Short on sensitivity

Print edition : July 07, 2001

IN the aftermath of the orgy of violence that greeted the extension of the Central government's ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah), perhaps what struck observers most is the lack of sensitivity of the Centre, especially the Home Ministry, in handling the issue. Considering that it was the fourth time the ceasefire has been extended since 1997, one would have expected the Ministry to exercise caution while announcing the extension. While extending the ceasefire last year, the government was diplomatic enough to be vague about its territorial limits. It tried to convey the impression that the agreement was confined to Nagaland, even though the NSCN(I-M) publicly disagreed with this view. Despite the apparent differences between the two sides, the extended ceasefire lasted its full term.

The Centre's approach was different this time. While announcing the signing of the agreement on June 14, Home Secretary Kamal Pande described the absence of "territorial limits" as its "salient feature". So his promise in the same statement that the agreement would not affect the territorial integrity of any of the northeastern States in any way did not sound convincing. It looked like an afterthought. If the government believed that there was no link between the extension of ceasefire and the territorial integrity of any State, then there was no need for any further clarification. At the root of the trouble in Manipur is the perception that the government has succumbed to the NSCN (I-M)'s demand to extend the territorial limits of the ceasefire and the fear that it might also accept the militant outfit's demand for a 'greater Nagalim' too.

The text of the ceasefire agreement reveals it all. While the agreement makes it clear that the ceasefire has no territorial limits, it does not refer to the territorial integrity of the other northeastern States. The government might have agreed not to set any territorial limits for the ceasefire in the hope of making progress on substantive issues in its talks with the NSCN(I-M), but the lack of clarity about territorial limits and the lack of transparency about the talks that preceded the agreement caused genuine fears among the non-Naga population in Manipur about the government's intentions.

Pande said that the two sides would abide by the ground rules as revised on January 13, 2001 in letter and spirit. Experts have said that the ceasefire will operate only in areas where the NSCN(I-M) has a presence. As the militant group has not yet given to the government details of its camps outside Nagaland in accordance with the ground rules, the question of extending the ceasefire beyond Nagaland does not arise at this stage. Even if it is to be extended to other States, the Ceasefire Monitoring Group, which is entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the ceasefire, would have to recognise the NSCN(I-M)'s camps in other States. Insurgents in these camps would, in turn, have to observe the ground rules which lay down that they should not assist other militant groups, indulge in highway hold-ups and extortion and move around with arms, and so on. It, therefore, appears, that the Home Ministry failed to present the full details of the ceasefire - details that would have allayed Manipur's fears.

The Home Ministry denied the allegation that the decision to extend the ceasefire without territorial limits was thrust on the people, claiming that it had held talks with the Chief Ministers of the States concerned before signing the agreement. However, dissenting voices from Assam and Manipur raise doubts about the Centre's claim. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has denied that he was consulted; he said that his predecessor in office, Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, might have been consulted. Radhabinod Koijam, former Chief Minister of Manipur, and Chaoba Singh, Union Minister of State for Food Processing, and all MLAs from the State have urged the Centre to withdraw the extension of the ceasefire before July 31.

In response to the growing pressure from within the NDA and the northeastern States, the government has agreed to a "review of various issues arising out of the ceasefire". It is also contemplating the passing of a resolution in Parliament expressing its commitment to protect the territorial integrity of all northeastern States.

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