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All unquiet on the Naga front

Political machinations in Manipur and Nagaland are often so intertwined that when one catches a cold, the other sneezes, especially when the issue at hand is that of Nagas living in Manipur.

So when Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio decided to drive into neighbouring Manipur to launch a state unit of his Naga People’s Front (NPF), it understandably caused tremors, the ripples of which as usual were not felt in far away New Delhi. Rio’s decision was met with criticism and stiff resistance in Maipur. But the Nagaland CM completed his trip with gumption.

Rio’s intentions had been clear from the beginning when the NPF-led Democratic Alliance of Nagaland (DAN) criticised the Centre for dilly-dallying on the talks with Naga undergounds. In a few months’ time, it would be 14 years since the ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) came into effect.

The Secular Progressive Front (SPF) government in Manipur headed by Okram Ibobi Singh of the Congress was caught in a bind. Last year, when NCSN (I-M) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah had wanted to visit his home town of Somdal in Ukhrul district, he had been stopped at the Mao Gate inter-state border. There were sporadic incidents of violence, and the Ibobi government dealt with protests by Manipur’s Nagas with an iron hand. The Nagas on the other side struck back with a blockade of National Highway 39, the lifeline into Manipur.

This time, however, Ibobi was in a quandary. There was little he could do to prevent the chief minister of another state from entering his own. He finally gave in after his Nagaland counterpart assured that his visit would be peaceful and democratic. Ibobi alluded to a “hidden agenda,” but said “it would not be a civilised move to bar the visit of an elected representative of a democratic country who will be launching a political party recognised by the election commission of India.”

But not before Manipur Valley was shut down by a strike called by the United Committee Manipur (UCM). The Rio move as widely seen as part of Muivah's plan to set up a political platform once the ongoing peace talks between the NSCN (I-M) and the Centre concludes. Tension ran high in the Naga-dominated hill districts of Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong and Ukhrul, as well as in the Meitei-dominated Manipur Valley.

Even as protests were on, the NPF did not tone down its rhetoric. “We will go ahead, our people, brothers and sisters are waiting for us there and we cannot disappoint them.” It, in fact, kept breathing fire. “Integration (under one administrative umbrella) is our birthright and defending it is our legitimate fight," Rio asserted at the NPF-Manipur launch on May 28.

Rio even talked of the Nagaland Assembly passing four resolutions in the past calling for integration of the Naga people – in 1964 under the Chief Ministership of P Shilu Ao, in 1970 under Hokishe Sema, in 1994 under SC Jamir, and in 2003 under himself.

Widespread violence or protests, however, did not break out. There were many voices of reason. The All-Manipur United Clubs Organisation (AMUCO), vowed to fight tooth and nail to preserve the territorial integrity of Manipur, but in the same breath took Ibobi to task, “If the SPF government was opposed to opening an NPF unit in Manipur, then why they did not raise any voice when an NPF office was opened at Imphal on March 31 this year. It is only natural for a party like NPF to abet Naga integration. If the government of Manipur is determined to challenge this move politically, politicians of the state should have the capability to take on the challenge constitutionally and through Parliament.”

When he had halted Muivah in his tracks last year, Ibobi had his reasons to. Muivah’s stature always precedes him – arresting his march would have made him a hero in the eyes of his people. In the summer of 2010, he had badly needed this – what with the spectre of extra-judicial killings haunting his political future at the time.

Though blood was not spilt, the Rio trip had its casualties when the Union home ministry postponed the scheduled meeting between the Centre, the Manipur government and the United Naga Council (UNC) over an alternative administrative arrangement for Manipur-based Nagas.

The official line was that the home ministry had deferred the meeting following a request by the Ibobi. He cited fluid law and order situation at Senapati, and also “failure” by the UNC to provide its agenda of talks to the state government as the reasons for seeking a deferring.

The UNC hit back, “To establish direct linkage between the tripartite talks and the said event betrays fairness and honesty of the government of Manipur.” It described the state government as communal, and refused to directly communicate with the Manipur government since it “would only reflect lack of seriousness and non-cognisance of the gravity of the situation.”

Rio would have come and gone back, but the Manipur-Nagaland tension is only beginning to rankle again. That’s because, the issue of Naga integration and that of Manipur’s territorial integrity are often two sides of the same ethno-political coin.