The ominous stillness in Kashmir and ominous celebrations over Ayodhya buried a development seemingly distant from the mental constructs of New Delhi: the release and whisking away of a top rebel leader from Manipur. It’s an event that has a bearing on the dynamic not just in Manipur, but the Naga peace process.

R.K. Meghen, or Rajkumar Meghen, chairman of United National Liberation Front (UNLF) was released from Guwahati Central jail on 9 November. Meghen served out a 10-year sentence with some remission. He was convicted in 2016 for waging war against the state, among other charges, but his incarceration since 2010 counted as time served. He had planned to head to Imphal for what was to be a hero’s welcome at a public function.

But after a day, the rebel leader also known among the Meitei of Manipur as Sana Yaima—precious son— was taken back into protective custody by central government agencies, and flown to Delhi. There he remains under close government watch-and-wear-down, much like the peace process his politely-worded but emphatic detour is supposed to aid.

If this seems complicated, that’s because it is. Primarily, though, it’s about who Meghen is and what he represents, and the power he can wield to tip the balance in the Naga peace process—and peace in Manipur.

The non-tribal Meitei community to which Meghen belongs is about 60% of the population, and lives mainly in Imphal valley, about a tenth of the territory of Manipur. The valley is surrounded by hills, a ninth of Manipur, where mainly Naga, Kuki and Zomi tribes live. Outside Nagaland, Manipur has the largest Naga homelands. The ongoing Naga peace process seeks to offer a more autonomous administrative set-up for the Naga homelands in Manipur—and Naga homelands in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam—and greater political representation. This has raised concerns in these three states, particularly Manipur, about possible ceding of territory to Nagas—which the government has strenuously denied.

This is crucial. In 2001, extension of ceasefire between the government of India and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group—and the principal faction in the ongoing peace talks—beyond Nagaland led to an eruption of emotion and violence in Imphal valley. Protesters were killed. Government buildings were torched. The National Democratic Alliance government of the time quickly limited the ceasefire to Nagaland, the bizarre, realpolitik situation that exists to this day. It won’t need a Meghen to light a fire this time—Meitei angst and sense of tradition and territoriality are enough tinder. Other non-Naga ethnicities are similarly concerned, mainly on account of the heft that Naga rebel groups still carry, and on account of inter-ethnic blood-letting, in which I-M played a leading role, in the 1990s. It’s all tense, all delicately poised.

As a leading face of UNLF, which has sought to protect Meitei and Manipur’s identity and project its autonomy since the early 1960s, when it was founded, Meghen carries clout in any incarnation. Moreover, UNLF is part of a collective of rebel groups called the Coordination Committee, or CorCom, that took wing in 2012, along with the Revolutionary People’s Front and its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army; Kangleipak Communist Party; Kanglei Yawol Kanna Lup; People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK); and a faction, PREPAK-Progressive. A seventh group was later ejected.

CorCom has participated in several attacks against India’s army and paramilitaries—and celebrated these attacks—on its own and in conjunction with I-M’s arch-rival, the Khaplang faction of NSCN which has for several years provided shelter and logistics support to elements of CorCom in Myanmar. Besides fighting Indian agencies, CorCom has also fought I-M. Indeed, in September 2017, I-M killed five members of two groups allied to CorCom. It will require much restraint and foresight to overcome such fault lines.

My take is that Meghen, a graduate student of international relations from Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, will again have received an outreach that he has received earlier: eschew the path of rebellion and be a reconciliatory force to bring UNLF and colleagues in other rebel groups which are part of CorCom, to the table of peace talks. Added to this will be his heft as an influencer, as it were, in the Naga outcome. We will continue to live in interesting times.

*This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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