Kohima, Feb. 22: Just as everybody loves a good drought, there is a liking for ethnic fault lines as well.
A historical fault line and another created by contemporary history in Nagaland is attentively exploited by every political party during polls.
Nagaland’s four eastern districts, which have 20 Assembly seats, are a focus area for all. Mon has nine seats, Tuensang seven, Kiphire and Longleng have two each.
Even the legendary A.Z. Phizo had known that his dream could not be achieved without support from this remote region. Modern-day politicians also know this. The Congress in the state and in New Delhi has kept alive hopes of some special arrangement for the tribes here; regional giant Naga People’s Front (NPF) is desperate to get it into the regional power equation.
Why else would every leader worth his name visit Mon? Why would Rahul Gandhi choose Tuensang over say Mokokchung and Rajnath Singh visit Mon instead of Kohima?
Chief minister Neiphiu Rio hopes to gain a few seats from the big Konyak villages in Mon with support from Chingwang Konyak. A veteran Congress leader for almost four decades, Chinwang changed loyalties in favour of NPF on the eve of elections. Both parties have made grand sounding promises. The Congress promises to set up a mini-secretariat and the NPF an autonomous council.
But the promises have less to do with numbers and more to do with tribal divides that are etched deep into people’s minds and its political fallout. The differences are because of a slightly different history and terrain that has kept this area backward.
Erstwhile called the Tuensang area of the North East Frontier Agency (Nefa), the four districts were merged with the then Naga Hills district in 1957 before the area became Nagaland state in 1963. On the fringes of the state with three of the four districts sharing a border with Myanmar, this remote area’s human development indices were lower than the rest of the state.
Even today, this eastern part prefers to address itself with a capital ‘E’: Eastern Nagaland.
The Eastern Naga People’s Organisation (ENPO), a grouping of tribes from the four districts, is virtually a synonym for Nefa in one sense. The tribes, who feel they have been left behind, had demanded a separate state, Frontier Nagaland, in 2011. This has not been aggressively discouraged by the Centre, hoping that the aspiration can neutralise Thuingaleng Muivah’s demand for integration of areas.
“Well, both the NPF and the Congress have made ground-breaking suggestions but there is a need to review the 16-point agreement,” says Toshi Wungtung, secretary of the ENPO steering committee. Toshi concedes that when almost 40 per cent of the population has less than five per cent of the jobs, it becomes an area of political opportunities.
The four districts could be imagined to be great swathes of contiguous areas populated by people who feel they have been “exploited” for four decades by “forward tribes”.
Rebel groups also have been clear on getting the tribes here — Konyak, Chang, Yimchungru, Phom, Sangtam and Khiamniungans — on their side. The NSCN faction led by Myanmar-based S.S. Khaplang dominates this area just as the Isak-Muivah group dominates southern Naga areas falling in Manipur.
Of late, the rebels are in a quandary, as another grouping called the Central Naga Tribal Council, comprising members from Ao, Lotha and Sema tribes, has come into existence. Seen by many to be a “handiwork of Delhi” to divide the Tenyimia votes, the results, however, cannot be entirely predictable. Tenyimia are the Tenyidie-speaking Angami and Chakhesang tribes. Chief minister Neiphiu Rio is an Angami.
Wungtung concedes political parties have delved into ethnic crevices to plough back political benefits and says that ENPO will reverse it.
Just as the rift between Naga and Meitei communities is exploited in Manipur, the divides within Nagaland are also useful for political gains.
Pursuing the agenda of integrating the Naga areas, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) ventured into Manipur last year to exploit the Meitei-Naga rift. Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh exploited the same rift to win in the Valley and exploited the political differences in the hills to be victorious in the hills as well.
In Eastern Nagaland, a former bastion of the Congress, the national party has not let its guard down. Former chief minister S.C. Jamir made a visit to Tobu and Mon to promise the “mini secretariat”.