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Sparks from Manipur can ignite bigger conflict in region

The big problem plaguing the Framework Agreement has been the opacity over its text.

Sparks from Manipur can ignite bigger conflict in region

Tinderbox: The risk of militancy and insurgency resurfacing in the North-East, either by accident or design, is higher than ever before. ANI

Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)

Military Commentator

MANIPUR has been witnessing a near-civil war for the past nine months. On January 24, at Imphal’s historic Kangla Fort, banned Meitei extremist organisation Arambai Tenggol forced at least 36 Meitei state legislators to take an anti-Kuki pledge while promising to protect Meitei interests. The state and Central leadership have fanned divisive flames. The civil war in neighbouring Myanmar has spilled into not just Manipur but also Mizoram and Nagaland, with dire prospects that insurgency in the North-East could revive with greater ferocity, given that 6,000 small arms looted from Manipur state armouries are in the wrong hands. The biggest worry must be about the strategic patience of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) over the 2015 Framework Agreement (FA).

Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio, like his counterpart in Mizoram, has rejected the Centre’s proposal to fence the border and cancel the Free Movement Regime (FMR) implemented with the Myanmar government in 2018. Nagaland has a 215-km border with Myanmar, and fencing will divide people in Noklak, Mon, Kiphire and Phek districts. The Khiamniungan tribe has around 50 villages in India and 150 in Sagaing region of Myanmar. The Nagas have a high stake in Manipur, where Naga-inhabited hill districts are being claimed by Kukis, even as the NSCN-IM has rejected the Kukis’ demand for a self-administered hill area.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (December 2023), 382 violent incidents related to the NSCN-IM have resulted in 63 deaths. Incidents were also reported from Dimapur and Arunachal Pradesh, pockets of which the NSCN-IM claims. The FA has been in suspended animation since the last round of talks on August 23 last year in New Delhi with government interlocutor AK Mishra, where the Naga flag issue was discussed. On August 26, the NSCN-IM disclosed that no decision was reached on the flag and no further talks had taken place, presumably because talks in the Capital broke down or because Mishra was diverted to Manipur to negotiate with Kuki and Meitei groups.

Since 1997, the NSCN-IM has been locked in a ceasefire agreement, and 80 rounds had already taken place when the FA was signed with great fanfare. Thereafter, several rounds have taken place with two special envoys, the last of whom was RN Ravi. Ravi was elevated to the post of Nagaland Governor, and he remained the interlocutor too. From the Governor’s pedestal, Ravi became more prescriptive. Ravi unilaterally included another stakeholder, the seven-party Naga National Political Group (NNPG). The FA was signed only with the NSCN-IM.

The big problem plaguing the FA has been the opacity over its text. In 2017, an ‘agreed position’ was signed to show progress in talks. This, too, is classified. On January 14 last year, the NSCN-IM and the NNPG signed an agreement declaring an unconditional commitment to work together to secure the FA. Home Minister Amit Shah then proclaimed on February 20, “Our aim is to make peace talks successful and solve Naga political problems quickly.” But the fact that the talks have been stuck over the NSCN’s demand for a separate flag and constitution is no secret. Earlier on January 8 last year, NSCN-IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, due to his failing health, appointed his close aide and NSCN-IM’s former army chief, Lt Gen VS Atem, as the deputy prime minister of the People’s Republic of Nagalim and nominated him as his successor. Like Muivah, he belongs to the Tangkhul Naga, who are in majority in Nagaland and Manipur’s Ukhrul district.

On August 14 (Naga Independence Day), Muivah observed, “The flag and the constitution are naturally inseparable from sovereignty. India understands it too. There is no ambiguity about it.” He also said the integration of all Naga areas had been acknowledged by the Centre and would be finalised soon. The government has rarely contradicted the NSCN-IM’s statements in public. On October 10, Lt Gen Atem accused the government of avoiding the two issues and asserted that the flag and the constitution could never be given up as they are sovereign rights of the Naga people and have been recognised in the FA.

Two other issues that will further complicate negotiations when resumed will be the Kuki demand for their map, submitted on August 17 to Mishra. The Kuki state map includes most of the Naga territory in Manipur’s Senapati, Chandel, Ukhrul and Tamenglong districts. It drew a sharp response from the United Naga Council, which said that the move could pose a threat to the inalienable rights of Nagas in Manipur and the map of Nagalim. The second problem pertains to the Eastern Naga region, which comprises Kiphire, Longleng, Mon, Noklak, Shamator and Tuensang districts and accounts for 20 of the 60 seats in the Nagaland Assembly. The Eastern Naga People’s Organisation has been demanding a separate state. The people have complained about a ‘development deficit’ and placed their separation demand with the PMO in 2010.

Given that the FA is in a stalemate, inordinately delayed and made more complex by the Kuki Zo map in Manipur, the NSCN-IM fears that the “peace process could be derailed”. With a new firebrand military leader the de facto supremo of the NSCN-IM and with the Naga government and people unhappy with the fencing and abrogation of the FMR, the risk of militancy and insurgency reigniting in the North-East, either by accident or design, is higher than ever before. If the Arambai Tenggol can ‘hijack’ the Manipur Assembly, including the CM, the NSCN-IM may be tempted to follow suit as sparks and splinters continue coming from Manipur.


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