In the polarised hill-valley rift in Manipur, both sides agree that the secrecy and ambiguity around the Naga framework agreement - signed between the centre and NSCN (I-M) in early August - have been unhelpful and contributed to tensions.
But that is where the overlap ends. Meiteis leaders in Imphal across the political spectrum, including members of the BJP, blame the centre for 'encouraging' tribals and helping the warring Kukis and Nagas arrive at a rare unity. Tribals say their unity is organic, and believe that Delhi should do more, impose president's rule on the state, and help them get a separate administration even if it is by challenging Meiteis.
Meitei backlash to Naga accord
The demand for Inner Line Permit - which finally led to the passage of the three bills at the heart of the current tension - had been underway in the state before the Naga pact. But observers say it intensified the agitation. It is said to have added to the Meitei sense of insecurity and fueled speculation that the centre was willing to trade Manipur's territorial integrity for peace with Nagas, and give away the Naga dominated districts of the state NSCN has been demanding. The Manipur assembly has passed a resolution on the inviolability of the state's territory.
Congress MLA N Biren Singh accuses Delhi of backing tribal groups to neutralise Manipur underground outfits. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)
But the centre has already indicated that state borders may not be touched. R N Ravi, the government's interlocutor with the NSCN, is expected in Imphal to allay apprehensions.
When asked if a pan Naga cultural council, which does not impact territorial boundaries, would be acceptable to Manipur, N Biren Singh, Congress MLA and former cabinet minister said, "What is this cultural council? Punjabis are there in India and Pakistan - will Delhi allow them to have a cultural council? Will Delhi allow Pakistani flag in Kashmir? Why should we tolerate Nagas having mixed loyalties, allow a Naga flag in our territory? Political loyalty has to be to the state."
Even as Meiteis have ratcheted up the rhetoric in the run up to the final announcement of the deal, it has generated expectations among tribals.
A top government official in a hill district told HT, "Kukis have stepped up their demand for a state administration because of the deal. This lack of transparency and ambiguity is not helpful because of false hopes and fears it generates." Four MLAs of the Naga People Front have already resigned from the assembly, against its resolution and the passage of the bills.
'Conspiracy' behind unity
What has worried the Meitei polity most after the accord and in the recent agitation against the three bills is the coming together of Nagas and Kukis. Meitei politicians and activists see a deep 'conspiracy' here.
Congress leader Singh was a part of the drafting committee of the bills at the heart of the tribal backlash. He says the bills have nothing that affect tribals, and adds bluntly, "The real story is something else. The Christian tribals have come together. NSCN has told Kukis they can have a separate administration comprising hill districts like Churachandpur and Chandel in return for their support. And Delhi has backed this. They are using bills as an alibi to push statehood agenda."
In Churachandpur, various tribal groups unite against Manipur government and demand separate administration. (Prashant Jha/HT Photo)
Babloo Loitongbam, a human rights activist who was informally associated with the ILP movement told HT in his office in Imphal, "After the accord, Kuki leaders have been quiet. This is surprising because they have always said that unless the issue of NSCN burning 300 Kuki villages and killing 1000 Kukis in the 90s is resolved, there should be no deal. What we know is that Kuki leaders went to Delhi." He claims that since then, Naga and Kuki leaders have been negotiating. "The centre is giving mixed signals to all groups and has probably told Kukis to ask for separate administration rather than oppose the Naga pact." Yambem Lama, a Meitei journalist who is a former state human rights commission member, added, "The old principle that enemy's enemy is a friend is being used. Nagas and Kukis are seeing Meiteis as the common enemy."
When asked why Delhi would do so, Singh says it is to generate pressure on Meitei underground (UG) outfits who have been asking for secession. Loitongbam called it a ploy of the 'Chanakyas of Delhi' to have a sufficiently high degree of ethnic tension, so that power balances itself. He pointed to the armed challenge to the Indian state from the valley and the fact that 65 percent of those arrested under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act are Manipuris despite being .5 percent of the population. Others alleged this was Delhi's way to 'defang' the ILP movement which is an attack on the free movement of Indian citizens.
A key BJP leader of the state said, on the condition of anonymity since he did not want to challenge his party, that the centre should give a tougher signal to tribals. "I don't understand why BJP is backing Christian tribals. The party should reconsider its position and back Hindu Meiteis."
Tribals rubbish conspiracy
In the hill districts though, tribals rubbish the 'conspiracy theory' that India is backing them and helped unite the groups.
In Churachandpur, a dozen activists HT spoke to believed that tribal unity was a 'great achievement' of the movement. "We have fought in the past but right now all tribals are united because it is a matter of our survival and identity. These bills will result in valley people taking away our land. We have a common enemy and that is why Nagas, Kukis and all aligned tribes have come together," says Lianzamung Tunsing, information secretary of the Joint Action Committee, the umbrella civil society body in the district dealing with the fallout of the violence.
When asked about the impact of the Naga deal, another young activist, Sang Lethil, said, "The Nagas are on a boat which is moving. If we don't sit on the same boat, there will be no escape for us from the Valley ever. We will not submerge with the Nagas of course but our exit route is the same."
But when pointed out that there is an overlap in the territory claimed by the Nagas and Kukis, Lethil said, "Local adjustments are happening. We will find a way. The key thing now for us is not the bills now; it is a separate administration for the hills."
If the Meiteis feel Delhi is intervening excessively, the tribals claim that Delhi is not doing enough. The protestors in Churachandpur have placards demanding president's rule; the JAC has submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister. And a Kuki tribal leader told HT, "We want to be under the union of India, not the state of Manipur. Delhi should take charge and give us an administrative unit."
It is in the midst of these competing demands and perceptions - which Delhi may or may not be complicit in creating - that the centre is navigating the complex Manipur conundrum.