Unrest and Isolation in India’s Northeast

Domestic Politics Pose Obstacles to Regional Connections

India’s isolated northeast may be poised for an economic breakthrough thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s focus on regional connectivity. But ongoing unrest in Manipur and Nagaland shows that long-term political tensions still have the power to disrupt daily life. The often-violent protests in the northeast have barely made the papers in Delhi, let alone internationally, but without a viable political solution, they could put a long-term halt to India’s plans to build road and rail connectivity to Southeast Asia.

On February 7, the United Naga Council, an umbrella group for organizations representing the interests of India’s Naga ethnic minority, announced that it would continue its ongoing economic blockade of the main highway in the northeastern state of Manipur. The blockade, which began on November 1, 2016, now looks likely to continue until the next round of scheduled talks, set for March 25. Trade and traffic on Manipur’s main artery, National Highway 2, which runs south from Manipur’s border with the adjacent state of Nagaland to Myanmar, remain strictly local.

The blockade restricted the flow of most commodities, raising the price of fuel to $4.50 a liter before the January airlift of 96,000 liters of petrol to Imphal, the state capital. Black-market fuel prices have remained high following the airlift, however, at $2.10 a liter (twice the government-set price in Delhi). Remarkably, the blockade has persisted for weeks after the central government sent 4,000 paramilitary troops to Nagaland in December.

The immediate impetus for the blockade was the announcement by Manipur’s Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, that seven of Manipur’s current nine administrative districts would be carved up to create seven new districts, for a total of 16. All of the Naga-dominated hill districts (along with two lowland districts) have been scheduled for bifurcation, likely creating new political units where other groups will exercise patronage and control access to government resources. The new dispensation threatens the existing power balance in Manipur, where, as one Naga leader put it to a journalist, “Nagas have the hills and the Meiteis [another ethnic group] have the valley.”

For a brief period, the breakdown of law and order in Manipur was echoed by a crisis in Kohima, the capital of neighboring Nagaland, where protestors set fire to government offices to protest the application to Nagaland of a seven-year-old constitutional provision reserving 33 percent of seats in local government bodies for women. Despite the crucial involvement of local women’s groups like the Naga Mothers’ Association in pushing for the reservation, the protestors claimed that having women in political office was a violation of traditional Naga practices and an unacceptable imposition by the central government.

It would be tempting to describe these disturbances as simply an outgrowth of the decades old Naga separatist insurgency. Violent conflict largely ended in a ceasefire in 1997, but the main insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) – known as the NSCN (IM) – has retained its armed cadres. Another faction, the NSCN(K), was the subject of an Indian Army “hot pursuit” raid in Myanmar in June 2015 after it ambushed a military unit and left 20 dead. The NSCN (IM) is, in fact, more closely connected to northern Manipur, where most of its leadership is from, than to Nagaland itself.

But the current troubles have very modern political overtones. Chief Minister Ibobi Singh is widely believed to have acceded to Meitei and minority groups’ demands for new districts because he faces the fight of his political life in the upcoming state elections, scheduled for March 4 and March 11. Since 2015, at least five members of the legislative assembly from Ibobi’s Indian National Congress have defected to join the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been making steady inroads into the northeast. Recent polls – although highly unreliable – suggest that the BJP is poised for a victory in Manipur as well. The districts are thus an attempt by the Congress government to win the support of the Meiteis and to sideline the Nagas, seen as unfriendly to Congress.

A BJP win in Manipur would certainly mark a shift in domestic politics. But the ongoing crisis of Naga discontent has implications for more than the immediate region or the balance of power in Delhi. Manipur state is the center of India’s northeast regional connectivity strategy. Imphal and the Manipur valley are on the route of two important planned transport corridors: the Trans-Asian Railway, set to run from Mahisasan on the Indo-Bangladesh border, across Manipur, to the Indo-Myanmar border; and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which is envisioned to run from Kolkata to Kunming in China via Dhaka, Imphal, and Mandalay.

The planned course of the Trans-Asian railway from Kolkata to Kalay in Myanmar. The brown dotted line shows the segment under construction, which crosses the Manipur valley. Source: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for the Asia Pacific

Both of these projects will require major infrastructure investment in Manipur. Two main highway segments of the BCIM remain to be built or upgraded: one is in central Myanmar, but the other is the stretch of highway from Silchar, in Assam, to Imphal. The road is so bad that it currently takes at least 8 hours to make the 160-mile journey. A Youtube video chronicling the trip describes it as one of the “worst highways in the northeast.” In January, a supply convoy traveling the same route was attacked outside Imphal by insurgents, most likely the NSCN (IM) enforcing the blockade. The National Highways Authority of India does not appear to have issued a tender for any work on this stretch in the last five years. The Jiribam-Tamu link of the Trans-Asian railway, which crosses through the Imphal valley, is still under construction; the ongoing blockade includes a specific stoppage of work on the railroad.

Satellite imagery depicting the stalled construction on the Jiribam-Tamu rail link following the November 2016 blockade.

Both development projects would bring much-needed jobs and increased economic activity to Manipur, whose poor connectivity to the surrounding region makes it an economic dead end. But the ongoing unrest distracts state government attention from long-term plans, makes investors wary of entering the state, and may cause the central government to abandon connectivity plans as too politically sensitive—at least until the BJP controls the entire northeast. This would mean putting the brakes on regional connectivity work, possibly for years—a pause that India, and the northeast in particular, can’t afford.

Sarah Watson is an associate fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS