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Manipur: Terror Fuels Ethnic Tensions

POSTED ON MARCH 2, 2009

WASBIR HUSSAIN
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES

An act of cold-blooded terror by the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) has triggered off fresh ethnic tensions in Manipur, with the majority Meiteis, and all right thinking people, rising in revolt. The abduction and killing of sub-divisional magistrate Dr Thingnam Kishan and two of his staff members by cadres of the NSCN-IM while on duty in the hill district of Senapati on February 18, 2009 has once again led to widening of the already existing divide between the majority Meiteis (all three killed were Meiteis) and the Nagas in the conflict-ridden state.

The scale of anger and protest over the incident is reminiscent of the 2001 uprising by Meiteis in Manipur over the extension of the ceasefire between the Government and the NSCN-IM to areas outside the state of Nagaland. The Meiteis feared that the extension of the Naga truce to Manipur could be the first step before parts of the state were sliced off and merged with Nagaland as part of a possible deal between the Centre and the NSCN-IM. New Delhi eventually modified its plan and restricted the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM only to Nagaland state, but not before mass protests led to massive violence in capital Imphal, forcing police to open fire, killing as many as 18 protestors on June 18, 2001.

The killing of the magistrate and his two junior colleagues is again linked to the same issue—the free run of the NSCN-IM in a state like Manipur although the truce with the rebel group does not apply anywhere outside Nagaland. It is not surprising, therefore, to find organizations like the United Committee Manipur (UCM), a conglomeration of civil society groups in the state, demanding the snapping of the ceasefire between the Centre and the NSCN-IM.

In the midst of the mass protest in Manipur came the admission by the NSCN-IM that the crime was masterminded by self-styled commanding officer of one of the outfit’s ‘battalions’, H. Ningshen, who the group described as a ‘black sheep.’ The NSCN-IM has also pledged to punish those cadres involved in the crime. Now, there is a chorus in Manipur demanding that the main accused Ningshen be handed over to authorities in Imphal for trial. Taking a leaf out of India’s stand after the 26/11 Mumbai attack, people in Manipur are demanding that the accused NSCN-IM cadre and his associates be handed over to Manipur as the crime was committed in that state. This is the view of the government headed by beleaguered chief minister Ibobi Singh as well as the opposition besides the agitating groups in the Imphal Valley.

Eleven years after New Delhi first signed the truce with the NSCN-IM and started a peace dialogue with the frontline Naga separatist group, a solution is nowhere in sight. Instead of a solution, instances of the NSCN-IM taking the law into its own hands are increasing, a development that is disturbing to say the least. The siege by the paramilitary Assam Rifles of an NSCN-IM base at Siroy in Manipur that ended in the first week of February 2009 after a fortnight is yet another indication of the prevailing situation on the ground. More than a decade after the truce with the NSCN-IM, the government is still bothered about instances of ceasefire ground rules violation by the rebel group. The ceasefire is in force only in Nagaland and the NSCN-IM can have designated camps only within Nagaland. The fact that the group decided to locate its cadres at a camp in Siroy in Manipur only shows that the NSCN-IM has not given up its expansionist designs.

The Army, it seems, is not prepared to take any nonsense anymore. In January 2009, NSCN-IM cadres detained around six Assam Rifles soldiers, including an officer in Nagaland’s Phek district. This prompted the Army to lay siege of all NSCN-IM camps located in the region, eventually forcing the rebels to set the detained soldiers free. The siege by the Assam Rifles of the NSCN-IM camp at Siroy days later is seen as a retaliation of the Phek incident.

Today, hope of a solution to the Naga issue is fast fading away. An independent homeland will remain a dream and an integration of the Naga areas in states like Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh with Nagaland is unfeasible. If the Naga rebels are getting restive, so is the Indian Government. We have now reached a stage when New Delhi is actually keen on tightening its noose on militancy of any form in the Northeast. The message from the new Home Minister P. C. Chidambaram is clear: zero tolerance to militant violence.

Again, when people ask for a quick resolution of the Naga problem, the question arises, solve the problem with whom. The security establishment in India is divided on whether to continue with the Naga peace process in the same fashion as it started in 1997. Interlocutor K. Padmanabhiah has been there far too long. What is his success rate? Has he been able to make the NSCN-IM understand that there are other Naga rebel factions that must be taken into account when looking for a ‘final solution’ to the Naga issue? Well, the commonality between New Delhi and the NSCN-IM is that both are not transparent in so far as the progress or content of the so-called peace negotiations during the past decade and more.

Sections within the Indian security establishment have even gone to the extent of suggesting to the Government of India that the NSCN-IM will fall in line once New Delhi starts a parallel peace dialogue with the Khaplang faction of the NSCN or the NSCN-K. There is no denying the fact that the NSCN-K too is a factor in Naga insurgent politics. The group has been maintaining that it would prefer to enter into a dialogue with New Delhi after it finishes its peace process with the NSCN-IM. That is not happening anytime soon. And, therefore, the Naga areas are going to remain a battleground for an indefinite period of time.

The current situation in Manipur is another complex dimension to an already murky problem. The only silver lining in this otherwise tragic episode is the protests and condemnation to the crime by Nagas in Manipur’s Ukhrul and Senapati districts. A protest rally organised by the Tangkhul Naga Long, the apex body of Tangkhul community in Manipur, demanded that the culprits involved in the murder of the three government officials be punished according to tribal customary laws. It is such open condemnation by right thinking people against the NSCN-IM taking the law in its own hands that can restore a semblance of order in Manipur, which has already become a terror haven.