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Manipur-Myanmar attacks: the violence is unlikely to stop

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 1 July 2015, 10:14 IST

The offensive

  • The Centre believes its cross-border attack on insurgents in Myanmar has sent a strong message.
  • But contrary to that message, the attacks on the army may increase.

The triggers

  • The Centre and Naga insurgent group NSCN(IM) are very close to a final settlement.
  • Rival Naga group NSCN (Khaplang), as well as Meitei insurgents, fear this will make them irrelevant and change power equations in the region.

The deal

  • A deal with NSCN(IM) could involve greater autonomy for Naga-dominated areas.
  • Another possibility is a multi-state structure cutting across Nagaland and parts of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
  • The PMO is directing negotiations through special envoy RN Ravi and NSA Ajit Doval.
  • Home Ministry, Intelligence Bureau and Army have been kept away from the talks.


  • Distribution of power between the Centre and Nagas and NSCN(IM)\'s demand for integration of all Naga areas are obstacles to a deal.
  • NSCN (Khaplang), Meitei insurgent groups and ULFA may co-operate to foment violence and scuttle the deal.

Contrary to popular expectation, the attacks on Indian security forces in Manipur and Nagaland are unlikely to come down.

The cross-border Indian military action in Myanmar may indeed have been a strong message to Northeastern insurgents groups sheltering there. However, there is every likelihood that their attacks on security forces will become more frequent in the coming days and expand into new areas.

'Revenge' for attacks on their camps in Myanmar may only be the proximate reason for this. The real reasons for a likely intensification in militant activity are quite different.

The context

The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) - or NSCN(K), the insurgent group that claimed the attack on the Indian army, and some of Manipur's Meitei insurgent groups suddenly have much larger concerns.

The diverse tribes and ethnicities of India's Northeast are fixated on identity-based demands for their own homelands, articulated variously as demands for greater autonomy, statehood and even outright independence.

Although many tribes live cheek by jowl, such competitive assertion of identity is seen by them as a zero-sum game leading to inter-ethnic conflicts.

It is in this context that the likely intensification of attacks on Indian security forces by the NSCN(K) and the Meitei insurgent groups have to be seen.

An imminent settlement

Straws in the wind suggest that all these groups are apprehensive of an impending, overarching settlement between the government of India and the main Naga insurgent group in India.

As the government inches closer to settling the Naga insurgency, these groups are reacting to the prospect of a larger reconfiguration of forces likely to emerge in the region.

The NSCN(K), by virtue of being largely a Burmese group now, will be left out of the settlement. And the Meitei insurgents fear that with a Naga settlement with Delhi, Imphal will lose its grip over the state's hill districts inhabited largely by Nagas.

Although New Delhi has failed to seal an agreement with the Nagas, repeatedly since 1947, it now seems to be nearing closure. The agreement will be with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) - a rival of NSCN (K) - which claims to represent all the Nagas in India.

A settlement may involve creation of a Naga structure cutting across parts of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh

The settlement will impact Nagas living in four hill districts of Manipur (Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul), two districts of Arunachal Pradesh (Tirap and Changlang) and some Naga-inhabited areas of Assam (Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills).

An agreement with the NSCN (IM) would relegate all the other Naga insurgent groups - including the NSCN (K) - to the margins of Naga politics.

Khaplang's fears

The NSCN(K) is led by S S Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. He stands for a sovereign Nagaland encompassing the Naga areas in Myanmar and the Indian state of Nagaland. The NSCN(IM)'s focus is more on the Indian side of the border - in Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

At one time, the two groups were unified under Khaplang, Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). In 1988, a fratricidal war broke out in the NSCN instigated by Indian intelligence agencies, and it began dissolving into an alphabet soup - NSCN(K) of Khaplang and NSCN(IM) of Isak and Muivah.

In 1997, NSCN(IM) entered into a ceasefire with the government of India after it explicitly recognised the Naga insurgency as a political issue, not a law and order problem. Peace negotiations with the NSCN(IM) were initiated at the level of the Prime Minister's Office.

The NSCN(K) also entered into a ceasefire with the Indian government in 2001 but negotiations were at the level of Home Ministry officials. No government in Delhi has negotiated with Khaplang directly - Indira Gandhi who held several rounds of talks with the Nagas in her time had categorically stated that India could not negotiate with a Burmese citizen.

On the other hand, several Indian prime ministers have met both Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah over 18 years of the Naga ceasefire. The NSCN(K) however, continued to be given legitimacy by India's intelligence agencies.

In April 2012, the NSCN(K) signed a ceasefire agreement with Yangon without informing India, and began negotiating greater autonomy for the Naga areas of Myanmar. But it began to get marginalised in India. Its ceasefire with India has since broken down in March 2015.

A history of splits and ceasefires

The Myanmar Nagas have also been effectively separated from the Indian Nagas by a series of splits within the NSCN(K). In 2007, it split with the formation of NSCN (Unification) and did so again in 2011 with the formation of NSCN (Kholey-Kitovi) led by Nagas on the Indian side.

In March 2015, Wangtin Naga and P Tikhak exited to form NSCN (Reformation), as they favoured continuing the ceasefire with India. All offshoots of the Khaplang group in India are believed to be under the broad protection of the Indian security establishment.

In effect then, most of the Indian Nagas, irrespective of the NSCN faction they belong to, are now under the leadership of Nagas from India. They are either in ceasefire agreements with Delhi or do not oppose a Naga settlement.

An agreement on the Naga issue with the NSCN(IM) could perhaps be extended subsequently to the remaining Naga groups within India. This would make Khaplang largely irrelevant on the India side.

The negotiations

The exclusion of the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau from the current negotiations with the Nagas makes a settlement with the NSCN(IM) more likely. Neither do the Army nor the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) have any direct or indirect role.

It means that the agenda is largely determined by the PMO - and implemented through the Prime Minister's emissary for the Naga talks - RN Ravi, Chief of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

Ravi works under the supervision of National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, who has a personal rapport with the NSCN(IM) leaders since his days as Director, Intelligence Bureau. Doval, who also helped settle the Mizo insurgency, apparently believes that a mutually acceptable and honourable political settlement of the Naga issue is both possible and desirable.

The PMO is supervising talks with Naga groups through its special envoy RN Ravi who reports to NSA Ajit Doval

There now seems to be both a political will as well as a road map for settling the Naga issue.

The two broad issues dogging the Naga settlement are - the distribution of powers between the Centre and the Nagas; and the NSCN(IM)'s demand for the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas.

Reacting to proposals made by the Manmohan Singh government on these core issues, the NSCN(IM) had submitted a 'non-paper' (a discussion paper, which is formally a part of the official discussion). While the previous government did not respond to it, the Modi government has engaged the Nagas on their non-paper.

There is an expectation that the settlement could result in a non-state solution - creating an inter-state Naga body without changing the boundaries of existing states.

If this happens, the Naga hill districts of Manipur, and areas of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, could be granted greater autonomy. In addition, they could also be part of a larger multi-state Naga structure cutting across state boundaries.

Manipur's Meitei insurgent groups are concerned that such a Naga settlement could erode the imagined boundaries of Kangleipak, the old name for the Kingdom of Manipur, in whose name they fight for a separate nation.

Any autonomy to the Naga tribes or a multi-state Naga body is seen by them as the first step towards changing state boundaries.

Scuttling the deal

In the run-up to the Naga settlement, therefore, the Meitei insurgent groups will continue to create problems for the security forces in co-operation with the Khaplang group, completely isolated in India, as well as the coalition they have formed with United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

One can also expect them to foment clashes between the Nagas and others sections of the population, as they have done in Manipur in the past.

On 18 June 2001, the Manipur Legislative Assembly building was set alight in protests against the possible breakup of the state to accommodate the Naga demand for integrating their homeland.

In 2005, in a move meant to provoke the Nagas of Manipur, Congress Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh declared 18 June as 'State Integration Day'. The Nagas responded with a blockade of the Imphal Valley causing widespread food scarcity - some real, and some engineered by the state government with an eye on the assembly election the following year.

Each time the Centre has come close to an understanding with the Nagas, the Manipur state government has thrown a spanner in the works by whipping up sub-nationalist sentiment. The Congress ruling both at the Centre and the state between 2004 and 2014, played off local interests vs. nationalist interests to avoid making a deal with the Naga leaders.

This time around though, mischief-makers in the Congress-led state government are unlikely to get any sympathy from the BJP-led Centre. This does not mean that the Metei nationalists - both over-ground and underground - will not provoke ethnic clashes. Attacks on the security establishment are bound to increase.

In Assam and Arunachal also, the fear of the Naga settlement may whip up trouble in the coming months although it will not change their state boundaries.

First published: 14 June 2015, 18:53 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.