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Yambem Laba (Courtesy: The Statesman)
Around 1947 when the British were leaving India and Angami Zapu Phizo was contemplating on questioning the concept of Indian nationhood and raise the banner of an independent Naga nation, he approached Major R Khathing, popularly known as Major Bob Khathing, and broached the subject. Khathing asked Phizo if he was contemplating a concept encompassing the entire Northeastern region. Phizo replied “No” and added that the primary concern was for the Nagas only. Khathing then told him that he was sorry that he could not go along with him on the Nagas-only policy.
Khathing, like the NSCN chief Th Muivah, was born in Ukhrul, Manipur and belonged to the Tangkhul tribe. While Phizo went into the bush later on, Khathing went on to become a minister in the interim government that ruled Manipur between 1947 and 1949 when it was made to merge with India. Khathing then went on to liberate Tawang for India from the Tibetan authorities in 1952, ultimately retiring as India’s ambassador to Burma. The Khathing cue for a unified Northeastern region struggle was later picked up by SS Khaplang, the man who now heads the NSCN(K). RK Sanayaima of the United National Liberation Front and Ulfa’s Paresh Barua came some 50 years down the line.
Chronologically speaking, the Nagas have missed two important historical buses. The first was in 1953 when Prime Minister Nehru, accompanied by then Burmese Premier U Nu, visited Kohima. That was the time the Nagas ought to have impressed upon Nehru to have the Hukong Valley in Burma and what is termed as eastern Nagaland, merge with the Naga Hills district of Assam. There was a strong possibility that U Nu could have agreed, for Nehru had just given up all Indian claims on the Kabaw Valley in Burma, that earlier belonged to Manipur. The then Assamese deputy commissioner of the Naga Hills, did not allow a Naga delegation to meet Nehru to submit a memorandum. In protest, the spectators started leaving the meeting Nehru was addressing. After that incident Nehru never visited the Naga Hills, even after it attained statehood in 1963. They missed the second bus in 1963. That was when Nagaland became the 16th state. That was the time when they should have bargained with Delhi to also include Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur for, after all, the Tuensang area of then North East Frontier Agency (now Arunachal Pradesh) was being amalgamated with the Naga Hills district of Assam. Nothing much would have happened in Manipur save for a satyagraha led by the late Moirang Koireng and perhaps a lathi charge or there would have been some casualties. The matter would have rested there.
But the next year, in 1964, the United National Liberation Front was formed. It had a Kuki as its chairman, a Naga as vice-chairman and a Meitei as its general secretary. And the UNLF took up arms to liberate Manipur from the “Indian occupational forces” and this included areas which, Muivah and company are today claiming to be part of greater Nagalim. Therein lies the problem and it has been further compounded by the fact that the Imphal valley saw the emergence of groups like the PLA, Prepak, KCP by the late 1970s. Later, all of them, fought for the liberation of Manipur, including the Naga-inhabited areas. Although these groups entered into urban guerrilla warfare, they were equally apt at making the hills their hunting ground, once the preserve of the Naga insurgents.
It is said that when Muivah was studying in Gauhati University he once befriended a Meitei Brahmin academic who would not permit him to step inside his house. I believe that was the moment when he started hating the Meitei commnity. Little does Muivah realise that all the Meitei Hindus are still subjected to the same “sacred and profane” of the Meitei/Manipuri Brahmins stance, where social relations with the non-Brahmin Meiteis are concerned. I recollect that my father, who by virtue of being the first engineering graduate of Manipur, had held a very high position in society, but when he hosted a community feast at home, his driver would sit ahead of him because he happened to be a Brahmin by birth.
Last year I met two important Nagas of Manipur. One hailed from Ukhrul and was an academic before becoming a minister and the other was a cabinet minister in numerous ministries in Manipur. To the second one, who hailed from Senapati district, I asked “Tell me what wrong have the Meiteis done to the Nagas so as to blame them for all the ills of the community. And as a former PWD minister you know that there exists a Tribal Sub-Plan in the planning documents of the state and also that all contract works in the Naga areas were only given to the Nagas.” He laughed and said, “If we don’t blame the Meiteis for our plight what else can we tell them while asking for votes.”
To the academic-turned-politician, I recollected how during my tenure as a member of the State Human Rights Commission, I had toured Ukhrul and registered over 20 cases in two days all relating to cases of non-completion of school buildings, road constructions abandoned half-way and, dispensary buildings left incomplete. And while issuing notices to the state authorities over these issues relating to Right to Education, Healthcare, good communication, sanitation and safe drinking water, we had specifically asked them to include the names of the contractors concerned to whom these tasks were initially handed over to. Then, I told him that all the contractors turned out to be local Tangkhuls who had made their fast bucks and left the area to settle down in Imphal.
When I asked how could the Tangkhuls blame the Meiteis for not doing development work in their areas, he parried the question and gave an almost academic answer stating that “Yes it is true that of late some middle-class Naga tribals have been exploiting the ordinary tribals of the area”. He remained silent on the need to blame the Meiteis for it.
I also recollect what the maverick W Nipamacha Singh, who as chief minister of the state, had once told a delegation of the United Naga Council in his office chamber, “You know that our Maharajah Gambheer Singh had conquered Thibomei (Manipuri for Kohima) but Manipur is now not claiming Kohima, then why should you want parts of Manipur to be included in Nagaland?” And he walked out of the meeting.
Now coming to the present crisis caused by the more than two month-old economic blockade imposed by the UNC. It is a group about whom Chief Minister Ibobi Singh had written to the Union Home Minister stating that they are a “frontal organisation” of the NSCN(I-M) and that he should rein them in via Camp Hebron in Dimapur where NSCN(I-M) leaders stay. North Block has not done anything to that effect, hoping the people of the state turn their angst against Ibobi and his Congress government, or in case the matter goes out of hand, use it as a proxy to impose President’s Rule. All with the objective of installing a BJP-led government after the assembly elections on 4 and 8 March.
But all the calculations at Delhi seem to be going haywire. A journalist colleague from Kohima told me that he thought Ibobi was in the ICU but the physicians at Camp Hebron have managed to revive him and is now back on his feet. The UNC, or for that matter the NSCN(I-M), should have realised that Ibobi was scheduled to announce the creation of a Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills District on 1 November — the day on which the blockade began — but he did not. It was only in mid-November when Ibobi’s helicopter came under fire at Ukhrul and prevented him from inaugurating a hospital there, that he made up his mind to create a Sadar Hills District, now named Kangpokpi, and Jiribam. The UNC had initially opposed its creation and that is the raison d’être for the economic blockade but he also added five other new districts, obviously keeping in mind the forthcoming polls.
What the Centre failed to gauge was the fact that it was Ibobi’s act of blocking Muivah from entering Manipur in 2010 that had returned him to power in the 2012 assembly polls. And ever since 2001 when the NDA government extended the Nagaland ceasefire to Manipur’s four hill districts — after the “Bangkok Agreement” with the NSCN(I-M) following which the assembly and several other buildings were torched and in which 18 protesters were killed — Muivah has been a persona non grata in Manipur — at least to the Meiteis. And, the moment Ibobi appears to be opposing Muivah, his popularity takes an upward swing.
And the Centre seems to have overlooked the presence of the Kukis, the other major tribe of Manipur, whom Muivah had attempted to wipe off the face of the state through his ethnic cleansing pogrom, killing over 1,000, injuring many and uprooting hundreds of villages between 1992 an 1994. And the Nagas in the three new districts of Kamjong, Tengnoupal and Noney are definitely going to vote for the Congress and so are the other new districts. Ibobi seems poised for a historic comeback for the fourth term. And with the UNC refusing to lift the ongoing blockade until their leaders Gaidon Kamei and information secretary SK Stephen, are released from custody, Ibobi Singh’s dream of the blockade continuing till the elections may come true. For if he now signs for their unconditional release, he will be committing political hara-kiri.
(The writer is the Imphal-based special representative of The Statesman)
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