With the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in Parliament (CAB), chaos was unleashed upon the Northeast. Massive protests has resulted in air, road and rail communications being halted in parts of Assam, mobile internet services have been suspended in Tripura, and the army has been deployed in both these states.
The situation was tense and getting worse at the time of writing this article. Three states, however, appear to have remained — thus far — blissfully unaffected by the growing protests and violence: Mizoram, Manipur and Nagaland (which is busy with its annual Hornbill Festival).
Appearances can be deceptive, and at least in the case of Manipur and Nagaland, this is often the case even at the best of times.
The Citizenship Bill has made us forget that the deadline announced by Nagaland governor and peace talks interlocutor RN Ravi for the conclusion of the Naga peace talks, which have been on for 22 years, passed on 31 October without any agreement of any kind. Instead, there was evidence of sharp disagreement between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and the Government of India on the demand raised by the former for a separate flag and constitution.
Return of RK Meghen to Imphal: What this Means
At this critical juncture, a person who can hugely influence the workability of any deal that involves a pan-Naga body (involving the Naga areas of Manipur) has returned —after 44 years of exile, including a term in jail following his capture by Bangladesh authorities in 2010 — to Imphal. His name is RK Meghen, and he is the legendary chief of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF), the oldest and most powerful of the Manipuri armed insurgent outfits. Meghen was released from jail in Guwahati on 9 November, and was expected to return to Imphal the following day, but was instead whisked off by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to Delhi, and eventually returned to Manipur only on 28 November. He was accorded a hero’s welcome in Imphal.
Speaking to the media that day, Meghen had, among other things, expressed his strong conviction that “as long as the people stand united, Manipur’s territorial integrity and unity will never be compromised”.
The reference to Manipur’s territorial integrity should be read in the context of the demand for a pan-Naga administration. For the NSCN(IM), whose chief Thungaleng Muivah is a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul in the Manipur hills, giving up the claim to such a body is not negotiable. For the Meiteis of the Imphal valley, any chipping away at the territorial boundaries of Manipur has long been non-negotiable.
In this situation, Meghen’s stance becomes very important.
CAB Backlash: Will Meghen ‘Help’ Govt of India?
In his career as an insurgent leader, Meghen has been known for his attempts to forge unity between various Northeast militant outfits. He was instrumental in forming the Indo-Burma Revolutionary Front, a grouping consisting of the NSCN’s Khaplang faction, his own UNLF, and the United Liberation Front of Asom, in 1990. He is also reputed to have tipped off Muivah about an assassination attempt by the Khaplang faction, and thus saved his life. The UNLF, which he led, was from its outset a group that tried to include members from the Naga, Kuki and Meitei ethnic groups.
It is possible that Meghen may be in a position to help the Government of India, which is already struggling with the blow back in Northeast India from its miscalculations on the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Bill, to work out the limits of what concessions to the Nagas might be acceptable in Manipur.
Whether he would do so, is quite another matter.
Is UNLF ‘Friends’ of the BJP?
While all other top insurgent leaders (who fell into the hands of Indian agencies thanks to the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh), including the ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, got out of jail using the peace talks card, and have since been engaged in discussions with the government in New Delhi, Meghen chose instead to serve a 10-year jail term. He declined peace talks. His group’s position on the issue is that a plebiscite under United Nations supervision must be conducted in Manipur to determine whether it should be a part of India.
The UNLF leadership has not been especially enamoured of ethnic nationalism, unlike practically all other insurgent outfits of Northeast India.
Meghen, who is an International Relations graduate from Jadavpur University, has kept an ideological rather than an ethnic basis to his struggle.
The independence and unity of the former princely state of Manipur of which his ancestors were among the rulers (‘R K’ in his initials stand for ‘Raj Kumar’ meaning ‘prince’) have been the core issues that his group has stood for.
With all of Northeast India in a ferment, fundamental questions, going back to the accession and merger agreements with India, are being asked in more than one state. Meghen and the UNLF have some history with Congress leader Okram Ibobi Singh, but that does not necessarily mean that they are friends of the BJP. It is unlikely that convictions of the lifelong revolutionary can be turned so easily in the sunset years of his long life.
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(Samrat is an author and journalist. He tweets at @MrSamratX. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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