A creative proposal for a separate Assembly in hill districts within Manipur could resolve Naga demands without disturbing the State’s borders

Unique problems call for a fresh look at the existing list of possible solutions. But our political culture and the means of settling disputes are set within the frameworks of rigid practices. A sense of helplessness has set in following the announcement of the Nagaland State Assembly elections (February 23) — another procedural election without a viable solution to the ongoing New Delhi-Naga talks. To this, let us add the deadline set by the United Naga Council (UNC) for a decision by the Centre on its “Alternative Arrangement” (AA) demand, and the intensification of the movement for a separate Kuki state. There is a way out of the deadlock, but only if we think beyond the categories drawn up by the Centre and Naga groups. It is the proposal by a non-Naga body for the creation of an Autonomous Tribal State (ATS) in Manipur, under the provisions of the Constitution.

Aspirations and expediency

A meaningful solution to the Naga issue requires rethinking at many levels. For one, the NSCN(IM) does not, and cannot be considered to represent the will of the Nagas. This is not to disregard its role and work in the ongoing peacemaking process. Rather, it is to argue for a solution that involves wider representation and reach. At best, the group represents an important and powerful voice among the Nagas, and is a vital part of the peace process. A solution would be more plausible only if all the parties to the peace process are consulted. Different settlements with the various Naga groups are unlikely to solve the issue; in fact, it is more likely to result in an “enforced” peace.

In the Naga peace process, the politics of Manipur perhaps constitute one of its biggest challenges. Under the leadership of the UNC, Nagas in the State have reiterated the demand for an AA (within the State). Notwithstanding the hint that the AA will not violate the territorial integrity of the State, many in the valley are nervous and nurse apprehensions about its outcome. The hill-valley divide is too deep-rooted for anyone to overlook. A recent incident that involved the molestation and assault of a Meitei actress by an NSCN(IM) leader, and the reactions to it, have exposed the ugly truth of the bitter hostility between the communities. The Meitei constitute 40 of the 60 Assembly seats, and have a disproportionate share of the available avenues of education and employment — the two key areas of contestation by the hill tribes.

Respecting the Naga desire to be governed under a common political arrangement would amount to cutting through State boundaries. And despite claims of a “unique history,” the Nagas in Nagaland seem to be less willing to share their resources, employment and educational opportunities with their brethren in Manipur or Assam. It is against such a backdrop that the Naga leadership in Manipur has demanded the AA. The bottom line is that the Nagas, wherever they are, have the right, like any other community, to development of infrastructure and State services like roads, transport facilities, schools, and the protection of their cultural and traditional rights.

In this, there can be no escape from the internal politics of Manipur. However, the proposed AA solution does not have all the answers. There are non-Naga tribals - Kukis, Paites,Hmars and several others. They too have an important role in the State’s politics — with nine MLAs out of the 20 tribal MLAs of the State — and occupy a sizeable and strategic area. The various insurgent groups from these non-Naga tribes are under Suspension of Operation (SoO) with the government and conducting political talks under the two umbrella organisations of the United Peoples’ Front (UPF) and the Kuki National Organisation (KNO). Interestingly, they have claims over the same groups of people, the same territories and cultural space, resulting in overlapping and sometimes almost exact territorial maps being presented as a part of their respective movements.

There are times when a solution comes from the most unlikely of sources. The Zomi Council, the apex body of several tribes, has suggested a rather creative possibility — of an ATS under Article 244A of the Constitution.

This calls for the creation of a separate Assembly for the hill districts of Manipur and an administrative set-up among other provisions. According to the memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister by the council on March 26, 2011, the ATS will be made up of all the hill districts in the State with an objective to “fulfil the socio-economic, linguistic, cultural and developmental aspirations of the people; preserve the indigenous identity and rich traditional practices; protect their rights over land and its resources; and maintain the territorial integrity as well as security of the State and the nation.”

Using shared history

Such an arrangement, if accepted by the parties concerned, can pave the way for a more peaceful future. It is premised on an idea of identity that is not rooted in linguistic or particular tribal lineage. It seeks to include and recognise the shared historical experiences of being a tribal from Manipur as the base for the ATS. This “shared historical experience” is a product of long years of interaction with the valley’s Meitei in many ways. Also, it does not challenge the existing territorial boundaries of the State. A development in this regard will, to some extent, address the main grounds on which the Nagas and non-Naga tribals in Manipur sustain their political and militant movements: development, with protection of cultural and traditional rights.

This demand for the ATS appears to be more pragmatic than that of the AA. Manipur’s tribals have been denied their constitutional right to govern themselves as in the Sixth Schedule. Their experiments with Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) and the Hill Areas Committee (HAC) have been found unsatisfactory with no real powers being conferred on them. The AA seeks an answer only for the Nagas. An ATS will be a significant step towards reclaiming Manipur, unless the government comes up with an alternative solution which is acceptable to the tribals.

It has the possibility of solving many of the demands of the Nagas not necessarily on the condition of a pan-Naga political unity. It can play an important role in the ongoing peace talks by meeting their demands without conceding the boundary of Manipur. It also has the potential to set an example to numerous other movements in the region, in the way that we construct and idealise our communities, cultures and politics. It can prove that there are possibilities of thinking beyond the existing category of a largely monolingual, monoculture, mono-history community as a necessary precondition to creating peaceful societies.

The present mechanism of protest rallies and economic blockages on an ad hoc basis can only hamper peace, development and the interests of the State. Unfortunately, the divide between the hill and valley groups in Manipur is deeply entrenched. Any plan for a solution requires political prudence. A “State within a State” for Manipur’s tribals can offer some respite but only if the leaders are willing to think beyond their immediate constraints.

(Golan S. Naulak teaches political science at St. Joseph’s College Bangalore.)

Two factual errors have been corrected in this article on February 7, 2013

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