Notwithstanding the killing of 14 cadres of the rival National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Unification (NSCN-U) at the Seithekima-C village near Dimapur on May 16, the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM) stands today as a beleaguered outfit, a poor replica of the monolithic entity that it was a couple of years back. Protracted and fruitless negotiations with the government, which benefited the outfit in terms of securing an overwhelming legitimacy in Nagaland, is now being constantly challenged by splinter factions. The NSCN-IM’s obdurate legacy of silencing rather than accommodating opposition is clearly emerging as a great setback in its quest to remain the leader of the Nagas’ struggle for a homeland.
Apart from the staggering number of deaths in a single incident, the May 16 incident does not surprise the regular watchers of the Naga conflict and conforms largely to the pattern of militant violence in the state. In a state where the two principal militant factions [NSCN-IM and the Khaplang faction (NSCN-K)] have been under a cease-fire agreement, Nagaland records extremely disturbing level of fatalities, which has consistently grown over the years. Fatalities, mostly among the militant ranks as a result of factional clashes, have claimed 97 lives in 2004, 99 lives in 2005, 147 lives in 2006 and 154 lives in 2007. According to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), 25 fatalities were recorded in 2008 (till March 31).
Interestingly, the NSCN-U has been a product of a move to unify the warring NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K. On November 23, 2007, armed cadres and some senior functionaries of both IM and K converged at Hovishe under the Niuland sub-division in the Dimapur district to sign an inter-factional ‘truce agreement’, declaring the unification of both warring factions a common goal. The Agreement led to the birth of NSCN-U, which remained stationed at Vihokhu near Dimapur. The NSCN-IM leadership made clear that the Agreement is no acceptable to them.
The NSCN-IM’s attitude was mostly rooted in the tribal divide within the outfit. The NSCN-U signified a revolt by the cadres belonging to the Sema tribe within the NSCN-IM against the overbearing presence of the Tangkhul tribe, to which the IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah belongs. The tribe has a marginal presence in Nagaland and is mostly based in the hill district of Ukhrul in neighbouring Manipur. The NSCN-U has subsequently explained few of its attacks on the Tangkhul population in Dimapur as an opposition to NSCN-IM’s move to rehabilitate the Tangkhuls in Nagaland, with a view to undermine the ‘native Nagas’ in Nagaland.
The birth of NSCN-U had added invariably to the instability parameters within the state. Cadres of the new outfit, most of them being former cadres of the IM faction, carry a legacy of violence of the parent outfit. In the company of the NSCN-K, they face no dearth of small arms and ammunition. The NSCN-K, on the other hand, has found a way out of its direct confrontations with the IM faction. Both factions have clashed only five times this year, thrice in the neighbouring state of Manipur and twice in Nagaland, while at least eleven confrontations (prior to the May 16 incident) have been reported between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-U. Both the NSCN-K and NSCN-U cadres have reportedly operated in tandem.
While clashes between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K in the previous years were reported mostly from the districts of Kohima, Mon, Phek, Zunheboto, Mokokchung and Wokha, Dimapur has emerged as the sole location (with the exception of only one incident in Wokha) of the fighting between the IM and U factions. Since its inception, Unification cadres are based primarily in and around Dimapur and have not ventured into the NSCN-IM strongholds in other districts. Dimapur, however, hosts NSCN-IM’s command headquarter at Camp Hebron and hence, accounts for a large concentration of its cadres. Therefore, Dimapur remains a potential ground for conflict between rival outfits.
At least three clashes between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K were averted in the Dimapur district as a result of intervention by civilians. On May 14, irate villagers drove away cadres of both factions from Khehokhu, Hoito and Nihoto areas, where both the outfits had converged to carry out attacks on each other. Previously on May 8, people chased out NSCN-IM and NSCN-U militants engaged in an internecine clash at Diphupar. On April 24, a factional clash between both factions was averted after people forced cadres belonging to both factions to vacate Diphupar ‘B’ and Ikishe villages. While civilian intervention for peace is an indication of the popular disenchantment towards an overwhelming atmosphere of constant hostility and is a welcome scenario in trouble-torn Nagaland, the near absence of state initiative in peace making, is bound to lead to collateral loss of civilian lives, as in the May 16 incident.
According to the cease-fire ground rules, armed cadres are supposed to stay put within the designated camps, with controls on their movement and activities. But these rules have been violated with impunity over the years by militant cadres. The non-enforcement of such ground rules has provided the cadres a licence of sorts to run a regime of extortion and abduction targeting just not the civilian population in the state, but also the vehicles and civilians bound for neighbouring Manipur, on the National Highways passing through Nagaland. A confirmation of the state of affairs, largely a product of a complacent policy of the Union Government, was provided by the MHA’s redefining of the ceasefire ground rules on January 29, 2008. The new directive on cease-fire violations now includes extortion in the garb of collecting “taxes”, abduction for ransom and killings, smuggling of arms and ammunitions, issuing demand letters, issuing warning/threat azhas (orders) to senior politicians and bureaucrats, movements and staying in populated areas with arms and in uniforms, inter-factional clashes and targeted killing of rival cadres, stand off between cadres and security forces (SF) and unauthorised concentration of the armed cadres. The MHA has also formulated a Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) for the Army/Assam Rifles (AR), Central Para-Military Forces (CPMFs) and the Nagaland Police, redefining the parameters of counter-insurgency operations.
For some inexplicable reasons and in spite of the continuing clashes between the militant factions, the SOP had remained unimplemented since January 29. Only after the May 16 incident, the State government asked for the implementation of the SOP, pleaded with the militant factions to vacate populated areas and directed police and CPMFs to enforce cease-fire ground rules to pre-empt armed clashes among rival factions. The state government has also set a deadline of June 10 to clear out public inhabited areas in all the eleven district headquarters of militant presence.
As indicated before, the Nagaland government’s role in the long-standing conflict has remained negligible and limited mostly to issuing of occasional statements pleading for sanity. Chief Minister Nephiu Rio has maintained, on a permanent basis, that such clashes are political in nature and are largely unavoidable as long as the conflict exists. On May 10, Rio expressed his doubts on the “sincerity” of New Delhi in talks with the militant groups, and said that there was no clear direction from the MHA about the fate of talks with the NSCN-IM.
The official complacency notwithstanding, the recent developments signify a moment of truth for the NSCN-IM, not just because its monopoly over violence is being constantly challenged by other armed factions, but also due to a rapidly developing schism between common people and the outfit. For example, at a meeting organised by the local populace in Dimapur after the May 16 violence, speakers repeatedly questioned the rationale behind the continued violence and the direction of the Naga struggle under the leadership of the NSCN-IM. Several rallies of similar nature have also taken place in various other districts. While it might be easy for the outfit to dismiss such demands for peace as made by those belonging to sympathisers of the rival faction, it remains a fact that the outfit is no longer the indisputable leader of the Naga populace, a position it nearly enjoyed in the previous years.
Adding to the existing confusion, on May 19, another splinter group of the NSCN-IM, the United Naga People’s Council (UNPC) announced its launch in the Senapati District of Manipur. UNPC purportedly has an objective of minimising the divide between the hills and the valley areas of Manipur, an objective that runs contrary to the NSCN-IM’s goal of a unified Nagalim. Sooner or later, both factions are bound to cross each other’s path adding to the precarious security situation in Manipur. In addition, such developments would further rob the NSCN-IM of its assumed position as the sole voice of the Nagas, unless the outfit mends its ways and initiates a move to unify the armed factions.