A file photo of Naga tribesmen during a festival at Kohima. Non-Naga communities fear that giving autonomy to Nagas in Manipur will be the first step to a Greater Nagaland that rebels have advertised for long. Photo: AFP
A peace deal with Naga rebels will require granting autonomy to Nagas in Manipur; this will need to be balanced by addressing the concerns of non-Naga inhabitants of the state
A peace deal with Naga rebels could make or break India’s peace-and-prosperity stakes in a region neighbouring Myanmar, the country’s stated overland gateway to hydrocarbon reserves and markets of South-East Asia, and a pivot to counter China.
Settling Naga rebels in Nagaland is only part of the story (See Naga peace process: New equations, Mint, 3 April 2015). A peace deal will also require settling Naga rebel leaders and cadres in their traditional homelands in adjacent Manipur, and granting administrative autonomy to Nagas there—articulated as Alternative Arrangement by United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body for Nagas in that state. This will need to be balanced by addressing the concerns of non-Naga inhabitants of Manipur, who constitute the majority.
Observers point to overtures like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement of a sports university for Manipur as being deal sweeteners. Imphal valley, home to the state’s majority Meitei population, and the southern arc of hills, home to most of Manipur’s non-Naga tribal people, won’t be bought that cheaply.
Modi and his team need to ensure that the territorial integrity of Manipur is seen to be preserved. Non-Naga communities, especially the Meitei, fear that giving autonomy to Nagas in Manipur will be the first step to a Greater Nagaland that rebels have advertised for long. This concern will likely be assuaged by the natural tribal politics that will, for a time, keep Nagas in Manipur away from the ambit of Nagas in the present-day state of Nagaland, and also by constitutional mechanisms that prevent absolute powers to UNC’s Alternative Arrangement.
Peace will require other grand gestures. A surefire buy-in would be withdrawal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, or AFSPA, which offers the armed forces both impunity and immunity, and remains the most explosive emotional trigger in Manipur after territoriality. The law that heaps gratuitous insult and brutality on non-combatants in a quest for national security has gradually been removed from the municipal limits of the state capital Imphal. Without any loss of influence—several laws besides AFSPA permit search, seizure and combat against enemies of the state—the gesture could easily be extended. If security hawks are wary of such blanket removal, AFSPA could remain only in a strip along the Indo-Myanmar border in Manipur. It’s a porous membrane, as it were, that thrives on the smuggling of weapons, narcotics, sandalwood and other products, a food chain that caters alike to rebels and the political elite.
Low-key visits by senior army officers in recent weeks to Manipur are being interpreted by some local observers as evaluation of the ground for give-and-take. At any rate, the current chief of army staff, Dalbir Singh, is uniquely placed. Having commanded a Rashtriya Rifles battalion in Nagaland, and later the Army’s 3 Corps based in Rangapahar, near Dimapur, and the Eastern Command in Kolkata, he brings experience of a vast area that includes Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Mizoram. He brings insights into nearby Myanmar and Bangladesh and the local and geopolitical impulses that, for all the recent bonhomie, impel these countries to harbour anti-India rebels.
Reconciliation would also be required between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest Naga rebel group currently in talks with the government of India, and the Kuki community. Kukis hold this group responsible for triggering a territory-oriented blood-letting in the 1990s that killed and massively displaced Kuki communities in areas that the Nagas—in particular the Tangkhul tribe—claimed as their own. The Kuki Inpi Manipur, the apex body for the community in that state, demands a formal apology. It seems like a small price for peace and reconciliation.
Balance is also likely to be driven by the needs of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is making determined forays into northeastern India. Senior bureaucrats from Manipur tell me that the BJP would be wary of anything that permits the Congress and its entrenched and riotously controversial chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, renewed lease as protector of non-Naga communities when assembly elections come around in early 2017. The Congress has 42 seats in Manipur’s 60-seat assembly, mostly from Imphal valley. These plains account for 40 assembly seats: a BJP target.
Fancy footwork by the Modi government will, of course, not prevent undermining of a process of peace and reconciliation by fat cats in politics and the establishments of both the state and rebels that have grown plump in the economy of conflict. It’s a balancing act to top all balancing acts.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s latest book is Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India. His earlier books include Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations in South Asia that directly affect business, runs on Fridays.