Territorial boundaries are a major factor in creating demographic identities. It is not unusual or unreasonable, therefore, for a people to be agitated over the fear of a reduction in their homeland territory. The people of Manipur have long lived in the fear that the state would have to cede the Naga-majority areas to a “greater” Nagaland. The issue had featured in every election campaign in the state ever since politicians in Nagaland made it their theme song. Predictably enough, the talks between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, led by Mr Isak Swu and Mr Thuingaleng Muivah, have once again roused passions over Manipur’s territorial integrity. The intensity of the current agitation in Imphal is directly proportionate to the progress of the talks in New Delhi. So much so that the young people of Manipur are threatening to sacrifice their lives in thousands and calling for a separation of their state from India if it is broken up in order to create a larger Nagaland. That such threats are no empty, chauvinistic rhetoric was tragically proved in 2001 when Imphal erupted in a burst of violence over the Centre’s proposal to extend the ceasefire with the NSCN(I-M) to the Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur. Things could have been far worse had New Delhi not beaten a hasty retreat and put the decision in abeyance.
It is not difficult to understand the Manipuris’ anxiety over the Naga talks; but the Centre’s dilemma too is real. New Delhi cannot afford to lose the initiative for a lasting peace in Nagaland where India’s longest — and also the bloodiest — ethnic insurgency has lived for over fifty years. Having covered much crucial ground in the peace talks, neither side can be seen as betraying the trust built up over tortuous negotiations. But a responsible government cannot give peace to the Nagas, while taking it — and their territory — away from the Manipuris. There is much truth in the argument that peace with the NSCN(I-M) , the mother of all insurgent groups in the Northeast, would help deal with the others. But the secessionists in Manipur will enlist massive popular support if New Delhi is seen to be sacrificing the state’s integrity at the altar of the Naga talks. The situation clearly calls for extremely sensitive and judicious handling by the Centre. One important first step could be opening a dialogue between the Centre and representatives of all political parties in Manipur. And it should steer clear of partisan politics. Imphal is simmering, although the government has not committed anything to the Nagas so far. Even as its interlocutors talk to Mr Swu and Mr Muivah, the government must send out signals of justice to Manipur.