To begin with, the prime minister’s plan to visit both Nagaland and Manipur had surprised many. So, when Imphal was dropped from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s itinerary on October 19, it did not come as a shock.
Last month, the Nagas and the Meiteis were caught once again in a cycle of allegations and counter-allegations over the arrest of 13 members of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — including its kilo kilonser (home minister), A.K. Lungalang — by the Manipur police. Protests over the arrests, which began in Nagaland soon after, stopped once the Manipur government hastily released them under pressure from the Centre.
But this sparked off another round of protests, in Manipur this time, led by the All Manipur Students Union and the United Committee Manipur. Though the chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, assured them that the territorial integrity of Manipur would be protected at all costs, his Secular Progressive Front government was nicknamed “IM” (Ibobi-Muivah) by the students.
In Nagaland, at least, Vajpayee is assured of a warm welcome by the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government which is soon to complete six months. Incidentally, Nagaland has a Bharatiya Janata Party home minister.
Vajpayee will be looking to assure the northeastern states that his government is, indeed, “looking east”, and convince the Nagas and the Meiteis that resolution of the conflict between them is a top priority for the Centre.
Vajpayee will be helped by the conducive atmosphere created by the positive statements of K. Padmanabhaiah and NSCN (IM), that the Amsterdam round of talks on the peace process between the Centre and the secessionist organization was “progressing well”. For the NSCN (IM), of course, this means the Centre’s “yes”, in principle, to the integration of contiguous Naga areas in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Of course, a similar “in principle” statement by Padmanabhaiah two years ago had led to widespread riots and New Delhi had to intervene to give reassurances about the territorial integrity of Manipur in order to cool tempers. But a lot has changed since then.
By dropping Manipur from his schedule, Vajpayee is saving himself the embarrassment of having to make a set of promises to Nagas, only to retract it in Imphal a few days later. Naturally, the change in itinerary has not gone down well with the Meiteis.
The Centre has only added to the general confusion by continuing for too long with its policy of once acceding to the demand for integration of the Naga areas and then assuring Manipur of its territorial integrity. So, Vajpayee had best not make electoral statements. He should limit his public statements to anodyne comments on the “step-motherly” treatment meted to the Northeast in the last five decades.
No reason for euphoria
The Centre may be trying to keep the cards close to its chest, but the Amsterdam talks are starting to make the Meiteis suspicious. Their doubts have been raised especially by the NSCN (IM)’s euphoric statement that, “We did not talk integration but the talks are progressing well and the next round is more promising”. Recently, Naga non-governmental organizations and the NSCN (IM) issued a warning to the Meiteis that if they so wished, Manipur’s economy could be strangled.
There is no way the progress of the talks can be reversed now since it would make the Nagas angry. The logical thing to do now is to caution the Nagas to tone down their jubilation and so prevent disillusionment in Manipur. This may be the only way to give peace a chance.
There is also the question of the Centre’s not-so explicit interest in Manipur. But then, the purpose of these friendly overtures to, what some say is, the most powerful terrorist organization in the Northeast, is to defuse the tension in the area by resolving the longstanding Naga crisis. Nagaland is the focal point of the region and it is not without reason that Vajpayee is going to stay three days in its hill capital — unless Kashmir steals the thunder.