The recent spats that have been going on between Nagaland and its neighbours, whether with Manipur or Assam, are worrying. This is not to say that statements emanating from Manipur and Assam were necessarily right and Nagaland/Nagas were wrong. But that is not the point. Problematic issues seldom get resolved on the basis of Who is right unless the What is right for everyone comes into the equation.
Nagas must learn to put themselves into the neighbours’ shoes. Our neighbours are, in many ways, much more talented and better equipped than our people. Nagas are also at a juncture where we need our neighbours more than they need us. This has always been so and only Naga arrogance had made us blind but it is now high time for our people to begin to see.
Let us take Manipur first as this incident happened first. The whole Naga-Meitei relationship seemed to have come to a flashpoint when NSCN-IM leader Th. Muivah tried to visit his village and Manipur Government, and the Meitei community, vociferously opposed it. Beneath the apparent, there was also Manipur Chief Minister, Ibobi Singh, trying desperately to regain lost political grounds. This incident made him the `unquestioned leader’ of the Meitei community. Not all Meiteis agreed with him because refusing a person to visit his family and home was something humanly indefensible. And such opposition did not say too much for 2000 years of Meitei Civilization and recorded history, the oldest in North East India. Some Meiteis knew Ibobi’s motives and a few openly disagreed with him.
Nevertheless, many Meiteis also had doubts about the intentions of Muivah wanting to make the visit at that particular time when a Naga protest and road blockade, from time to time, were going on. No doubt, it was a win-win situation for Muivah politically for reason already stated above but they also felt that, perhaps, Mr Muivah could have done a little more to prevent a clash from developing by either accepting GoI’s offer of a helicopter or postponing his visit. The incidents at Mao Gate and the counter economic blockade by Meitei volunteers are now part of history.
Personally, whatever Muivah’s intentions, my own thinking is that Manipur Government ought to have allowed him to make the visit. But I also wished Mr Muivah had made the request to meet and have discourse with the Meitei people (other ethnic communities also) in Imphal. Such a move would have been not only the right thing to do but also consigned Mr Ibobi’s objections to where they belonged! At the end of the day Muivah gained political victory but failed to make friends with the Meiteis and other ethnic groups in Manipur. What could have been a great opportunity was lost in one’s humble opinion. This was not just Muivah’s loss as a statesman; it was a loss for Nagas as a whole – the events following this incident became a case of diminishing returns as everyone knows!
Now, a fresh spat has begun on the Assam side. This is even more worrying for many reasons which all Nagas are aware of. The initial history, both as original encounters in 13th century and some as Naga Hills under Assam, were sometimes not palatable but very warm relations had also developed since then. Assam had also begun to play its role as the biggest state in North East India. As late as in 2001, in the wake of the extension of Ceasefire to all Naga inhabited areas, and Manipur was in flames with Meiteis protesting extension of Ceasefire to Naga areas in Manipur, the Assamese people were warm and understanding, and welcomed the Naga Goodwill Visit to Assam. As a consequence, the raging fire of protest in Manipur cooled down. The Nagas of Manipur, who so easily declare a bandh on the National Highway 39, making the people of Manipur suffer, themselves included, must remember that what happens in one place often generates a direct reaction in another place.
But I am digressing and need to get back to Assam. Mr Himanta Biswa Sarma’s statement, in the papers, accusing Nagaland Chief Minister Mr Neiphiu Rio as responsible for all troubles in NE, seemed emotional and extreme. I am sure Mr Neiphiu Rio is not a saint but most people will think Mr Sarma has been more emotional and political in what he said. Meanwhile, Arunachal Pradesh Home Minister had also opined that Assam was making a big issue disproportionate to the problem. One wonders if the Assam road blockade of Arunachal Pradesh an imitation of Naga blockades of Manipur? What made things more complicated was the statement by the ULFA group in favour of talks with GoI stating they would give a fitting response to Nagas living in Assam if Assamese villagers continued to face problems from the NSCN – The NSCN has denied having any hand in the incidents in Assam.
So politically, and perhaps legally, Nagas may be right on both counts whether it was Manipur or Assam. The point is that Nagas seem to be losing friends on both sides. They also show that people have begun to dislike us, one way or the other. There has been, in recent times, much talk about the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean area, one reason why India is so keen about its Look East Policy. Nagas should not allow such strategy of others, if there is one, to become successful and ring ourselves with enemies.
I have often expressed my view that North East India is one region and it will either survive or get destroyed together, talk of Naga Independence notwithstanding. In one of my papers, published by Guwahati-based OKDISC, I had also stated that for peace to return to the region, Nagaland, Assam and Manipur are important and key. It is in this instance that I express my anguish, through this piece, because the three key states in NE, in my opinion, are having political spats which sometimes develop and quickly mutate into issues not foreseen. And soon they become entrenched and impossible.
There is need for Nagas to be understanding of neighbours like the Assamese and the Manipuris. Whether we like them or not we will also continue to live next to one another. These two neighbours have not really done harm to our people or the Naga Cause, with the rider that no one is perfect. We can be sure that our neighbours have studied us and the Naga Cause carefully. In some areas they may be having better insights as they could be objective. Many of our neighbours also give our people credit for expressing our people’s feelings at a time when their own people, however `advanced’, did not have the foresight to do so. But Naga arrogance can destroy all such good will, and respect, from neighbouring communities.
How often have Nagas reached out to our neighbours? It is not nearly good enough saying others have not come to us. Take for instance the Nagas of Manipur. They could call a road blockade/bandh on National Highway 39 any time and Manipur Government is helpless to do anything about it. I am aware Nagas and other ethnic groups in Manipur have a lot of grievances against the dominant Meitei community. But are blockades/bandhs sustainable solutions for us and our neighbours today? Are they not out of date tactics now? Has not the time come when we must take the initiative to seek out people in other communities in order to work out what is best for all? It seems like the relationship has been more that of demonizing each other from a distance instead of meeting face to face and sorting out the problems. If we have tried our best and others have not responded, we would have at least done our part.
We must remember that, like anyone else anywhere, people will strike back, sometimes unreasonably, when they have been provoked or humiliated over a long period of time. In such cases, the immediate issue/reason does not matter anymore. Our lofty talks will then be seen as mere slogans and as signs of arrogance. Nothing we say or do can convince other people then. Both sides will also become unmindful of consequences. A descent into conflict is the inevitable result. But where history is concerned, hardly a handful will be lucky to even leave behind faint “footprints in the sands of time…” So, it is sheer arrogance to depend on perceived present strengths.
The biggest problem we face in Naga society is still Naga disunity and sheer inability of the factions to come together on the basis of mutual respect. The overall situation is favouring a resolution of this long pending Issue. The Naga people must not miss the opportunity again. Whatever the past, the future matters far more.