Three major ethnic groups viz; the Meiteis, Nagas and the Chin-Kuki-Mizos (CHIKIM) are into political movements for separate politico-legal arrangements from the Indian State. While in the case of the Meiteis its political demand is articulated under the integrity of Manipur. Nevertheless it is a case of sovereignty and independence from the Indian State, if one goes by the decades old insurgency and its ultimate goal. In the case of the Nagas, after entering into a political dialogue with the Government of India, it has scaled down from its earlier demand of sovereignty to Greater Nagaland (under Constitution of India) comprising of the Naga inhabited areas in India to that of a separate alternative political arrangement only for the Nagas of Manipur outside the Government of Manipur. And in the case of the Kukis, it is a case of demand for statehood for the Kuki ethnic group (supposedly representing CHIKIM tribes of Manipur) and equally backed by armed groups. But the situation of contradiction among the communities cannot be simply understood from the ethnic perspectives alone. The political vacuum created in (1949-1972) and (1980-2010); ‘politics of isolation and engagement’ to address ethnic-centric demands and the development perspectives which are inherited through the territorial claims are major stumbling block for peacebuilding and conflict resolution in Manipur.
Political Vacuum and Territorial Aspirations
The centralized administration (1949-72) of Manipur after her annexation to India created a political vacuum in Manipur particularly in the hill areas. The vacuum was created as the sole responsibility of administrating Manipur was confined to the Government of India (GoI) appointed Chief Commissioner based at Imphal. Manipur was granted statehood only in 1972. During the 23 years of direct administration, the GoI not only failed to deliver the administration but also disturbed the economy of the Manipur. For instance, Manipur—which was the net exporter of huge rich surplus during the colonial days was turned into a net importer after the annexation in 1949. Similarly, the centralized planning during the time neglected agriculture, which was its productive base, and industry. Manipur is now a dependent state that serves as a captive market for products coming from the rest of India. Most of the industrial plan failed even before the insurgency became active in the late 70s. In addition, the administration could not utilize the limited amount sanctioned for the state.
Whatsoever the situation, the collective movement was witnessed during the first decades of the controversial merger. For instance, during the height of annexation, the Kuki Chiefs sent 250 warriors to guard the palace gates to keep away Maharaja Budhachandra from signing the merger agreement. Tangkhul leader, Yangmaso Shaiza was leading the movement for independence of Manipur under the Manipur National Union in the early 50s. The Nagas of Manipur have ignored the movement in the Naga Hills (Kamei 1993). Similarly an all-tribal delegation went to Delhi in May 1970, demanding statehood of Manipur (Koireng 2007). But absence of governance and development for decades started degenerating the collective movement and the tribals of Manipur who were supporting the integrity of Manipur have started mobilizing for territorial aspirations. Similarly, the non-tribal particularly the Meiteis intensified the movement for right to self-determination.
The first ethnic aspiration for territoriality during the political vacuum was visible during the height of Mizo National Front (MNF) of Mizoram. The CHIKIM groups of Manipur under MNF raised the demand for integration of CHIKIMs inhabitant areas to form the Greater Mizoram. It was an immediate outcome of the Mizo rebellion under MNF of Laldenga. The tribals of Manipur particularly the CHIKIM was of the impression that the armed movement was a joint CHIKIMS affair encompassing the territories of Manipur, Assam, Tripura and border areas of Burma. The 1963 conference at Churachandpur, Manipur resolved MNF to integrate all the Mizos areas of Northeast into one administrative unit. Churachandpur was one of the base camps for the MNF movement. By the late seventies, the MNF’s had weakened and spate of surrenders from its rank had been engineered by Mizoram Chief Minister, Thengpunga Sailo. He formed the People’s Conference party that went on to win the elections. The MNF started negotiating with the government of Assam/India. When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister of India, he worked out a peace agreement in 1986, amendable to the Mizo peoples and the MNF. The Mizo Hill was granted statehood and MNF was accommodated in an interim power sharing with the congress that was ruling at that time. The settlement between the GoI and MNF has not taken into consideration the greater Mizoram issue and those who are involved in the movement particularly from Manipur.
The movement in the Naga Hills influenced the Nagas in Manipur and a few of them even joined the movement in the late 50s. Simultaneously, few sections of Nagas of Manipur formed the Manipur Naga Council in 1960 to support the movement. But the aspirations of the Nagas of Manipur were ignored with the creation of Nagaland State in 1963. They were not considered during the negotiation as the movement was concentrated in the Naga Hills and there was no significant involvement of the Nagas of Manipur. However, in 1964, the cease-fire extension to the three sub-divisions of Manipur encouraged them again. But the cease-fire was unilaterally revoked by the GoI in 1967. But the question of territorial expansion was not very significant as the movement was concentrated in Nagaland. It was only during the formation of National Socialist Council of Nagalim/Nagaland (NSCN) that the territorial aspiration was visible and more clearly after the split of NSCN into NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and NSCN (Khaplang) in the late 80s which coincided with the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) going into a long period of hibernation in the hill districts of Manipur. There are six ADCs in Manipur with 144 constituencies (24 per ADC). Thus, it was the best opportunity for the NSCN to penetrate to the hills areas as well as to consolidate their cadres and movement. Though, the government institution was not functional, the development funds were surprisingly flowing which became one of the sources for their movement. This situation gave the opportunity to raise the fund as well as manpower by blaming it to the other community particularly the Meiteis for underdevelopment. But, the decision to hold election for ADC by the government of Manipur was shocking for the NSCN (IM) which by now becomes weak and fragile. Some of the important reasons include the fear of filling up the political vacuum which they have been enjoying for decades. Not only filling the vacuum but the process of creating grassroots leaders which will create conflict with their interest.
Politics of Isolation and Engagement
The armed opposition groups (AOG) that belong to the three major communities are in contradiction with the state at various intensities as indicated earlier. However, the state is presently engaging with the other groups except the Meiteis at different capacity. The CHIKIM with Suspension of Operation (SoO) and Nagas are in ceasefire with the GoI with their base in Nagaland.
The GoI after signing the ceasefire agreement in 1997 is engaging the NSCN (IM) to resolve the issue but so far, after having more than 60 rounds of talks both in India and abroad, the issue is yet to be resolved. Some even pointed out that, it is not able to discuss the core demands effectively. The issue of sovereignty has been negotiated to autonomy of Nagaland within the constitution of India which has been more or less accepted by the NSCN (IM). The present problem is the settlements of Manipur Nagas who have sacrificed their manpower and resources for the movement. But with the failing of negotiation, the history is repeating itself like that of CHIKIM after the MNF was forced to settle with Mizoram state.
The worrying factor is that the armed Nagas of Nagaland have declared to resolve the movement by and for the Nagas of Nagaland. In the whole process of negotiation, the state and the NSCM (IM) willingly or unwillingly did not give any space to the civil society either from Nagaland or Manipur. The state continues to engage with them, even after knowing that the issue will not be addressed without the involvement of other Nagas AOG. This results in difference among the Naga AOG that led to factional killings among themselves. Presently, the major AOG in Nagaland are NSCN (K), NSCN (IM), NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) & NNC. Besides, the AOG in Nagaland, the GoI have never consulted Government of Manipur in the whole process of the negotiation since 1997. But, when the NSCN (IM) demands are to be confined within Nagaland, the GoI consulted the Government of Manipur in 2012 when they are not able to find an honourable exit for the Manipur cadres of NSCN (IM). This situation portrayed Manipur Government particularly the Meiteis as stumbling block to the NSCN (IM) demand. Similar situation was created by the GoI in 2001 when they unilaterally extend the ceasefire with NSCN (IM) to Manipur. So the GoI has successfully diverted the attention and transformed the issue to that of inter-community conflict. For instance, on February 6, 2013, Chief Minister of Nagaland Neiphiu Rio openly declared “Chief Minister of Manipur is one of the biggest enemies of the Naga people” in an election campaign at Dimapur, Nagaland.
The Ministry of Defense in a press release dated October 7, 2005, disclosed that eight ‘Kuki’ and one ‘Zomi’ militant group in Manipur had entered into an informal ‘ceasefire’ with the Union Government. The Manipur CM stated that the ceasefire maintained between the “Indian security forces and some Non-Naga insurgents” was not acceptable as it lacks the consent of the state government. Subsequently, the SoO between the conglomerate groups of CHIKIM outfits namely, the United Peoples’ Front (UPF), and the KNO, State Government and the Central Government was signed at Delhi on 22 August 2008 by ensuring the territorial integrity of Manipur.
However, their aspiration for the state was pressed through the Kuki State Demand Committee (KSDC). But it was not sure whether they really want statehood or was it some pressure tactics. The KSDC demanded to hold political dialogue with the Kuki AOG by resorting to indefinite blockade. The KNO even threatened that they will not sign the agreement for extension of SoO until GoI gives in written for initiating political dialogue. As a process of it, the GoI appointed former Intelligence Bureau (IB) director PC Haldar as interlocutor on February, 2013 (Huiyen Lanpao News, 2013). However, the demand of the KNO via KSDC was a direct challenge to the United Naga Council’s (UNC) alternative arrangement in Manipur. This has upset the UNC as the territorial claims are conflicting with them and at the same time the GoI as per the demands of UNC is also preparing to hold talk with the UNC. This clearly indicates that the GoI is engaging both of them at the same time but in isolation and for the same space as we all are aware that there is no district in Manipur which is exclusively inhabited by a particular community. Such is the entangled web of issues challenging any peace-building initiative.
This article was published in The Sangai Express on Sunday, May 19, 2013