Fires Of PeaceThe Centre's extension of its cease-fire with the NSCN(I-M) backfires as Manipur explodes in fury against the decision
The 13 pyres had been lit. A lament went up among the relatives. All else was deathly quiet in Imphal. Manipur's capital was under curfew, and security forces in their thousands patrolled the streets; the full strength of the Government had been thrown, belatedly, into preventing the fires from spreading.
When the Central Government declared on June 14 that its three-year old cease-fire with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) would no longer be confined to Nagaland, it should have been a herald of peace. But in the mosaic of many wars that is India's Northeast, it takes more than two sides to make peace.
Of Manipur's population of 23 lakh, about 18 lakh belong to the Meitei ethnic group. Nearly 2.5 lakh are Nagas. Other tribes like the Kukis make up the remainder. The Meiteis mainly inhabit the Imphal valley while the Nagas are scattered across four hill districts-Ukhrul, Chandel, Senapati and Tamenglong. For the past two decades the NSCN(I-M) has been fighting for an independent Naga homeland, a continuation of the struggle begun by the legendary Z.A. Phizo in 1947 (see chronology). The proposed Naga homeland, or Nagalim, would include at least the four hill districts that cover more than half of Manipur. Tangkhul Nagas from these districts make up a large part of the NSCN(I-M) cadre; Muivah himself belongs to this ethnic group and is from Ukhrul. The map of greater Nagaland or Nagalim on view at the NSCN(I-M)'s official website at angelfire.com includes all of Manipur. The Government's decision to extend the cease-fire outside Nagaland was thus viewed in Manipur as a first step towards recognising Naga territorial claims over the hill districts.
Monday, June 18, began as a quiet, rainy day in Imphal. The 66-hour statewide general strike called by 83 local groups in protest against the cease-fire was to end at 6 p.m. By 10.30 a.m. the first of an estimated 1,00,000 protesters took to the streets. Effigies of NSCN(I-M) chief Thuengaleng Muivah, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani were burnt.
It was only the prelude to a bigger fire. As the mob surged towards the unoccupied official residence of the chief minister (the state is under President's rule), a CRPF contingent opened fire. Thirteen protesters died; over 50 were injured. The state Assembly went up in flames. Speaker Sapam Dhananjoy Singh was roughed up as he tried to escape from the building. Trapped inside, BJP MLAs N. Bihari Singh and K. Tomba Singh sustained 50 per cent burns.
Since then the All Manipur United Clubs' Organisation, which is spearheading the protest, has announced the social boycott of the state's 63 legislators for failing to resign from their seats as a mark of solidarity. The All Manipur Students' Union has threatened to drive all recalcitrant MLAs out of Manipur.
The local politicians may not have distinguished themselves with their anything-for-office brand of politics, but indications are that they had little knowledge of the cease-fire extension that set Manipur ablaze. Even Governor Ved Marwah, who is now in charge of the administration, was apparently not apprised of what was to come. Courtesy internal politics, the various legs of government succeeded once more in tripping each other up.