Difficult days ahead for Muivah

Yambem Laba *

The talks between the Government of India and the NSCN (I-M) have now entered the 22nd year and are said to have reached a final point. The Nagas are expected to be given the fruits of the final Naga Accord as a Christmas gift later this year. At the outset it needs to be categorically stated here that the NSCN (I – M) had given up hopes of total sovereignty as early as 1988 and this has not been the result of the protracted talks that have been going on.

That this demand was given up in 1988 itself was told to me by the late S. Khaplang when we had met in Thailand in 1997. According to Khaplang this was the main factor behind the split in the NSCN in 1988. He said that Muivah as General Secretary had convened a decisive meeting that year which was not attended by him and that the late Issac Chishi Swu was away in Kachinland at that time.

That meeting which had also lacked the requisite quorum was pushed through and the resolution that was adopted was that the armed Naga movement for liberation which was launched by Angami Zapu Phizo who had raised the issue as early as 1947 and finally took to the jungle in the mid 1950s was going to change its ultimate goal. It was defined as “one step down from total sovereignty and one step up from the Suisha Plan”.

Suisha was a Tangkhul Naga Member of Parliament from Manipur in the second Lok Sabha. He was one of the major ideologues of the movement during the early days. That split in 1988 was a major setback for Muivah. Many of his followers especially from amongst his Tangkhul tribe were killed and Muivah himself was saved by a timely warning from United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur. RK Meghen, supremo of the UNLF now in Guwahati Central Jail, told me that he had issused instructions to warn Muivah of the impending death threat to him from Khaplang’s followers.

And according to Lukhoi, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Manipur People’s Army (MPA), barely two minutes had passed after he had warned Muivah and he had escaped through the backdoor when the entire cottage where he was holed up was raked by a fusillade of bullets fired by the Hemi Naga cadres of Khaplang.

It however was Muivah’s achievement that he had built up the NSCN (I – M) almost from scratch making it the biggest and most organized armed groups in the North Eastern region earning for itself the sobriquet of being the “Mother of all Insurgent groups” in the Northeast.

Unofficial talks between the Government of India and the NSCN (I –M) had begun as early as 1994. That was confirmed to me by the late Rajesh Pilot, who was the then Union Minister of State for Internal Affairs, during his visit to Imphal at that time. Prior to that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had utilized the services of noted Indian journalist Sanjoy Hazarika to offer India’s olive branch to Muivah and Company. Sanjoy flew to Bangkok and broke the ice. Formal talks between the two began in 1997. The talks hovered from the Hague to Davos to Bangkok and finally to New Delhi and Nagaland.

The NSCN (I – M) hired the services of some of the best possible negotiatiors, people who had been active in South Africa and elsewhere where conflicts were present. The devastating NSCN ambushes on the Indian Army ceased but their taxation on trade and commerce in Nagaland and Manipur has continued till date.

The dynamics of the Naga underground movement must be understood in the complexities of its composition. At best when we speak of the unique history of the Nagas, it can be said to be akin to that of the native American tribes often referred to as “Red Indians” where the Apaches are as different from the Cheyenne or the Cherokees and the Sioux and the only thread binding them was their hatred for the white settlers.

In much the same way, the Angamis are different from the Aos or the Konyaks and for that matter the Tangkhuls of Manipur, the tribe to which Muivah belongs, have more cultural and historical affinity with the Meiteis or the plainsmen of Manipur. And while the Nagas of Nagaland use Nagamese as a means of communication, the Nagas of Manipur use Manipuri or the language of the Meiteis as their lingua franca.

So, the dilemma before Muivah who hails from Manipur, was how he would explain his position to the population of the present state of Nagaland in the post – accord period. It was perhaps understanding this problem that he rushed through the process of signing the Framework Agreement in 2015 on which Issac Swu appended his signature from his deathbed. Muivah knew that no settlement with India could be arrived at without Swu’s signature on it, the latter being from Nagaland and belonging to the Sema or Sumi tribe.

And thus, sans sovereignty, the integration of the Naga areas of Manipur particularly into Nagaland to form Nagalim becomes almost a sine quo non for Muivah’s formal and official acceptability to the Nagas of Nagaland.

While the Nagaland State Assembly had at least on three occasions resolved on calling for the merger of the adjoining Naga areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, it was only in 2001 that the NSCN made its first formal attempt to broach the idea using a Trojan horse.

They were then able to convince then Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani to extend the areas to be covered by the ongoing Ceasefire between the two sides to all its areas of operation beyond Nagaland by inserting the term “without territorial limits” in its term of reference. While there was muted silence in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the Meiteis of Manipur smelt a rat and rose up in a manner never witnessed before.

There was a complete breakdown of law and order and chaos reigned for three days during which the State Assembly building, the Chief Minister’s Office all Ministers’ residential buildings were burnt down. Eighteen people lost their lives even as it was rumored that the then Governor had taken refuge in the Army Cantonment in Leimakhong. That day, the 18th of June, is still almost a sacred day amongst Manipuris, who stood for the territorial integrity of the State.

Three days later Prime Minister AtalBehari Vajpayee told the media that “a deep misunderstanding seems to have occurred in Manipur”. The term “without territorial limits” was dropped from the terms of reference of the ceasefire between the Indian troops and the Naga millitants. Muivah was back to square one.

The second attempt was in 2010 when he arm – twisted the Centre to urge the Government of Manipur to provide him with security and smooth passage during his proposed visit to Manipur. Muivah had not been home for over 40 years then. Instead of just saying that he wanted to visit his home and relatives in Somdal in Ukhrul, where he could have been choppered in, he wanted to make a grand re – entry into Manipur like Julius Ceasar after the conquest of Gaul.

He had started his journey to Manipur at the head of a cavalcade and had planned public meetings in Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul to whip up Naga frenzy towards Naga integration. A highly alarmed Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh declared that Muivah was “persona non grata” in Manipur.

He had all the entrance roads to Manipur blocked at Mao and Jessami and stationed the dreaded Mnipur Police Commandos with express orders to arrest Muivah should he dare to enter Manipur, with or without Z – level security cover. Unknown to many Naga watchers in the country, Muivah still remains a “Wanted Man” in Manipur carrying carrying a price of Rs 1 lakh on his head.

Dejected for the second time in ten years, Muivah returned to Hebron after having reached Viswema the last village in Nagaland before entering Manipur through Mao.

By this time it became clear to the Centre that the integration of Naga areas of Manipur and for that matter those of Assam or Arunachal cannot be on the agenda in the terms of reference with or without the Framework Agreement and began clearly stating that the territorial integrity of Manipur would not be compromised come what may. With Naga integration out of the question, Muivah soon propped up the demand for a separate Constitution and Flag for Nagaland in the final settlement and has even gone to the extent that without them he will not be able to ink the final agreement.

The Centre has categorically said “No” to this proposal. Muivah seems to be hemmed in by the fact that the Chief Interlocutor of the Government of India has also become the Governor of Nagaland and if after the accord, Muivah becomes the Chief Minister of Nagaland, he would still be obliged to call him “Sir”.

Even as the debate on a Naga constitution and Flag was going on, the powerful United Committee Manipur (UCM) which was born out of the aftermath of the 18th June uprising in 2001, had on October 1 ‘summoned’ an all political party meeting which included the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress. It had adopted three resolutions.

That the final Agreement shall not infringe on the traditional integrity of Manipur and even if the Government of India assures that the geographical boundaries of the Northeastern States will remain intact, anything which subsequently relates to the ongoing Framework Agreement cannot be taken up inside Manipur without the prior sanction and approval of the State Government and people of Manipur.

It also said no to the proposal of setting up a Pan – Naga or Cultural Provincial – territorial council or any arrangement relating to financial or ethnic – based administrative arrangement or any structural formation in similar fashion. It warned that if any decision by the Government of Manipur was contrary to the above three resolutions, the “People of Manipur shall take its own course to determine the future of Manipur”.

At 85 Muivah knows that his days are numbered and that he does not have the time to return to the jungles or the safe houses in Bangkok or the Hague. And 22 years of protracted talks have taken a heavy toll on his hardy Naga Army boys, they have turned from hungry wolves to fattened bears and have got used on the luxury of constructing and living in palatial villas and travelling in SUVS.

The three – month – long gruelling trek to Yunnan Province in China which he had led in the early 1970s is but a distant and dimishing memory. And even if he decides to break off the talks with India and return to the bushes, he has nowhere to go.

With Myanmar already shutting its doors on Indian insurgent groups and China a lost horizon now, Muivah seems to have been trapped. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi may even be tempted to look at a Kashmir type of solution to the Naga problem and simply surround Camp Hebron where entire who’s who of NSCN (I – M) are holed up. In the evening of his life, Muivah’s new Nagaland may not quite see the dawn he once dreamt of.

The writer is The Statesman’s Imphal based Special Representative.

* Yambem Laba wrote this article, which was published in both The Sangai Express and Imphal Times
This article was posted on 10 October, 2019 .

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