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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 26, June 19, 2010

Muivah’s Intended Visit to Somdal Stirs up Demand for Nagalim

Sunday 20 June 2010, by Aveivey. D

The demand for a Greater Nagaland or Nagalim and the intended visit of the General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM), Thuingleng Muivah, to his ancestral village Somdal in the Ukhrul district of Manipur has brought the State of Manipur to the centre-stage of political controversy. Isak Swu and Muivah of the Greater Naga movement, and popularly known as the leaders of NSCN-IM, have been demanding a separate homeland for the Naga people scattered across the States of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, besides of course the Nagaland State.

The dominant inhabitants in the Ukhrul district of Manipur are the Tangkhul Nagas and Th Muivah belongs to this community. In Manipur, the Meities comprise the dominant section of the population, and they along with the government are opposing Muivah’s visit to his ancestral village of Somdal in the Ukhrul district in Manipur. The Manipur Government argues that the ceasefire does not apply to Manipur, and the Manipur State is not bound to provide security cover to Muivah if he visits his village.

The reasons to deny Muivah the right to visit are many. First, the dominant Meities in Manipur are apprehensive that if Muivah is allowed to come to Manipur, his visit might trigger political troubles with the demand for Greater Nagaland emerging at the centre-stage. Manipur is not expected to let the four Naga-dominated hill districts secede. If the NSCN-IM’s demand to extend the ceasefire to the four Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur is allowed, the logical development will be greater clamour for a unified Nagaland, a prospect which Manipur dreads. The NSCN will interpret extension of the ceasefire as an excuse to legitimise their claim over the four Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur.

Why did Muivah choose to visit his ancestral village at this point of time after nearly forty years of absence? Newspaper commentators and analysts on the North-East issue float different reasons. However, none of the reasons seems to be credible. The truth, however, is that there is no love between the Nagas and Meities. Unless the trust deficit between the NSCN-IM-backed Nagas and Meities is removed, no dialogue between the two tribes seems possible. As a first step, therefore, the NSCN-IM leader, Muivah, must engage the Meities in dialogue and sort out the conflicting issues. Unless both the tribes learn to live with mutual respect and not see each other as mutual enemies, peace as well as solution of the conflict between the two sides will continue to elude them.

Why are the States of Manipur and Nagaland in the news now suddenly years after the Greater Nagaland issue left the two States on the boil but was then kept dormant? Is the planned visit of the NSCN-IM General Secretary, Muivah, to his ancestral village in Manipur so important to trigger so much political heat in the region? The truth is that it has. The reactions to the intended visit have created such a situation in the state of Manipur that the average citizen of the State is suffering from the economic blockade very severely.

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Before examining the impact of the planed visit, some bare facts of the main actors and issues are necessary to put the problem in perspective.

The present General Secretary of the NSCN-IM, Muivah, worked with A.Z. Phizo in the Naga National Council (NNC) in 1964. Now he is 75 years old and currently the General Secretary of the NSCN faction headed by him. Its Chairman is Isak Swu—thus the acronym NSCN-IM. He, Swu and Khaplang (now heading the NSCN-K faction) launched the NSCN in 1978 following the Shillong Accord by the NNC in November 1975. The NSCN split into NSCN-IM and
NSCN-K in 1988.

The present State of Nagaland was created on December 1, 1963 out of the Naga Hills district of Assam. The present demand for Nagalim embraces the Tuensang Tract of the erstwhile North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA). Nagalim or Greater Nagaland is the proposed sovereign Naga State that the NSCN wants. It comprises the present Nagaland as well as all “Naga-inhabited” areas of adjoining Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Myanmar, together adding up to about 1,20,000 sq km.

The NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire with the Government of India on July 25, 1997, which came into effect from August 1, 1997. While the ceasefire was an outcome of the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s first meeting with Muivah in Paris in 1995, successive Prime Ministers, H.D. Deve Gowda and Atal Behari Vajpayee, also met Muivah in Zurich and Paris in 1997 and 1998 respectively. Since then, over 40 rounds of talks have taken place between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM leadership. Muivah continued to live in Thailand and other places such as Amsterdam but returned to India in March 2010. Since his arrival, Muivah has been staying at the NSCN-IM’s headquarters at Hebron near Dimapur in Nagaland.

As mentioned, Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga from the Ukhrul district of Manipur. Besides the Ukhrul district, the other three hill districts of Manipur which are Naga-dominated are Chandel, Senapati and Tamenglong. Mostly the Tangkhuls, to which Muviah belongs, and other Naga tribes have joined the demand for Greater Nagaland. After Muviah returned from Bangkok, he expressed his desire to visit his ancestral village Somdal which he left in 1964 after he joined the Naga rebels; and thereafter he remained abroad.

Muivah was among the most wanted men in Manipur. Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi is opposed to Muivah’s homecoming at blood-stained Mao. Nagas in Manipur yearn to see him return, even if for a few hours. Obviously, the Manipur State is alarmed that if Muivah visits his own village, the demand for Nagalim will again become loud and Manipur obviously would not like to part with even an inch of its territory. When in 2001 the Centre decided to extend the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM without territorial limits, it evoked massive protests in Manipur and other Naga inhabited areas. Protesters set the State Assembly building on fire and several people died in police firing. Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi fears that if Muivah is allowed to visit his ancestral village, he will address public meetings to whip up the campaign for inclusion of the State’s hill districts in “Greater Nagaland”.

The role of the Centre in this has been dubious to say the least. On April 29, 2010, the Centre asked the governments of Manipur and Nagaland to provide Muivah, a Z-plus protectee, “foolproof security” when he visits Somdal in Ukhrul and holds public meetings. Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi is against Muivah visiting his State. In particular, the dominant Meities in the Manipur Valley, constituting the majority of the State population, are opposed to Muivah’s visit. The All Manipur United Clubs Organisation (AMUCO) has imposed a ban on vehicle movement from Imphal Valley to the hill districts. The United Naga Council (UNC) of Manipur, on the other hand, has resorted to strikes opposing the Ibobi Government’s stand against Muivah.

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Tension along the inter-State boundary had reached a flashpoint on May 6 when two Naga students were killed as the Manipur Police fired in the Mao Gate area to disperse a mob demonstrating against the Ibobi Government. The situation in Manipur deteriorated to such an extent that it has begun to impact on the economic lifeline of the State. The bandh which was called created virtual havoc in the life of the people in the State. As blockades keep NH-39, that links Manipur to the country, perpetually closed, the State has learnt to live with scarcity and steep prices.

The prices of essential commodities have skyrocketed. A litre of gasoline is being sold at Rs 150. An LPG cylinder is selling for Rs 1500. This is the ground reality in Manipur where bandhs and blockades have become the order of the day. Manipur is right now facing blockades and bandhs—all directly affecting National Highway 39, the lifeline of the landlocked State that shares borders with Nagaland, Assam and Mizoram, apart from an international border with Myanmar.

If the Naga Students Federation (NSF) has stopped Manipur-bound trucks from passing through Nagaland for the Manipur Government’s refusal to let NSCN-IM leader Muivah enter, the All Naga Students Association of Manipur and other Naga civil organisations have blocked NH-39 since April 11 opposing holding district council elections in the hill districts. As if these blockades were not enough, the United Committee of Manipur has imposed a “total blockade” of transport vehicles from the Imphal Valley to the Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur. NH-39 also witnessed trouble when groups protesting the May 6 firing at Mao Gate felled trees and placed heaps of rocks to further block the highway.

What is the result? Manipur faces a severe crisis of essential commodities, with prices skyrocketing. With supply lines snapped, petrol pumps are fast shutting down and hospitals are running out of medicines. For those travelling to other parts of the country, the only way out is to catch a flight. With buses not plying on NH-39 for several weeks now, people go up to Mao Gate by taxi, cross the inter-State check gate, and catch another taxi after hiking for 2 km.

Academics in Manipur say that the State has over the years learnt to live with bandhs and blockades. The blame lies with the Centre. Movement of goods and vehicular traffic across the country is a fundamental right, and it is the Centre to ensure that this right is not curtailed anywhere. The State Government, however, puts the entire blame on the NSCN-IM. It feels that the situation has arisen because Muivah insists on addressing meetings in different hill districts of Manipur, which the State does not want to allow in the interests of territorial integrity of the state of Manipur. Indeed, Manipur has been held to ransom by these bandhs, especially since the birth of the NSCN. The State Government alleges that the NSCN collects illegal taxes from vehicles on the highway apart from looting them and the State suffers from the bandhs too.

Five trucks heading for Manipur were burnt down by miscreants one kilometre short of the Mao Gate on the Nagaland side. There must be over 100 trucks still stuck in Manipur. The registration numbers of trucks show that they are from all across the country—Punjab, Harayana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and Meghalaya. The 436-km NH-39, that takes off from NH-37 at Numaligarh near Kaziranga in Assam and passes 115 km through Nagaland and 211 km through Manipur, ends at Moreh on the Indo-Myanmar international border.

Though no latest figures about bandhs, blockades and their impact on Manipur are available, a study conducted by the State Government in 2009 said Manipur suffered an accumulated loss of Rs 1320 crores due to bandhs and blockades between 2004-05 and 2006-07. While Manipur witnessed 110 bandhs and 234 economic blockades during that period, the year-wise break-up is: 20 days of bandhs and 60 days of economic blockades in 2004-05, which rose to 48 days and 97 days in 2005-06, and 42 days and 77 days in 2006-07.

The State Department of Economics and Statistics has worked out the impact of these bandhs and blockades on the people of Manipur. The per capita income of the State reduced by 6.10 per cent in 2004-05, 11.79 per cent in 2005-06 and 9.93 per cent in 2006-07, the study says. The State Government is looking at opening NH-53, a circuitous route via Meghalaya and Barak Valley in Assam, to improve its supply position. But the Army has to ensure that NH-53 remains undisturbed.

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Even when Manipur and Nagaland are engaged in a tussle arising out of Muviah’s proposed visit to his ancestral village of Somdal in Manipur, Union Home Secretary G.K. Pillai reached Imphal to defuse the situation and find a solution to the impasse. Pillai discussed the State’s law and order situation as well as the crisis arising out of the blockade of NH-39, the State’s lifeline. Pillai also visited Kohima to discuss the situation with the State Government of Nagaland. But as it transpired subsequently, Pillai’s visit yielded no tangible results as both Manipur and Nagaland remained inflexible.

The NSCN-IM has been demanding integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of the region, which includes the hill districts of Manipur too. While Manipur is facing shortage of essential commo-dities due to the highway blockade, the two neighbouring States are also engaged in a tussle between the two Chief Ministers. Nagaland
Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, for instance, asked the Centre to direct the Manipur State Police forces to leave and deploy Central paramilitary forces in the Naga-inhabited areas of that State. This enraged the Manipur Chief Minister so much so that the spokesman for the Congress-led SPF Government said Rio had no right to interfere in the internal matters of another State. He said that the Nagaland Chief Minister should speak with knowledge of Centre-State relations and not utter anything he liked about the territorial integrity of Manipur.

The Nagaland State Assembly has in the past adopted resolutions supporting the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas. Muivah since May 5 is putting up at Viswema, a village in Nagaland 10 km short of the border with Manipur. The Prime Minister has urged Muivah to postpone visiting Somdal until the situation improves.

The majority of the Manipuris have faced the brunt stemming from the bandhs. The government has started rationing fuel and essential commodities, including gasoline. The State is being held hostage. There seems to be little chance of NH-39 reopening in the near future. The Manipur State has started airlifting foodgrains and medicine as stocks continue to deplete rapidly. The Manipur Chief Minister convened a meting of the Unified Command Structure and asked the security forces, including the Army, to help reopen NH-53 so that food- grains and other essential commodities could be transported via Shillong (Meghalaya) and Silchar (South Assam). The government has instructed 14 petrol pumps in five districts to sell fuel in limited quantities. Hospitals and nursing homes are unable to run OTs and emergency services as their dependence on diesel is high.

Of the three main parties—the States of Manipur and Nagaland, NSCN-IM and the Centre —the Centre seems to have lost the match as G.K. Pillai’s visit proved to be a non-starter. The truth is that the Centre suffers from a trust deficit so far as the North-East is concerned.

The political parties at the Centre hold different stances on this matter. While the Centre gave permission to Muivah to visit Somdal, the BJP accused the Congress for giving permission to Muivah that has created the present mess and therefore urged the Centre to withdraw the permission immediately. In a statement made by the BJP spokesman, Prakash Javadekar said: “The Home Minister’s unilateralism had caused a flare-up in Andhra Pradesh after the sudden announcement of the Telangana State. Manipur is the second such example of this unilateralism. …….He has converted peace into a crisis and solution into a problem with his unilateralism.” The BJP asked the government to “withdraw the permission granted to Muivah to defuse the emotional flare-up; ensure free flow of traffic on NH-39; organise supplies through NH-53 on a regular basis; distribute essential commodities at subsidised rates through PDS; construct godowns and cold storages for emergencies to end the stalemate in the State”. The party demanded that the Centre should protect Manipur’s territorial integrity. While expressing disappointment over the BJP’s allegation, Home Minister Chidambaram, clarified that the Centre’s permission was not sought or granted.

As of now, the Manipur Government has sought Mizoram’s help in transporting essential supplies from Silchar in Assam through that State. So far as the Centre is concerned, the immediate problem that needs to be tackled by the government is to ensure that the national highways are open and supplies are resumed to all districts in Manipur. The Centre’s position is that so long as the atmosphere is not conducive in Manipur, Muivah should defer his visit to Somdal.

Manipur Chief Minister Ibobi prevailed upon the Centre that his government is in a strong position politically and Muivah must not be allowed to create problems and an unstable situation by visiting Somdal at this point of time. The Centre was also not expected to overlook the fact that Ibobi has succeeded in consolidating his position and is now the undisputed leader as compared to the flux before he became the Chief Minister. Ibobi saw that Muivah wanted to exploit the political uncertainty during his tenure as the CM and now that he is in full control of the situation, he was determined to prevent Muivah in playing a disruptive role. Seen from this perspective, where Chidambaram failed, Ibobi won in preventing Muivah’s intended visit to Somdal. By sticking to his guns, Ibobi has created a situation leading to the blockade organised by the Naga groups and this is a headache for the Centre.

The Meiteis of Manipur do not seem to mind paying high prices for essential commodities just to keep Muivah out of the State boundary. The Centre is sending foodstuffs to keep the situation under control. But while availability of foodstuffs could be ensured for the Imphal Valley to some extent, the hill districts face the major brunt of the shortage. While the principal adversaries—the Congress-led Ibobi Government in Manipur and the BJP-backed Democratic Alliance Government of Neiphiu Rio in Nagaland—stick to their positions, the Centre faces a difficult situation on how to defuse the crisis. If the current siege prolongs, while Muivah would have scored a point even without visiting his ancestral village, the Centre would have embraced another headache to address, besides the Maoist challenge in other parts of the country.

Ms Aveivey. D is a Ph.D student at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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