controls the UNC, has been hedging the issue by first stating that blockades are a violation of the law of the land and at the same time, it being a state subject, the Centre’s role is perhaps limited to sending troops to aid the state government.
Ibobi, on the other hand, has not come clean on the deployment of the troops sent by the Centre to help break the blockade. Thanks to the blockade, this has generated a growing hatred of the Meiteis towards the NSCN(IM) and the growing popularity of the UNC. And with the assembly elections due in March, Ibobi appears not to let the chance slip by for his return for a fourth term. This, coupled with the similarity of the statements both by the UNC and Prakash Javadekar, BJP’s HRD minister, that the creation of the districts is following a “divide and rule” policy, might prove to be their Achilles heel in the ensuing polls, at least in the valley area.
Caught between the power game of the Congress and the BJP, the people have now turned to Manipur High Court that has taken a very serious view of the matter. It has made the director-general of police and the general manager of the India Oil Corporation depot at Imphal to appear before it and explain their inability to ferry in 400 oil tankers every week as assured earlier, besides issuing summons to the office-bearers of the UNC.
And unlike the UNC leaders who, in all probability, will be ignoring these, the government officials would have to come up with an answer and that seems to be the last ray of hope to a population who have now got used to queuing up at night in front of petrol pumps, having taken it almost as a fait accompli.
(The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman)