Northeastern View | Manipur and Nagaland: Two conflicts in Northeast India that the new NDA government should prioritise - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | Manipur and Nagaland: Two conflicts in Northeast India that the new NDA government should prioritise

Jun 14, 2024 09:00 AM IST

The diverse region has many problems, but the new NDA government must prioritise two: the raging ethnic conflict in Manipur and the Naga peace talks.

The new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, took charge for the third consecutive time on June 9. However, the fractured mandate that it received this time shows that it cannot take voters for granted. It has to be more responsive to concerns on the grounds.

Army personnel patrol an area in Manipur(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Army personnel patrol an area in Manipur(HT_PRINT)

This is true for Northeast India too, where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies lost four of its existing parliamentary seats in Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. Except in Assam and Tripura, the NDA also lost vote shares in all other states, the largest in Manipur (23.4%).

It is clear, therefore, that something went wrong for the Modi government in the Northeast. The diverse region has many problems, but the new NDA government in New Delhi must use its fresh mandate to prioritise two: the raging ethnic conflict in Manipur and the Naga peace talks.

Manipur continues to burn

Just four days after the results of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections were announced, fresh violence erupted in Manipur’s Jiribam district, which borders Assam to the west. According to Kuki-Zo organisations, some 45 houses belonging to the tribal community were razed to the ground after the dead body of a 59-year-old Meitei farmer was found in Jiribam.

At least 600 people have fled to Assam’s Cachar district in the wake of the violence. Then on 10 June, suspected militants attacked an advance security convoy of Chief Minister N Biren Singh headed for Jiribam, wounding two police personnel.

These are just the latest flare-ups in a seemingly never-ending conflict cycle that began in May 2023. Beyond piecemeal security-centric measures, the previous BJP-led government in New Delhi did little to restore calm and repair communal relations in Manipur. In fact, it has taken decisions – such as fencing the India-Myanmar border and suspending the Free Movement Regime (FMR) – that have only riled up people in not just Manipur, but also Mizoram and Nagaland.

This must change. The new NDA government must accept its mistakes, return to the drawing board and initiate a fresh attempt to foster genuine reconciliation between the two sides. This demands audacity and imagination but is not impossible. New Delhi must show that it is a neutral arbiter and a force for good.

It should begin by bringing all stakeholders, including the N Biren Singh government in Imphal, around the same table and facilitating an honest discussion on all key issues – land alienation, Hill-Valley divide, reservation, poppy cultivation, militia violence, and demographic anxieties – in a safe space. Civil society leaders from the neighbouring states of Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam should also be brought in to understand the spillover effects of the conflict.

It must, most importantly, put justice and peace on the same plank. The Imphal government can only be a part of this comprehensive dialogue, and not lead it – for it is a direct stakeholder in the crisis. It is the centre that must shepherd this endeavour from the front through its own emissaries and reliable civil society actors. The centre must also get inputs from independent fact-finding missions instead of vilifying them.

Ending the Naga peace talk

In April, Prime Minister Modi claimed that his government was trying to conclude the Naga peace talks at the earliest. Yet, the dialogue process, which in its current form began when the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) signed a framework agreement with New Delhi in 2015, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

In May, it turned further south when the NSCN-IM accused the Indian state of fighting a “proxy war” against them using Kuki armed groups in Myanmar. The irate response came after media reports revealed that the National Investigative Agency (NIA), in a chargesheet filed in March, had accused the Naga group of “waging war” against India in cahoots with Myanmar-based Meitei insurgent groups.

First, the new NDA government must lower the heat on the NIA chargesheet issue before it moves to reorient the talk process. The NSCN-IM needs to be reassured that there is no attempt to subvert its position through backhand subterfuge. Second, it needs to bridge the yawning gap between the NSCN-IM and the other dialogue faction known as the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG). New Delhi needs to show Naga society that it is a force for unity, not division.

Third, the centre should adopt a genuinely whole-of-society approach to the talks, bringing in civil society stakeholders from across the Northeast, including those representing non-Naga groups. To do this, it should expand the ‘Political Affairs Committee (PAC)’ instituted by the Nagaland government in May to include non-political members with direct stakes in the Naga issue. This also means addressing upfront the human rights abuses faced by Nagas in the past.

Importantly, the NDA government needs to acknowledge that the vexed Naga question is closely linked with the Kuki-Zo issue in Manipur, wherein two different imaginations of territorial autonomy could clash. Acting as a neutral mediator, New Delhi must work towards factoring Kuki-Zo aspirations in the Naga talk process and Naga aspirations in its existing dialogue mechanism with the Kuki-Zo groups.

The two contexts cannot be delinked if the government seeks durable peace in both Nagaland and Manipur. At the same time, each demands unique solutions. New Delhi must shed its old Machiavellian ways of managing its insurgent peripheries and for once, engage in peacebuilding with humility, benevolence and a spirit of deliberation.

Angshuman Choudhury is a New Delhi-based researcher and writer, formerly an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal

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