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Dithering in Delhi

Print edition : Sep 10, 2004 T+T-

The UPA government's inability to come to grips with the Manipur situation is rooted in the way its predecessor handled the Naga insurgency.

in New Delhi

MORE than a month after Manipur exploded in anger, India's political establishment still appears crippled by a crisis that none expected, and one that has blown apart several received wisdom assumptions on the northeastern region. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who some thought would visit the State to quiet tempers, has remained firmly put in the capital. So, too, has Chief of the Army Staff General N.C. Vij, after advisers warned that his presence in Manipur could provoke large-scale protests. Some within the bureaucracy, notably Manipur's new Governor S.S. Sidhu and Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) Director Ajit Doval, believe that New Delhi needs to push the Congress-led State government harder to contain the state of near-anarchy in Manipur.

The United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre has made it clear that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), the controversial piece of legislation that has become a focus of protests in Imphal, will remain in force. However, it seems wary of a confrontation with Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, who has withdrawn the AFSPA from parts of Imphal.

At least some of the desperation is starting to show. Speaking in the Rajya Sabha on August 17, Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil extended an "invitation to those who want to talk to us". "If we can agree to hold talks in Jammu and Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland", Patil said, "we can certainly talk to the people of Manipur." "The Chief Minister is trying his best to defuse the situation. If we find that he is not acting in the interests of the country, we will not fail to act. We are giving a chance to the elected representatives of the people. The State government may belong to this party or that, [but] we are not going to excuse our own government," he added.

Patil was, however, conspicuously vague on specifics, including just who he wanted to talk to and what he wanted to talk about. His remarks seemed to be addressed more to the Bharatiya Janata Party - which had accused Ibobi Singh of "layered blackmail" and called for a dialogue on the AFSPA - than to anyone in Manipur.

No investigation is needed to realise just how off-balance the Union Ministry of Home Affairs was when the crisis struck. It first despatched the relatively junior and inexperienced Union Minister of State for Home, Sri Prakash Jaiswal, to deal with the problem. Jaiswal promised to discuss the lifting of the AFSPA, an offer for which he had not sought authorisation in advance from New Delhi. On his return to New Delhi, faced with an irate security establishment, the Minister executed a neat volte-face, and claimed that he had been misquoted by journalists. Patil went in to bat next, with no greater success. In an interview to New Delhi Television, the Home Minister said the Union government was in principle willing to consider the removal of Assam Rifles from Manipur. This idea, like the one floated by Jaiswal, had not been discussed within the Cabinet.

General Vij pointed out that there were simply no troops to replace the Assam Rifles and that an entire force could not be held accountable for the actions of some within its ranks.

Army authorities, however, must carry the blame. It was not until five full days after the killing of Manorama Devi that Lieutenant-General Daljeet Singh, General Officer Commanding, 3 Corps, along with Major-General R. Singh, General Officer Commanding, 57 Mountain Division, met the Chief Minister and top bureaucrats of the State. General Daljeet Singh did promise action against the individuals involved, but most observers agree that an unequivocal and public admission of responsibility earlier would have done not a little to assuage public sentiments. Sources in New Delhi told Frontline that formation-level Army authorities were fearful of the implications that an admission of culpability would have on troop morale.

Many senior officials, however, believe that rapid action on the rape and murder charges would have served the Army itself well, since the crime marked a breakdown of discipline within the Assam Rifles unit.

For New Delhi's internal security establishment, the crisis has arrived with all the intensity of a slap in the face. Until earlier this year, bureaucrats pointed to the fact that the law and order situation in Manipur - as in much of the northeastern region - had been declining steadily. Fatalities in insurgent violence had shown a steady decline since 1997-1998, data, which was interpreted to mean that most people in the State had tired of secessionist violence (see chart). Perhaps as a consequence of this complacency, little effort was made to engage with fundamental problems. Most notable of these was the near-total breakdown of administration in Manipur. This was the direct consequence of the withdrawal of the 57 Mountain Division during the Kargil war, a move that left insurgents and their overground political front organisations free to mobilise. In essence, violence declined not because the law and order situation had improved, but because the State's highly criminalised insurgents held de facto power. In several districts, even police officials had ceased to venture out into the countryside. Entire towns had no administrative presence at all, and most government employees openly paid taxes to insurgent groups - and not to the Indian state.

ONE layer deeper, though, it becomes clear that the problem is not just one of incompetent leadership. The problems in New Delhi's handling of the crisis in Manipur lie, paradoxically enough, in its efforts to bring an end to another crisis - more specifically, in former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's well-intentioned but ill-planned efforts to close the curtain on the decades-old insurgency in Nagaland. In January 1997, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim's Isaac-Muivah (NSCN-IM) faction and the Union government began a dialogue that seemed to hold out great hope. By that July, a ceasefire was in place. Naga insurgents seemed to have understood that they would have to accept a solution short of secession, while New Delhi realised that it needed to find a workable non-military solution to the violence there. Yet, for the next several years, neither the NSCN-IM nor New Delhi's interlocutors could make real progress, and talks soon bogged down over whether the ceasefire ought to be restricted to Nagaland alone, or include districts of adjoining States where Naga tribes lived.

In June 2001, New Delhi had a solution - if something that sparked off another round of war can be described as one. After over a dozen quasi-covert trips to Bangkok to meet with the NSCN-IM leadership, K. Padmanabhaiah, the Union government's interlocutor, announced the ceasefire would now have no "territorial limits". But among the Meitei tribe in Manipur, this was read as a sign that New Delhi was on the verge of handing over the bulk of the State's geographical space - the hills districts in which Naga tribes have a demographic majority - to the NSCN-IM. Imphal promptly went up in flames. Over 50,000 people gathered in Imphal to protest the Bangkok declaration on June 18, 2001, and the Manipur Assembly building was set on fire along with 15 houses of State legislators. The State government stood by for several days, hoping the problem would disappear. When it did not, brute force was finally used. Eighteen protestors were shot dead, and curfew had to be imposed on the city for over a month. Finally, in late July, after meeting with Chief Ministers from the northeastern States, Vajpayee reneged on the Bangkok declaration, and announced that the ceasefire would be in place only in Nagaland.

Vajpayee's decision to back down helped defuse the violence. Predictably enough, however, it did not make the problem itself go away. Naga groups within Manipur continued to press the issue. In 2001, representatives of the United Naga Council (UNC) of Manipur met Vajpayee in New Delhi and submitted a memorandum demanding the integration of the Naga areas in Manipur with Nagaland.

"Historically, Nagas have been wanting to live as one people, under one political roof," UNC president K.S. Paul Leo later said. The UNC asked that the four hill districts of Manipur - Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul - be merged with Nagaland, along with 26 villages in the district of Chura Chandpur. UNC leaders also resolved that the Nagas in Manipur would sever ties with the State government after the violence of June, which it said had displaced more than 50,000 members of the tribe from the Imphal Valley. Nagas had thereafter stopped paying the State government a house tax of Rs.10, due from members of the tribe who live in the Manipur hills, in lieu of income tax.

Meitei resentment, for its part, simmered on, finally finding form and focus with Manorama Devi's death. As things stand, New Delhi may not be wholly unhappy with the turn of events. The anger evident in Manipur will allow New Delhi to tell the NSCN-IM that its expansionist plans - the creation of a single State that spans all areas where Nagas are in a majority - are impracticable.

Indian officials, however, also have lessons to learn. One key lesson may be that the experience of Mizoram - often held out as a shining example of how peace negotiations can succeed - cannot be easily generalised elsewhere. In that State, six years of negotiations led, in 1987, to insurgents engaging in mainstream politics; today, Mizoram is among the best-governed States in the region. Yet, bureaucrats often forget that that the peace negotiations were preceded by arguably the most brutal internal security campaign in India's history, one that involved the use of air power against its own citizens and the forcible relocation of hundreds of villagers.

Shivraj Patil has two problems to handle. The first is to find some means to drag Manipur back from the edge of the abyss. Secondly, he has to find a way to contain the factionalism within the Congress-led alliance in Manipur. The faction feuds had led some Congress politicians to back the ongoing protests, thus crippling the administration.

More important, though, the crisis has exposed the limits of New Delhi's peace paradigm for the northeastern region. The peace talks with the NSCN-IM were premised on vagueness, leaving open semantic space. Yet, it is starting to become clear, dialogue processes that do not define clear red lines - limits beyond which partners cannot be pushed - may actually create more problems than they solve. Some preconditions may actually be necessary for dialogue to succeed. As important, dialogue processes need to bring all parties to the table to succeed, not just one group or a single set of interests. Recent events have made clear, if further evidence was needed, that engagement with any one ethnic group in the northeastern region has consequences for others. Sadly, no one in New Delhi seems to have any real idea of where to go from here.