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When the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his maiden visit to Nagaland, travelled 74 kilometres from Dimapur to Kohima early this week, it was seen as a gesture higher than the visit itself. So, when there were some media reports suggesting that Vajpayee had ruled out the demand for integration, no one reacted with anger in Kohima. On the contrary, the “Indian” prime minister’s visit was hailed openly as a landmark trip by organizations such as the Naga Hoho who are now even more hopeful of the integration plan getting the nod from New Delhi.
The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) is believed to have offered its security to the most favoured “guest” ever perhaps. This is an indicator of just how long we have traversed in the Naga political process from the days when Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, and the Burmese premier, U Nu, had unceremoniously returned to New Delhi from Kohima decades back after they refused to meet a delegation of Nagas.
It was probably Vajpayee the poet and statesman who touched the people more than Vajpayee the politician. Nagas are an emotional race. So when the prime minister said, “Hum doori ko door karna chahte hain, hum dilon ki doori ko bhi door karna chahte hain” (“We want to remove distances, those of the heart too”), there was a hush. He had spoken along similar lines earlier at the inauguration of the cellular phone service in the Northeast.
Vajpayee said that the issue of integration of Naga-inhabited areas needed to be resolved through a political consensus. Does it mean that New Delhi does not trust Okram Ibobi Singh’s promise of maintaining the territorial integrity of his state' Or, does it mean that the Centre does not want to be involved in a confrontation with the states on this question' Many say it was just another way of saying, “Resolve it yourselves”.
The first and the most important demand of the NSCN (I-M) has been that of the amalgamation of the Naga areas of Manipur, with particular emphasis on Senapati which includes Ukhrul, the native area of the outfit’s general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah. The Naga Hoho took Vajpayee’s statement with grace, saying that the prime minister’s pledge of “considering” the demand was an unprecedented statement by any Indian leader. Every other time the demand has been flatly refused.
The positive reception of the Centre’s stand on the issue was evident in the welcome party of thousands of Nagas mainly from the Senapati and Ukhrul areas of Manipur. It was also an indication of the fact that — although there has been hardly any transparency about the several parleys between the two parties over the past few years — the government is not averse to the idea of unification. This was evident from several of Vajpayee’s statements during his three-day stay in Nagaland. The prime minister dwelt extensively on the uniqueness of the Nagas, and on the acknowledgement of this uniqueness by the establishment.
He is unlikely to have endeared himself to those in the Manipur valley, who have been protesting against the release of the 13 NSCN (I-M) members who were arrested by the Manipur police in early October and then hastily released, reportedly following an intervention by the deputy prime minister, L.K. Advani.
Vajpayee dropped large hints that the Centre wanted to make Nagaland a model in its attempts to resolve the insurgency problem in the Northeast. A beginning can be said to have been made with the umbrella organization for several smaller outfits in the region.
So when the prime minister decided to ask other organisations to come to the table after giving up violence, he chose to do so from a podium in Nagaland. Notably, the appeal to these outfits was made neither in an intimidatory tone, nor with a sense of kneeling down, but with determination and assertion. The statesman’s style of taking the middle path was apparent in every statement Vajpayee made in Kohima.
It seemed that the generosity of the Centre knew no bounds. There was not only an economic package worth a whopping Rs 1,050 crore for a state of 20 lakh people, but also a slew of new ideas and a dream of a whole new world ahead of the youth. Vajpayee consistently targeted the youth in Kohima, at the civic reception as well as at the first convocation of the Nagaland University. He spoke of joining the Northeast with southeast Asia and made it clear that the Centre’s “Look East” policy included the Northeast along with southeast and east Asian countries like Myanmar and Thailand. The economic package also included huge sums on health, education and infrastructure development, apart from road and telecommunication connectivity for the entire region.
In that and in not naming any other state, the prime minister attempted to come out of the mindset of clubbing the northeastern states into a single entity. In fact, when asked about India’s relations with China and the border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh, Vajpayee openly wondered why there should be a question on China from Nagaland. He also blamed the media for packaging the Northeast in the wrong way.
The prime minister’s visit did throw up a few sticky questions. The most important among them is whether he would have visited Nagaland and stayed there for no less than three days had the Bharatiya Janata Party not won seven seats in the Nagaland assembly. Rumours are already afloat about the possibility of a political upheaval in the state following the visit .
Vajpayee did not disappoint the BJP hardliners even in the predominantly Christian state. He pointed out that it was a Hindu king who had donated land for a church to be built when Christianity first arrived in Kerala.
With the Mizoram elections close by, and parliamentary polls a year away, this may have set the tone for the BJP’s election campaign in the northeast. The objective is to win seats in the Northeast, make new strategic partners and help the National Democratic Alliance change its image. No one knows better than Vajpayee that the Northeast can give the BJP in New Delhi a much-needed diverse and secular look.