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Muivah’s Visit to Manipur: Steps towards a Meaningful Reconciliation

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • May 11, 2010

    Manipur is back in the news once again, but for all the wrong reasons. Tension has flared up in the state since last week due to the impending visit of the General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim—Isak-Muivah [NSCN (IM)], Thuingaleng Muivah, to his native village Somdal in Ukhrul district of Manipur. Ukhrul is inhabited by the Tangkhul Nagas, the tribe to which Muivah belongs. Denied entry to Manipur due to the strong negative reactions from the Meiteis and especially the Manipur state government, Muivah has been camping in Viswema village near the Nagaland-Manipur border since May 5. The Manipur state government has turned down the Union Government’s request to provide security to Muivah during his visit to Ukhrul on the ground that the absence of a ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) in Manipur absolves them of such responsibility.

    This response by Manipur to Muivah’s planned visit is predictable. The Meities, the dominant community in Manipur, are wary of the NSCN (IM)’s demand for a common unified Naga homeland, which includes the four hill districts of Manipur, namely Senapati, Tamenglong, Chandel and Ukhrul. Also, the NSCN (IM) has been demanding that the existing ceasefire agreement with New Delhi be extended to all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur. This is a highly emotive issue in Manipur. In theory, a ceasefire automatically means the giving up of violence in favour of peaceful negotiations to a conflict. In this case, the extension of the ceasefire to Manipur would theoretically mean the end of violent resistance by the NSCN (IM). However, a larger more ‘diabolic’ fear pervades the minds of the people of Manipur. Any extension of the ceasefire to Manipur, with its large Naga population, is perceived as a springboard for the Naga territorial unification process. The Meiteis fear that lurking behind the extension of the ceasefire is a legitimization of the NSCN (IM)’s demands on Manipur’s territory. The 2001 protests in Manipur were one such reaction after the ceasefire was extended to Manipur, and later had to be revoked when Meitei protests turned violent.

    Muivah is also caught up in a political dilemma of his own, the resolution of which perhaps informs his decision to visit Ukhrul after all these years. A large number of NSCN (IM) cadres belong to Ukhrul in Manipur. Therefore, in his inability to clinch an extension of the ceasefire to the Manipur hills, Muivah faces the possibility of being sidetracked. However, the fact remains that claims to parts of Manipur hills lie at the core NSCN (IM)’s agenda. Therefore, although the group has appeared silent on the sovereignty issue in recent years, it would be quite difficult for it to give up the demand for a unified Naga homeland. If the demand for unification were to be given up, the NSCN (IM) would face the fatal prospect of losing the very reason for its existence. The militant group knows well that without the unification card New Delhi might not talk to it, notwithstanding its larger struggle based on historical ‘uniqueness’. Even more obvious is the fact that without including the Tangkhul Naga base in the larger Nagalim project, the present NSCN (IM) leadership possesses limited influence in Nagaland per se—particularly given that these areas are dominated by the Ao, Angami, Chakesang and Konyak Naga tribes whose loyalty to the NSCN (IM) is suspect. Hence, the need for the visit now to strengthen loyalties, which might be getting rusty due to the lack of direct contact between Muivah and his Tangkhul constituency.

    It is however naïve on Muivah’s part to expect that he would be welcome with open arms in Manipur. If he is indeed serious about visiting his birth place, the wiser thing to do is to make a statement of unilateral concession in which he expresses the desire to have a dialogue with the Meiteis towards finding an amicable settlement on the issue of Naga territorial unification. This would build a relationship in which open negotiation would become possible on conflicting issues. For their part, the Meiteis also need to practice reciprocal restraint and refrain from painting the Nagas as their enemy.

    One of the most important ingredients in the process of reconciliation is social integration. The Meiteis and the Nagas have for too long now overstated their differences despite a history of cultural commonality between them. Significantly, most Naga tribes in Manipur speak Meiteilon while conversing with each other. Trade between the hills districts and the Imphal valley is also critical for the survival of the tribes. In the present context, due to increasing tension, basic commodities like rice and pulses are in short supply and common people are the worst sufferers. Social integration can be accomplished by the realization that violence between the Meiteis and the Nagas has stunted Manipur’s progress. While neighbouring states like Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura are walking steadily towards a better future, Manipur remains mired in ethnic tensions.

    The final step in the process of reconciliation is the generation of new political narratives of inclusion. Till now, the existing narratives between the Meiteis and the Nagas create strong barriers against any common meeting point. A recasting of held identities is required. The generation of these new narratives should begin at the elite level with policy makers at the state level altering the language used against the other. Adversarial language between the Meiteis and the Nagas should give way to a language that validates partnership and friendship. There has to be a new interpretation of the past, one in which conflict is relegated to the fringes while ties and common values are brought to the centre-stage of the new narrative.

    Once these processes are in place, Muivah can hope to visit Manipur and be welcomed. The NSCN (IM) cannot coerce Manipur into submission by belligerent statements that have been issued by Muivah like “there is an impression now among the Nagas that Government of India is using the Manipur Government against the Nagas.” Similar to the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) working for harmony between the Naga tribes in Nagaland and Manipur, we urgently require a Forum for Naga-Meitei Reconciliation (FNMR) before visits such as Muivah’s can be imagined in Manipur without creating political tensions and social conflicts.