Dr Nehginpao Kipgen
Representatives of the Indian government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) held what was considered a crucial meeting in New Delhi on October 24, but reportedly ended inconclusively.
While the rebel leaders are insistent on their demand for a separate Naga national flag and constitution, the government has made it clear that such demand is unacceptable. The government had earlier hinted that a solution to the Naga problem will be made with or without the NSCN-IM by October month-end. But the talk is now likely to go beyond October 31.
The ongoing political dialogue, which is based on the largely secretive framework agreement signed in August 2015, can potentially have serious consequences on other communities of the Northeast region, as well as governments of three different states - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur.
Of the three states, Manipur is likely to see a more serious situation depending on how the final agreement pans out. As long as there is no redrawing of state boundaries, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam are unlikely to react strongly to the agreement.
But the situation is likely to worsen in Manipur for at least three reasons - autonomy, boundary dispute, and ethnic tensions.
R.N. Ravi, who is the government’s interlocutor as well as Nagaland’s state governor, had reportedly said on October 18 in Kohima that a mutually agreed draft comprehensive settlement has already been reached for signature with different Naga groups.
One such anticipated agreement is granting of autonomy to the Naga communities inhabiting different parts of the Northeastern states. If this comes to fruition, it will likely affect Anjaw, Changlang, Lohit, Longding, Namsai and Tirap districts of Arunachal Pradesh; Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong districts and parts of Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar and Tinsukia districts in Assam; and Chandel, Kamjong, Kangpokpi, Senapati, Tamenglong, Tengnoupal and Ukhrul districts of Manipur.
The people of Manipur, particularly the Meiteis in the valley area of the state, believe that such autonomy would ultimately pave the way for the disintegration of Manipur where there is a sizable Naga population.
In light of this, tensions have been brewing in Manipur valley area since the past few days. If full autonomy for the Nagas in the seven hill districts comes to fruition, although that will fall short of the long-sought greater Nagalim or southern Nagaland, there is likely to be a violent backlash from the Meiteis.
Thousands of women from the Imphal valley staged a protest march on October 24 to assert that the Naga agreement must not affect the territorial integrity of Manipur. Manipur had erupted into violent protests in June 2001, which resulted in several deaths and damage of public properties, when New Delhi extended the scope of ceasefire with the NSCN-IM to other parts of the Northeast without territorial limits.
Granting autonomy to the seven hill districts will also have direct implications on the Kuki community, who are one of the three major groups of the state. Of the seven districts claimed by the NSCN-IM, Chandel, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal are either dominated or claimed by the Kukis in their demand for statehood, which has now changed to territorial council demand. In 2008, the two Kuki umbrella armed organizations - Kuki National Organization (KNO) and the United People’s Front (UPF) - signed a tripartite agreement with the government of India and the Manipur state government for suspension of operation. And since 2016, the government of India has engaged the Kuki armed groups in political dialogue for a peaceful and durable solution.
Of the 16 districts in Manipur, the Kukis either claim or dominate five of them - Chandel, Kangpokpi, Tengnoupal, Pherzawl, and Churachandpur.
In light of the competing claims and in remembrance of their forefathers’ bravery defense of the “Kuki ancestral lands and freedom against incursion of the British colonialists,” the Kuki community commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ‘Anglo-Kuki War, 1917-1919’ in different parts of Manipur on October 17, and in some other parts of India including New Delhi.
Due to competing or overlapping territorial claims in the hill areas of Manipur, the Kuki and Naga groups have had violent conflicts in the past and most recently in the early 1990s, which still lingers on without any formal treaty or mutually acceptable agreement between the two communities. A solution for the Nagas of Manipur, at the cost of the Kuki people, will likely add fuel to the simmering tensions between the two communities, as well as a strong disappointment toward the government of India.
The issue will also likely create ethnic tensions between the Naga and the Meiteis, which had happened in the past.
Because of its small size and the competing demands from the Kuki, Naga, and Meitei groups, an appeasement or solution to one community is likely to create strong opposition from the other two communities.
The inherent problem in Manipur is that each ethnic group pursues an exclusive policy or agenda for their individual community and not for a collective welfare of the people of the entire state. The three communities do not support each other in their political pursuit or movement. Consequently, there is a sense of insecurity from all the ethnic groups.
While the central government has the ultimate power and authority to negotiate and grant what it deems appropriate to either the Naga, Kuki or Meitei, it is imperative that a balanced solution is reached by consulting all relevant stakeholders from the three ethnic groups to avert possible violence.
Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen is Associate Professor, Assistant Dean, and Executive Director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University.
The writer is Associate Professor, Assistant Dean (International Collaboration), Executive Director, Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University and can be reached at [email protected]