Dialogue  April-June, 2005, Volume 6  No. 4

North-East Scan

Patricia Mukhim

Manipur – Sinking into Anarchy

Each visit to Manipur gives one the sinking feeling that things are getting worse by the day. How can there be a government in the midst of so much chaos? Or is the Government itself responsible for all the bedlam? Any Chief Minister would have stepped down in shame for failing to prevent the State Library from being burnt. Instead we have Mr Ibobi Singh laying the blame at the door of two police officers, one of whom has threatened to approach the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) for redress.

One fails to comprehend how a highly progressive society that has spawned an equally enlightened organization like the MEELAL could burn down the only repository of Manipur’s awesome literature, its rich historical traditions as well other great collections of literary gems from across the world, which have been built up brick by brick for over a century. What is happening in Manipur in recent times reflects a decadent mindset; a vigilantism gone berserk which is reminiscent of medieval Indian history when the likes of Nadir Shah and Mahmud of Ghazni raped the temples and centres of excellence of this country and took away everything precious, leaving behind only a trail of death and destruction.

Democracy permits all forms of civilized dissent. But even the antagonists of democratic traditions who believe and practice the adage, ‘it is my way or the highway’, would balk at the thought of burning down a centre of learning. Civilisation demands a price and that price is a minimum respect for public property. Forget about democracy. Even otherwise barbaric societies have in the course of their interface with modernity learnt to refrain from destroying that which they have not built and to conserve those things that they have had a hand in constructing.

Unfortunately, only a few voices of dissent have found their way into the newspapers. The media fraternity of Manipur is guarded in what they say about the incident. They do not want to be seen as vehemently disagreeing with the means and ends theory of the MEELAL. Even the Apunba Lup which is otherwise very strident when it comes to condemning violence and rape from security forces has merely issued a press release to express their unhappiness over the idea of making a bonfire out of precious books. Needless to say the press statement was carefully worded and preceded by a word of appreciation about the efforts of MEELAL to revive the Meitei Mayek. Like a tightrope walker every organization and individual in Manipur have to weigh their words because tolerance is at a premium.

On April 17, last someone hurled a bomb at the Marwari Dharamsala in the heart of the city. Apparently a birthday party was on that the time of the bombing. Two people lost their lives on that fateful Sunday. Some meek protests followed the bombing episode but life went back to normal. Is there any difference between the method adopted to kill Manorama Thangjam and the gruesome manner in which two innocent people lost their lives to a bomb hurled at an unsuspecting moment and place? That such an abominable incident took place despite the large and visible presence of a huge contingent of armed security forces is a national shame.   

There is a definite pattern taking shape in India’s North East today. Even death and violence have taken an ethnocentric contour. If a non-Meitei (mayang) is gunned down or dies in a bomb attack that is not considered significant enough to evoke any response. But the death of Manorama Thangjam was so hyped that it even provoked a group of women to parade naked on the streets of Imphal. This outrageous incident has snowballed into a huge discussion about the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). While there is no denying that draconian laws should be withdrawn from a civilized society, it is equally true that other effective laws must be put in place to prevent the death of innocents irrespective of colour and creed. All human life is precious and the State is duty bound to protect the life of each and every citizen. But in Manipur today, VIPs who constitute the political class are appropriating all the security cover even while there are lesser and lesser policemen to guard the lives and property of ordinary citizens. How long can this absurd arrangement carry on?   

Over the years one has observed that civil society groups are selective about the issues they take up. Their fervent outburst over one issue and silence over other equally crucial agenda has raised several question marks. In fact this double standard is very visible to the outside world which looks at problems more objectively than those who are acting out this whole sordid event.

Democracy or what is left of it is tottering on its last legs in the State of Manipur. A media person who had the gumption to suggest that the State Library was burned down at the behest of some underground outfit was threatened to be killed. He had to apologise for his enthusiastic reporting. The apology was brought out in the front page of all newspapers. Although the media fraternity made a scrawny attempt to discuss this assault on press freedom the impact was negligible. When the media decides to boycott its news reporting duty on account of its inability to be brutally frank and honest in publishing all kinds of news and views, the act must be seen as extremely serious. Civil society is expected to rise in defence of a free press. Sadly in Manipur the fourth estate is left to protect its own life and limbs.   

Another outrageous act that took place in Manipur, happened in an otherwise sacrosanct  space, namely the intensive care unit of the States medical college – RIMS. Here a group of armed militants entered the ICU and gunned down a person who was recovering from a previous gun shot. Such blatant disregard for the law and a corresponding failure of the hospital authorities to provide security to their patients is reflective of just how wrong things are in Manipur.

Yet the Government continues to wallow in helplessness and complacency and has just proven that it is totally ineffective at governance and also in providing the basic sense of security to its citizens. If truth be told then the Government has become just a superfluous body providing salaries to its people for doing nothing. When law abiding citizens are no longer able to speak up against all manner of violence, crime and injustices perpetrated on them; when they are paralysed by fear and cannot even condemn violence across the board but are tutored to condemn only the violence perpetrated by security forces; when over ground activists are told precisely when to protest and when to remain silent then surely democracy is dead. It only requires a decent burial. But if democracy is dead will the so-called actors of democracy be buried along with it? Doubtful, because they continue to fan the flame so that democracy remains just a weak ember which will allow them to cream the fat off the land, or whatever remains of it.

To my mind, the underground groups of Manipur who are already running the state by the power of the gun should make themselves more visible. They should capture power completely and put to an end the great tomfoolery enacted by the Government of Manipur. This might end the claustrophobic status quo where nothing moves except the bullet.

The Naga Peace – A Critique

To understand the internal dynamics of Nagaland it is important to understand the Naga identity. But is there such a thing as a Naga identity? Prior to the British colonial rule, the concept of Nagaland was fluid. The area was inhabited by groups of people of Tibeto-Burman origin. But there is no historical evidence that these were one people with a common culture. Hence the deep-rooted tribalism or tribe and clan loyalty that asserts itself even today. Intra-tribe warfare, killings and head hunting was part and parcel of the so-called Naga people before the advent of Christianity. When the tribes converted,  religion brought a sobering effect on them. Intra-tribal feuds lessened but Christianity failed to channelise the militant traits of the people they converted into more positive, creative outlets.

In his book, “ The Naga Imbroglio”, Charles Chasie, an Angami Naga, lists the  tribes that fall under the broad canvas of ‘Nagas’. But he qualifies his categorization of Nagas with the following statement: ‘One must, however keep in mind that apart from a sense of belonging and fellow-feeling and certain common cultural traits, there have not been much interaction among these tribes as a whole and one often depends on early writers even for identification’. Chasie says most of these disparate tribes have different cultures, social practices and political systems. Konyaks, Semas and Thangkhuls have a form of autocratic rule. The Ao people have a more enlightened structure resembling that of a Republic. They have Village Councils that affiliate themselves to an apex body. Angamis on the other hand appeared more ‘democratic’, if democracy meant a search for consensus on any issue. According to Chasie dissent seemed to prevail but at the cost of social ostracism.

Variations in the form of village governance and paucity of material about the migratory routes of Naga people make it difficult to establish any common origin. Charles Chasie reinforces his own doubts about Naga unity in the face of this blurred Naga history. To make matters worse the very word ‘Naga’ is a derivative imposed upon the tribes by somebody from outside the tribal world. It either conveys a wrong impression about the people or does not convey any meaning at all. Unfortunately, like the appendix in the human system the name Naga has stuck on and Naga people themselves do not seem to want to incise and throw off this derivative and are willing to suffer the spasms, perhaps a surgical intervention at this point is not feasible. So they have learnt to live with the pain. But whatever be the controversy behind the name, those myriad tribes and sub-tribes commonly referred to as the rainbow people are identified the world over by the name ‘Naga’.

The human appendix sometimes tends to collect undigested food and then it turns into a fistula which could burst and spread fatal toxins in the human body. In my interaction with the Naga people, particularly those who do have not yet learnt sophistication and affectations, I have noticed their difficulties in internalizing the ‘Naga’ identity and allowing that to subsume their tribe identity. An Angami is proud of his tribal heritage and will defend it to the hilt. So will a Sema or an Ao for that matter. If a Naga is honest about himself, he will admit that his tribe identity is supreme to the derived Naga identity. This therefore poses several dilemmas even for the ongoing peace process. Of course the two leaders, Muivah and Swu who are taking the dialogue forward with Central Government, have themselves acquired enough sophistication through constant interface with the developed world, to be able to hide their intrinsic differences. Naga unity is a fragile crystal they are holding on to. If it breaks the talks are likely to break down too. So for the sake of peace in Nagaland (not Nagalim), commentators like us must refrain from going into a deeper analysis of the problem of Naga identity at this juncture. And perhaps this is an issue that the Naga intellectual and academia must themselves delve into.

But this identity crisis does tend to erupt into large scale violence even now because the cadres of the NSCN(IM), the NSCN (K), the NNC and other factional groups do not see themselves as ‘Nagas’ first. Mr Niketu Iralu, a leading Angami intellectual has in several of his extrapolations, brought out the problem of tribalism and pleaded for inter and intra tribal unity and of the need to see and be seen as one people fighting a common cause. But this is easier said than done. An NSCN (IM) cadre who is an Ao will find it hard to eliminate his kinsman of the same tribe who is from the NSCN (K). But it will be easier for him to kill somebody else who is not from his tribe. On deeper analysis therefore it seems that each person from a particular tribe is able to give a face and identity only to a person from his own tribe. All others are faceless enemies. Hence despite the united fight for Naga nationalism, fratricidal killings are continuing at a fiercely competitive pace and baffling all those who are onlookers to the process. 

Interestingly, the ceasefire in Nagaland and all Naga inhabited areas seems to apply only to cessation of hostilities between the Indian army and para-military forces and the NSCN(IM). Hostility and killing between the different armed cadres has not stopped. It has only increased in recent times. These killings are reported in the media but they become mere statistics. At first the killings provoked strong public reaction. But even the public get tired of continued protests. In any case the tribal is not used to democratic forms of registering his grievances. Protests are part of modern democratic expressions. After a while the killings get lesser and lesser media attention. There is a stony silence from the Government of India (GOI) on these developments. And why? Because these fratricidal killings do not reverberate in the corridors of power in Delhi. One is forced to wonder if what is happening in Nagaland is also a ploy of GOI to wear out the fighting spirit of the Naga people by letting loose this systematic frustration model as outlined by Feierabend and Nesvold, two experts in conflict studies. 

Nagaland is not peaceful today as some of the mandarins in Delhi would have us believe. It is in a state of social and political fermentation. A ruthless battle is carrying on for establishing the superiority of the NSCN (IM). In this battle, there is no count of how many lives are being lost. People have thus far been organized to raise their banner of protest against human rights violations by the Indian armed forces. Today the rights of every unarmed, non-combatant Naga are being violated by the Naga who is armed to the teeth. And the Naga people just do not know how to respond to this new threat. They were willy-nilly united as a people against the Indian armed forces. How will they unite today when a Thangkhul is killing a Sema or an Ao or vice-versa, almost making a mockery of the much-touted slogan of “Nagaland for Christ”.

It is time for Delhi to think of talking to all other factions if it wants to reduce further conflicts. Time is also ripe for the different tribes of Nagaland to come together and revisit their previously stated goals. Are the goals  the same today as they were at the beginning of the Naga revolution or have they changed? Are the priorities the same today as they were fifty years ago? Is there really a change of heart and a spirit of forgiveness from those whose kith and kin have been killed by one tribe or armed faction? Or will these hurts and pains nurtured in the deepest recesses of the human heart find expression someday in more virulent forms? Are all these the reasons for the fragile nature of tribal unity or Naga unity as some would like to proudly state?

Politics of Equivocation

Not since Nelson Mandela has any rebel leader received so much publicity as Mr TH Muivah, General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) does. In an interview with Karan Thapar on BBC’s Hard Talk ( April 29 last), Mr Muivah displayed extraordinary traits of diplomacy. He was intransigent on the Naga demand. Each time the seasoned warrior was drawn into controversial territory  such as the integration of all Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, he dug in his heels deeper to reinforce the historicity of the demand and assert its legitimacy.

A day later, a leading light of the NSCN (K), Mulatano also spoke to NDTV and said that Government of India is making a mistake by talking to only one faction of the underground group. So where does this place the Naga peace process? Mr Muivah is intractable on the demand for a sovereign status for Nagaland. He was willing to concede that currency, external affairs, defence and communications be left with India. Other issues that are normally on the concurrent list of the Constitution such as environment, forests, education etc should be entirely under Kohima. Interestingly Mr Muivah’s position is that the Indian army and Nagaland should engage in a joint defence of Nagaland if its borders are threatened but the reverse would not hold true, meaning that Nagas would not jointly defend India if it were threatened externally. When Naga interests are affected then the external affairs ministry must consult Nagaland before taking any decision.

Demands placed forward by NSCN (IM) seem like a tall order for any nation-state to address. But perhaps what is gradually taking shape is the idea that India cannot be a nation state at all, but, a nation comprising several states, each one with its unique history, culture, language and peoples. No nation state can concede to a demand such as that of the NSCN (IM)’s because doing so would lead to its complete disintegration. A nation-state has some features, one of which is homogeneity of language, culture and race. Indians comprise so many racial groups that the diversities cannot be wished away. Indians can only presume to be one. They do not innately feel the oneness. Every once in a while, past history sneaks outs and asserts its superiority over people’s psyche. More often than not this assertion of history is linked to the desire for greater political autonomy. When that happens history is sought to be rewritten by every ethnic group in this country and more so in India’s north east.

Problems arise when what the ethnic groups claim as their history is inconsistent and exclusive. In the absence of written history, every ethnic group claims to possess a rich oral tradition and a unique history. But excessive dependence on oral tradition tends towards exaggeration. The exaggerations are somehow incompatible with modern historical traditions and certainly at great odds with the notion of globalization.

Reclamation and recasting of state boundaries cannot happen without serious consequences. One of the problems of rewriting history is that borders and territories as well as inhabitants of those territories are not constant. Naga ‘claim’ over areas in Assam extend from Dibrugarh to Silchar. In Arunachal, the Nagas are laying claim to two of the biggest districts – Tirap and Changlang and in Manipur the Naga territories would include the districts of Senapati, Ukhrul and Tamenglong. Ironically, Muivah makes no mention of the large stretch of Naga inhabited areas in Myanmar. Does Nagalim not include the aspirations also of the Kheimungan Nagas? So why the dichotomy and the double standards? Suppose the Naga talks are concluded leaving out Ukhrul district, would Mr Muivah agree to the settlement? Obviously not. As Karan Thapar rightly pointed out, Muivah’s legitimacy in claiming to lead the Nagas would be defeated if Ukhrul, his birthplace was not included in the settlement.

In one of his feisty articles, Kaka Iralu mentions his brothers-at-arms in the Myanmar jungles who have been left out in the cold. Other Nagas prefer not to mention their confreres in Myanmar because they feel such claims might delay the peace process. Hence the supposed assertions of Mr Muivah that its all or nothing, ring rather hollow. But perhaps the NSCN (IM) have a grand plan of settling the Nagas of Myanmar within the borders of  Nagalim once the peace talks have fructified, and so they can really be one people with a shared history living within a common boundary.

Government of India cannot be blamed for not discussing substantive issues with NSCN (IM) as yet. How can a sovereign Nagalim co-exist with other six states of India within the region and with a shared history, without the rumblings spreading to the other states? Unless India is willing to write off the North Eastern states as liabilities, creation of Nagalim would seem incongruous with its idea of territorial integrity. Yet if India reneges on the peace talks, armed combat will start all over again. The Indian state will than have to respond accordingly. This would put paid to the much-hyped, ‘Look East’ policy which is being avidly discussed within the region but not really understood. China’s growing economic clout and its proximity to India’s North East would, I am sure be of some concern to Delhi. Hence the only option for Delhi is to prevaricate for as long as is possible.

Delhi’s policy vis-à-vis its troubled North Eastern frontiers is a dubious one and certainly not the same as its policy towards Kashmir. Policy makers are racially and psychologically closer to the Kashmiris than they are towards the people of North East India. The ignorance of the average Indian including policy makers about the North Eastern frontiers of their country and its rich cultural heritage is unspeakable. Delhi understands the language of the Aryans but finds it a bit uncomfortable to deal with the plethora of linguistic groups of Tibeto-Burman or Austro-Asiatic origin. India’s visibility in the North East is only through its armed forces and its bureaucracy, both of whom have short term interests in the region.

To my mind the Naga peace process is unlikely to be wrapped up so soon because the tremors will be felt in the neighbouring states. Even while Messers Muivah and Swu are negotiating with Government of India they cannot be blind to the fact that any major concession given to the Nagas will have a snow-balling effect on the entire region. In 2001 when the truce with NSCN (IM) was extended to all Naga-inhabited areas in the region, more precisely in the three states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, the Imphal valley went up in flames. Meitei rage was evident even before the hills were partitioned. What would happen if Mr Muivah’s demands are objectified is frightening. Let it not be forgotten that the reason why Meitei underground groups receive overt and covert  support from the common people is because they believe these groups are necessary to prove the Meitei viewpoint and to show Delhi that NSCN (IM) is not the only insurgent outfit with a unique history. The Meiteis themselves a highly enlightened and culturally weighty group never fail to recall their own sovereign and independent status until October 15, 1949 when they were annexed to the Indian Union ‘under duress’. In that sense every ethnic group in India’s North East have a unique history from  “time immemorial”. Who decides when that ‘time immemorial’ is actually placed and who are the actors in that historical location?   

In the end, any claim to uniqueness is not so unique.