On 10 February, Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh surprised reporters in New Delhi by referring to the outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and the United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Nagas in Manipur, which are demanding an “alternative arrangement” for Nagas residing in Manipur, as “our brothers”. In 2010, however, Ibobi had overruled the Centre’s plea to allow NSCN (IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah to visit his native village in Ukhrul district in the state, leading to a stand-off between the Nagas and the Manipur government.
The “alternative arrangement” demand resonates with the NSCN (IM)’s larger political goal of uniting all Naga-inhabited areas in the Northeast as “Greater Nagalim”. While the insurgent outfit has been engaged in peace parleys with the Centre since 1997, Manipur has consistently opposed the idea of “Greater Nagalim” as it would compromise the territorial integrity of the state.
The conflict is rooted in the complex ethnic geography of the region. The Nagas are in a majority in the hilly districts of Manipur bordering Nagaland, while the valleys are dominated by the Meiteis. This has given rise to a sharp hill-valley divide, with the Meiteis opposing any proposal to give the Nagas a separate political identity. Even within the hilly areas, there is a long history of ethnic distrust between the Nagas and the Kukis.
The peace parleys with the Naga groups, therefore, involve treading a fine line between the contested territorial claims of various ethnicities. Addressing the demands of one community immediately foments discontent among the others. So, when the UNC pressed the Centre for a dialogue on the “alternative arrangement” demand in 2010, it led to a long-drawn economic blockade by the Kukis in Manipur. The “alternative arrangement” would have constrained the Manipur government’s authority over the Nagas living in the state.
There have been six rounds of talks involving the Centre, the UNC and the Manipur government since December 2010. All along, the UNC has been demanding the scope of the parleys to be expanded beyond the bureaucratic level. Last August, the UNC made a categorical demand that the talks must include ministers from the Manipur government. The Centre agreed and the first round of “political talks” with the Naga body took place at Senapati town in Manipur on 6 February. Ibobi sent a four-member delegation to represent the Manipur government, led by commerce and industries minister Govindas Konthoujam, while the Centre was represented by Shambhu Singh, joint secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs.
Justifying the demand for “political talks”, top UNC leader Paul Leo says that as the “alternative arrangement” issue is a political one, talks involving bureaucrats alone would be pointless. “In the previous rounds of talks, the bureaucrats were unable to take any definite decisions on the core issue that is essentially political in nature,” says Leo.
UNC general secretary Gaidon Kamei says that the 6 February talks were “cordial”, though there were “no concrete decisions”. “We are, however, hopeful of a solution in the near future,” concludes Kamei.
With the General Election just a few months away, the Congress-led governments at the Centre and in Manipur have a lot at stake. While the Congress and its allies hold 16 of the 25 seats from the Northeast in the current Lok Sabha, party sources indicate that the high command is desperate to increase the tally to 20 seats in the forthcoming election. And the parleys with the Naga groups are bound to have an impact on the party’s prospects. But the fraught nature of the issues involved makes the electoral calculations quite complex.
For instance, even as the Congress looks at retaining the Manipur Outer seat, which has a huge chunk of Naga voters, it has to simultaneously avoid any standoff arising from opposition by the other ethnic groups in Manipur to the talks with the Nagas. Moreover, the Naga People’s Front, which supports the Bharatiya Janata Party, may throw a spanner into the Congress’ attempts to woo the Nagas in Manipur.
Perhaps, that is why Ibobi has been forced to soften his previous hard stance on the “alternative arrangement” issue. “But there can be huge trouble within the Manipur Congress if the party openly supports the demand of the Nagas,” warns a senior Congress leader from Manipur, requesting anonymity. “Right now, we need to be polite with everyone, but I don’t see any settlement coming soon.”
Indeed, the Congress could be inviting fresh trouble as the Kuki groups, which are demanding a separate Kukiland, are annoyed by the developments and want the Centre to hold political talks with them as well. “If the Centre does not declare the interlocutor before the election, we will oppose all Congress candidates,” Aaron Kipgen, general secretary of the Kuki National Front told the media in Imphal. Making matters worse, Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio said on 15 February that Ibobi is “an enemy” of the Nagas. Clearly, it won’t be easy for the Congress to work around the ethnic faultlines in the region to arrive at a solution that satisfies all the groups involved.
With inputs from RK Suresh in Imphal