Home/ Opinion / Online-views/  Healing or hell in the north-east?

As the dust and rhetoric settle after the rebel attack on an Indian Army convoy in Manipur on 4 June and the retaliatory attack on 9 June, it must be evident that this is a make-or-break moment for peace and reconciliation in Manipur and Nagaland. Healing, or continued hell, is a choice that the government of India, and the governments and peoples of these two states will need to make.

Some plain talking, then.

Top Indian security and policymaking circles, and political and administrative circles in North-East India have known that the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), or NSCN-K, the faction that led the attack on 4 June in concert with two Manipuri rebel groups, harbours rebels from Assam, Manipur and elsewhere in North-East India in its Myanmar-based sanctuary. This institutional awareness dates back at least to 2008-09. I heard detailed first-hand reports in 2009 from Naga visitors to the headquarters of the faction’s chief, S.S. Khaplang.

Even so, NSCN-K has for long been played by India’s intelligence apparatus as leverage against the pre-eminent Naga rebel group, NSCN-IM—named after its leaders, Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. K and I-M were formed in 1988 after a bloody split in the parent NSCN. The two factions, despite occasional photo opportunities of crowd-pleasing bonhomie, remain sworn enemies driven by ego, and territoriality and tribal compulsions. Unlike NSCN-IM, with which the government of India entered into a ceasefire in 1997 and initiated a yet-inconclusive political process for solution, its ceasefire with NSCN-K which was entered into in 2001 never evolved into reconciliatory dialogue or effective pressure to ditch its protectorate of rebel groups. Undoubtedly, this was burdened by the additional diplomatic complication that Khaplang’s tribal roots, key networks and operational heft remained across the border in Myanmar.

As India’s intelligence establishment diligently practised its policy of “divide and rule, and drift"—as a top bureaucrat in Manipur scathingly described the situation to me—the two factions were, by terms of agreement, permitted to retain cadres and weapons in designated camps. They continued to recruit, train and even run patrols in Indian territory. Both, though more I-M than K, ran parallel administrations in Nagaland and contiguous Naga homelands in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and routinely levied taxes. I-M even has what it calls “Town Commands" in major district headquarters in Nagaland.

The government has done nothing about it. Buying absence of conflict at any cost—even cost that undermines such fragile peace—has ensured this bizarre situation. Meanwhile, from seeking to actively weaken I-M, the faction’s continued pre-eminence ensured that it was actually K’s hold that began to weaken in Nagaland and other Naga homelands in India. The government of India evidently decided to go with this new realpolitik flow.

The breaking of the truce with the government of India by NSCN-K this March was a signal that it had reached a decision. As I wrote at the time, it was seen as recognition by Khaplang, who fired two key pro-ceasefire and pro-peace talk negotiators before the pullout, that he saw little benefit from a weakening hold over his slice of Naga nationalism in Indian territory. He would rather nurture his turf in Myanmar, where he signed a ceasefire deal with the junta in 2012, and bless spoiling raids.

As I also wrote, Khaplang’s alliance with several rebel groups under increasing pressure from India, including the Paresh Baruah-led faction of United Liberation Front of Asom; the Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland; and six rebel groups influential in the Imphal Valley areas of Manipur that collectively use the moniker Coordination Committee, or CorCom is sealed with an expedient mix of mutual support, funds, weapons and narcotics.

Rebels and establishment warlords in India and Myanmar alike feed off this mix. It can certainly diminish if the Myanmar government and its all-powerful army agree to flush anti-India rebels as have recent administrations in Bhutan and Bangladesh. India’s quid-pro-quo with Myanmar hasn’t yet reached that tipping point—the near-unilateralism of the 9 June counter-strike is indicative of it. Insiders in Manipur’s capital Imphal tell me that till not too long ago, Manipuri rebel groups supplemented perimeter security when Myanmar army brass visited places in the Sagaing administrative region, which borders Manipur.

This is only a tiny list of the witch’s brew of conflict that continues to shackle lives and futures in this region. Ethnic politics and state administrations too contribute to the mess—more on that next week.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.

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Updated: 12 Jun 2015, 02:15 AM IST
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