Northeastern View | NIA blaming NSCN-IM for destabilising Manipur could create new friction points at multiple places - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | NIA blaming NSCN-IM for destabilising Manipur could create new friction points at multiple places

May 17, 2024 11:58 PM IST

The agency’s allegations against the Naga armed group being involved in “destabilising Manipur” in cahoots with Meitei armed groups could sour the peace talks.

On May 15, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the most influential and powerful among all Naga armed groups in India, angrily dismissed reported insinuations made by the National Investigative Agency (NIA) in a chargesheet filed on March 7. The chargesheet alleged that the group was involved in a certain “China-Myanmar module” to destabilise Manipur and wage war against the Indian government alongside Meitei Valley Based Insurgent Groups (VBIGs).

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the most influential and powerful among all Naga armed groups in India, angrily dismissed reported insinuations made by the National Investigative Agency(Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the most influential and powerful among all Naga armed groups in India, angrily dismissed reported insinuations made by the National Investigative Agency(Vipin Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

The NSCN-IM levelled serious counter-accusations on the Indian government, claiming that Indian security forces were fighting a “proxy war” against the Naga and the Meitei armed groups in cahoots with the Kuki National Army (Burma) (KNA-B) and anti-junta forces in Myanmar known as People’s Defence Force (PDF). The armed group even claimed that the Assam Rifles and the Indian Army’s para-regiment were “raining bombs on a daily basis” on its positions along the India-Myanmar border.

This is the latest inflection in the troubled relationship between New Delhi and the NSCN-IM, both of whom have been engaged in a difficult peace process since 2015. It also shows how the ethnic conflict in Manipur has made the “Naga issue” more complicated.

A never-ending peace process

In 2015, the Narendra Modi government and the NSCN-IM signed a “framework agreement” to create a substantive basis for future talks culminating in a peace agreement. However, since then, the negotiations have been messy, with six other rival Naga armed groups establishing their own coalition, known as the Naga National Political Group (NNPG).

Today, the NNPG has seven member groups, including factions that splintered off from the Myanmar-based NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K).

The NSCN-IM and the NNPG do not share a particularly amicable relationship or even common approaches to the issue of Naga self-determination. The former is understood to be more fundamentalist, insisting on a separate Naga constitution and flag along with an integration of all Naga areas in the Northeast, while the latter remains amenable to concessions. These critical differences continue to sustain internal fractures within the Naga side.

The 2015 agreement was supposed to smoothly segue into a political settlement, but that hasn’t happened. Talks have ebbed and flowed inconsistently, with the NSCN-IM accusing New Delhi of backtracking from promises made in the framework agreement. After a long hiatus, talks resumed in August 2023. The last round took place in November in New Delhi, the outcomes of which were flagged as “inconclusive but not deadlocked” by the Naga armed group.

While talks continue, trust levels between both parties seem to be fraying at the edges, even as the Indian government struggles to reconcile the sentiments of all Naga groups and the NSCN-IM complains about New Delhi dragging its feet and dividing Naga society.

The Manipur factor

Notably, a key fault line between the NSCN-IM and the NNPG has been Manipur. The NNPG sees the NSCN-IM as an organisation with roots in Manipur, rather than Nagaland – not least because the latter is largely composed of Tangkhul Nagas who live in Manipur’s Ukhrul and Kamjong districts. Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN-IM patriarch, himself belongs to Somdal, a village in the Ukhrul district.

Last June, the NNPG’s working committee, in a statement, even claimed

that the Tangkhuls and Meitei – the dominant majority in Manipur currently at war with the tribal Kuki-Zo – have “blood relations”. The group also accused the NSCN-IM of undermining the Kuki-Zo demand for a separate administration. The NSCN-IM denied these allegations, claiming that it seeks good relations with both communities of Manipur.

Importantly, the Nagas of Manipur have remained largely neutral in the ongoing ethnic conflict. However, the NSCN-IM is deeply uneasy about the Kuki-Zo demand for a separate political unit as it may end up trespassing into what it sees as ancestral Naga territory. Moreover, under Muivah’s leadership, the armed group remains hostage to the bitter memory of violent clashes with Manipur’s Kuki groups in the 1990s. The United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Nagas in Manipur, too has pushed back against Kuki-Zo historical claims over territory and, like the Meitei, demanded a National Register of Citizens (NRC) to identify “illegal immigrants” from Myanmar (a coded reference to the Kuki-Zo).

These frictions, however, don’t automatically mean that the NSCN-IM would back the Meitei VBIGs. Only recently in March, the Naga outfit asked the Manipur government to “immediately shift” the designated camps of the United Liberation Front of Manipur (UNLF), one faction of which recently signed a ceasefire agreement with New Delhi, out of Naga territory. That is why the allegations made by the NIA against the NSCN-IM in the March chargesheet are somewhat startling.

New fault lines

The NIA’s accusations may be seen as New Delhi’s way to tighten the screws on the Naga group. But, by provoking NSCN-IM, the Modi government only stands to further derail the already-limping talks and delay a settlement.

The NSCN-IM’s stinging response shows that the outfit won’t take the insinuations lightly. At the same time, it indicates a certain convergence between itself and the Meitei VBIGs as far as the Indian state is concerned, which the NIA’s accusations might have only strengthened.

New Delhi will need to cautiously manage these fault lines to prevent the current crisis in Manipur metastasizing into something more menacing. At the same time, the Modi government will have to ensure that the issue does not undo whatever gains have been made in the Naga peace process so far.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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