Manipur’s second largest community, the Nagas, have been steadfast in professing their neutrality in the ongoing ethnic clashes between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zo communities.

Hence, when the United Naga Council, the community’s apex body, on August 21, issued a scathing statement hitting out at the “blatant lies, lopsided history and fabricated information contained in every statement and memorandum issued by the Kuki-Zo community”, it raised several eyebrows.

What made the rebuke even more conspicuous was the fact that it came on the heels of eight legislators from the community making common cause with their Meitei counterparts in opposing the “separate administration” demand of the Kukis, and allegations that Naga armed groups were aiding the Meiteis.

As the civil war in Manipur spills over into its fifth month, these developments have led to speculation over whether the Nagas have finally chosen a side.

Scroll spoke to a range of politicians and civil society activists from the community to find the picture is far more complex, one that points to a long and complicated road ahead.

The warring groups in Manipur may be the Meities and the Kukis, but peace would invariably involve the Nagas. As Malvio J Waba, the convenor of the Working Group for Naga Rights in Manipur, said: “For any solution, there has to be consultation with and consent from the Nagas.”

An old feud

The Nagas account for about a quarter of Manipur’s population. Most of them live in the hills that circle the valley, home largely to the Meieis, the state’s largest ethnic group.

The Kukis, the third largest community in the state, also call the hills their home.

This has often led to conflict between the Nagas and the Kukis over land. While there were reports of clashes since colonial times, the crystallising of political identity and aspirations has made the feud even more bitter. Much of the imagined Naga homeland or Nagalim – that spans India and Myanmar, with vast swathes in Manipur – overlaps with areas that the Kukis claim to be their territory.

In 1993, this dispute spiralled into ferocious ethnic clashes, killing hundreds, and emptying villages.

Simultaneously, the idea of a Naga homeland also has been a constant cause of friction with the Meiteis who are vehemently opposed to the idea of the state’s map being altered. In fact, the Meitei insurgency demanding a separate nation-state of Manipur partly arose as a counterweight to Naga militancy.

A ‘neutral’ third party?

In the early days of the current conflict, the Nagas’ interventions were largely limited to civil society groups and church bodies issuing statements condemning the violence and urging both sides to restore peace. In July, even when a Naga woman was killed by a Meitei mob that purportedly mistook her to be a Kuki, the response of the community’s civil society outfits and representatives was tempered.

The first signs of a departure from neutrality came on August 9 when eight Naga MLAs landed at the Prime Minister’s residence along with 32 of their valley-based colleagues to submit a representation. Part of it were several demands that the Meiteis have repeatedly echoed since the outbreak of the conflict on May 3, including the implementation of the National Register of Citizens in Manipur, restrictions on the operational jurisdiction of the Assam Rifles, and the abrogation of the ceasefire agreement with the Kuki militant groups.

Most significantly, it said that the demand for a ‘separate administration for the Kukis was “absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances”. This was widely seen as a tacit endorsement of the Meitei position on the “territorial integrity” of Manipur.

The UNC, and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN (I-M), the largest and most influential of the Naga insurgent groups, are currently in talks with the Centre for a separate Naga administrative unit encompassing parts of Manipur’s hill districts. Both came down heavily on the Naga legislators.

“Whilst the Nagas are all out reiterating for an inclusive, acceptable, and honourable solution to the Indo-Naga political issue, submitting representation with some contradictory demands to the PM is highly uncalled for,” the UNC said in a stinging statement.

The NSCN (IM), for its part, said the “representation to the Prime Minister is in totality against the voice of the Naga people demanding early implementation of the framework agreement of 3rd August, 2015 to meet the political right and legitimate aspiration of Naga people”.

The NSCN (IM), which first started a dialogue with the Union government in 1997, signed a fresh “framework agreement” with the Narendra Modi-led government in 2015. The pact, which recognises the “unique history and position of the Nagas” and suggests “sharing the sovereign power”, was said to have given fresh momentum to the floundering negotiations – but talks between the Nagas and Centre again started faltering starting 2019.

One of the Naga legislators who signed the representations said the opposition to a separate Kuki administration did not amount to subscribing to the Meitei position. It was a “misconception” that stemmed from the petition being “drafted by the Meiteis”, said the MLA. “What we meant to say is that a Kuki separate administration should not affect Naga areas,” said the MLA. “That should have been conveyed more clearly, I admit that.”

This explanation was conveyed to the UNC and the NSCN (IM), said the MLA.

In a subsequent statement, the UNC declared that “all the lapses and differences on the matter have been sorted out objectively in the greater interest”.

The plot thickens

But in another twist, a video emerged on August 19 seemingly implicating the NSCN (IM) itself. In the video, a young man, purportedly an NSCN (IM) cadre, is seen to be admitting to supplying weapons to the Prepak, a Meitei insurgent group. In it, he is heard claiming that he was asked by his superior, stationed in the NSCN (IM)’s general headquarters in Hebron, to go to Imphal and hand over assault rifles in exchange for cash.

The NSCN (IM) dismissed the video as a “scripted production”.

A top Naga leader from Manipur with close ties to Hebron, however, said there was likely some truth in the contents of the video, purportedly leaked by the Army. There was, he said, a section among the outfit’s leadership who was sympathetic to the Meiteis.

But the NSCN (IM), as an institution, had not taken a side, he insisted.

“There could be some differences within, but IM is not supporting any one side and it will remain like that till uncle is there,” he said, referring to Muivah, the ageing supremo of the group.

Players galore

However, he was quick to add that there were several Naga armed factions which are not under the control of UNC and IM. “They will do things to suit their interests,” he said.

One such group, the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front, has been accused of assisting Meitei insurgents in the killing of three Kuki men in a village in a Naga-majority area on August 19.

In a statement condemning the killings, the NSCN (IM) warned the MNRF. “Under no circumstances Nagas want the Meitei-Kuki-Zo violence spilled into Naga areas,” the outfit said.

The MNRF, for its part, has denied the allegation.

Even so, security officials say that Naga groups, not directly aligned to the NSCN (IM), had played a key role in providing safe passage to militants from the Meitei underground groups who have crossed over from Myanmar, where most of them are currently based, to help their community in the civil war. “They cannot possibly cross the border and come to the valley without Naga support,” said an intelligence officer.

Another senior Naga politician from Manipur attributed this support to old alliances. “It is an open secret that some Naga groups like the MNRF are funded, mentored, armed, and groomed by the Meitei UGs,” he said. “That is because they need forests to hide and operate from and there are none in the valley.”

Such arrangements, he said, did not amount to community-level cooperation as these groups barely had any legitimacy in the community.

Of ‘ancestral lands’

But what explains the UNC’s rather hostile statement accusing the Kuki-Zos of distorting history? The UNC, after all, is no fringe group – it is the most influential of Naga civil society groups with close ties to the NSCN (IM).

Naga leaders say it all boiled down to the basics: land.

The separate administration envisioned by Kuki-Zo groups encompassed areas Nagas claim as theirs.

“If they claim ancestral lands, we will not take it lying down,” said the UNC’s general secretary Vareiyo Shatsang.

While there is a fair amount of consensus on the district of Churachandpur being Kuki territory – the Nagas in private say they are willing to concede Kangpokpi too – Chandel and Tengnoupal are hotly contested with both sides claiming them.

“If they want a separate administration with Churachandpur, we are fine with it,” said a Naga MLA. “Kangpokpi is mixed; Tengnoupal and Chandel are fundamentally Naga areas.”

The MLA said the UNC’s stern statement stemmed from concerns that these three districts “are slipping out of our hands” because of the current circumstances.

The statement, he said, was directed as much at the Centre as the Kuki-Zo groups. “We feel that the interlocutor is favouring the Kukis,” he said.

The Centre is currently engaging in negotiations with both the Kukis and Nagas through the same interlocutor.

An understanding

The public belligerence notwithstanding, the Nagas do seem to be willing to negotiate with the Kukis.

“We are not saying they are not there [in the contested districts]...overlapping of territories is everywhere,” said Shatsang. “We have to sit down and understand each other. We don’t want violence anymore.”

Naga leaders also acknowledge that their own aspirations were more in sync with the Kukis. “Nagas may be using a different word, but we also want something separate ultimately,” said Waba of the Working Group for Naga Rights in Manipur. “Isn’t that what talks are going on for? And eventually, as tribals, many issues are common for us – we are the hill people.”

The Naga MLA seemed to concur. He said: “We can have one tribal entity too, independent of the Meities, and after that, we can maybe have a gentleman’s agreement since we are both Christians and tribal.”