Home » Peace and Ethnic Conflict in Northeast India: Cultural Borderlands of Southeast Asia: A Case Study of Nagaland-Manipur Crisis

Peace and Ethnic Conflict in Northeast India: Cultural Borderlands of Southeast Asia: A Case Study of Nagaland-Manipur Crisis

by IT Web Admin
0 comment 18 minutes read

The unprecedented upheavals of the II World War (1939-1945) which had deeply affected South East Asia also impacted heavily on lives of neighbouring upland and lowland communities in Northeast India, especially Nagaland and Manipur. The global processes of war, physical confrontations, armed violence and death coupled with destructions, displacements and disasters in the lives of hill and plains communities created flux and uncertainties, which made it impossible to return to earlier social and economic equilibriums under prolonged colonial rule. Ethnic societies in Burma, and their cultural cousins in Northeast India were thrust into the cauldron of rapid change and transformations, where new forces were unleashed to leave their impact on the post-colonial history of these Southern Mongoloid communities. New leaders also emerged to contend with the critical dynamics of the era, who left varying, but distinctively similar impulses on the moods and sentiments of their peoples. Universal ideas of decolonization and self-determination enabled them to jump into the foray of the dislocation of the war, faced the issues of social, economic and political disturbances, and helped crystallize primordial or ideological slants for contestations for power, resources and nation making to help shape the destiny of their respective communities. Four leaders of outstanding qualities emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, two from Burma – Aung San (Burman – 1915-1947), Thakin Than Tun (Burman – 1911-1968), Zapu Phizo (Angami Naga – 1904-1990) of Nagaland and Hijam Irabat (Meetei – 1896-1951) of Manipur, and they transformed the historical trajectories of their respective regions on the issues of self-determination, decolonization and revolution.
During the war, and post war periods, there was not so much of hostilities amongst the minor nationalities of Burma or Northeast India. The political trends in the modern history of the ethnic communities like the Mons, Karens, Shan, Wa, Kachins etc. in Burma, and the Nagas, the Meetei, the Kuki etc. in Northeast India were marked by their varying loyalties or otherwise in their relationship with the colonial power i.e. the British, and the imperial enemy the Japanese.
Most of the hill communities like the Karen, Kachins etc were incorporated as collaborators by the British masters in their campaign against the Japanese, with the promise to look into their collective rights and welfare, but later they were left to themselves when the British left Burma. As for the Burman nationalists, Aung San and friends amongst the thirty comrades were earlier trained in Japan militarily, and they landed at Thailand to infiltrate into war – torn Burma in 1942, and became heroes of the Burmese Nationalist revolution, supporting the Imperial Japanese. Aung San became the commander of the Burma Independence Army, proclaimed Burmese independence from British Rule in 1943, was minister of war in the collaborationist Government of Dr. Ba Maw. He however, turned deserter to the Japanese in the later period of the war, when the tide turned in favour of the allies. He negotiated Burmese Independence from British rule, and six months before the declaration of Burmese Independence was assassinated with his cabinet colleagues in 1947. Thakin Than Tun became another veteran who got involved into the post war cross-border collaboration in the anti-Imperial, anti-bourgeoisie struggle by Manipur and Burma.
In the Naga Hills under British administration, the Angami Nagas and most other tribes supported their colonial master, but Zapu Phizo, a restless adventurer and dreamer, after being exposed to Indian and international cities, went to Burma in 1933, was engaged as General Manager in a Life Insurance Company, continued to dabble in personal businesses producing balms and face creams etc. experimented with mushroom cultivation. He in fact had opportunities of infantry training while in Rangoon, and when the Japanese advanced, was enrolled in the Hikari Kiken intelligence unit of the Japanese army and was also associated with the INA of Subhas Chandra Bose. The British arrested him, tortured him in Rangoon Jail, from which he suffered facial paralysis, but when he was released from Rangoon Jail in 1946, he returned to Kohima, became the leader of the Naga Independence struggle .
In the neighbouring plains of Manipur state, the dynamic of war and national consciousness of the Meetei, and ethnic assertion in the state had quite unique ambience considering the plural nature of the polity. The Monarchy, which was protected and supported by the Empire collaborated with the master during the II World War, and the reigning monarch Maharaja Bodhchandra (1941-1955) helped assuage the plight of the Indian refugees pouring in from Burma in 1942-43. Hijam Irabat had been imprisoned since 1940 for having supported the food security agitation of the Women in 1939, known as the II Women’s War. He had been transferred at Shyllet Jail in 1942 where he became a member of the Communist Party of India. In 1946, he came back to his homeland after the war, after having been denied entry for his anti-state ideologies for nearly four years. When he was in the Surma valley, organizing peasant emancipation movements, he, as a member of the Communist Party of India supported the British against the Japanese, but his followers in the Manipur valley, along with some Kuki stalwarts from the southwestern hills joined the Indian National Army, who liberated part of the valley of Manipur in 1944. During the fag-end of the war, and when the departure of the British became imminent, many groups of hillmen formed respective ethnic associations to safeguard their future. In 1947, when Independence was restored to Manipur, the state accepted the democratic form of government, gave themselves a constitution and for the first time, even before Indian elections was held, the Manipur State Assembly of fifty three members came into being in June 1948. Irabat was elected as a member from a rural constituency. Yet he became a leader of the Manipur struggle against India’s forcible merger of Manipur in 1949, when he was in underground as a Communist leader.
Irabat had returned home in 1946 from exile, and devoted his life to the uplift of the masses and the unity of the state. In November 1947, he convened a meeting of the hill and valley associations which pledged unity and harmony. Irabat also attended the International Fourth Comintern and Communist Party of India meeting in February 1948 at Calcutta where he met Thakin Than Tun, and probably discussed future cooperation in the forthcoming struggle. Though he could get support of the CPB during the fifties when Burma was in civil war, his attempt to send regular Manipuri batches of volunteers were jeopardized by massive arrests at home, Irabat died at the place Tangbo in Kabaw valley in Myanmar. But his armed resistance to India’s occupation of Manipur in 1949-51 was not much known internationally because of various reasons.
Irabat’s movement of the revolutionary armed struggle was taken up by new outfits that emerged in the post-sixties with the vision of restoration of Manipur’s Independence. Earlier resistances in fifties and sixties by followers of Irabat and friends of Meetei and Tangkhul Naga individuals like late S. Indramani, late Yangmasho Shaiza, former Chief Minister of Manipur (1979), had close cooperation who opposed the merger of Manipur. But well organized educated militant outfits emerged in Manipur valley in 1964 with the formation of the United National Liberation Front. A break-away group of daring young men known as Peoples Liberation Army went to Lhasa in Tibet to get Chinese help, returned and started the first armed strike against the Indian security forces in 1978. This group whose armed wing started guerilla warfare got massive support from the people in the eighties, and in the eighties and nineties, many underground outfits worked with close collaboration with the Naga militants under Thuingaleng Muivah & S.S. Khaplang. Ethnic cooperation between the revolutionaries of Nagaland and Manipur were an outstanding trend in ethnic militancy in Northeast India in the eighties and nineties. As the underground elements of the respective communities set the agenda for civil society expression of public opinion, not much of public discourse was generated of any kind of hill-plain divide in Manipur or ethnic problems in the state.    
The issues of Phizo’s consolidation of national forces amongst the Nagas and engagement with the Indian state on issues of Naga Independence provide deep insights for the rest of human rights scholars and peace campaigners for understanding of the phenomenon of Naga ethno-national movement. Much literature has been produced both by international scholars as well as policy makers and higher government representatives and media people. Though the struggle of the Naga people for their own independence, their desire to remain outside the Indian union, their self recognition as being non-Indian, and their early efforts at negotiation with the Indian leaders, the GoI refusal to discuss the realities of ‘development of an other people in history’, parts of whose territory were not colonized by the imperial powers, had not entered into the mindset the post-colonial leaders of the Indian National movement. Zapu Phizo and NNC had not taken up arms at the beginning, waited for understanding and acceptance, quoting MK Gandhi, suffering the humiliating treatment of Pandit Nehru to the Naga delegation etc. His holding of the Naga plebiscite in May 1951 was an effort to let the international community know the fact of peoples’ support also for Naga Independence which was celebrated on 14 August 1947, one day before India became independent. Negotiations with the Nehru Government was attempted till 1952, when the Naga people got tired with the intransigence, arrogance and Brahministic attitude of the Indian national leaders  and hence forth NNC ceased official connections with the Indian Government. This culture of self-determined collective negation, not to communicate nor relate, is an obvious signal to the world of the intrinsic pride and stubborn, immovable stance of the Naga people. This deeply held conception of natural justice, if neglected, ignored and not reciprocated to, the Nagas would not yield, whatever the odds. Nehru’s Government and subsequent Governments did not bother to understand peripheral peoples’ psychologies, and their stubborn ability to resist the hegemonic moves to incorporate colonial territories and peoples in their so-called post-colonial state. War was the inevitable result.
The counter-insurgency measures adopted by the Indian Government to counter the ‘Naga Hostiles’ movement were imitative models of the British activities in insurgent prone Malaya (1948-1960), but a much more cruder form and more virulent. The Indian authorities in fact were less civilized than their British masters. The British masters were subtle enough to raise indigenous police and military to face the protracted conflict where racial indicators of the confrontation were reduced, but for the Indian military it was a brutal, savage method with deep racist prejudice. Massive onslaughts both in the air and land was exercised in the Naga areas destroying villages, enforcing village groupings with sub-standard facilities, concentration camps was introduced with torture and intimidation. Houses, granaries, crops and cattle were burnt including sacred Christian churches. Combatants and non-combatants were killed, Naga national workers were tortured and women raped. After gang-raping a woman (Mayangkhokla) and satisfying their sadistic desires, she was forced to copulate with her male colleague inside the sacred church. The rape of women, not simply violation of women’s body, had racist impulses of subjugation and domination magnified at times of conflict. The Indian political authorities ignored such acts so as not to discourage and lower the morale of the security forces. Racially superior feelings provided counters to the degree of resistance by indigenous militancy in Northeast India. The decisive use of direct violence and military action for suppressing political dissidents were thus obvious in Northeast India, which was in contrast to the British ploys of using strategies of utilizing local and indigenous methods of countering the protracted insurgency of the Malayan Communist Party. The counter-insurgency methods in Mizoram in the late sixties and seventies were so brutal and devastating that even Napalm bombing, burning and strafing from the air were exercised over the Mizo population. Brigadier T. Sailo, who earlier as an Indian soldier had earlier sacrificed his entire soul and body to the Indian nation, was so devastated by the experience of the excesses of the Indian military over his people, and that he formed the Human Rights Committee before other Northeasterners were aware of this universal principle and before Human Rights movement was in the ascendant internationally.
Nation making of the Naga was thus the direct result of India’s dealing with Naga insurgency, a discourse which was often neglected by contemporary discourse analysts of ethno-nationalism in Northeast India. From ethnic category to ethnic community (Paul Brass 1991),   to ethno-nationhood was a prolonged journey and progressive development, and the Naga, having suffered the pains and agonies of the struggle later could secure International recognition as the ‘Oppressed Nation’ through UN principles of recognizing Indigenous peoples causes. This was the contribution of Thuingaleng Muivah (a Tangkhul from Manipur), who became the leader of Naga National Movement after the death of Zapu Phizo. His nation making efforts was lauded as well as derided by critics, but this was another story. Beshikho Chamaii a Shepou Naga from Manipur was the first entrant into the Naga Army in 1956. Muivah joined in 1964. The hill areas of Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong were involved in the insurgency since the 60s.                  
What was important is that after prolonged and protracted conflict for more than forty years, interposed with tense and agonizing break-ups, temporary cease-fires and suspicious interactions amongst peace builders and the stakeholders, a process of peace negotiations was agreed upon in August 1997, with a cease-fire between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM). The peace process started by recognizing mutually three principles (i) that the negotiation status was at the highest Prime Ministerial level, (ii) without pre-conditions of the talks (which enabled the discussion on the sovereignty of the Nagas), and (iii) the negotiation to be held in a third country (which enlarged the scope of the negotiations enabling third party mediation which actually occurred in the Bangkok Conference in 2006). The processes of the peace negotiations were held in secret, with rounds of talks with well structured media hand-outs, and continued for the last thirteen years.
Background to Nagaland-Manipur Crisis
How all these epoch making events of ethno-nationhood in the Northeast and engagement with the post-colonial nation state of India had an over-arching sub-text (of ethnic conflict between Nagas and Meeteis of Manipur) is however the theme of this paper. Side by side with the Nagas demand for independence was the essential connotation of sovereignty and territory. The Nagas, as per their deep rooted tradition were extremely tied to their land, and as an universal law, no nation on earth should exist without a concrete geographical land, and the Nagas, during the course of peace negotiations conceptualized the extent of the proposed sovereign geography of Nagalim (the land of the Nagas) which included Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh in India and certain areas in Myanmar (this claim to Burmese territory was dropped during the course of the negotiations).
Some 120,000 square kilometers of territory became the claim of the Naga nation during the peace negotiations. Earlier in armed confrontation and hectic violent engagements, it was not possible to formulate and change the Naga Independence discourse of the ensuing lebensraum. However when peace negotiations were started the first initial hurdle to be crossed was the establishment of trust amidst the protagonists and fixation of the ground rules for the ceasefire. The issues of the extent of geography to be covered by the presence of armed militants of the Naga cadres became a controversial issue, when Indian diplomats and corporate bigwigs spoke about the universal extent of the ceasefire, that it had no specific territorial impediments. In the eyes of the people of the valley, the extension of the territorial extent of the cease-fire to Manipur would signal the recognition of legitimacy to the territorial claims of the NSCN-IM to the four hill districts of Manipur namely, Senapati, Ukhrul, Chandel and Tamenglong to be incorporated into the proposed Nagalim. Civil society representatives in the plains of Manipur pledged on protecting the territorial integrity of the ancient Asiatic state of Manipur sensed this as a threat to dismantle the fabric of the multiethnic, multicultural state, which unfortunately had been merged forcibly into Indian Union in 1949. Massive rallies and agitations were held at the Imphal valley against the proposals of the cease-fire for Manipur’s territorial integrity in 1997 and again in 2000. The announcement of the Cease-fire without ‘territorial limits’ between the GoI and the NSCN-IM on June 14, 2001 at the Bangkok conference led to a massive insurrection at the Imphal valley on June 18, which destroyed and burnt the Manipur Legislative Assembly buildings, all national party offices in the urban complex, residencies of the MLA’s, and Manipuri political representatives were dragged out from their offices and humiliated before the public. Amidst the firing by the Central Reserve Police Forces on to the crowd at the Chief Minister’s official bungalow fourteen protesters were killed on the spot, and four others died at subsequent agitations to revoke the cease-fire without territorial limits. The eighteen Meetei protesters were later martyred by the valley people as having sacrificed lives on issues of the territorial integrity of Manipur with a mausoleum erected to honour them annually. The NDA Government was forced to cancel the clause ‘without territorial limits’ from the Bangkok agreement, announcement been made on June 28, 2001. Interestingly, in the violence that erupted in Manipur in the wake of cease-fire proposals, not a single Naga citizen was harmed, which symbolized the non-communal nature of the agitation.
This refusal by Meeteis to acknowledge the ‘legitimate’ claims of the Nagas to live within one administrative umbrella, which had ‘historical’ antecedents in former agreements and a movement for Naga unification that started peacefully in 1972 in Manipur with the merger of the Naga Integration Committee in the National Congress party, remained as a stumbling block to the smooth resolution of the Indo-Naga conflict. The anger and fury of the Naga leadership of the NSCN-IM towards the NDA Government on the withdrawal of the clause ‘without territorial limits’ was however assuaged with the assurance that the ‘Scope of Negotiations’ had not changed, thereby meaning that the NSCN-IM’s proposals for the resolution of the Indo-Naga peace process included this issue of Naga integration as one of the thirty-one ‘substantive points’, and the discussions on this issue can continue.
Thus the last decade of the peace negotiations which centred on Naga sovereignty, future relationship between India and Nagalim and the unification of the Nagas, led to the necessity on the part of the NSCN-IM to increase mobililzation of the Naga communities of Manipur for pursuance of the agenda of Naga integration, and since 2005 onwards, the unconditional talks between GoI and NSCN-IM foregrounded the agenda of Naga inhabited areas to be brought under one administrative roof as the most important factor to be addressed for the final solution to the Indo-Naga conflict. It became more and more vehement with the major Naga inhabitants of Manipur taking recourse to prolonged agitations which would culminate in the unification of Manipur Nagas into Nagaland. Civil society representatives, student bodies and Government of Nagaland became a party to the unification movement which culminated in a major crisis when the Manipur State Police and Commandos fired and killed three persons recently in the northern hill town of Mao on 6th My 2010 in the midst of intense agitation. This incident of Police firing on Naga protestors were in the midst of constant economic blockades of the National Highways 39 & 53, which connected Manipur and the rest of India. The immediate provocation was on the pressure to allow the NSCN-IM leader Thuingaleng Muivah to visit his hometown in Ukhrul, which the Government of Manipur refused to allow, inspite of Government of India’s permission to let the rebel leader enter Manipur.
The crisis was thus one of the severest in ethnic relations in Northeast India, where the two Governments of Nagaland and Manipur, the respective civil societies of the two states were locked in a struggle, where the role and function of the Centre was brought into focus, considering the tense nature of ethnic strife. Interestingly, the blockade, which was used by the Naga civil societies for all their grievances on any issue of their collective rights, also brought in intense suffering to the people of Manipur with continuous humanitarian crises on lack of essential commodities, food, oxygen, life-saving drugs, petrol, cooking gas etc. and black-marketing business thrived and prospered during the human predicament. One silver lining however was that inspite of the high strung tension between the two communities Naga & Meetei, there was no physical violence on the body of the other, which reflected some qualitative difference on questions of communal or ethnic cleavage within societies.

By : Dr. Lokendra Arambam

You may also like

Leave a Comment


Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


©2023 – All Right Reserved. Designed and Hosted by eManipur!

Adblock Detected

Please support us by disabling your AdBlocker extension from your browsers for our website.