Tensions are mounting in Manipur after the Indian security forces accused the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) of establishing an “unauthorised camp” in Ukhrul.
It is a “gross violation of existing ceasefire ground rules”, the Assam Rifles said in a statement on Monday. “Despite extreme restraint shown by Assam Rifles troops, no action has been taken by NSCN (IM) to vacate the unauthorised camp. The onus for further escalation rests with NSCN (IM) hierarchy, if the unauthorised camp is not vacated immediately.”
The NSCN (IM) is the largest Naga armed group, headquartered at Hebron, nearly 35 km from Dimapur, Nagaland’s largest city. It signed a ceasefire agreement with the Union government in 1997 and the two sides have been engaged in peace talks ever since.
The ceasefire, however, is limited to Nagaland. In Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, where the NSCN (IM) has cadres as well, the group’s camps are referred to as “TNO”, or “taken note of”, by the Indian security establishment. “These are camps that we know exist and we allow them to stay there,” explained an Assam Rifles officer in Manipur. “We do not take action against them out of respect for the ceasefire regime, although its purview does not extend beyond Nagaland. This camp is not one of them and that is why are asking them to vacate it.”
For over half a century, the NSCN (IM), along with other Naga nationalist groups, fought India for a sovereign ethnic homeland comprising Nagaland as well as the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the international border. In 2015, however, the group dropped its demand to secede and agreed to a settlement within the bounds of the Indian Constitution.
Though talks have moved quickly since, a “final solution” to the vexed Naga question remains elusive with the Indian government and the Naga nationalist groups – seven of them in addition to the NSCN (IM) are currently in talks with the Centre – refusing to back down on several contentious matters.
‘Pushed against the wall’
Given frustration is reportedly creeping into the NSCN (IM) ranks over the delay in arriving at a final solution, the Assam Rifles’ hawkish stance over the Ukhrul camp has not gone down well with the Naga outfit.
Karibo Chawang, convener of the NSCN (IM) ceasefire monitoring cell, accused the Indian government of trying to “jeopardise the political talks by creating a situation in the hometown” of Thuingaleng Muivah, the group’s general secretary and prime minister of the People’s Republic of Nagaland, which the NSCN (IM) operates out of Hebron.
“In light of an imminent solution we don’t want to do anything, but their attitude has become such that we have been pushed against the wall,” Chawang said, referring to the security forces.
He claimed the cadres living in the disputed camp used to stay in a designated camp in Ukhrul’s Khangkhui Shiroy forest before they were made to leave in 2009. In 2010, after a “mutual understanding” with the Assam Rifles, the cadres shifted to three new TNO camps at Chatric, Grihang and Kangkum, also in Ukhrul, Chawang added.
But earlier this year, the security forces asked for the Chatric camp to be vacated as well. “To avoid confrontation, they moved to Sihai as our boys have no place to stay,” he said, referring to the disputed camp’s site. “Where will our boys stay? The Indian government is starting to derecognise all designated or TNO camps.”
An Assam Rifles spokesperson denied the paramilitary force ever had such an understanding with the Naga group.
Chawang said the onus was now on the Assam Rifles to take a step back as they were the “aggressors”. “Our leadership is examining the issue and we are prepared for all eventualities,” he added. “They surrounded us so we have asked them to withdraw first and then we will also vacate the camp. Otherwise we may not.”
Naga civil society groups also criticised the Assam Rifles. “Because of our unique history, we started our movement and now we are in negotiation,” said a leader of the United Naga Council, the apex body of the Nagas in Manipur. “They cannot dictate which river we can cross and which mountain we can climb up. In Naga territory, all Nagas are free to move anywhere. If they do so, Nagas are ready to hit back.”
Patience is starting to wear thin on the other side as well, said an Assam Rifles official in Manipur. “We have waited for two days now,” he said, adding the “matter has been escalated to the highest ranks in the security establishment”.