Following a five-day standoff with the Assam Rifles, cadres of the southern command battalion of NSCN-IM, one of the largest militant outfits in the Northeast, on Wednesday vacated a makeshift camp they had constructed barely 12 km from the international border with Myanmar in Manipur’s Ukhrul district.
Ukhrul is the fulcrum of IM activity in Manipur, with IM chief Thuingaleng Muivah coming from the district.
The development comes at a time when the Central government is in talks with NSCN-IM to end the 60-year “political conflict” in the region.
The Naga Peace Accord was pushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and signed by interlocutor R N Ravi on behalf of the Central government and Muivah, the NSCN-IM general secretary.
A statement issued on Wednesday by the Eastern Command at Fort William said, “NSCN (IM) had occupied a temporary camp in Sihai village…. Setting up an unauthorised camp in gross violation of ceasefire ground rules, and against the spirit of the ongoing ceasefire agreement, resulted in great inconvenience to the locals in adjacent areas. The matter was addressed by the security forces at the appropriate level so as to ensure no further inconvenience is caused to the local people.
As tension escalated over the past few days, civil society organisations in Ukhrul district came together to plead with both sides to maintain peace. On Tuesday, more than 2,000 residents from villages across the district took out a peace march near Sihai village. Among those who participated were village chieftains, civil society representatives, church leaders and women from the villages, and presided over by 16 pastors from different churches across the district.
Tuisem Kamkara, vice-president of Tangkhul Naga Long, the biggest civil society group in Ukhrul district, said he was stationed at Sihai village until Wednesday morning to ensure that the matter did not escalate from a standoff to an armed conflict.
Kamkara, who had led the peace march, said, “This village is about 4 km from the Ukhrul headquarters and barely 11 km from the Myanmar border, and is, thus, of strategic importance. On April 26, Assam Rifles surrounded the area. I have heard that there were around 60 NSCN-IM cadres at this makeshift camp. The military had two drones fly over the camp — I have seen the video footage; it showed around five or six temporary huts, where the cadres must have been staying. This was in the forests, about 5 km from Sihai village.”
Besides, Kamkara said, Assam Rifles paraded sophisticated machinery in the village grounds, which frightened the villagers, and they called for peace.
“For the last five days no villager has gone to the fields out of fear of a confrontation, even though this was the end of the sowing season, so of course it has affected life here. Civil society groups along with the CFMG managed to persuade either side to desist from escalating,” Kamkara said.
The IM cadres received their marching orders from the outfit’s leaders on Tueday evening, and vacated the camp by Wednesday morning, Kamkara said.
A previous statement from the Eastern Command had said that the IM camp was detected during an aerial recce on April 25. Kamkara said the camp was set up six months ago. “As per our understanding, this is our land. Where will our boys go? They should stay on our land. But the Army and the government has said this was in violation of the ceasefire agreement,” he said.
The Eastern Command stated that setting up the “unathorised” camp was “in violation of ground rules agreed upon”. It, the statement said, “is most unfortunate and almost betrays the hopes of Naga people for the final accord anytime soon”.
“In fact,” the statement mentioned, “in the spirit of maintaining the momentum in negotiations achieved after signing of the Framework Agreement, security forces have been extremely careful not to escalate in spite of provocation from NSCN(IM) and approached the Chairman CFMG though he has no mandate beyond Nagaland.”
Standhope Varah, member of NSCN-IM’s steering committee, the group’s highest body, and member of the ceasefire ground rules monitoring cell for Ukhrul district, told The Indian Express that these standoffs have been frequent. “On one hand the government talks peace with us, and on the other Assam Rifles forcibly flushes out our boys wherever they go. Assam Rifles has said that the ceasefire agreement does not extend to Manipur but only to Nagaland. Are they telling us that the IM is not under ceasefire in Manipur,” Varah asked.