For Manipur, a state at the crossroads of India’s geopolitical and geoeconomic imperatives, this is a time of both fear and fervour.

The Nagas of Manipur want out of Manipur. The government of Manipur, led by a heavy-handed and controversial chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, will have none of it. The killing of a district council official allegedly by Naga rebels on 12 July, and chief minister Ibobi’s response, has driven another wedge into what seems like a wrenching, potentially bloody inevitability.

In part, it is driven by expectations of resolving the Indo-Naga conflict through conclusive peace talks with National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group, and smaller factions. This has, in turn, fuelled concerns that Naga-majority areas in Manipur, contiguous to present-day Nagaland, will as part of the deal be a step closer to an enduring Naga dream of a Greater Nagaland, an autonomous—perhaps sovereign—homeland.

Besides Manipur-based Naga tribes, which claim majority in the three hill districts of mineral-rich Ukhrul, Senapati and hydrocarbon-rich Tamenglong, other tribes too claim institutionalized discrimination in Manipur. These three districts, and the hilly districts of Chandel—claimed by both Naga and Kuki nationalists—and Churachandpur, occupied mainly by Kuki, Zomi and Hmar peoples, ring the four “plains" districts of Imphal East and West, Thoubal, and Bishnupur. Non-tribal Meitei are in overwhelming majority in the plains. The plains comprise about a 10th of Manipur’s area, but account for about 60% of the population. Propelled by this heft, the plains have 40 assembly seats to the hills’ 20.

Naga civil society groups have for some years tried to reach out to Kuki groups to form a hill-based coalition of tribes against the transparent bias of development funds and government jobs towards the “plains" and “non-tribals". It hasn’t worked thus far.

Part of the reason is enduring bad blood. Though several hundred children, women and men were butchered on both sides during ethnic strife in the 1990s, Kukis died in far greater numbers than Nagas. Kukis squarely blame NSCN (I-M) for triggering a campaign of ethnic cleansing; they claim about 300 Kuki villages simply ceased to exist in such areas, or were occupied by Nagas, even renamed. Earlier this month, leaders of the apex organization Kuki Inpi Manipur briefed me as to why they still clamour for justice against “murderers" in NSCN (I-M). At the very least they demand a formal apology.

And part of the reason is the enduring Naga suspicion that Kukis are pawns in the intrigues of the governments of India and Manipur—largely, “Meitei politics" that even includes Meitei rebel groups—to deny the Nagas their ambition.

Earlier this month, leaders of the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur, in a conversation with me, reiterated the need for what they term “Alternative Arrangement". This dismisses autonomous hill district councils which UNC claims dance to Imphal’s tune; and demands direct administrative interaction with New Delhi. UNC considers Nagas elected to such councils as puppets. This insistence, bolstered by economic blockades that choke Imphal Valley, has prompted six tripartite meetings since 2010, attended by representatives of the governments of India and Manipur, and UNC. There has been little movement.

Now, UNC wants to cut loose. More ominously, what many in Manipur and New Delhi consider the backers of UNC—the well-armed NSCN (I-M)—wants to cut loose. The killing of the vice-chairman of the Ukhrul Autonomous District Council on 12 July is being seen by some as an indication. For his part, Ibobi sent in state police and arrested eight NSCN (I-M) cadres.

This in turn is escalatory—bizarrely so. The government of India and NSCN (I-M), besides other Naga groups, are in ceasefire. But ceasefire extends only to Nagaland. Technically, there is no ceasefire with Naga rebel groups in Manipur. And so, both government forces and rebels belligerently face off here for maintaining influence—even for leverage at peace negotiations!

When the ceasefire was extended to all Naga-inhabited areas—including such areas in Manipur—in 2001 during the last Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government, Imphal Valley erupted in widespread rioting. Ceasefire was hastily limited to Nagaland. Ever since, Ibobi, a Congress loyalist who was first elected chief minister in 2002, has projected himself as the protector of Manipur.

Ibobi is today politically vulnerable, and the need for conflict resolution is ever stronger. While any worthwhile deal will mean massive sops and face-saving all round, someone has to blink first; something has to give.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear-Hold-Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His previous 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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