Playing with (cease)fire

Extension of ceasefire areas sets off the fuse in the Northeast


The Centre clearly didn’t expect such a forceful backlash to its decision to extend the areas of Naga ceasefire. Manipur was literally burning. The Legislative Assembly and State Secretariat have been reduced to ashes. On a single day, June 18, the shoot-at-sight toll was 13 killed and hundreds injured. The popular fury literally scorched the entire political class: they set the Assembly Speaker and four other MLAs on fire causing them serious burns. Whether the MLAs belonged to the BJP, Congress or Samata, none was spared. On the other side of the Nagaland border the ASDC(P)-CPI(ML) have also called for a 48-hour bandh. 36 Manipur MLAs, under pressure from Manipur Students’ Union, have given an ultimatum to the centre saying that they would resign en masse if the extension of ceasefire areas was not withdrawn by August 1. The protests are snowballing.

The move that was sought to be passed off by Union Home Minister Advani as a great peace initiative has set the entire Northeast ablaze. The people in Manipur, Assam (especially in NC Hills bordering Nagaland), Arunachal Pradesh and even in Meghalaya see in the Centre’s move an implicit recognition to the NSCN’s demand of Greater Nagaland. They are genuinely worried about the territorial integrity of their states and the security of their people’s because of their bad experience with the chauvinistic arrogance, aggressiveness and highhandedness of the NSCN. If the NSCN’s ambition for a Greater Nagaland were to be realised, a state like Manipur would lose four of its districts and NC Hills would lose 70% of its area. The prospect of an NSCN on an uninhibited free run across these states causes them nightmares. Hence popular anger is boiling over.

The ceasefire between the centre and the NSCN went into effect on August 1, 1997, and has since then been periodically extended. The Centre’s talks with NSCN-IM, first initiated during Narasimha Rao’s period was continued by the Vajpayee government. Though both sides accused each other of ceasefire violations, there was no real threat to the peace process. The NSCN consolidated its hold over vast areas in other states, including non-Naga ones, through its armed bands and happily carried on its extortion and plunder, giving rise to lots of resentment among the local people and complaints from respective state governments. Now, with the extension of ceasefire to all these areas, the hands of these state governments are tied when it comes to offering security and protection to the people, because they had largely depended on central security forces to tackle the armed insurgent groups.

There were reports of differences surfacing within the saffron establishment on extending the ceasefire. The Congress took an ambivalent stand on this question, making appropriate noises now and then but not differing too sharply with the Vajpayee government. There were allegations of Vajpayee government pitting one Naga group against another when it tried to rope in the rival NSCN-Khaplang into the peace process. Advani himself tried to give an outward impression that he was opposed even to the extension of the ceasefire period. But, all of a sudden, after the Congress won in Assam and Manipur sort of slipped out of its effective hold, came the surprising announcement that not only has the ceasefire period but also the areas covered by it have been extended.

Though there has been an apparent continuity in the Naga struggle, partly because of the leadership of Thuingaleng Muivah and Isac Chishi Swu who were the key first generation leaders of the Naga National Council (NNC) next only to Phizo, the NSCN has moved far away from the days of NNC, its predecessor, and even from the Shillong Accord of 1975. Gone are the original inspiration from Mao behind the formation of NSCN, the early ideological attraction for a cocktail of socialism and Christian humanism, and the zeal of a liberation struggle. The outfit, which was once the inspiration behind all national liberation movements in the Northeast, is fast becoming an extortion empire shorn of democratic values and respect for other national minorities. 

Differences among the top two leaders have been reported and the region is rife with all sorts of wild rumours regarding one of them being an imposter at present. Internecine and inter-tribal clashes have taken a heavy toll, running into hundreds, in the Naga movement in recent years bringing back gory memories of 1988 internal war in which Khaplang faction tried to assassinate Muiva and killed hundreds of Thangkul cadres. The movement is an uneasy coalition of Konyaks and Tangkhuls along with other smaller tribes like Semas, Kukis, Yumchungus, and Maos. The attempt by the Centre to exploit their internal differences has only aggravated matters. On the whole, the movement is a pale shadow of its past. Yet, that has not prevented it from setting the entire Northeast aflame.

ASDC(P) calls for 48-hour bandh in North Cachar Hills

The ASDC(P) had called for a 48-hour bandh on 20-21 June against the Centre’s decision to extend the ceasefire with NSCN (I-M) and other Naga organisations to areas outside Nagaland including in the NC Hills. Comrade Rajad, member of the Hill Districts Party Committee of CPI(ML) and Central Committee member of ASDC(P) and General Secretary of the Dimasa Students’ Union (DSU), said that this decision of the Centre would affect 70% of the area of the NC Hills where NSCN already has a free run. There is strong resentment among the people against it. The people here see NSCN as an extortionist gang, intimidating the people for money; they have collusion with local vested interests, especially with local leaders of the Congress and the BJP. 

Clarifying ASDC(P)’s stand he said that the ASDC had already welcomed the ceasefire with NSCN(I-M) and other Naga organisations when it was first declared in 1997 and had made it clear that there could only be a political solution to the Naga problem through negotiations. It had also welcomed the subsequent extensions of the ceasefire period. But the present extension of the ceasefire to wider areas outside Nagaland, falling under NC Hills, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, as demanded by NSCN has only one meaning: an implicit recognition to the NSCN demand for a “Greater Nagaland” and letting the NSCN have an unhindered free run. According to Comrade Rajad, it is not that armed conflicts are raging between security forces and the Naga militants in these areas. Rather, the NSCN(I-M) and other organisations freely move around with arms, resort to acts of terror against the masses, and are involved in armed extortion, loot, killing of innocent persons and political opponents, often in collusion with security forces or reactionary parties like the Congress. During the recent Assembly elections, they, acting as mercenaries, resorted to large-scale booth-capturing and rigging in favour of anti-ASDC(P) candidates belonging to reactionary parties. Two ASDC(P) activists were also kidnapped by the outfit. He expressed ASDC(P)’s firm opposition to the demand for “Greater Nagaland”.

A “White Paper” on Insurgency in North Cachar Hills published by the ASDC(P) NC Hills District Committee and the Dimasa Students’ Union traces the role of NSCN in North Cachar Hills. To counter the growing influence of ASDC and DSU, the Congress promoted an insurgent outfit called Dimasa National Security Force (DNSF). As against the autonomous state demand of the ASDC for NC Hills, they advocated Dimaraji but effectively functioned a fifth column of the Congress. After a period of time, the DNSF disintegrated and the rump of this organisation became DHD (Dima Halam Daoga), an ultra outfit. The NSCN entered the NC Hills areas initially by teaming up with the DHD and gradually established its extortionist network by terrorising the unarmed locals.

According to the “White Paper”, “the NSCN-DHD imposed “tax” on businessmen, contractors and saw-mill owners etc. Secondly, they imposed “tax” on different categories of employees – from first grade to fourth grade -- ranging from 10-35% of their income. Thirdly, they also imposed a “tax” on vehicles, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, jeeps, buses and trucks etc. Even telephone and TV taxes were collected at gun point. Dimasas and other peoples of the region were supposed to pay these “taxes” to the socalled “government” of Greater People’s Republic of Nagaland. Even villagers from far-flung remote areas were not spared from the clutches of NSCN-DHD and were compelled to pay an annual house tax of Rs.100 per family apart from the tax on cattle”. So effective was the reign of terror that even the office staff of SP and DM regularly paid these taxes. The district administration and the Assam government turned a blind eye to all this. The “White Paper” noted that “most of the development work like construction of road, bridges, irrigation projects, water supply schemes etc. were not only hampered but abandoned because no contractor was willing to take up work due to naked interference from these insurgent outfits”. Fearing extortion from these outfits, teachers and doctors have fled from the villages and as a result schools and hospitals have been closed. The NSCN-DHD kidnapped and tortured to death Dr. H. Das, Superintendent, Haflong Civil Hospital and even hospitals like the 30-bedded Maibang Civil Hospital offer no treatment while patients are dying of malaria. 

After the ceasefire the NSCN did not fully withdraw from NC Hills though they were able to operate openly from Nagaland. Rather, they stayed back to continue and intensify their extortion. Even the people in the Naga inhabited areas of NC Hills hated these outfits. People started wondering what kind of national liberation organisation was this that trampled upon the rights of not only other tribal minorities in their own land but harassed their own people. 

Politically speaking, the alliance of NSCN and DHD is opportunistic to the very fundamentals. This is because the NSCN, from its very inception, has demanded independent Greater Nagaland which included NC Hills. On the other hand, the Congress, All Dimasa Students Union (floated by Congress-DHD as a rival to DSU), Dimaraji Revival Demand Committee (DRDC) and DHD have been demanding inclusion of Dimapur of Nagaland under the socalled Dimaraj which has been stoutly opposed by NSCN. Despite diametrically opposite demands they have become strange bedfellows thanks to the common interests in running a parallel administration at gunpoint with full patronage from Congress, and now BJP, against the District Council led by ASDC. The NSCN has been encouraging revivalist, chauvinist and exclusivist sentiments through an impractical demand of Dimaraji whereas ASDC(P) and DSU has been stressing the composite unity of various ethnic communities in the NC Hills. Right from the days of Rajesh Pilot, the NSCN has established powerful linkages with Congress and later with the BJP. These parties also favour evolution of NSCN as an extortionist empire rather than being a militant organisation fighting for the self-determination of people, so as to facilitate its easy assimilation in the power structure at the expense of the interests of other national minorities in the region and hence have no compunction in pandering to the chauvinist ambitions of this group. Likewise, while the powers that be at the Centre and State go all out to deny the benefit of constitutional provisions like autonomous state and VI Schedule to the democratic mass political formations of national minorities and tribal communities and subvert existing institutional arrangements like district councils, they never tire in their favourite games of fostering, for a while, extra-constitutional and parallel power structures and Frankensteins with the sole aim to divide and rule. They have trampled upon genuine nationality sentiments in the northeast but selectively pandered to the chauvinistic ambitions. No wonder, the fires they have fanned up through extending the ceasefire areas now threaten to engulf the entire region.