You wish to tap petroleum? Natural gas? Check with the rebels or check out. In July, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest rebel group in Nagaland and a large swathe of adjacent Manipur, nixed an exploration project in Nagaland.
The group’s civilian arm, the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim, through its ministry of mines and minerals wrote to Metropolitan Oil and Gas Pvt. Ltd, rejecting the firm’s prospecting licence. The permit was issued by the government of Nagaland. Work stopped. Three months earlier, the outfit had with a similar diktat disrupted oil exploration by Jubilant Energy NV in western Manipur.
This claim is based on operational heft as well as a pitch for a future Nagalim, or greater Nagaland that seeks to unite Naga homelands in contiguous areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
And, at an unlikely stretch in Myanmar. Several strands of history and politics, and ambition and suspicion are intertwined with a tense present and an uncertain future.
Matters will get more complicated. Metropolitan Oil is at the centre of a controversy in Nagaland. Documents circulated to policymakers and media (I have a set) question antecedents and credibility of the company’s promoters and accuse them of making false claims of expertise and solvency. Local media have speculated about the proximity of politicians of the Zeliang tribe to Metropolitan Oil.
The Zeliang Naga tribal region to Nagaland’s southwest is a key exploration area. NSCN (I-M)’s July censure is based on such allegations. There’s more to the stew than business deals. After all, competition ensures sniping. One company can theoretically be replaced by another. And politicians are proven to be industrious in demanding a mile of personal benefit where even an inch is illegal. It also goes beyond constitutionally mandated rights in Nagaland (which became a state in 1963) that permits the state primacy in mineral rights. The right extends to ownership of land by a particular tribe—individually and in community trust.
And, therefore, the extent of negotiable benefits that would accrue from mineral exploration. This provided activists of the Lotha Naga tribe the leverage to prevent exploration and extraction of oil by Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd in the Wokha area of Nagaland. It’s a stunning reality that a rebel group in ceasefire with the government of India since 1997 runs a parallel administration—and a parallel economy—in its areas of operation.
This is also true of NSCN (I-M)’s bitter—and relatively weaker—rivals of the Khaplang faction, known as NSCN (K), which inked a ceasefire agreement in 2001. The chaplee, or finance ministries of both groups freely extract taxes from individuals—even politicians and bureaucrats—and businesses. In July, Nagaland-based newspapers carried an NSCN (K) announcement, that an “official with the following phone numbers has been appointed to oversee financial affairs pertaining to the Southern Zone—9862567272, 9436111777”. Reality is as twisted in Manipur.
The ceasefire agreements with Naga groups do not extend to Manipur, even though Naga homelands like that of the Tangkhul and Zeliangrong tribes, among others, are in present-day Manipur (the former kingdom was accorded statehood in 1972). This is on account of huge protests in non-tribal areas of Manipur.
Protesters perceived a ceasefire extended to all Naga regions as a stepping stone to Greater Nagaland, and disintegration of Manipur. Skirmishing between state and central government forces and the I-M faction isn’t rare. Recent news of reviving peace talks with Naga groups, in particular NSCN (I-M), has revived ambitions and deepened suspicions. I-M is piling on the pressure to retain territory and influence in a present and future Nagaland. However, on account of tribal equations, NSCN (I-M) is perceived as largely Tangkhul-led, a tribe with its homeland in Manipur. This creates speculation that the Tangkhul leadership will not be accepted in post-conflict Nagaland.
This theory leaves the Tangkhul rebel leadership to consolidate their hold in Manipur. That in turn does not go down well with non-Naga and non-tribal folk in Manipur—and the attendant bands of ethnicity-based rebel groups—who have for long seen NSCN (I-M) as aggressors. Divide and rule has traditionally been seen by the government of India—especially its intelligence apparatus—as a clever Chanakya-like ploy to tackle dissent and ethnic ambition. The lesson has over time been assiduously applied by regional satraps.
But maps and minds are now so divided that it is nearly impossible to govern. As to petroleum and natural gas, these will remain underground for a while yet.
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.