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Return of the rebel has two states on edge

india Updated: May 15, 2010 22:36 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Rahul Karmakar
Hindustan Times
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In the fragile hills of Northeast India, it takes three to seven hours to cover 80 km depending on the condition of the road, horsepower of the vehicle and gradient. But the 80-odd km between Viswema and Somdal is taking an eternity for 75-year-old Thuingaleng Muivah — just as a solution to the Naga political crisis is.

Muivah, general secretary of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), a Naga rebel group in ceasefire mode since July 1997, left his birthplace, Somdal, 40 years ago.

Somdal is a laidback, kidney beans-growing village 25 km south of Ukhrul, headquarters of Manipur’s Tangkhul Naga-dominated Ukhrul district.

“No one likes to leave his native place unless conditions force him to,” says Muivah at Viswema, a village 5 km short of Mao on the Nagaland-Manipur border and the gateway to his village 75 km beyond on the Phaibung Road southwards. This road meets National Highway 39 — the lifeline of Manipur and a highway to perennial ethnic animosity — at Maram, some 20 km south of Mao.

Muivah couldn’t help depart Somdal in 1970. As the general secretary of the underground Naga National Council (NNC) fighting for an independent Naga homeland, he was among the most wanted men in Manipur, then a Union Territory. Manipur is yet to withdraw the reward on his head, revised many a time from the initial Rs 100,000. This was the ‘technicality’ Manipur CM Okram Ibobi Singh stressed to stop Muivah’s homecoming at blood-stained Mao.

For Muivah, NSCN (I-M) and Nagas in general, though, the proposed trip to Somdal was more emotional than political. “My parents died waiting to see me. I have come in peace, not to stage war. I don’t see how the wish to be in my village and meet my kin after so many years can be a threat,” he says. Nagas in Manipur yearn to see him return – even if for a few hours – as was evident from violent protests at Mao last Thursday that claimed three lives.

Somdal’s loss for the time being is Viswema’s gain. For, this village of some 1,200 Angami Naga tribal people considers Muivah its ‘foster son’ who returned ‘home’ after 46 years. It was in Viswema – the name means ‘march forward’ in the Angami dialect – that Muivah had his ‘political coronation’ as general secretary of the legendary AZ Phizo-led NNC in 1964. That was soon after he was armed with a masters in political science from Gauhati University.

“This is my first visit to Viswema after 1964. Since then I have not looked back, and have never lacked in sincerity in taking forward Phizo’s movement for a sovereign Nagalim,” recalls the seemingly unhurried Muivah with an almost expressionless face. What betrays him is a hint of a quaver in the voice.

The NNC subsequently lost much of its steam, more so after the Shillong Accord of 1975. Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and Myanmar-based Naga leader SS Khaplang opposed this accord and went underground to form the NSCN in 1980. The outfit split in 1988 with Muivah and Swu leading one faction, and Khaplang the other. Khaplang’s faction declared truce four years after that of Muivah and Swu.

Age and bulk aside, Viswema veterans don’t see much of a difference between the Muivah of today and the young revolutionary that he was in 1964. “Frankly, I never thought much about this new NNC leader then. But I did notice something in his eyes; he still has that intensity. No wonder, he continues to commands awe and respect of the Nagas,” says the 60-something R. Ketsore, chairman of the Viswema Village Council.

Schoolteacher Robviisolephu was 12 when his parents took him to that ‘historic’ NNC do. “I don’t understand politics much, but he (Ibobi Singh) could have facilitated the trip of the ‘ato kilonser’ (prime minister, as Muivah is referred to) on humanitarian grounds. How can a government deny an old man longing to return to his roots after so many years?” he asks. But he is happy that the imbroglio has made Muivah stay in Viswema longer than he would have. “I cannot disappoint my people and go back,” says Muivah.

But the fearful Manipur government won’t let him go forward. The whole region thus sits on a powder keg.