By Nijeesh N.*
The Chief Minister (CM) of Manipur Okram Ibobi Singh came under gun attack when suspected National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) militants opened fire at him and his associates as they were getting out of their helicopter at the Pakshi Ground Helipad in Ukhrul District on October 24, 2016. Singh was accompanied by Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam Gangmei, Commerce and Industries Minister Govindas Konthoujam, Forest Minister I. Hemochandra Singh, Deputy Speaker M.K. Preshow Shimray and Parliamentary Secretary Victor Keishing. Soon after the chopper landed, the militants started firing, which last for more than ten minutes and in which one Manipur Rifles (MR) trooper, identified as William Tarao, sustained severe injuries. The ambush on the CM and his team came amidst protests and a boycott call issued by the native Naga tribal group, Tangkhul Naga Long (TNL). Singh and his Ministers were on their way to inaugurate development projects in the Districts. With heightened security concerns, the Chief Minister and his team had to cancel their programme and fly back to Imphal. The Security Forces (SFs) could not apprehend a single militant involved in the attack.
Violent protests by Naga outfits had started in the late night of October 23, 2016, as suspected NSCN-IM militants triggered four bomb explosions in which two Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) personnel were injured. Of the four explosions in quick succession, one occurred in the early morning of October 24, 2016, near the newly constructed Ukhrul District Hospital at Hungpung, The Hospital was supposed to be inaugurated by the Chief Minister. The attack completely destroyed the space where the public meeting was to be held.
Though no militant groups claimed responsibility for the bomb attack, Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam Gangmei, who also retains the Home portfolio, on October 25, 2016, strongly condemned the incident terming it as “uncivilised and cowardly” and pointed fingers at NSCN-IM for carrying out the attack, adding, “State Government takes the incident seriously and will take the matter to the Government of India.” He reiterated that NSCN-IM was engaged in peace talk with the Centre and had, yet again, violated the ground rules by using the highest form of violence against State leaders.
On October 29, 2016, Imphal West Police commandos claimed that they had arrested an NSCN-IM cadre, identified as Honpam Jajo (48), who was allegedly involved in the planning and arrangement of the attack on the Chief Minister and his team. He was working under the command of Akhui, who the “in charge” of “home (law and order)” of the outfit according to Police sources. Honpam had gathered information about the movement of the State Security Forces and Central Para-Military Forces on the eve of the Chief Minister’s visit to Ukhrul on October 24, 2016. One Chinese made hand grenade and one mobile phone were recovered from Honpam’s possession.
Tangkhul Naga-dominated Ukhrul is one of the least developed Districts of Manipur, and is also home to NSCN-IM ‘chief’ Thuingaleng Muivah. The Government of Manipur, particularly Chief Minister Ibobi Singh, has been accused of giving ‘step-motherly’ treatment to these Naga inhabited hill areas in the State. The general perception among the Tangkhul Naga tribes is that Ibobi Singh, a Meitei, is ‘anti-Naga’, and that the inauguration of an incomplete hospital was only a gimmick for getting votes in the forthcoming State Assembly elections in early 2017. According to security sources, central Intelligence agencies had informed the Chief Minister that NSCN-IM chief Muivah was unhappy about the Chief Minister visiting ‘an area of their (NSCN-IM’s) dominance’, and that the outfit could resort to violence to prevent the inauguration of the hospital and other projects. Officials also pointed out that NSCN-IM, which is demanding Ukhrul District as part of their Nagalim (Greater Nagaland), may not have intended a fatal assault on the Chief Minister, but directed threatening fire at the helipad to “stake their claim to Ukhrul”.
Despite these incidents, the general security environment in the State has improved remarkably during the current year. According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Manipur recorded only 27 insurgency-related fatalities (12 civilians, eight SF personnel and seven militants) in 2016 (Data till November 6, 2016), as compared to 87 (16 civilians, 23 SF personnel and 48 militants) in the corresponding period of last year, a decline of 69 percent. This is the lowest number of fatalities recorded in a year in the State since 1992 [the year since which SATP data is available].
The Ukhrul attack has raised serious doubt about the successful finalization of the historical ‘Framework Agreement’ between the Government of India (GoI) and the NSCN-IM, which was signed on August 3, 2015. One of the major challenges for finalizing a settlement is the issue of ‘Naga integration’ of all Naga dominated areas in the neighbouring States of Nagaland, including Manipur. The principal demand of NSCN-IM for a ‘Greater Nagaland’ comprising contiguous Naga-inhabited parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and some bordering areas of the neighbouring country, Myanmar, faces stiff opposition from these States, especially from Manipur.
The Union Government has remained tight lipped on the contents of Framework Agreement, conceding only that, “the framework agreement lays down broad principle within which final agreement will be worked out and consultation with all stakeholders including State Governments of Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur will be held before reaching a final agreement”.
After the Helipad attack, the Union Government reacted very carefully, despite Deputy Chief Minister Gaikhangam’s categorical statement that the Centre could not remain silent after NSCN-IM had broken the ceasefire by attacking the Chief Minister. On October 30, 2016, Union Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, while condemning the attack, rubbished accusations that the Central Government gave “free hands” (sic) to the NSCN-IM to carry out the attack. He added, “I will not pass any comment unless official report is available because it is a sensitive matter and I should not comment on it for the time being.”
Meanwhile, the State Government has initiated action against NSCN-IM after the October 24 attack, resulting in the arrest of at least 10 of its cadres from different parts of the State. SATP data indicates that at least 15 NSCN-IM militants have been arrested in Manipur since the signing of the Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015.
Although violent incidents involving NSCN-IM have come down drastically in the region as result of the ongoing peace talks, Manipur has witnessed sporadic violence. Interestingly, since the August 3, 2015, Agreement, not a single NSCN-IM related fatality has been registered in Nagaland. However, according to SATP data, two civilians and one Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) militant were killed in three separate incidents by NSCN-IM militants in Manipur during this period (all data updated till November 6, 2016).
Recently, Manipur witnessed protests over the issue of creation of two new Districts in the State – Sadar Hills out of Senapati and Jiribam out of Imphal East. While Kuki organisations are agitating for the creation of Sadar Hills District, Naga groups including the United Naga Council (UNC) are opposing the move. The NSCN-IM, in an emergency Joint meeting of the Council of Kilonsers (Ministers) and Steering Members on October 31, 2016, at Hebron (Dimapur District of Nagaland), took strong exception to the reported plan by the Manipur State Government to declare Sadar Hills and Jiribam as Districts. A Press Note from the NSCN-IM ‘Ministry of Information & Publicity (MIP)’ indicated that the ‘House’ took a unanimous decision to oppose “such provocative moves to the last.” It further affirmed the “ownership of the land that it is a part of ancestral Naga domain… Unless rightful ownership of the land is acknowledged by the settlers, the NSCN-IM/GPRN (Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland) shall never tolerate any move that infringes upon the rights of the owner (Nagas).” The NSCN-IM nonetheless stated that it was “prepared to negotiate on any proposed agenda if ownership is duly acknowledged and respected.”
Several indigenous groups alleged that NSCN-IM was also responsible for the under development of the Hill areas of Manipur. Manipur Naga People’s Front (MNPF) alleged that, “For the last 20 years 90 per cent of the development works of the hill areas particularly in the Naga areas have been spoiled by NSCN-IM.” Besides, other factions of the NSCN, especially the Reformation and Unification factions (NSCN-R and NSCN-U) recently stated that they would not be part of the ongoing peace-talks between NSCN-IM and GoI.
Though NSCN-IM is confident that the final outcome of the Framework Agreement would bring a onetime solution for the persistent Naga problem, the integration of Nagas outside the territory of the Nagaland State, especially in Manipur’s hill region, remains a major hurdle to any permanent solution.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management