By Sudeep Chakravarti
The greatest bulwark against an NSCN (I-M) assault is the Indian Army, its adjunct force Assam Rifles and paramilitaries like the Central Reserve Police Force.
Hard rain masks the jade-green hills in this unspoiled northern suburb of Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. He then glances at a Walther PPK handgun on a table by his side, and turns to me.
“Manipur nathaki jabo,” he says in Nagamese, the “bazaar Assamese” that linguistically knits a dozen Naga tribes. There won’t be a Manipur. More precisely, there won’t be a Manipur as we know it. It’s not an idle observation from a former general of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group; and a council member.
According to him, it’s a possible outcome of one of the deadliest games of political chess being played in India. He maintains that if the government in Manipur, Nagaland’s southern neighbour with homelands of several Naga tribes in the hills across more than a third of its territory, doesn’t agree to the demand of its resident Nagas for administrative autonomy—dealing directly with New Delhi—Manipur will break. It’s what the apex United Naga Council (UNC) of Manipur—which Manipur’s top bureaucrat, in a conversation with me last week, insisted is a front for NSCN (I-M)—terms “Alternative Arrangement”.
Alongside being a pitch for development that Nagas feel has been denied them by the Manipuris of the plains, it is also a bargaining chip. NSCN (I-M)’s general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah hopes to soon meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It could be an important first step to revive stalled peace talks. NSCN (I-M) has been in ceasefire with the government since 1997. It has led to the absence of all-out conflict, not durable peace. NSCN (I-M), like other smaller Naga rebel groups in ceasefire with the government, has designated camps. Cadres are permitted to carry weapons. Many observers speak of rebels being demotivated after years of ceasefire.
For its part, NSCN (I-M) has also been weakened by factional strife and splits—often facilitated by plays of Indian intelligence agencies that, as a matter of policy, leverage rebel groups’ leadership egos, ethnic insecurities, and both need and greed for money. But the groups still pack a punch. For instance, plump with steady recruitment and arming, NSCN (I-M) alone has cadres estimated by Naga observers at between 7,000 and 8,000. It’s not much less than what the Communist Party of India (Maoist) has across the country.
This heft permits NSCN (I-M) and other Naga rebel groups like Myanmar-centric NSCN (Khaplang) and the smaller NSCN (Khole-Kitovi), and the Naga National Council to run parallel administrations in specific Naga regions, bankrolled by citizens and businesses. This has endured even the recent phenomenon of exasperated Naga citizens’ groups openly protesting against rebel taxes. Businesses can’t function without rebel say-so. If the push comes to shove in Manipur, NSCN (I-M) can exert pressure in the state’s three Naga-majority districts.
The ceasefire with Naga rebel groups does not extend to Manipur—a result of the government of India trying to calm fears among non-Naga people in the state who see the adding of Manipur to a ceasefire deal with Naga rebels as a prelude to breaking up of the state. Even the most generous security analysts don’t give Manipur’s police—and Manipur’s slew of fiercely nationalistic non-Naga rebel groups—a chance against a determined assault by NSCN (I-M). The greatest bulwark against an NSCN (I-M) assault remains the Indian Army, its adjunct force Assam Rifles, and to a lesser extent paramilitaries like the Central Reserve Police Force.
A key reason why the NSCN (I-M)-versus-the-rest conflict hasn’t erupted in Manipur is on account of a studied response by the rebel group as well as Indian security forces to protect the ceasefire in Nagaland. Both sides instead use occasional, low-intensity skirmishing and proxies among civil society groups and small rebel outfits from Manipur’s multi-ethnic stew to try and whittle away the other’s advantages; and create pressure before official negotiations.
In anticipation of such talks, the government of Manipur, non-Naga rebel groups in the state and several non-Naga civil society organizations have steadily ratcheted up their rhetoric against NSCN (I-M) and UNC since June. On 4 August, the influential All Manipur United Clubs’ Organization marked its annual “Integrity Day”—to commemorate its 1997 protest to stall extension of the ceasefire with NSCN (I-M) to Manipur—with more emphasis than usual. Positions have hardened to the point of fracture, of great imminent violence.
All major interest groups will have to be in on a peace deal. Or there won’t be a deal.
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.