Botching up the Naga ceasefire

Published : Jul 07, 2001 00:00 IST

Deplorable doublespeak on the ceasefire extension has precipitated a crisis of confidence in Manipur, raising troubling issues of identity.

VIOLENT protests against the extension of the ceasefire between the Central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) have claimed several lives in Manipur. Even after the violence abates, the bitterness caused by the heavy-handed police firing, unbearably long curfews and other draconian measures is likely to persist. Some of these measures - such as a ban on cable television networks, and cutting off of Internet links on June 18 - are even tougher than the restrictions imposed ever in Kashmir.

The sentiment behind the Manipur protests must not be underestimated. It would not do, as Atal Behari Vajpayee tried to suggest, to regard it as a mere "misunderstanding". Nor will anything be gained by declaring that Manipuris were exercised over "trivial" issues, that the ceasefire extension has no implications for the borders of the northeastern States, or that "frustrated politicians" were largely responsible for the trouble.

Politicians have doubtless fished in Manipur's troubled waters. The Samata Party in particular has been trying to settle scores with the Bharatiya Janata Party for sabotaging and toppling its State government. However, it would be disastrously wrong to believe that crafty politicians, many of them linked to the underground, are the principal agents behind the present turmoil. Rather, they have themselves become its targets. Mobs of angry students set fire simultaneously to 18 "political targets", including the State Assembly and another 38 structures in the vicinity. Some students just stopped short of hoisting the flag of old Manipur (prior to its merger with India) on State buildings on June 18.

It would be equally mistaken to imagine that the turmoil will end as soon as President's Rule is lifted and a "popular" government is installed - assuming that Manipur's MLAs will dare to form one. The present crisis in Manipur is a crisis of popular confidence in the government of India. It is a protest against what large numbers of Manipuris perceive as a threat to the identity of their State, symbolised in part by the Centre's devious dealings - reaching an agreement with the Nagas at the expense of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Conversations (over the phone) with political analysts, human rights activists, journalists and other citizens in Imphal suggest that the crisis is far from a superficial one. It is rooted in the growing fear that Manipur's integrity is in danger of being compromised.

The ceasefire agreement, as Manipuris see it, can only be a prelude to a larger settlement of the Naga question through the creation of an extended "homeland", occupying seven times the area of today's Nagaland, which would inevitably appropriate the territory of other States. Underlying this fear is a long history of alienation from the "Indian mainstream" and disaffection from the Centre for its policy of benign neglect, and worse. The Manipur crisis is likely to be with us for some time even if the State administration restores order by using overwhelming force. Already, there are distressing reports of a rise in ethnic tension and of Nagas fleeing Imphal.

THE Central government could not have handled the Manipur crisis - or the ceasefire extension - in a more inept manner. It should have anticipated trouble. The terms of its accord with the NSCN (I-M), negotiated in a tortuous manner for many months, have remained under wraps and raised many misgivings. It had enough warnings - right since the truce first came into effect on August 1, 1997. The disclosure that it would be effective beyond the boundaries of Nagaland had created serious tensions between the Meiteis - the majority ethnic group in Manipur, who dominate the Imphal Valley - and the Nagas - who live mainly in Ukhrul, Senapati, Chandel and Tamenglong districts in Manipur's hills. But the Home Ministry chose to ignore the signs of trouble and signed the extension agreement on June 14 without adequate consultation with regional leaders and opinion-makers. Even Manipur Governor Ved Marwah says he was left out of the loop.

Earlier, the government had dispensed with the services of Swaraj Kaushal, its principal mediator/negotiator in the NSCN talks, and replaced him with K. Padmanabhaiah, former Home Secretary, scarcely known for a political background or approach, leave alone acumen. Padmanabhaiah probably could neither instill much trust in the I-M group nor take the other northeastern regional politicians into confidence. The Centre's image got repeatedly sullied in the eyes of the Naga underground because of its two-track approach in making overtures towards the I-M group's rival, the Khaplang faction. Indecisiveness, lack of transparency and the repeated postponement of talks, compounded by Muivah's own arrest in Bangkok on charges of using a false passport, only added to growing distrust - not just in Bangkok, Kohima and rarefied North Block, but northeastern India as a whole.

The distrust stems from the Centre's duplicity. On the one hand, it signed the 1997 ceasefire with the NSCN (I-M) with the explicit understanding that its scope would extend to all Naga-inhabited areas. In 1998, Kaushal clarified that the ceasefire agreement would cover Manipur, Assam, even New Delhi. This was never contradicted. The statement was independently confirmed by NSCN leaders. It caused a furore in Manipur. Its Assembly passed four resolutions defending the integrity and immutability of Manipur's borders. An all-party meeting endorsed this.

On the other hand, however, the Centre, when confronted by northeastern leaders, flatly denied the existence of the agreement. Not just Advani, but even Vajpayee during his 1999 election campaign in Manipur and his subsequent meetings with all-party delegations, assured Manipuris that the scope of the accord was confined to Nagaland. Their territory would not be affected.

In September last year, and again this past January, the Prime Minister convened meetings of Chief Ministers of the northeastern States - precisely because they were not convinced by the assurances. After the January meeting, Manipur Chief Minister Radhabinod Koijam publicly stated that he opposed any extension of the ceasefire. However, he also announced a unilateral ceasefire from March 1 to 31 with all Naga groups active in Manipur. Strangely, Advani admonished him for doing this - apparently out of petty factional-political pique. (Koijam had successfully outmanoeuvred the BJP in forming a coalition government in Manipur.) By April, the "unilateral ceasefire" collapsed. Soon, the BJP pulled down the Samata-led government.

On June 14, Padmanabhaiah and Muivah signed the ceasefire extension "without territorial limits". The Manipur public saw this as a total betrayal of repeated promises. But the government did not appreciate the extent of its anger. Even more unforgivably, the Centre ignored two ground-level factors: the steadily growing public debate over the nature of Manipur's identity and its relationship with India; and advanced administrative decay and the hollowing out of the State. "The past four or five years have witnessed a vigorous debate," says Aramban Loken, writer and dramatist, and one of Manipur's best-regarded intellectuals. "Identity formation and the issue of ethno-politics have dominated the debate," he says. Among the questions Manipuris are asking is: What are the implications of the Naga accord for Manipur's integrity? They fear that the ceasefire will allow the NSCN to establish armed camps in Manipur and engage in guerilla activity at will (as against the Kukis in the early 1990s). In the long run, a Naga settlement encompassing a much larger area than today's Nagaland is bound to alter the borders of the States of northeastern India.

Many Manipuris, especially Meiteis, hold that Manipur has a 2,000 year-long history as an independent geographical and cultural entity. It was the last "Indian" territory to be annexed by the British - as late as 1891. It was left under-administered and in relative isolation. Manipur did not accede to India in August 1947 - not even in October, as Jammu and Kashmir did -, but only in 1949. "This was done formally by mutual agreement, in reality under coercion," says Babloo Loitongbaon of Human Rights Alert, based in Imphal. "At any rate, the accession involved defining and respecting Manipur's boundaries. Yet, these were altered in 1952 through the Nehru-U Nu accord, which conceded a lot of territory to Burma. And now, there is a danger that Article 3 of the Constitution of India will be used to take more chunks of territory away from Manipur."

Article 3 requires only a simple majority in Parliament to change State boundaries. This threat has especially agitated the Meiteis, who link Manipur's identity and integrity to its territory. It is no surprise that one of the main slogans in the last elections was "Save the Integrity of Manipur". Meitei fears of a loss of identity have been seized upon by separatist groups like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the People's Liberation Army, and PREPAK (People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak), which have experienced revival and growth in recent years. A section of the All-Manipur Students' Union too has, according to the findings of a judicial inquiry, close links with the UNLF.

THE questioning of Manipur's merger by Meiti secessionists finds an echo among the broader public, members of which accuse the Centre of having scant regard for legality or political propriety. Many people argue thus: if the government of India does not respect even an "international" agreement (for Manipur's accession), how can we expect it to behave decently towards us? Why should Manipuris accept a Constitution under which the State's borders can be redrawn even without a statutory amendment?

This sentiment can be criticised, but it cannot be denied that it has grown on top of widespread alienation and disaffection from the "hegemonistic" aspects of Indian rule. In this, Manipur is no different from the rest of northeastern India, which too suffers from lack of development, coupled with parsimonious, venal or positively mean Central policies. As this column has argued in the past ("Northeastern turmoil", Frontline, October 3, 1997), ruling class India's attitude to northeastern India is no different from that of the global North towards the South, which becomes worthy of note only when large-scale bloodshed takes place.

Compounding this situation in northeastern India is monumental corruption, degradation of politics, and administrative collapse. In Manipur, says a November 2000 report by a Home Ministry Joint Secretary (G.K. Pillai): "The writ of the underground seems to be more effective than that of the administration. Deterioration... has taken place with the active connivance of the political leadership." Only 18 out of the State's 57 police stations are functional. "There appears to be a deliberate attempt to make [the] police force ineffective." Of Manipur's 368 personnel in the special (intelligence) branch, only 11 gather intelligence. The rest are on bodyguard or "security" duty. Recently, the State's Director-General of Police - related to a Union Minister - functioned in his official capacity while on anticipatory bail!

THE Manipur cauldron could be stirred by any number of chauvinistic forces: there are 30 different ethnic groups in this incredibly diverse and culturally rich State. Manipur could as easily descend into ethnic strife and political turmoil as it has ascended to spectacular achievements in the fields of theatre, music, dance and Thangtha martial arts.

The National Democratic Alliance government can only aggravate the Manipur crisis by playing ducks and drakes with ethnic sentiments, promoting this or that faction of defectors, privileging one kind of ethno-politics, that of Naga nationalism. It apparently takes the over-simplistic view that the Naga insurgency, India's oldest and most powerful, is the mother of all separatism in northeastern India; it has aided, armed and ideologically trained other groups; the Naga question must be settled even if that claims a high cost in terms of the alienation of other ethnic groups. (There are 220 distinct communities in the States that constitute the Seven Sisters of northeastern India.)

This cost is proving to be unaffordable. It need not be, just as a rapprochement with different groups need not be a zero-sum game. But dealing with this complex issue needs a serious perspective, a sense of purpose, wisdom, and above all, honesty. The present government lacks all these. The more it resorts to dishonest manipulation based on ethno-politics, the more it plays with fire - at public cost.

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