North Eastern Affairs
An imperfect accord divides ethnic communities in Manipur, as the Indian government wages counter-insurgency operations against some groups, and favours others.
THE NAGA PEACE ACCORD WAS SIGNED BETWEEN the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India (GOI) on 3 August 2015. While terms of the Accord are shrouded in secrecy, they have indicated that there will be no modification to state boundaries, however, “cultural integration of Nagas will be facilitated through special measures and provide for the financial and administrative autonomy of the Naga-dominated areas in other states.” Recognition would thus be given to the “unique history” and culture of the Nagas.
The alteration by the NSCN (IM) of their core demands, from complete sovereignty and the creation of the state of Greater Nagalim to acceptance of the constitutional framework with greater autonomy, and NSCN (IM)’s/GOI’s urgency to clear the Accord, was done in light of the reality of NSCN (IM) leaders growing old and infirm—sadly Isaac Swu has since died—as well as related factors such as a bitter succession battle when these leaders pass away; public pressure; cadres losing faith and breaking away due to disillusionment; and successive Indian prime ministers promising quick resolution.
Unauthenticated leaks from reliable sources indicate that points agreed upon are—a separate Constitution, flag for Nagaland, and separate currency and passports for Nagas. Nagaland would have a United Nations’ representative, foreign affairs and defence would be jointly controlled by the centre and the state, and a Pan Naga Government would cover all areas inhabited by the Nagas. Consequently, Manipur has been in flames since the Accord. A similar proposal was made in 2011 but was rejected by Manipur. A brief historical review is essential to understand the adverse reactions.
The Naga/Kuki/Chin/Meitei (Manipur) tribes migrated through Myanmar, Tibet, and Assam in waves spread over centuries before the birth of Christ. Meitei tribes in Manipur gradually gained suzerainty over the others.
All the ‘Naga’ (term coined by outsiders) tribes have their different languages, culture, customs, traditions, dress, and have fought each other. Twenty of the 35 main tribes are located in Nagaland; the rest are in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Myanmar. Although the claimed total Naga population is about three million, according to the 2011 census Nagaland’s population is much lower (1.9 million).
The secessionist Naga nationalist leader Angami Zapu Phizo, who died in exile in London in 1990, used the concept of ethnicity to band the Naga tribes together. He formed the Naga Club in 1918. In 1929, the Naga Club presented their memorandum to the Simon Commission against being bracketed with India. Thereafter a Naga Hills District Tribal Council was formed. Political awakening reinforced demands for independence. In 1946, the Naga Hills Tribal Council was converted into the Naga National Council. In 1947, a Nine-Point Agreement was signed between the government of India and the Nagas wherein considerable autonomy was granted but this did not satisfy the Nagas. As the self-proclaimed representative of the Nagas, Phizo unilaterally declared Naga independence from India in August 1947.
Insurgency started in 1953 with insurgents declaring themselves ‘Peoples Sovereign Republic of Free Nagaland.’ In 1955, the Naga Federal Government (NFG) replaced this entity. Between 1957 and 1960, there were three Naga People’s Conventions for Peace. The GOI agreed to a 16 Point Proposal put forward by the Nagas, leading to the formation of the State of Nagaland including Tuensang district of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), a political division formed under the British Indian rule. Subsequently, the Shillong Accord of 1975 was signed, wherein the NFG agreed to lay down their arms. Due to the birth of the NSCN out of the anti-Shillong Accord, factional insurgency continued.
The 1980s witnessed the split the NSCN on ethnic lines, with NSCN (IM) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) or NSCN (K) fighting to gain control over Naga-inhabited areas. Ninety percent of NSCN (IM) leadership and 50% of the cadres are Tangkhuls from Manipur; 40% belong to other Manipur, Assam and Arunachal tribes—only 10% are from Nagaland. The NSCN (K) cadres are from Myanmar and areas they control.
The NSCN (IM) was forced into a ceasefire in 1997. A ceasefire was similarly brokered with the NSCN(K) which then used to control most of the Naga-inhabited areas from its headquarters in Myanmar. Talks commenced between the GOI and the NSCN (IM), as they are Indian Nagas. The NSCN (IM) thus became the favoured group, gradually wresting control from NSCN (K) by force of arms, and came to be considered as the mother insurgent group.
Consequently, the Nagaland tribes, the NSCN (K) and other groups, viewed these talks with suspicion, distrust, and skepticism, as they consider the GOI’s negotiations with NSCN (IM) to be talks with the Tangkhuls, who are forcing their will on them by force of arms. The NSCN (IM)’s coercion of other Naga groups ensured a pro-NSCN (IM) government in Nagaland, ready to facilitate their actions.
The NSCN (IM) is the strongest insurgent group and is well equipped with the latest weapons. It dictates terms to others, runs a parallel government, and extorts taxes from all residents in Naga areas. The factions that have broken away are the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Unification) or NSCN (U), the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF), and the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front (MNRF). They now oppose the NSCN (IM). The NSCN (K), having abrogated the ceasefire as the GOI sidelined them and has since repeatedly attacked the Special Forces, also have breakaway factions such as the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang-Kitovi) or NSCN (KK), and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Reformation) or NSCN (R). They, however, remain a force to reckon with and are allied with Meitei and anti-Isak Muivah (IM) insurgents.
The area’s population of 2.57 million is dominated not by the assertive Nagas, but by the Meitei who comprise 58% of the population, according to Manipur’s 2011 census. The Naga tribes such as Ao, Kabui, Angami, Zeliang, Khongazai, Mao, Tangkhul make up 13%; the Kuki-Chin tribes such as Anal, Chiru, Chothe, Gangte, Koira, Kom, Lamgang, Mizo, Mansang, Paite, Ralte, Sahte, Simte, Thadou, Vaiphei, and Zou comprise 14%; and others are 15%.
Manipuri dancers: Coping with grievances. Photo by the author.
Manipuri Naga residents in hills bordering Nagaland and Myanmar feel neglected on issues of economy, jobs, development, culture, and governance. They claim that Meiteis have seized their lands and livelihood, and the settlement of the Kuki-Chin tribes on their lands was unjust. NSCN (IM) has control over most Naga areas. Their demand for the Naga tribal areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal, and Myanmar, is the main reason for conflict with the Meiteis. They are also fighting all the others groups for control over illegal trade with Myanmar and for being in occupation of Naga areas.
Most Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribes reside in south Manipur in Chandel and Churachandpur districts, with pockets elsewhere. The Kuki-Chin-Mizo tribals are fighting for survival. The Meiteis and the Nagas had tried to evict them, killing a large number of them. They have now fortified themselves into insurgent groups, whose role is to strike back. Their demand is amalgamation of their areas with Mizoram and a separate state.
The Meiteis inhabit the valley of Manipur and extend into Cachar district of Assam. They are the majority and consider themselves superior. They feel they are being oppressed in order to meet demands of the hill tribes. Meitei insurgent groups that were formed in the 1960s and the 1970s, demand independence; they are agitating over a range of issues: neglect; ceding of Kabaw Valley to Burma; granting Manipur a mere ‘Union Territory’ status while Nagaland had become a state; not being given scheduled tribe status which the hill tribes enjoyed; and preferential treatment to the hill tribes. At present the Meitei groups control the valley and routes to Cachar and Moreh partially.
Manipur faces inter-ethnic conflict among the Naga tribes; Meitei (Manipuri) and Naga tribes, Kuki-Chin tribals versus both the Nagas and the Meiteis, and Valley inhabitants (Meitei) versus Hill inhabitants. Politicians have aligned themselves with insurgent groups based on ethnic considerations.
The NSCN (IM) controls part of the hills bordering Nagaland and Myanmar, with NSCN (K), NFG, ZUF, Manipur People's Revolutionary Front (MPRF), and NSCN (KK) controlling the rest. The Southern Hills bordering Myanmar are controlled by Kuki Chin, and Meitei, and NSCN (K) groups.
The NSCN (IM), through their blockade of routes into Manipur, is trying to strangle the Meiteis into submission. Since the Special Forces’ counter-insurgency operations are currently only against non-NSCN (IM)/Ceasefire groups (primarily the Meiteis and NSCN (K) and its surrogates), the Meiteis feel beleaguered and aggrieved.
After the Accord, the Meiteis, Kukis, and others also demanded ‘Shared Sovereignty.’ Meiteis then agitated violently for ‘Restricted Area Status’ to prevent hill tribe migration into Manipur. The Manipur government enacted the ‘Protection of Manipur People,’ ‘Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms,’ and ‘Manipur Shops and Establishments’ bills on 31 August 2016. The ‘Protection of the Manipur People’ law of 1951 would be the base year to differentiate foreigners from natives. This adversely affects all hill tribes. The ‘Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms’ bill prohibits purchase and selling land without government permission. Similarly, the ‘Manipur Shops and Establishment’ bill allows opening of shops and establishments only with permission of the government.
Following violent protests by the hill tribes, the first bill was withdrawn by the president of India; the remaining two were sent to an expert committee. The United Naga Council retaliated, blockading all routes into Manipur to try to force the Meitei government to capitulate—the blockade and agitation continues, with prices of all commodities soaring. On 9 December 2016, the government of India declared the creation of seven new districts which is viewed as detrimental to Nagas. There has since been extensive violence by the Nagas and NSCN (IM).
With an almost five-month long Naga blockade, all day long protests, violence, money crunch due to demonetization, life was paralysed in Manipur, as people fought shortages and high cost of essential commodities. The blockade has now been lifted after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s coming to power in Manipur. The Meiteis consequently feel that New Delhi is punishing them. Due to these complex issues, irrespective of who holds political power in Manipur, implementation of the Naga Peace Accord may prove to be extremely difficult.
Lt. Gen. John Ranjan Mukherjee (Retd., PVSM, AVSM, VSM) is former General Officer Commanding Kashmir (15 Corps), and Chief of Staff Eastern Command. He is the author of An Insider’s Experience of Insurgency in India’s North East, and The Indomitable Rhino Warriors of India's North East: History of the Assam Regiment. He belongs to the Assam Regiment, which recruits men only from the North Eastern Region of India. He has served 26 years in the North East, and has lived with the men of his regiment and people from the region almost all his life, and is married to a Mizo lady.