Except when it explodes in violence, Manipur in Northeast India is a state that rarely attracts attention. That is perhaps a misfortune to equal the tragedy of death that perpetually stalks its society, for many changes have taken place in the last many years that a negligent “India” hilnot cared to notice. In late September this year, local newspapers and cable television operators, in Manipur suspended work for two weeks, in protest against “interference”. This was an act of protest against the degeneration of once idealistic “freedom movements” into internecine struggles for power and control by proliferating splinter groups. This is the sad reality of India’s Northeast. Many of those who today speak on behalf of the region have become increasingly distant from its common people, and Indian policymakers have yet to register the importance of this fact.
Nagaland, which neighbours Manipur, has for the past 50 years been in the throes of one of the most tenacious armed struggles against New Delhi. There is virtually no Naga family that has not been scarred by this movement for independence. In the past two decades, Assam and Tripura too made their way into the roster of insurgency-affected states. These armed struggles have led to one of the saddest blights of the Northeast, the cutting down of youth at the peak of vigour and energy. In all these states, the crushing might of the Indian army is a conspicuous, menacing and oppressive one.
What is unfortunately rather less evident to those who sympathise with the regional movements for autonomy and self-determination is that oppression is equally ruthlessly practised by the local insurgent organisations. This is why the press of the Northeast has begun to protest, and why the common folk are increasingly perturbed by the ‘parallel government’ run by these organisations. The question that can legitimately be asked is how such organisations can claim to speak on behalf of an entire people in negotiations with the federal government and in international fora, when they silence the public back home at gunpoint and ruthlessly stamp out dissent.
Naga versus Naga
The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) is one of the insurgent groups now engaged in negotiating with the central Government on settlement of the Naga issue. There is widespread support for a ceasefire amongst the Nagas, and the talks reflect the deep desire among the people for peace. But the Naga public is also making it clear to the Isaac- Muivah group that unless they forge a viable consensus with rival groups about the terms of negotiation with New Delhi, any settlement that is arrived at will lead to more bloodshed. Thuingaleng Muivah, a Tanghkhul Naga from Manipur, and Isaac Swu, a Sema from Nagaland, are amongst the Naga leaders who were closely associated with Angami Zapu Phizo, the founder of the Naga movement for independence.
In 1980 Muivah and Swu split from the parent body (the Naga National Council) to form the NSCN, in protest against the controversial Shillong Accord of 1975, whose terms—secretly negotiated with the Government of India by a small group of leaders reportedly close to Phizo—were described as a ‘sellout’ by a sizable section of the Nagas. In due course, the NSCN too began to be internally riven, with the Muivah group locked in a bitter fight with the Khaplang group (NSCN-K) dominated by the Konyak (the largest Naga tribe in Nagaland) and Hemi Nagas (who live in contiguous areas of Burma). The past decade has seen some of the bloodiest fighting between the IM and K groups of the NSCN resulting in the loss of innocent civilian lives caught in the crossfire, and deepening the divide between the twele major Naga tribes. While all Nagas acknowledge the armed might and organisational superiority of the NSCN (I-M), and its crucial role in any settlement with the central Government, many powerful tribes are unwilling to accept the NSCN (IM) as the sole arbiter of the Naga destiny.
What forms do the oppression from within take? At a recent conference in Shillong, women journalists of the Northeast spoke of the pressure they face from the insurgent groups seeking to dictate what could and could not be published. Northeast journalists have time and again traveled to New Delhi and elsewhere in an effort to draw the attention of the national media to their plight, to plead for national support so that the true picture of these areas can be presented to the rest of the country. The response, unfortunately, has been weak. At the ground level too, the open flaunting of insurgent might is evident. For instance, recently, local Naga papers were forced to print a press release from a faction of the NSCN, intimating the public on how to recognise its letterhead when its members come calling for ‘donations’. The notice also provided a telephone number in Dimapur for further clarifications or complaints against extortion by spurious groups.
Those who run the state machinery are not spared either. Many government servants pay up to 25 per cent of their salaries as ‘tax’ to insurgent groups which is efficiently ‘deducted at source’ by routine collections from the office cash box. In the villages, each household in Nagaland is forced to pay an annual tax of INR 400, apart from providing services as and when demanded, such as porterage and hospitality to ‘national workers’. For cash-starved Naga villagers with no money to pay for the health and education needs of their children (the government schools and health services are in shambles), such taxes for the ‘Naga cause’ are huge burden. However, it is not as if there has been only subservient compliance with such demands of the insurgents.
In Manipur, where too the NSCN runs underground operations, several times over the past six years the Meitei—the people of Manipur valley—have come together to protest, against both the Meitei organisations and against the NSCN(IM). (The latter is dominated by the Tangkhul Naga tribe living in Ukhrul district of Manipur.) In 1996, the first public protest against the NSCN(I-M)’s extortion on the national highway—the sole supply line running through the Naga hill areas into the Manipur valley—was led by the Manipur Truck Drivers Association. Despite the massive deployment of army and paramilitary personnel for protecting the highway, the NSCN imposed a tax on every commercial vehicle, charging INR 3-5,000 per trip. Receipts for such collections are openly issued in the name of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland. The Meitei public supported this strike even though it led to severe shortage of commodities and inflation. Despite such protests, the practice continues, and the current rate is reported to be INR 10,000.
Controlling the drug corridor
Such open confrontation with the Naga insurgent organisations has been less evident in Nagaland. However, in the towns and interior villages of the state, many Nagas are now speaking, though cautiously, about the devastating consequences of the violence that mark the struggle for supremacy between the two warring factions of the NSCN, and the extortion and naked intimidation that they indulge in. It is an index of the extent of degeneration of movements espousing the ideals of self-determination that their fratricidal struggle for control is now essentially about who dominates the corridors of the drug and arms trade with Burma. In Manipur, for instance, a porous border with Burma has facilitated a massive inflow of heroin from the Golden Triangle, en route to the international market. While the drug trade supports the insurgent groups in their quest for arms and easy money, it is destroying the youth of Manipur. The Kukis, who live in the areas adjoining Burma, have been embroiled over the past five years in a bloody fight with the NSCN-IM over control of the right of passage through this corridor.
The Naga Hoho, a powerful combine of Naga tribal organisations, has sought to provide an answer to Nagas who ask what the fight has been all about. The Hoho is trying to involve civil society in a dialogue with the different rival groups in an effort to make the latter accountable to the public. This is important because many tribes view the NSCN’s “muscle flexing” as the continuing attempt by the Tangkhuls and their allies to assert their supremacy in the region. Some Naga intellectuals say that the recent Meitei riots, in the aftermath of the extension of the Naga ceasefire to Manipur and Assam, augured a “paradigm shift”. For the first time, it brought to light the rising aspirations of myriad small groups living in the Northeast. “It demonstrates that no one group can hope to assert the solution to their problem, without taking into consideration the future of all these groups living within their fold”, says a prominent Naga observer, who wishes not to be named
The Nagas of Manipur have so far tried to abide by the appeals of the Naga Hoho for restraint and dialogue. But such efforts can collapse in the face of an insensitive response. For instance, the Manipur Nagas are deeply resentful of the manner in which the Union Minister of State for Home, I D Swami, visited Imphal only during the riots and failed to even make an attempt to go to the hill districts. The United Naga Council of Manipur says this is typical of the ‘caste system’ they have suffered all these years. Fortunately, the NSCN (IM) leadership has held its peace and tactfully retreated in the face of fierce Meitei opposition to the extension of the cease fire to Manipur. This stepping back has reportedly caused the organisation some loss of ground amongst its supporters, and it is now ambivalent on the issue.
In the circumstances, the only bargain the NSCN can realistically hope to drive is a solution within the Indian Constitution. But if the NSCN fails to consolidate a base among all the Naga tribes, the only way it can keep its existing base is to persist with its claim to ‘Greater Nagaland’ or ‘Nagalim’, i.e., the integration of Naga inhabited areas in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Arunachal and across the international border in Burma. But many in the Northeast fear that the failure to recognise the reality of tribal division and struggle for power and territory is creating conditions that are conducive for civil war. Says a Kuki leader, “The stage in Manipur is set for a clash of the titans—the Nagas and the Meitei—and small groups like the Kuki will be crushed underfeet.” The Kukis are the third dominant group living in Manipur’s foothills. Amongst the last of the migratory tribes to settle in Northeast India, they are still considered to be ‘outsiders’, and live in grinding poverty.
Above the tribal fault lines and the burden of long struggle lies the sad truth. After decades of suffering the Nagas, the Manipuris, the Assamiya, and the Tripura tribals face this most painful reality—the dissolving dream for independence and a need to accept new realities and visions. This unlooked-for reality has also been faced by the indigenous peoples of North America and the Pacific Islands. The elders of these societies are now consolidating what is left of their people and their distinct culture, by focussing on the ‘rights of a nation within a nation’. Their distinct survival within the larger ‘mainstream’ now depends on issues such as the right to health, education, development and a political system that is rooted in their unique civilisation and wisdom.
Naga leaders have consistently held that Nagaland has never been a part of India – historically, racially or culturally. During 20 years of visits to Nagaland, this writer found village community leaders consistently emphasising the historical basis of the Naga movement for independence, such as the declaration of Naga independence on 14 August 1947, one day before Indian independence. “The Nagas say they are not secessionists or anti-India. They seek to live as honourable neighbours of India, and they want the rest of India to acknowledge the historical facts, and respect their right to determine their future, despite their small size,” says a Naga leader.
New realities however show that redrawing of boundaries has never solved the problems of the common people, and in the age of globalisation such smallness of vision cannot sustain their own people. In rural, interior Nagaland, villagers have no time to waste on dreams, so intense is their preoccupation with daily survival and the need to provide meaningful opportunities for their children. For far too long, the elders and leaders of Naga civil society have said, “Let us first achieve our independence, then we will deal with the problems of corruption, alcohol and drugs, and the divisions between Naga tribes”. But the ground realities demand otherwise.