For over a week now, an indefinite bandh, called by a Naga tribal outfit over a boundary dispute along the Manipur-Nagaland border, has frozen vehicular traffic on the National Highway 2, and may potentially disrupt supply routes to Manipur. At the root is an old land ownership dispute between three Naga tribes – the Angamis of Nagaland, and the Maos and Marams of Manipur.
On March 21, the Southern Angami Public Organization (SAPO), an outfit representing the Angami Naga tribe residing in areas bordering Manipur, had called for a 72-hour-bandh in connection with “developmental activities” and “deployment of armed personnel” at what it referred to as the “disputed” Kezoltsa area by the Manipur government.
On March 23, the SAPO said the 72-hour bandh would become an indefinite bandh, after “getting no response” from the Manipur government on the issue.
Kezoltsa falls on NH-2 (earlier called NH-39), which connects Nagaland to Manipur, and is often called the “lifeline of Manipur.”
The entry and exit of all Manipur-bound private or public passenger and goods vehicles has been restricted since.
In response to SAPO’s call, the All Assam Manipuri Youths ’Association announced an indefinite counter blockade along the Assam part of the same highway from Sunday midnight.
The dispute: history
Kezoltsa is a thickly forested area on the periphery of the picturesque Dzukou Valley, bordering Nagaland and Manipur. The Valley, spread over the two states, has traditionally been a bone of contention between the Mao Nagas of Senapati (Manipur) and the southern Angami Nagas of Kohima (Nagaland).
While Maos claim that portions of Dzukou Valley falling in Nagaland belong to them, the Angamis say they are the traditional owners of the portions of the Valley that extend into Manipur.
The fist flashpoint was reported in the mid-1980s, when some Manipur government officials, along with Mao representatives, visited a part of the Valley, leading the Angami groups to object to it. More recently in 2015, the Mao Council (apex body of the Mao) claimed that Angamis were making fresh “encroachments” 10 km into their traditional territory inside Manipur, leading them to announce an economic blockade. The SAPO, in response, announced a counter-blockade.
The Tenyimi Peoples’ Organization (TPO), the apex body of 10 Naga tribes, including Maos and Angamis, had then intervened, taking the issue into their traditional court.
“The British divided the Naga tribal lands arbitrarily into various states and administrative units – bifurcating many villages, and even clans and tribes. When these states were formed, these political boundaries were maintained and this is the root of all the current tensions… there are tribes of Manipur whose lands have been put under Naga state jurisdiction, and vice versa, ”said TPO secretary Vipopal Kintso, adding that the current dispute was “not between the two states, but between the tribes.”
The dispute: current context
Kezoltsa (also called Kozuru / Kazing) is not a part of Dzukou Valley, but has become a flashpoint in recent times with both the Marams and Maos claiming it belongs to Manipur’s Senapati district. The Angamis say it is part of the Angami tribal ancestral land, and was “unfairly” made a part of Manipur by the British in the colonial era.
“As Nagas, we adhere to our traditional boundaries – these political boundaries do not supersede our traditional ones. We are only claiming what belongs to us, ”said SAPO president Kevipodi Sophie.
On the other hand, a Mao community leader from Senapati, who did not wish to be named, termed the demand made by the SAPO as “ridiculous”, reasoning that Kezoltsa was “inside Manipur”. “Traditionally Kezoltsa is known as Koziirii amongst the Mao community… The security outpost (made by the Manipur government) is situated just at the foothill of Mount Iso, the highest peak in Manipur,” he said. The leader claimed that the Mao community had documentary records and oral accounts when it came to the boundary of Dzukou Valley.
According to the TPO, the issue was in its traditional court and was being resolved within the Tenyimi tribes. In 2017, the TPO had made the three contending parties – SAPO, Mao Council and Maram Khullen of Manipur – sign an “Arbitration Undertaking” to resolve the issue through the “Naga customary way”, and maintain a peaceful atmosphere till it is resolved.
“We have written to the Manipur Government three times since, asking them not to interfere and withhold any development activities but this has been disregarded by the government – that is why SAPO was compelled to call the bandh,” said TPO’s Kintso, adding that the action of the government violated the rights of the tribal people over the land. “Since this is tribal land, and not cadastral land, the state government cannot take up any activities here, without prior approval from original land owners,” he said.
Although the frequency has reduced in recent times, the NH-2 has been the site of several blockades over the years – the current one comes barely weeks after the BJP has come to power in the state for a second time with a large mandate.
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Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh, who was last week sworn into office for a second term, on Saturday told the Assembly that the matter would be resolved at the state level, and that the state government has sent an official letter to the Chief Secretary of Nagaland.
In the letter, H Gyan Prakash, Special Secretary (Home), Manipur government, said that the “permanent structure” and “armed personnel” were “within the territorial jurisdiction of Manipur State”. It added that the dispute should be resolved “amicably” through negotiations between the state governments concerned.
“The claim that the entire Dzukou Valley belongs to Nagaland is made by Southern Angami Public Organization, not by the Nagaland state,” Biren said, adding that if the need arose, the Center would be urged to play the part of mediator in resolving the issue.
With inputs from Jimmy Leivon in Imphal