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Peace Gestures in Manipur: Will it Work?

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • September 23, 2013

    It is never easy to talk peace, especially when one has spent decades fighting. The Union government and the Naga armed groups, in particular the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah – NSCN (IM) – have spent more than 16 long years talking to each other. Talks have also started with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) since 2011, yet resolution to the conflict may be sometime in the making given that one of its key leaders, Paresh Barua has not joined the peace process. The ULFA has submitted its “Charter of Demands”, given up its core demand of sovereignty in lieu of the guarantee of indigenous peoples’ rights, land reform and addressing the issue of illegal migration.

    The only state, severely affected by armed conflicts, but which has witnessed no significant peace talks between the state and the armed groups is Manipur. Despite suffering from armed violence since the 1960s, none of the Meitei armed groups in the state have come forward for peace talks, until of course now.

    On September 9, Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) were signed between the Manipur state government and three militant groups: Kangleipak Communist Party-Nongdreinkhomba (KCP-N), Kuki National Liberation Front (KNLF) and the Kuki Revolutionary Party (KRP). By signing the MoUs, the three armed groups have agreed to give up arms and start peace talks. The propelling factor for this rather significant development was perhaps the release of Lanheiba Meitei, the leader of the KCP-N. Lanheiba was apprehended by the Assam Police and re-arrested by the Imphal Police in 2011 for his alleged involvement in planting a car bomb in the Manipur Governor’s house in Imphal on September 19, 2007 and in the October 21, 2008 Ragailong bomb blasts which killed 17 people. He now has a chance to talk peace within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Given his background and involvement in subversive activities, his position in the peace talks is already rather weak.

    The more important issue is whether the dominant armed groups in Manipur especially the United National Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF), the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK), the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur (PLA) and its political wing, the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) are willing to come forward for peace talks. Rajkumar Meghen, the chairman of the UNLF, was arrested in 2010. Despite the advantage of having him in jail, pressures to induce Meghen to come to the peace table have not worked till date. The most elusive outfit is the PLA, who has rejected any resolution to its armed movement within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Last year, when the Manipur Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh reached out to the PLA to shun violence and come forward for peace talks, PLA President, Irengbam Chaoren rejected the offer and instead appealed to all armed groups in the Northeast to join in a united fight against the Indian state.

    The challenge in Manipur will be to incentivize these three armed groups to come to the peace table. The task to get the PLA to talk to the government is particularly daunting given the fact that this armed group has remained united since 1978 unlike the other two which suffered internal factions. The PLA has also succeeded in establishing social networks that are not only spread across the community it claims to represent, the Meiteis, but also across other smaller ethnic communities in Manipur. It also has its safe base areas across the border in Myanmar.

    What could be a feasible formula for peace talks in Manipur? For one, it has to deeply engage with the societal issues that have led to these multiple armed conflicts. Fears of loss of land, demands for political empowerment and economic development, ethnic identity assertion, cultural exclusivity, hill-plain divide, divide between the ethnic communities and the rest of India further fuelled by the absence of an inclusive politics, have created a web of alienation and loss of self-worth. Moreover, the politicization of ethnic differences for electoral gains, rampant corruption in development projects, fears of discrimination, and ethnic distrust creates the structural conditions for armed conflicts aligned along exclusivist ethnic lines. The other daunting obstacle is the historical interpretation of Manipur’s accession to India in 1949. All the armed groups mentioned above propagate the idea that this accession was coerced and not voluntary. An honest and direct engagement with this aspect will help in formulating a constructive and legitimate peace process.

    It is also extremely significant to establish a process of peace where the leaders of the armed groups voluntarily come forward for peace talks. Arrested leaders may engage in peace talks, but the credibility, durability and commitment to that process in terms of social healing and conflict prevention in the long run is rather suspect.

    The gestures for peace talks in Manipur by the Union government as well as the state government indicate that there is a willingness to engage in dialogue with armed groups. That by itself is a step towards reconciliation. However, it is also particularly important to ensure that armed groups see these gestures as legitimate based on a genuine desire to engage with issues that have been continuously raised in the political propaganda of the armed groups; namely ethnic representation, and political empowerment. This will require a moral engagement. Merely, a mechanical process of peace talks may not salvage years of traumatic experience of conflict, killings, kidnappings and social stress in Manipur since the 1960s.

    Manipur should be the start of a peace process which does not play to ethnic divides like those between Nagas and Kukis and Nagas and Meiteis, but rather focusses on the core constitutional guidance that India is a pluralistic state that respects diversity, and is willing to accommodate differences and empathizes with the fears of ethnic minorities in its peripheral areas.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.