Machiavelli’s Ceasefire and the Indo-Naga Peace Process
Thursday 9 April 2009, by Nandita Haksar
Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 16, April 4, 2009
For eleven years the people in the Naga inhabited districts of Manipur have been living in peace ever since a ceasefire was declared between the Indian security forces and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isac-Muivah) or the NSCN (IM) in 1997. As a result a generation of children has grown up without knowledge or experience of the cordon-and-search operations which invariably resulted in human rights violations of villagers. These children had no idea what it was like to stand for hours in rain or bitter cold while the Indian security forces searched their homes, tortured the men and sexually assaulted the women and young girls.
The children in Shirui Village of Ukhrul District, Manipur State slept soundly and felt no fear when they heard the sound of jeeps coming to their village on January 19, 2009. In fact most of them did not hear anything at all till they were rudely woken up with noise and chaos and they saw hundreds of uniformed and armed Indian security forces occupy every nook and corner of their village. The children were filled with fear and some went silent with terror while others started screaming.
It was 2 am and the winter cold was still severe. The Assam Rifles woke up the young headman and occupied his house. Soon the villagers understood what was going on. The Assam Rifles had come with the intention of attacking the NSCN (IM) camp established in the Tourist Lodge near the village. The Tourist Lodge was supposed to accommodate the tourists who came every year to see the famous Lily which blossomed every year in May at the height of 2590 metres on top of the Shirui peak but like so many government projects it was left incomplete and the Lodge had stood like a haunted house with no windows or doors. The Lodge had been restored when the NSCN occupied it.
The villagers panicked because they knew that there were many NSCN cadres inside the camp and all of them were well trained and heavily armed. If the Assam Rifles attacked the camp, the NSCN cadres would retaliate and there would be many casualties. The villagers were horrified to see the Assam Rifles put a barbed wire fence around the NSCN camp and cut off their water supply.
The villagers decided to send all the children down to Ukhrul, the district headquarters 18 kms away, and that is how the Tangkhul women’s organisation heard of the siege of Shirui. The leaders of the Tangkhul women’s organisation met together and decided that they should send a delegation to Shirui and talk to the Assam Rifles officers. Representatives of the various Tangkhul organisations (Ukhrul is the home of the Tangkhul Naga Community) went up to the village. The CO of the 17 Assam Rifles was furious with the women, he said they were interfering in their work. They said they were just doing their job as peace-makers.
The Tangkhul women’s organisation (Tangkhul Shanao Long) organised a 24-hour vigil with groups of 50 women sitting all day and night out in the open next to the NSCN camp in the line of fire of whichever party decided to shoot first. They prayed, sang hymns and they even played games. The local villagers took courage from the show of solidarity from the women who came from neighbouring villages, from Ukhrul town and then as the news spread they came from distant villages. Naga public leaders also came from other Naga inhabited districts within Manipur and from Nagaland.
The siege continued for 15 days and the women had to organise food, tea and firewood for the women sitting all day and all night in the bitter cold. They also had to provide tea and snacks to the public leaders who visited the village and also those who took part in the sit-in at Ukhrul demanding the withdrawal of the Assam Rifles. The Assam Rifles personnel occupying the village numbered anywhere from 500 to 800 and they took vegetables, chicken and firewood from the village without paying any compensation. After the siege was lifted the villagers estimated that they had suffered losses amounting to 11 lakhs.
The siege was lifted and the problem was resolved because the Home Minister was going to visit Nagaland and Manipur and he wanted the problem resolved before he landed. Five Tangkhul elders were requested to negotiate with the Assam Rifles and finally it was agreed by all parties that the NSCN cadres along with their arms and ammunition would be escorted by the five elders and Assam Rifles to their designated camp at Oklong in Senapati District of Mnaipur State. More than 20 vehicles formed a convoy that left on February 2 from Shirui to Oklong.
Although the siege ended, it left behind in its wake a raging controversy about the legality of the NSCN camp and the ceasefire monitoring mechanism. A Manipur Government spokesman and some spokesmen of the Indian Army denied the existence of the NSCN designated camps in Manipur while others maintained that there were three camps which were “taken note of” but they did not include the camp at Shirui; and some denied that the ceasefire between the NSCN and the Union of India extended to Manipur while others said that the ceasefire was unofficially in place and that is why there had been no encounters for the past 11 years.
Four lawyers—Nandita Haksar, Timikha Koza, Sebastian Hongray and Edward Belho—formed a team and went into the whole question and released their report at Kohima on March 14, 2009 after a three-week study. The daily newspapers in both States carried the report but the national media ignored the entire issue.
The Lawyers Team found that the Shirui camp had been approved by the Ceasefire Monitoring Group way back in 2007. The letter written by the former Chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group (CFMG), Lt Gen R V Kulkarni (Retd) to Shri Naveen Verma, Joint Secretary (NE) Ministry of Home Affairs No CFMG/IM/2007-1566 dated 06-02-2007 is on the “situation in Ukhrul District of Manipur” and clearly states that the new location of the camp of the NSCN “stands approved”.
The team met the PRO of the Indian Army, Col Rajesh Sharma, at Imphal and asked him about the position of the designated camps in Manipur. On March 2, 2009 the Colonel told the team that he would check with the headquarters and give his reply the next day. True to his promise he gave the team his official answers: he said, according to the Ministry of Defence and the Army, there were no designated camps of the NSCN (IM) in Manipur and that the NSCN cadres were not taken to any camp in Senapati.
This denial of the existence of the camps came as a shock since the Minister of Defence, Shri A K Antony, had written in his letter DO No 22 (1)2009/D (GS-1)/773-F/RM dated February 18, 2009 to Shri Mani Charenamei, MP that “NSCN (IM) cadres moved out from Shiroy on 2nd February, 2009 to Oklang (a camp taken note of) in Senapati District thereby defusing the situation”.
The present Chairman of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group, Maj Gen Mandhata Singh (Retd), told the team of lawyers that he had been contacted on the first day of the Shirui siege but when he checked with the Home Ministry he was told he had no jurisdiction in Manipur since the ceasefire did not extend to that State. When he was asked how the former Chairman had dealt with the incidents in Manipur he said he had no records of the decisions taken at the time and he had not ever met Lt Gen Kulkarni before taking charge as Chairman of the CFMG. This was indeed strange since Lt Gen Kulkarni had been handling the job for more than ten years.
Maj Gen Mandhata Singh refused to speculate on why the Assam Rifles had taken this provocative action in Shirui. However, a human rights activist told the lawyers’ team that during the Shirui siege one of the Assam Rifles officers had remarked that they were in a mess because of the Pfutsero incident a few days earlier.
In that incident a Captain of the Assam Rifles had driven right into an NSCN designated camp on January 8, 2009 in Phek District of Nagaland in violation of the ground rule which clearly states that the Indian security forces will not go within one kilometre of any designated camp. The NSCN had disarmed the Captain and his five jawans. On the intervention of the local leaders they had released the officer and jawans but handed the arms only the next day when Maj Gen Mandatha Singh had flown to Pfutsero in a helicopter. Although he had defused the situation and there was no controversy over the existence of the designated camp the question on everyone’s mind was why did a Captain “wander” into the NSCN camp in the first place. Curiously, the Captain had been a Meitei.
Neither the Pfutsero not the Shirui incidents are isolated incidents. The Assam Rifles has been behaving in a provocative way and the Addl Chief Secretary (Home), Nagaland Government, Mr Lalthara, told the lawyers team that his government had expressed its concern about the way Assam Rifles was patrolling near the NSCN (IM) designated camps in an “irritating way”. The CFMG cannot effectively stop the Assam Rifles but it can only intervene in specific cases brought to its notice.
The Ceasefire Monitoring Group was set up way back in 1997 after the ceasefire agreement was signed between the NSCN (IM) and the Union of India. The members of the CFMG consisted of members of the security forces, intelligence agencies, government officials and members of the NSCN. The job of the CFMG was to enforce the Ceasefire Ground Rules.
The ceasefire Ground Rules had been made in a Review Committee which consisted of members of both the Union of India and the NSCN (IM). Both parties sit together and make the rules and review the rules from time to time. However, the rules or even the ceasefire agreement are not signed documents.
In addition to the Review Committee there is a ceasefire monitoring cell of the NSCN (IM) as well and that has actively enforced the ground rules and disciplined its own cadres if they violate the rules.
The entire ceasefire monitoring mechanism was a unique experiment in democratic principles. However, instead of the ceasefire providing an atmosphere for the political negotiations it became the centre of political controversy. The State of Manipur objected to the formal extension of the ceasefire to the State on the ground that they were not party to the Agreement and that the ceasefire extension would amount to conceding the main demand of the Nagas: the integration of the Naga areas under one administration within the Indian Constitution. The Meiteis (the people living in Manipur Valley who are mainly Vaishnavites) civil society also opposed the extension of the ceasefire to the State on the ground that it would threaten the “integrity of Manipur State”.
Thus the controversy has raged and most of the 70 rounds of talks between Government of India and the NSCN (IM) has been around the issue of extension of the ceasefire to all territory where NSCN operates which includes parts of North-East which are clearly not Naga inhabited areas such as Tripura.
Thus there is a strange constitutional problem: the Nagas are demanding the integration of Naga inhabited areas which are all contiguous—the present State of Nagaland, four districts of Manipur, a part of Assam and a part of Arunachal. This political demand is a demand which can be easily accommodated within the Constitution of India since under our Constitution it requires a simple majority in Parliament to change the boundaries of the States which were created for administrative convenience and not with peoples’ consent. However, the Union of India has refused to concede this demand.
On the other hand the Meiteis are demanding that the integrity and unity of Manipur be respected since the boundaries of the Manipur State go back to 2000 years. The Indian Constitution does not recognise the “integrity and unity” of States within India. In order to fulfil this demand the Meiteis would have to fight for a more federal system by which the boundaries of States cannot be changed except through a complex political negotiation as in the USA.
Both these political demands need to be negotiated. However, these political differences are being utilised by intelligence agencies to create divisions between the Nagas living in the Hill Districts and the Meiteis living in the Valley. Both the Nagas and Meiteis had in the past come together to fight against the imposition of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 and together they had succeeded in making the issue a national issue. However, the tensions over the ceasefire has led to communalisation of the issue and a section of the Meitei civil society is even asking for more security forces to curb the NSCN.
This is the context in which the recommendation of the Lawyers Committee should be understood and supported: that the ceasefire should be “officially extended without territorial limit with an explicit clause to indicate that the extension of the ceasefire is a purely administrative measure and has no political connotations or implications”.
They have also recommended that the entire ceasefire monitoring mechanism must be made more transparent so that incidents such as the one at Shirui do not occur again.
The Indo-Naga political negotiations which started off as being a unique democratic experiment has been sabotaged by intelligence agencies to serve their Machiavellian politics of divide and rule.
The author is a human rights lawyer and writer.