Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen
The Manipur state government has again failed to fulfill its assurance to the people of Sadar Hills on the issue of upgrading the Sadar Hills Autonomous District into a full-fledged revenue district. For some, this can be construed as a betrayal to the people.
In the evening of October 30, 2016, the Sadar Hills authorities were reportedly instructed by the office of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi to erect the inauguration plaque for a formal function to declare Sadar Hills into a full-fledged district the next day, i.e. October 31.
The plaque has it written on that the Sadar Hills district is inaugurated by "Shri O. Ibobi Singh, Hon'ble Chief Minister, Manipur, in the presence of Shri Gaikhanngam, Hon'ble Dy. Chief Minister, Manipur," and the three Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) and the Chairman of the Autonomous District Council of Sadar Hills.
While the people of Sadar Hills and the administration were in full preparation for the occasion, Ibobi cancelled the much-anticipated program due to the threat of resignation by legislative members belonging to the Naga community.
Then, Okram Ibobi reportedly said the issue of Sadar Hills district would be tabled for discussion by the state cabinet.
Several statements or questions can be drawn from this latest development.
First, it is a long overdue assurance to the people. On the eve of Manipur attaining statehood status in 1972, the Indian parliament passed the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1971. According to the Act, all the hill areas were to be divided into six autonomous districts, with the ultimate goal of a full-fledged district each, including Sadar Hills.
The five other autonomous districts: Manipur South (Churachandpur); Manipur North (Senapati); Manipur East (Ukhrul); Manipur West (Tamenglong); Tengnoupal (Chandel), have all been upgraded to full-fledged districts since then.
A cabinet committee of the Manipur government in its resolution dated May 25, 1980, under the then chief ministership of Rishang Keishing, resolved to make Sadar Hills a revenue district.
The Council of Ministers' resolution dated July 14, 1982 decided to create 3 more districts - Thoubal, Bishnupur, and Sadar Hills. While the two were created, Sadar Hills was left out.
The Manipur government's cabinet meeting in its resolution dated November 17, 1999, under the chief ministership of Wahengbam Nipamacha Singh, reaffirmed the decision taken in 1982 for the creation of Sadar Hills district and the bifurcation of Imphal district into Imphal West and Imphal East. The two Imphal districts were created but Sadar Hills was left out again.
Again, after 120 days of strike and blockade by members of the Sadar Hills District Demand Committee (SHDDC) in 2011, the Ibobi government and SHDDC signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU), in which the state government agreed to declare Sadar Hills district at the earliest possible.
The main problem or excuse has been cited as the boundary issue. The Nagas, under the aegis of the United Naga Council, claim that most parts of Sadar Hills belong to the Naga people, and therefore, a new district should not be carved out, which headquarters will be Kangpokpi, a Kuki-majority urban town.
Land or space is often a bone of contention amongst the three major ethnic groups of Manipur - Kuki, Naga, Meitei. In fact, there is overlapping claims of the same geographical areas, particularly by the Kukis and the Nagas. The Senapati district, under which Sadar Hills is to be carved out, is part of a territory claimed by the Kuki armed groups for a separate state, as well as by the Naga armed groups for greater or southern Nagaland.
The question here is not who claims what but rather the inability of the state government to exert its authority and influence in demarcating district boundaries for administrative convenience, which has been the case for other districts previously created.
There are several questions the state government, particularly Chief Minister Okram Ibobi, needs to ponder and answer to the people of Sadar Hills.
If boundary is the central issue (which is not at all a new development), why did the chief minister alert the Sadar Hills administration and the local MLAs for the inauguration? If there was a need for cabinet meeting, why did the chief minister not convene before giving any assurance?
Another serious question is the accusation that the chief minister is unnecessarily creating tension and anxiety between the Kukis and the Nagas. If the cancellation was for fear of the threat of Naga legislative members or the Naga public or even their armed groups, does that mean the chief minister has no opposition to Sadar Hills being included in the proposed greater Nagaland?
Or, does the state government or Chief Minister Ibobi equate the announcement of Sadar Hills district with the creation of a Kuki state?
Similar to the other districts, Sadar Hills is inhabited by people belonging to different communities - Kuki, Naga, Nepali, Meitei. Why is it that ethnicity is such a major factor if the state government considers Sadar Hills as an integral part of Manipur?
If the state government believes that the boundary problem is between the Kukis and the Nagas, why not officially entrust leaders of the two communities to settle the dispute amongst themselves, or intervene to resolve the matter?
Or, is the Ibobi government concealing a hidden agenda of annexing parts of Sadar Hills into the valley district as feared by many ordinary people of Sadar Hills? Or, is the issue of Sadar Hills being played again as political game since the state election date is drawing near?
If Ibobi is serious and sincere about Sadar Hills district, he does not necessarily have to travel to the proposed district headquarters. He could make the announcement through different channels - radio, television, print media or even by holding a press conference.
The underlining importance or requirement for a full-fledged district is to have the offices of a deputy commissioner, a magistrate, and a superintendent of police. Someone needs to be bold enough to take such action.
Whatever the rational or motive behind the decision was, the latest renege of assurance is yet another indication of Chief Minister Okram Ibobi's failure of leadership as well as the state government's incompetency.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University. His writings (books and articles) have been widely published in over 30 countries in five continents -- Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen