No Turning Point Yet

Tonghen Kipgen's diary on the demand for the creation of a seperate Sadar Hills District in Manipur exposes Intra-inter communal conflict and systematic structural discrimination , says Ninglun Hanghal 

The agitation for the creation of a separate Sadar Hills district in Manipur started 40 years ago. In his book Sadar Hills Movement (Spectrum Publication, Guwahati), Tonghen Kipgen recounts how the demand eventually became a mass movement. The journey began as an appeal for implementation of the government of Manipur (Department of Planning and Development) notification vide No 18/1/71-SC of 14/2/1972 and Manipur Gazette No 28/1/71 dated 14/02/1972. 

All successive governments, right from the creation of the state in 1972, bypassed the Sadar Hills autonomous district council while five other such councils, created under the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council Act, 1971, were upgraded to a district.

 Born in 1973, Kipgen is as old as the struggle that saw him becoming a student leader. He was made general secretary of the Sadar Hills Districthood Demand Committee in 2011. The struggle that began from 1974 onwards is divided into two phases — the first non- violent till 2010; the second, the public movement in 2011, also called the 123 Days of Agitation, caused a massive public uproar that brought Manipur to a standstill with economic blockades imposed along the NH-39 and NH-53 from 31 July till 1 November. Besides deaths and injuries, there was massive destruction of infrastructure and vehicles.

 In a candid diary written in “layman’s” language, Kipgen states that the “Sadar Hills movement” should not be conveniently clubbed into the category of “tribal, agrarian, or a separatist movement”. It is made out to be “complicated” and “complex”, but is not a matter of conflict of interest or disagreement between parties as dissected and observed by critics or analysts, he feels. He reveals that the demand committee members were criticised, demoralised  by  several quarters and were even threatened by state and  non-state actors.

 Kipgen’s diary reveals more than just a list of events, or a series of agitations, meetings, memorandums or official recordings.  It exposes intra-inter communl conflict and systematic structural discrimination. Sadar Hills is inhabited by Nepalis, Pangals (Manipuri Muslims), Meiteis, different Naga tribes, whom the author calls “Kacha Nagas”, and the majority community,  the Thadou-Kukis, who are  in the forefront of the movement. 

Geographically sandwiched  between valley districts inhabited by the Meiteis and hill districts with predominantly Nagas, the two majority communities in Manipur who are at loggerheads, the volatile and vulnerable Sadar Hills ADC area became a “laboratory” of ethnic and communal politics, blame games and, most of all, a classic case of the state’s apathy and indifference.

A commendable and remarkable gesture found in Kipgen’s record is the letter to the United Naga Council and the Naga People’s Organisation by the demand committee before commencing the 2011 protest. The letter, in the form of an appeal, reads, “Time has come for our unity and unflagging journey towards attaining justice… and stand with us.” While Kipgen does not mention receiving any response/reply, the diary notes the reaction of the UNC and the All Naga Students Association, Manipur, over the creation of Sadar Hills district, which says that “districts cannot be created by means of carving out/cutting parts of Nagas’ land in the state… Government should not pursue policies and plans to bring differences among the tribals in Manipur”.  

 Moreover, the infamous bloody Naga-Kuki feud in the early 1990s was  “conveniently” used as the main argument point of debate or rather a contention on the creation of Sadar Hills district by both the government and intellectuals, the valley-based civil society to be specific. Kipgen recalls that at several seminars held in Imphal on the issue, nobody was in favour of Sadar Hill district. He further mentions that a stern statement came from a valley underground group that said Sadar Hills district could only be created after a proper demarcation of boundaries.

Three-time state chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh told the demand committee that Sadar Hills district could not be created in haste due to the sensitivity of the issue, meaning opposition by the Nagas. At one of the meetings chaired by the chief minister himself during the height of the 2011 agitation, he proposed to the team to form a “committee on reorganisation of administrative and police boundary” for the whole state.   

Besides attempts to divert the issue, the book records an odd blame game played by politicians. Manipur’s  first chief minister Allimuddin, in 1972, defended himself saying that the inauguration of Sadar Hills district could not take place because the area’s legislator did not sound the traditional gong as a sign of allegiance. In the 1997,  when  W Nipamacha Singh was chief minister, he accused  “Kuki ministers” of not coming up with a location for district headquarters. The same year, it may be noted, a smooth transition took place; Imphal West and East District were bifurcated. The two districts border the Sadar Hills.

Kipgen believes that the Sadar Hills can be transformed into a model district of vibrant diversity, which will further help consolidate the state’s integrity. He raises many questions that  may remain unanswered. Nevertheless, the mass response and the spirit witnessed in the 2011 agitation does not seem to die down, “not so soon”.  

In the concluding chapter, Kipgen writes “... the worst phase of trouble would erupt if  opposition to the Sadar Hills persists.” Quoting Jinnah and the two-nation theory, and drawing inspiration from the 1916 armed insurrection in Dublin, a poorly supported, weak movement that gained strength due to the violent reaction by the British government and led to the creation of an Irish state in 1922, Kipgen states that “a system may respond vigorously to challenges which may set in motion a chain of events that the government was seeking to avoid”.
 In fact,  Kipgen’s own tone and use of language subsequently moved on from a non-political to a political one towards the end,  a reassertion of his introductory statement, “creation of Sadar hills is not politics... But the political methods and motives ultimately caused Sadar Hills to become a political issue”.

 Tonghen Kipgen lives at Kangpokpi (Sadar Hills). He was president of the Kuki Students’ Organisation (Gen Hq) and spokesperson of the All Tribal Students’ Union, Manipur. He was general secretary of the Sadar Hill District Demand Committee during the peak of the movement in 2011.

The reviewer is A DELHI-BASED freelance contributor
The Statesman NE page , November 25,2013

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