Naga hills of Manipur await the return of warrior son Muivah 

Nothing matters more than the peace process with the NSCN (I-M) in 11 constituencies where Nagas are a deciding factor

March 01, 2022 04:41 pm | Updated 04:45 pm IST - UKHRUL (MANIPUR)

No one measures the distance to Somdal by kilometres. It is either by the clock or calendar. “An hour-and-a-half maximum by car from here,” Deuleng Ruivah, who runs a restaurant at the mini-Secretariat in Ukhrul, said. “Or years, if you happen to be the best-known Naga freedom fighter,” he added.

About 80 km northeast of Manipur capital Imphal, Ukhrul is the largest town in the Tangkhul heartland and the epicentre of Naga politics in the State. One of the largest Naga communities, the Tangkhuls form the backbone of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (I-M)].

Mr. Ruivah is from Somdal, the birthplace of Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN (I-M) that has been locked in a peace process with New Delhi since 1997. The latter is an extremist from the “Indian” perspective and a revolutionary from the Naga viewpoint.

The 35-year-old restauranteur wishes the party or coalition that forms the next government in Manipur would be cooperative enough for the “Indo-Naga political issue” or peace process to be finalised.

Somdal and the Naga areas beyond believe that an “honourable solution” would facilitate the return of Mr. Muivah, 87, to the native village he left more than five decades ago. The village falls under the Chingai Assembly constituency and is represented by the Naga People’s Front (NPF).

Manipur’s Congress government had, in 2010, vetoed Mr. Muivah’s bid to visit his birthplace for fear that it might legitimise his group’s idea of a greater Naga homeland that could lead to Manipur losing large swathes of land. He had to return to the NSCN (I-M)’s camp near Nagaland’s Dimapur town after a few days’ stay at a village on the Manipur-Nagaland border.

Many have not forgiven Congress for turning him away 12 years ago. But the grand old party fared better than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) across the Naga domain in 2017, winning four seats to the latter’s one seat.

The Congress, the BJP and the National People’s Party (NPP) have gone the whole hog to win the Naga seats. For each, the party to beat appears to be the NPF that claims to be “of the Nagas, by the Nagas, for the Nagas”.

The NPF is upbeat about bagging twice the number of seats it won in 2017 (which was four). “Ours is the only party that has talked about resolving the Indo-Naga issue in its manifesto. People are with us because they want a solution,” Wungnaoshang A. Shimray, the NPF’s Ukhrul division president told The Hindu.

Leaders of the other parties insisted they are equally concerned about the Naga political issue but development and improving the quality of life matter too.

“The Nagas must elect a party that stands for Nagas and the issues that matter most to them,” Mangang Raman, a self-employed Ukhrul resident said. According to him, a major issue is increasing the number of Assembly seats for the hill tribes.

“Many hill constituencies have more than 45,000 voters and cover larger areas while the valley seats (inhabited primarily by non-tribal people) have around 30,000 voters and are much smaller in size. We want a level playing field,” he said.

The NPF’s Kashim Vashum is seeking re-election from the Chingai seat. His rivals are Sword Vashum of the Congress, Preshow M.K. Shimray of the BJP and Ningam Chamroy of the NPP. In Ukhrul, the contest is between the musician and sitting MLA Alfred K.N. Arthur of Congress; former bureaucrat Ram Muivah of the NPF; and former footballer Somatai Shaiza of the BJP. Mr. Shaiza is the son of Manipur’s first tribal Chief Minister, Yangmaso Shaiza.

Voting for Chingai, Ukhrul and the other constituencies in the Naga areas will be held on March 5.

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