The Naga-Meitei ethnic divide has been a long drawn out conflict between the two major ethnic communities in the Northeast resulting in bloodshed. It is also responsible for the formation of ethnically aligned armed insurgent groups. The Meiteis fear the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingalung Muivah--NSCN (IM)’s agenda of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). The Nagalim map includes all Naga inhabited areas in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
Manipur had erupted into violence in 2001 when the union government extended the cease-fire with the NSCN (IM) to Naga inhabited areas in Manipur, which included the hill districts of Chandel, Senapati, Tamenglong, and Ukhrul. The resistance turned so violent that the union government had to revoke the move.
The strong differences between these two communities came to the fore again in May this year when Muivah, the General Secretary of the NSCN (IM) was denied entry to his native village in Manipur. Consequently, Naga groups blocked the main National Highway 39 via Nagaland to Manipur for nearly two months, leading to widespread difficulties in Manipur with shortage of food, medicines and other basic amenities.
Despite this extremely negative background, some tentative first steps at ‘dialogue’ between the Meiteis and the Nagas were taken on September 21, 2010 in New Delhi in which the United Naga Council (UNC), an influential Naga civil society actor represented the Nagas while the Resident Commissioner of Manipur in Delhi represented the Meiteis. The dialogue focused on the September 14, 2010 memorandum submitted by the UNC to the Prime Minister and the home minister, government of India in which it was stated that an alternative political arrangement for Nagas in Manipur had to be worked on, based on the inputs provided by the July 1, 2010 Naga Peoples’ Convention. The Convention had taken a rather strong stand on severing political ties with Manipur in the backdrop of the contentious issue of Muivah’s visit to his native village. Consequently, the September dialogue reflected the implicit tensions as a result of the growing division between these two communities. However, the good news is that instead of cutting off communication, the two sides sat down together to sort out the differences for the very first time, with the home secretary, G. K. Pillai, acting as the facilitator.
Significantly, the two sides met again on December 3, 2010 within the framework of ‘tripartite talks’ held at the District Commissioner’s office in Senapati district, Manipur. In attendance at these tripartite talks were the UNC, the union government (as facilitator) and Manipur state government representatives. While going through the proceedings of the ‘tripartite talks’, one has reason to believe that though the UNC and the Meitei state representatives were not on the same page on many issues, both sides were at least willing to talk to each other which is by itself a symbolic gesture of immense significance. The main differences between the sides based on an interpretation of the December 3 proceedings can be enumerated as follows:
- An alternative political arrangement for Nagas in Manipur.
- Naga unique history is the only history of this region.
- Core issue of Naga territorial unification.
- Nagas are residing in a colonized regime in Manipur.
- Hill areas of Manipur are neglected by the Meitei’s dominated Government of Manipur.
- The Constitution of India can accommodate the different ethnic political aspirations.
- Precise explanation of the UNC demand of alternative political arrangement for Nagas in Manipur.
- The territory of Manipur will not be further divided but greater autonomy can be provided within the framework of the Indian Constitution to the hills areas.
Manipur Government posture:
- The six Autonomous District Councils in Manipur can be a model for accommodating greater political aspirations of the hill areas of Manipur.
- The Mizo model of rapid development can be followed.
- Adequate funds accorded for hill area development.
- No more territorial division of Manipur.
Reading the above three postures, especially that of the UNC and the government of Manipur representatives, perhaps gives the impression that there seems to be no meeting point between the two sides. However, it is rather critical to note that most dialogues to end long drawn out ethnic conflict start with rigid postures on the part of the immediately affected parties. The dialogue slowly gets more open as the issues of contention are discussed threadbare and ticked off the table. The more one holds such dialogues on a regular basis, the greater the chances of creating an environment of trust and working together towards an acceptable way out of contentious issues like territorial demarcation.
For the ‘tripartite dialogue’ to be more effective in the long run, there is need to follow a framework based on the core principles of dialogue:
First, the aim of dialogical conflict resolution is to change relationships and not negotiate hard to arrive at an agreement within a limited time period. Given the long background of the Meitei-Naga conflict, it is important that there is genuine interaction in which each side listens to the other’s concerns and takes that into account while contemplating one’s own picture of reality, even when disagreements persist. While no participant gives up on one's identity, yet there is recognition of the very real human claims of the other.
Second, the dialogue should ideally be based on ‘inclusiveness’ informed by a problem-solving approach. It should be jointly owned without letting asymmetry of power dynamics come into play while continually being open to listen, learn and adapt. It is necessary for the parties concerned to be empathetic to the other’s point of view; understand the context and have a vision for the future.
The vision for the Meitei-Naga dialogue should be a progressive, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural living sustained by a forward looking approach. Right now, there are too many parochial and limited backward looking narratives informing everyday existence in Manipur. Meiteis tend to view the Naga community with distrust and vice versa. Hence, it is absolutely critical that the first ever Meitei-Naga formal talks be given firm support as it is the only way out of the impasse. In this, the wisdom of Niketu Iralu, Naga social worker and human resource development practitioner should be taken as a guide-post. Iralu, in his capacity as the Convener of the Naga Peace Reconciliation Committee in 2001 with the mandate of the Naga Hoho (Naga Apex Tribal body) had two important missions: first, to carry forward internal reconciliation among Nagas; second, to reach out to neighbouring states/communities (Read Assamese and Meiteis) and renew friendship. The spontaneous response of about 35 Naga tribes to the reconciliation meeting held in Kohima on December 20, 2001 on these issues was a welcome sight. So was the enthusiastic response of neighbouring Assam to Iralu’s gesture. Already, there is strong support for the tripartite talks from the Nagas in Manipur given the fact that thousands of Nagas welcomed the December 03 talks in Tahamzam, Senapati.
One can therefore wistfully hope that these talks will herald the beginning of a peaceful future in the Northeast of India.
Dr Namrata Goswami is a Visiting Fellow, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany and Research Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed here are that of the author.