The United Naga Council of Manipur has declared that chief minister N Biren Singh’s government is not welcome in the state’s hill areas. For some time, the CM’s programme of “Go to the Hills and Go to the Villages” had succeeded in bringing the administration to the doorsteps of people in those areas. Every month, various officials, ranging from health personnel to people from the revenue department, would be present there.

But Biren Singh went one step further to organise Cabinet meetings in the district headquarters of the hill areas by rotation. By the looks of it, the exercise seemed a good one, but the last meeting was held on 15 January 2021 in the newly created Kamjong district, carved out of Ukhrul.

The UNC have said recently that henceforth no Cabinet meeting or “Go to the Hills” programme would be allowed in the Naga areas of Manipur.

They contended that they have been opposing the creation of new districts in the state but even so, at the end of 2016, then CM O Ibobi Singh of the Congress Party did just that. For the last five decades, Nagas in Manipur have been opposing the bifurcation of the Naga-dominated Senapati district.

The plans to create Sardar Hills district out of Senapati had led to numerous economic blockades and bandhs in the state.

The Nagas had signed four Memoranda of Understanding with the state government, first in 1981, followed by 1992, 1996 and 1998. In 2011, the Government of India had intervened and asserted that all stakeholders, including Naga bodies, would be consulted before any new creation. But Ibobi Singh went two steps further by not only dividing Senapati but also Chandel, Tamenglong, Ukhrul and Churachandpur and created Jiribam, adding a total of seven new districts.

The only solace he gave the Nagas after splitting Senapati was calling the new district Kangpokpi and not Sadar Hills. The Nagas were up in arms and called for a rollback. With the 2017 Assembly elections already announced, restrictions by the Election Commission of India was cited as an administrative roadblock.

Then a change of guard took place at Imphal with the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government assuming office. The ruling coalition had the support of four legislators belonging to the Naga People’s Front, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M)’s over ground political outfit, while the UNC served as a mouthpiece for the Nagas of Manipur in the form of a civil society organisation. Although the NPF maintained a studied silence over the new districts, it egged the UNC on to raise the issue. An accommodating Biren Singh government agreed to hold tripartite talks in the presence of the Union home ministry and two such meetings were held in Senapati.

The latest furore erupted after the Manipur Cabinet, on 27 March 2021, decided to hold elections to the Autonomous District Councils in the hill areas including the newly created districts.

The UNC released a statement and asked the state government to expunge the resolutions arrived at during its Cabinet meeting in Kamjong. It further stated that deliberations relating to the creation of the new districts are still on and yet to be concluded, even after six rounds of talks at the political level to resolve the issue.

The UNC, which has been calling for the amalgamation of the Naga areas of Manipur, on the lines of the greater Naga Lim demand of the NSCN (I-M), must be in a quandary now.

The Centre’s interlocutor and Nagaland Governor RN Ravi has also hardened his stance against the NSCN (I-M) leadership over a lot of issues including the plans for Naga Lim. Elections to the various ADCs have been overdue for about a year now.

Putting pressure on the state government to hold the polls soonest is the All Tribal Students Union of Manipur, which had called for a total shutdown of the hill tribal areas recently. On the other hand, the newly formed Demand Committee on Creation of Autonomous District Councils has urged the Manipur government not to kowtow before the UNC, which they think is aiming to deprive citizens residing in the newly created districts of Pherzawl, Kamjong, Noney, Tengnoupal and Kangpokpi.

The DCCADC appealed to the UNC not to stand in the way of the development policy of the state government. It also reminded how the third Naga People’s Convention had declared elections to the Autonomous District Councils in 2011 as null and void and prevented the functioning of the Councils in Naga areas. Biren Singh’s predecessor Ibobi Singh was a persona non grata in the Naga areas of Manipur during his 15- year-rule.

Matters reached a head when he blocked the entry of NSCN (I-M)’s supremo, Thuingaleng Muivah into Manipur. He had barricaded the state’s two road entry points at Mao and Jessami and posted police commandos there.

An open letter was sent to the Centre that notwithstanding talks between the Government of India and the Naga rebel outfit, Muivah would be arrested if he set foot on Manipuri soil, which was his place of birth and where he was on the “wanted list” of rebel leaders according to a notification issued earlier by the state’s home department.

A sulking Muivah turned his cavalcade back from just two kilometres of the Mao Gate and returned to Hebron Camp near Dimapur. The antipathy of the Nagas towards Ibobi Singh reached its nadir when sometime in October 2016, he flew to Ukhrul, Muivah’s home district, to inaugurate a hospital.

As soon as his helicopter landed, his entourage was fired at and the CM had to return to Imphal. The NSCN (I-M) retaliated thereafter through its frontal organisation, the UNC, which blocked the two main National Highways that connect Manipur with the rest of India, one via Nagaland and the other through Assam.

The oft-repeated reason was the fear of bifurcation of the Nagadominated Senapati district and creation of a Kuki-dominated Sardar Hills district.

The blockade’s effect, which ran for almost 100 days from 1 November 2016, was devastating.

All essential items including life-saving drugs, baby food and aviation turbine fuel went out of stock in Manipur and the Indian Air Force had to fly in relief materials on numerous occasions. But then Ibobi Singh pulled the rug from under the feet of his Naga detractors.

In a swift midnight operation, he announced the creation of six new districts in the hill areas. While other communities welcomed the CM’s move, it amounted to showing a red cloak to a raging bull for the Nagas.

With elections to the Manipur Legislative Assembly due next year, each ethnic group seems to be falling back on its earlier formula of saying no to the demands and aspirations of other tribes or groups.

That said, much like Ibobi Singh, Biren Singh’s relationship with the Nagas also seems to be sailing towards choppy waters.

The writer is the Imphal-based Special Representative of The Statesman.