Not many in India realize that Nagaland and Manipur are so intertwined in the cynical game of conflict and resolution of conflict that political settlement in one directly affects the other. And, few localized aspects have as much geopolitical implication for India with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir. These areas are, after all, within China’s eager radius of projection.
The situation will become more charged as Nagaland moves towards assembly elections in March, with the incumbent Naga People’s Front (NPF) leading several political parties to pitch a comprehensive peace deal between the government of India and Naga rebel factions before polling. The legacy of India’s bizarre manipulation can ensure that peace worsens conflict.
There was another sign of it—masked by the great urban rage over the horrific case of rape in Delhi—when Imphal valley, the administrative and commercial heart of Manipur, shut down this past week. It happened after an officer of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest and the most influential Naga rebel faction, stood accused of molesting a Manipuri actor at a function in that state’s Chandel district. Her dishonour was quickly perceived as the dishonour of the Meitei who form the majority in Imphal valley. That’s what things have come to.
The Naga people have traditional homelands outside Nagaland, in contiguous areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, even Myanmar. The near-arbitrary marking of territory by Britain during Partition gave a chunk of Naga homelands to Myanmar. Later, near-arbitrary marking of territory by India to undercut Naga influence ensured that when Nagaland was created as a state in 1963, several Naga homelands remained outside territorial Nagaland. Consequently, when India signed ceasefire deals with major Naga rebel factions from the late 1990s on, the ceasefire applied only to Nagaland, not all Naga homelands in India—because the state governments which now administered these externalized homelands saw a comprehensive ceasefire in a Greater Nagaland area as a threat to their own territorial integrity. This was most openly displayed in Imphal valley in 2001 when protests against extending ceasefire with NSCN (I-M) beyond Nagaland erupted into violence, arson and death. So, technically, India continues to be in a state of war with Naga rebel factions outside Nagaland!
Mutual suspicion has since remained high, for reasons peculiar to the roiled ethno-political dynamics of Nagaland and Manipur. Every move for resolving the Naga conflict is seen in Imphal valley as a territorial threat. As a counter, several Naga political groups in Manipur openly canvas for autonomy in the state’s Naga-dominated hill districts, even trying to draw Kuki tribes, with whom they have earlier fought pitched battles, to their side. This fear and loathing in Manipur has not been allayed even though several peacemakers in Nagaland, both in government and what is called civil society—even several rebel leaders—increasingly advocate only emotional integrity of Nagas beyond Nagaland, a practical those-of-German-stock-also-live-in-Austria-and-Switzerland argument.
While this plays out, current Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s gambit for permanent settlement—alternately blessed and beset by government of India’s own conflicting power satrapies in the security and political establishments—appears a bit rocky. Rio’s NPF led the state’s 60 legislators to jointly undertake giving up their offices if that’s what it takes to integrate rebel leaders into the political mainstream. Ironically, this stunning declaration in mid-2012 has done little to end factional fighting among Naga rebel groups, as I-M and NSCN’s Khaplang faction (which signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s government last April) continue to jockey for influence; while the Khaplang faction and its breakaway, the Khole-Kitovi faction, marked the past year with gun battles and more deaths. Disgusted, the influential Naga Students Federation was once moved to declare: “Perhaps the nobility of our struggle is reduced to an embarrassing state.”
And yet, if there is a time to reach out, to give, it is now. There has been enough taking, enough grieving.
As people continue to pay a price in blood and anguish simply to survive, I’m drawn to an experience in Nagaland that could easily translate to the fiery, utterly brave women of Manipur who have for decades defied both state and rebel oppression. “It is up to us mothers to talk peace,” I heard a speaker urge at a massive demonstration by ladies near Dimapur not too long ago. “We will have to go door to door. How many more children will we give birth to,” her voice dropped to a choked whisper that a microphone carried to every ear, every heart in the gathering, “to see them die?”
Sudeep Chakravarti is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org