Manipur ambush, many questions
Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and some of his senior colleagues survived an abortive attempt on their lives earlier this week by Naga rebels suspected to belong to the NSCN(IM) faction. The rebel outfit, which entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre decades ago, has been demanding a greater Nagalim which should include Naga-inhabited areas of States neighbouring Nagaland, including four Naga-inhabited districts of Manipur, namely, Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel, and Senapati. Naturally, all the concerned States – Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal – are dead against ceding any territory to the proposed Nagalim.
The attack on Ibobi was daring and exposes the negligence of those who are responsible for the security of the VIPs. Ibobi, Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam, Forest Minister Hemchandra, Deputy Speaker Preshow Shimray and Parliamentary Secretary Victor Keishing landed in a helicopter at the Bakshi helipad at Ukhrul town, the headquarters of the Ukhrul district. Ibobi had come to inaugurate some official projects like the 100-bed Ukhrul district hospital, high voltage power sub-stations and some government offices.
The rebel attack came in the midst of a boycott call issued by the Tangkhul Naga Long. (The Nagas of Ukhrul district belong to the Tangkhul tribe.) The TNL had also imposed a day-long “public curfew” in the town. What happened when the VIP chopper landed was indeed unthinkable. The rebels opened fire when the Chief Minister and his companions were alighting. And this despite the Assam Rifles’ claim that it had brought the entire area under “area domination.”
What followed next was stranger still. The Chief Minister was still determined to do the inauguration ceremony. He wanted to go to the district hospital. But the road was impassable. The rebels had put burning tyres on a stretch of more than half a kilometre on the road, despite all the vigilance of the authorities. The police failed to disperse the TNL “volunteers” and clear the way. These “volunteers” had lobbed grenades, injuring two jawans. They also burnt some government vehicles The CM had to return to the helipad. As his chopper was airborne, the rebels opened fire again – for the second time. The firing continued for full ten minutes. But the helicopter could fly away safely.
The incident has raised a pertinent question. The NSCN(IM) had stopped its armed activities after it signed a ceasefire agreement with the Centre on July 25, 1997. The ceasefire has been in force since then. The armed cadre of the NSCN(IM) have been put in the Hebron camp near Dimapur, surrounded by the security forces. They have been allowed to retain their arms but are not authorised to leave the camp. Then in August last year, Prime Minister Modi signed another accord with the NSCN(IM) the terms of which have not been disclosed. We do not know whether the accord has satisfied the rebel leaders’ demand for a greater Nagalim or whether they have accepted the degree of autonomy believed to have been offered to the Nagas. The question is, in the circumstances, why did the NSCN(IM) indulge in violence?
The Naga insurgency has a chequered history. It was Angami Zapu Phizo, leader of the Naga National Council (NNC) who raised the banner of revolt in then Assam district of Naga Hills, following his failure to open talks with the then Assam Chief Minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha at Shillong. This was in 1953. Next year, 1954, Phizo set up the so-called Hongkhin Government of the “Sovereign Republic of Nagaland”. It marked the beginning of the Naga insurgency.
Nagaland was carved out of Assam as a full-fledged State on December 1, 1963. It went a long way to meet the Naga demand for autonomy. But conceding Statehood within the Indian Union did not satisfy Phizo who had by then exiled himself in London. The NNC-led revolt continued till 1975. On November 11 of that year, the NNC signed a formal peace accord with the Centre at Shillong. Clause 3(ii) of the accord said: “It was agreed that the arms, now underground, would be brought out and deposited at appointed places.”
It raised a raging debate in the NNC which was then dominated by the Angamis, the tribe to which Phizo belonged. The other tribes did not agree to surrender their arms. To them, this was “betrayal” of the Naga cause and “surrender” to India. They decided to carry on the struggle. Five years later, in January 1980, Isak Chishi Swu, Thuinggaleng Muivah and S. S. Khaplang formed the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) to continue the fight for Naga sovereignty.
Later, Khaplang fell out with Swu and Muivah, and after a fratricidal war in which many were killed, the NSCN was split on April 30, 1988, into two factions: NSCN(IM) and NSCN(K). Subsequently, both groups signed ceasefire agreements separately, but last year, Khaplang unilaterally ended the ceasefire. Still later, in April last year, two colleagues of Khaplang, Y. Wangtin Konyak and P. Tikhak broke away from Khaplang and floated their outfit – the NSCN(Reformation). The likely cause of the split was the repudiation of the ceasefire agreement by Khaplang.
As the latest attack on the Manipur Chief Minister shows, despite fragmentation in the rebel ranks, Naga insurgency is very much alive, and a comprehensive peace accord involving all groups and factions and paving the way for permanent peace remains elusive.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)