“Not there yet, but the BJP is starting to bridge the gap between the hills and the valley of Manipur”
In May 2017, just two months after becoming Chief Minister, N Biren Singh inaugurated the five-day ‘Shirui Lily Festival’ in Ukhrul district of Manipur. At first glance, the festival was dedicated to the conservation of a rare and endangered flower. But in the Tangkhul Naga Hills of Ukhrul, it meant much more.
“For the first time, there were so many Meiteis from the valley here in Ukhrul,” says resident R Kasar. “In my 20 years as a journalist, I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this,” says a journalist who lives in the town of Ukhrul.
Relations between the Imphal Valley, the seat of state government, and the hill tribes of Manipur have always been strained. The hills are behind on various development parameters and attribute this to years of neglect by the state.
During the 15 years of Congress government led by Okram Ibobi Singh, this gap seemed to widen. In addition to the Inner Line permit request raised by Meiteis and the government’s offer to introduce three contentious “anti-tribal” bills in 2015, the creation of seven new districts in the hill areas had caused tensions, including in the hills of Churachandpur dominated by Kuki-Paitei. .
Ibobi’s firm stance on the territorial integrity of Manipur came into conflict with the Naga demand for a homeland. This relationship was so antagonistic that before the 2017 elections, Ibobi was not allowed to enter Ukhrul.
One of the Biren government’s first announcements was the upgrade of the village-level Shirui Festival to an extravagant festival, sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism. On May 12, a few days before the festival, the CM tweeted: “I’m going, you?”
The importance was not lost on anyone, as Biren, a Meitei, donned the Tangkhul Naga headgear for the inauguration of the festival and spoke about the importance of community ties and equal development.
Over the next year, Biren made it a point to hold Cabinet meetings in the hill districts. In May 2018, his hill-valley reconciliation project was dubbed “Go To Hills”, with the goal of “reaching out to citizens at their doorsteps”.
“It gave us hope,” says Kasar, a student leader.
Ahead of the second phase of Manipur’s election – which covers the majority of hill districts including Ukhrul, Senapati, Chandel – it is on this hope that Biren and the BJP are banking.
But the impact of the campaign on the ground remains ambiguous. At Pettigrew College in Ukhrul, the only government college in the district, a teacher mocks ‘Go To Hills’ as ‘eyewash’. “Ours is the second oldest government college in Manipur (established about 50 years ago). But it’s a mess… There’s a lack of everything, classrooms, water,” she says.
Even Kasar believes that the government campaign turned out to be “nothing more than civil servants handing out old age pension forms, Aadhaar, etc.”
Incumbent Congress MP and candidate for Ukhrul constituency Alfred K Arthur says the BJP government has done nothing “specific” for the hills. “Whatever they did for the valley, they gave something to the hills,” he says. “There is no real development or electricity with the hills.”
For a long time, the hills have complained about the lack of executive powers to the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs), tribal bodies empowered under the Constitution to administer the hill areas of Manipur. In August 2021, the Hill Areas Committee – represented by 18 Hill District legislators from all parties – called for the repeal of the Manipur District Council (Hill Areas) Act 1971 and the introduction of the Manipur Autonomous District Council (Hill Areas) Bill, 2021, or the ADC Bill, to “give more autonomy”. The Biren government never tabled the bill.
In Saikul, Kangpokpi district, the Goupu Chongloi of the Kuki Students’ Union says that if the government really cared about the hills, “they would have at least tabled the bill”.
In remote Phungyar township in Kamjong district bordering Myanmar, a social worker describes the BJP’s initiative as “a start, but not enough”. “Yes, there have been improvements on the roads, but that’s mainly because our local MP, Leishiyo Keishing, (from the Naga Popular Front) has been active,” he said.
However, he believes, the BJP has a good chance. “At the end of the day, they pump out a lot of money. In these areas, there are no livelihoods, and since the BJP rules in the Center, people see the merit of associating with it (with it),” he says, adding that this could change if the BJP was losing power in the Center.
The other factor in favor of the BJP, he says, is its alliance with the NPF. “The past five years have been peaceful with no bandhs or blockades as the NPF, which is popular with the Nagas, has been doing the troubleshooting in the hills,” he says.
Biren admits there is a long way to go “in terms of development” in the hills. But, he told The Indian Express, the BJP government has been trying “step by step”. Change can only come gradually, he said, adding, “Look how the bandhs and blockages have stopped… We have at least managed to bridge the communication gap.”
To this, the social worker from Phungyar agrees. “Congress ministers almost never came to the hills. But since 2017, every two months there is a cabinet or a minister of the Union here. People feel recognized.