No alternative to co-existence

Yambem Laba *

Nongthongbam Biren (CM Manipur) with Shurhozelie Liezietsu (CM Nagaland) at Imphal :: May 9 2017
Nongthongbam Biren (CM Manipur) with Shurhozelie Liezietsu (CM Nagaland) at Imphal on May 9 2017 :: Pix - DIPR

If Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh is on a mission to appease the Nagas, he seems to be making some progress in easing the otherwise strained relations between the Naga communities of Manipur and Nagaland and the Manipur Government.

Some years ago, the apex body of the Nagas in Manipur, the United Naga Council, had given a call for boycott of the Manipur government, then headed by Congress chief minister Okram Ibobl Singh. The relationship took a nose dive in May 2010 when Ibobi prevented NSCN (I-M) supremo Th Mulvah from entering Manipur through the Mao gate that marks the border of Manipur and Nagaland.

He was on his way to his home village Somdal in Ukhrul district. If he defied,. Ibobi even threatened to arrest him by claiming that he was on the wanted list. Several Nagas had gathered at Mao Gate and when they tried to force their way the police had to Ire. killing two protesters.

Following this incident, the Nagas resolved to pay house taxes to the Centre through the Nagaland government. Naga students decided to appear in matriculation examinations through the Nagaland Board only.

The relation between the two communities took a dive once again at the fag end of Ibobi's 15 year rule when he announced the creation of the Kuki-dominated Kangpokpi district in the Naga-majority Senapati district. Before this, the UNC on November 1, had called an indefinite blockade of the state's two main lifelines. This was lifted five days after the new BIP government headed by Biren Singh took over. After a compromise to drop charges against the UNC president and information secretary, they were released from judicial custody.

The chief minister made another significant move by deciding to travel to Ukhrul by road. It is worth recall that when Ibobi went to Ukhrul in November last year to inaugurate a public hospital, armed miscreants fired at his helicopter and he had to fly back without fulfilling his schedules.

On 11 April, the Tangkhuls, to which community Muivah belongs, accorded a rousing reception to Biren Singh at Ukhrul. The chief minister announced a Rs 201 crore-development plan and he did while attired in the full regalia of a Tangkhul Naga. Then he also announced the Shirui Lily Tourism Festival along the lines the annual Sangai Festival.

Thereafter on 16 May, braving heavy rains, Biren went to Shirui, famous for its lily, which is grown only in the lofty heights of that village. The rains, mud and slush notwithstanding, thousands of Meiteis from the valley made a beeline for the village and scores of Tangkhul homes were opened as "stay homes". Traditionally-speaking, the Tangkhul Nagas are considered to be the elder brothers of the Meiteis and also traditionally, the Meitei king, at time of coronation, appears in Tangkhul attire.

And also the primary social celebration of the Meitei community, the Lai Haraoba or the appeasement of the forest sylvan deities — which also serves as a primary ingredient of the Meitei socialisation process — cannot be complete without the appearance of a Tangkhul warrior on the last day of the festivities. The Tangkhuls can also be called the dominant tribe among the Nagas, if the Meiteis are dubbed the majority community of Manipur.

But what is more significant was the unexpected visit of Nagaland chief minister Shurhozelie Lietzetsu, on Biren's invitation. His helicopter landed at Kangla helipad on 9 May. He was accompanied by former Nagaland chief minister TR Zeliang, now education minister, and some Nagas functionaries. If memory serves right, Liezietsu was the first prominent Naga politician, and that too a chief minister, to visit Manipur in recent times. Former Nagaland chief minister SC Jamir did visit Imphal but not when he was the chief minister.

Occasional blockades of the Manipur lifeline, which starts from Dimapur (railhead) to Imphal, is the main cause of tension between the Nagas and the people of the Imphal valley — the road also known as NH- 2 and Asian Highway 1. It passes through Nagaland and thousands of Manipuris commute on it daily en route to the mainland and almost all of Manipur's essential commodities are brought in via this highway.

It is the NSCN-IM's main sourer of revenue. It levies taxes on every commercial vehicle plying through the road ranging from Rs 100 for a passenger vehicle to Rs 5,000-10,000 for goods-carrying vehicles on a daily basis, besides their annual levies. This amounts to crores of rupees a year. Apart from that, they get largesse from the Centre. And the Kohima-based Naga Students' Federation has also imposed taxes on Manipur-registered vehicles while plying through Nagaland whenever they have scores to settle with the Manipur government.

But the moot point was raised by Liezietsu when addressing a joint media meet at the end of his half-day visit. He then acknowledged that the Meitei community, on account of their advancement in the field of literature, sports and technical skills, should play the role of the big brother in the Northeast and create peace and friendship among different ethnic communities.

He also said that Manipur and Nagaland should interact more often to build a relationship on a solid foundation as laid down by their forefathers. It might also be recalled that the Manipuri King Gambheer Singh had conquered Kohima, then known as Thibomei, in the 1800s but did occupy the territory. Liezietsu has asserted that the four Naga People's Front MLAs, part of the BJP coalition government headed by Biren Singh, will swim together with the BIP through thick and thin. This, he said, in the presence of the NPF's vice-president -In-charge of Manipur, Zaku.

But even more important was the Nagaland CM's address to the media after returning to Kohima. He said his flying visit to Manipur had ushered in a new era for the two neighbouring states as well as for different communities living in the region. Apparently he was overwhelmed by the people carrying life-size cut outs of the two chief ministers along the short drive from Kangla helipad to the chief minister's bungalow.

The press statement also said, "We are all aware of there being several crises in our two states but with the change of guard in Manipur people have begun to see a ray of hope and a new dawn of peace is being heralded between the two states and different communities."

Taking a dig at Ibobi and Neiphiu Rio, former Nagaland chief minister and now MP, Liezietsu also lamented that in the past certain leaders had manipulated and made use of circumstances for their 'own selfish ends". But, as president of the Naga Peoples Front, the chief minister's statement that the NPF will be with the BJP till the end, speaks volumes.

However, the NPF being a party commuted to the dismemberment of Manipur inter alia —the demand for a greater Nagaland as propounded by the NSCN (I-M) — the powerful Manipur civil society organisation called, the All Manipur United Clubs Organisation has cautioned people on Liezietsu's visit.

In a press communiqué, AMUCO said that while the visit can be termed historic, it wishes that it was sincere and meant for bridging the gap between the people of the two neighbouring states for ushering in a new era of good ties and not part of a hidden political agenda.

On 23 May, Biren visited Senapati district, the nerve centre of the UNC and the NSCN (I-M), to inaugurate the Barak Festival. There, attired in full Mao/Paomai Naga warriors dress, he said that the festival will become an annual affair of the state and announced an economic package of Rs 202 crore. It is not known as to whether this package has been included in the state budget or not.

All said and done, Biren seems to have been able to bridge the emotional gap not only with the Nagas of Manipur but those of Nagaland as well. But what needs to be seen is to how Biren would react should the leaders at Camp Hebron, via the North Block, sends him a notice seeking a security cover for Muivah should he decide to visit his home village of Somdal, which he has not been able do for nearly 50 years. That will be the acid lest for N Biren Singh.

(Courtesy - The Statesman)

* Yambem Laba wrote this article for The Statesman which was published at The Sangai Express
The writer is the Imphal-based correspondent of The Statesman
This article was posted on June 04, 2017.

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