Eighty kilometres to the north of Imphal city, atop a hill, lies Ukhrul. An uneasy calm is palpable in the town, the headquarters of one of Manipur’s five Naga districts. At the heart of it, next to a new statue of Mahatma Gandhi — the old one was vandalised ahead of the 2014 general elections — a banner announces a candle-light vigil “for an inclusive, honourable solution… for lasting peace in our Naga Homeland”.
The other signs of the long-lasting demand for Greater Nagaland, going back to the early 20th century, have gone “underground”. They include cadres of the main NSCN (I-M) camp in Hebron, Nagaland, as well as other camps in the state and Manipur, who have “gone to the jungles” in preparation for what might happen now that the October 31 deadline for the final Naga peace accord has lapsed. Around 300 are estimated to have crossed over into Myanmar. The Indian government too has rushed in forces, apprehensive of what may follow.
The fulcrum of much of the developments is the Ukhrul home of NSCN (I-M) supremo Thuingaleng Muivah, one of the tallest leaders of the Naga movement and the chief negotiator in the talks with the government. For six decades, Naga leaders such as Muivah, late comrade Issak Chisi Swu and ex-ally S S Khaplang, have held off the might of the Indian State — while supporting almost all the armed rebellions in the Northeast.
The ceasefire, signed between the I K Gujral-led government and NSCN (I-M) in 1997, marked a pause in an armed conflict that had claimed hundreds of lives by then. In 2015, amidst much fanfare, the Narendra Modi-led NDA-I government announced that the two sides had reached a ‘framework agreement’, without revealing the contours of it. Five years later, there is no clarity still, with the ceasefire now hanging by a thread.
Says Standhope Varah, an Ukhrul-based member of the I-M’s Ceasefire Monitoring committee, “Uncle Muivah is old now, but the Indian government should know that if he was to go, there would be 10 Muivahs in his place.”
Pointing out that even prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru failed to quell Naga insurgency, Varah adds, “You think we will get scared if you have choppers overhead? Nehru had threatened he would deploy one soldier for every tree in Naga areas and wipe us out in a week. We are still here… The government should not mistake this for Kashmir.”
And yet, the fear is that the fate of that state’s special status is precisely what awaits the Northeast. The BJP is now in government in all the Northeast states, either alone or through the North-East Democratic Alliance. Speaking in Assam last week, the Centre’s interlocutor with the Nagas and now Nagaland Governor, R N Ravi, called the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K “the correction of a sin” and said there was no question of acceding the demand for a separate Naga flag and constitution, or a separate autonomous territory integrating Naga-inhabited areas — across Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland — into a ‘Greater Nagaland’ or Nagalim, all part of NSCN (I-M) demands.
“The Indian Constitution will prevail,” Ravi said.
With nearly 80% of its area under tribal land (including Nagas and Kukis) and 24% of its population Naga, Manipur is on tenterhooks. For nearly a month now, protests have been held every day in the state, with the Opposition asking the BJP-led government to come clean over its position on Nagalim.
In neighbouring Nagaland, the question uppermost in cities, towns and villages is if they are in for a lockdown similar to Kashmir’s. Capital city Kohima resembles a garrison, with paramilitary forces posted every 5 metres and convoys patrolling the streets.
Mere 20 km away lies Khonoma village, the birth place of Naga movement founder Dr A Z Phizo. It was the last Naga village to fall to the British — in 1880, after the Manipur king lent the British support. An obelisk outside Khonoma declares, “Nagas are not Indians”.
Village council chairman Nisamezo Pier, 61, says they are apprehensive the Naga movement is too divided now for peace. “I am afraid of violence after the final settlement.”
In Dimapur, Imnayangla Jamir (25), who has just completed her postgraduation, says she stocked up on rations before the October 31 deadline, like her friends and relatives. “We bought enough to last a month,” she says, adding she just wants to get on with her life and has no interest in the Naga movement.
Khonoma itself is now a tourist attraction, drawing even foreigners to its natural beauty. Home stays have sprung up while hectic preparations are underway these days for the Hornbill Festival starting December 1.
Keja Roko, 37, runs Alder Tours, which arranges trips across the Northeast, including to Khonoma. “Some Indian tourists ask us why the Nagas want a separate country and how would we survive. I tell them to leave our troubles to us, India need not worry,” says Roko, adding he wouldn’t settle for “anything less than complete independence”.
Says Kolezo Chase, the spokesperson of the Naga National Council (NNC), Dr Phizo’s party which later split and gave rise to the NPF (an ally of the BJP), “Since the ceasefire agreement, there have been two independent nations — India and Nagaland… Anything less than complete sovereignty is unacceptable.”
I-M sources say that among the proposals on the table in the talks is the outfit taking over the state, till elections are conducted.
However, others talk of growing support for integration with the rest of the country. Lanuakum Aier (29), who works with the research body Kohima Institute, says, “We have been dependent on the Indian government for so many years. I have studied in Pune, lived in Mumbai, been to Goa and Kolkata… I am Indian. Yes, I have been discriminated against a bit, but I didn’t mind,” Aier says, adding that most Naga youth think like him and it’s the elders who hope for a separate nation.
The 29-year-old adds that peace might end the clout of underground groups, hence ushering in prosperity. “People will no longer be made to pay taxes for everything. In Nagaland, you cannot even start a business without the backing of one group or the other.”
Khriekethozo Dzuvithu (23), a Master’s from Nagaland University, also refers to that. While he likes the idea of an independent Naga nation, he adds, “it is impractical”. “What would we do for our economy? And what if neighbouring countries attack us?… When people say these are peace talks, I find it stupid. We are already in peace with the Indian government. The talks are just a way for the groups to make money, wrest power.”
The ‘tax’ charged by the I-M is one reason for the resentment against the outfit, including in Manipur. In Ukhrul, the outfit began by taking a direct cut of 5 per cent for any work allotted in the area, and soon started executing contracts itself, giving these to relatives or subletting. The most lucrative projects concern building of roads, particularly after the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana push.
Government sources say they keep the estimated cost of a project deliberately inflated, to factor in the “cut”.
The first documented expression of Naga nationalism goes as back as 1918, when tribes met in Kohima to discuss their place in an independent India. In 1929, a memorandum was submitted to the visiting Simon Commission, requesting that the Nagas be left out of an Indian Union. An Act passed in 1935 by the British designated the Naga region “excluded area”. Around a decade later, ahead of Independence, the Indian government and NNC signed an agreement for “experimental coexistence with India for a period of 10 years”, to be followed by a review.
Naga historians point out that in the plebiscite conducted by the NNC in 1951, the Nagas opted overwhelmingly for a separate nation, but this was ignored by the Indian government. Thus began the Naga movement.
The Constitution allows Nagaland special provisions under Article 371 (A), protecting its customary laws and procedures. After Article 370 was abrogated, the government clarified that this provision, like those for other Northeast states, would not be touched.
T R Zeliang, former Nagaland chief minister and NPF president, says, “No other interlocutor or PM has been able to achieve what the present government has — push talks and ensure that all the nine I-M factions as well as civil society groups are on board.”
Countering this, Nagaland Congress president Kewekhape Therie says, “Ravi said all stakeholders would be consulted before the final agreement, but no one has come to us yet. I fear it will be like 2015 — just a piece of paper and not an actual agreement.”
The ambiguity around the 2015 agreement, in fact, remains a major irritant. It included terms like “shared sovereignty”, “two entities”, “competency clause” and a separate constitution and mini-parliament for Nagas. “We expect a special development package. And if the final agreement is in keeping with the framework agreement, the Nagas will enjoy autonomy within the Indian nation. A special Manipur territorial council cannot be ruled out either,” says a source.
Even if its territorial integrity is retained, the fear in Manipur is that its government would be undermined by an autonomous Naga body. An umbrella group of all civil organisations, COCOMI, says, “Jurisdiction of most of our areas might be torn asunder… We will be reduced to a UT or a city state.”
On Friday, Ravi met the United Naga Council of Manipur, and expressed concern over “deterioration” of relations between the hill (tribal) and valley people in the state.
For now, Ukhrul is a far cry from the time NSCN (I-M) camps dotted the area and Naga army moved around freely. Among the few I-M men who remain in the town these days are Ranyo Hunglen (49) and William Haorne (51), both Lt Colonels in the ‘Naga Army’, who have been with the outfit for over 30 years.
While the ceasefire required the NSCN (I-M) to stop recruiting, Haorne admits that five years ago, their ‘battalion’ got 20 new recruits. In case the ceasefire falls through, the I-M could carry on low-intensity guerrilla war for years — which might prove a headache as the government pushes an Act East policy.
Hunglen is in charge of the I-M’s Ukhrul town ‘battalion’ — one of the outfit’s 16. The father of a four-month-old, he says, “We all hope for an honourable solution, but if it doesn’t happen, we are ready to continue fighting.”
Haorne, his deputy, joined the I-M at the age of 18 with three friends, all now killed in combat. “God sent us a message then to free ourselves from enslavement,” he says. “The outcome, we believe, will depend on God. He will send us a message on what to do next.”