“I thought my mandate was to resolve conflicts, but I came to know it was to manage conflicts,” said former Indian bureaucrat K Padmanabhaiah at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi in 2008.
That observation cost Padmanabhaiah his job as New Delhi’s interlocutor for the Naga peace process while the Ministry of Home Affairs had a change of guard. But conflicts remained in the realm of management.
The MHA had over a week back consented to National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah’s wish to visit ancestral village Somdal in Manipur’s Ukhrul district. Muivah accordingly planned his visit on May 3.
NSCN-IM is a Naga outfit seeking a sovereign unified homeland for Nagas. And Manipur and Nagaland are adjoining but not-so-neighbourly northeast Indian states.
To many in Nagaland, where the bulk of Muivah’s outfit is based since ceasefire in July 1997, it was a septuagenarian revolutionary’s yearning to reconnect with his roots after 40 years. There was nothing sinister in it; besides, the ceasefire has been holding for almost 13 years now.
But Manipur – Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh, to be precise – saw beyond the simplicity of this wish. It saw in Muivah’s proposed visit the NSCN-IM’s design to reclaim the hills of Manipur for Greater Nagalim, and a potential communal tension between the Meiteis (they dominate Manipur’s plains) and Tangkhuls inhabiting the hills around.
Muivah and the bulk of NSCN-IM leaders and soldiers belong to the Tangkhul community whose territory, historically, was outside the hills that became Nagaland in 1963.
Singh had technical reasons to stop Muivah from entering Manipur. The 1997 ceasefire between New Delhi and NSCN-IM is not applicable to Manipur, where Muivah is still a fugitive, wanted for several ‘crimes’.
A string of violence marked the Naga-inhabited hills of Manipur after Ibobi Singh had the entry points blocked and fortified to stop Muivah from entering. This – and a note from the Indian Prime Minister’s Office – made Muivah to defer his homecoming, perhaps without any timeframe.
The standoff between Muivah and Singh has had dailies in Nagaland and Manipur going off the tangent, some fanning sentiments against each other. A few said the Manipur CM could have handled the situation better. Others said Muivah inadvertently threw a lifeline to Singh. The latter was facing flak at home and from New Delhi for failing on the law and order front and for scams including a Rs 244 contract to a fake firm to clean Loktak Lake, the world’s only floating wildlife preserve 40 km from capital Imphal.
But, as Guwahati-based expert on conflict studies Nonigopal Mahanta says, the main problem lies in New Delhi’s reluctance to say ‘no’ to either Muivah or Singh. “Resorting to Kautilyan statecraft vis-à-vis Nagaland and Manipur is dicey. The MHA could very well have said no to Muivah instead of advising him to defer his visit by 10 days, seven days or whatever. And it could have asked Singh to not be confrontationist,” he said.
From New Delhi’s point of view, though, biding time is the kind of neutrality that avoids robbing Peter to pay Paul. A decision for Nagaland’s benefit could be Manipur’s loss or vice versa, eventually leading to more separatist movements. And indecision would, at worst, knock off a few people belonging to communities without the numerical strength to matter politically.