Noney (Manipur): On the morning of May 22, the humdrum of Tazeikaiphun village was unexpectedly disturbed by the sight and sound of a chopper and a drone circling the area. This tiny Rongmei (tribe) village of roughly 90 households with a population not more than 800, who weren’t exposed to any disturbance from militancy, didn’t make much of it. Little did they think that the Commanding Officer of 23 Assam Rifles would show up the next morning demanding to be taken to a National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) camp.
“He (CO) showed me the surveillance footage of the camp and I told them that I only know that it is in my jurisdiction but not the exact location,” Kamphuna Kamei, the village chairman, told The Wire. In 2016, the chairman had signed a No Objection Certification (NOC) to the IM’s Jadonang battalion for setting up a camp close to his village. “But the CO wouldn’t listen and said, ‘Ek do thapad marne se maaloom ho jayega (I will slap you if I have to)’,” he said. He was threatened and coerced into accompanying the search party the whole day only to find nothing, said Kamei.
Located deep in the jungles in the Nungba sub-division, Tazeipkaiphun is poorly connected to the nearest town, by a treacherous and muddied seven-kilometre path that can be tread on foot or one of their custom jeeps. The absence of an asphalted road in an area of dense rainfall translates to a path which caves into deep molars on narrow slippery slopes on the West Manipur district hills.
Until November 2016, Nungba came under the jurisdiction of the Tamenglong district, until the creation of Noney district by former chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh shortly before the assembly elections. Dominated by the Zeliangrong sub-tribes (Rongmei, Zeme and Liangmai), who trace their origins to the Nagas, Tamenlong is a historical site for the Naga freedom movement. Rongmei leaders Haipou Jadonang and Gaidinliu started their movement to unify all the Zeliangrong tribes and desist the spread of Christianity through British missionaries to protect the indigenous Kabui religion.
On May 27, the apex body ‘Rongmei Naga Council Manipur’ condemned the the 23 Assam Rifles for using civilians as ‘human shields’ in a midnight operation against the NSCN (IM) on May 24, alleging that it violated the ceasefire agreement with between the Naga group and the Centre. Had the cadres not abandoned the camp in time before the search party arrived, “a fierce gun battle might have taken place between them and all those civilians who were made as human shield would have died on the spot”, their statement said. Two days later, NSCN-IM condemned the AR operation, calling it a “deliberate attempt to derail the peace process”.
Village resents army using ‘human shield’ in violation of ceasefire
Speaking to The Wire in Tazeikaiphun, also known as Khekrunaga, Gainingam Kamei and Benjamin Rongmei said that after the army platoon of around 150 personnel picked them up on May 24, the two youth followed the directions based on the coordinates they had. “When we reached the camp, they asked us to move in first,” said Gainingam. Once inside, they found clothes, books, kitchen and other household items in the camp already deserted by the IM cadres.
Neither of them said they spotted any arms in the camp themselves apart from a pistol and 30 bullets of AK-47 and M16 that the army showed them and allegedly seized from the camp. The witnesses told The Wire that the camp, which was later burnt down by the army, stood at a distance of barely four kilometres from the village.
While residents hold the army responsible for allegedly using the two civilians as human shield, they admit that someone from the village had informed the camp in advance. However, an IM cadre The Wire spoke to later in Nungba said that though they were tipped off, they left the camp only about an hour or so before the search party arrived. “I risked my life going into the camp uncertain of what would be there. They didn’t even offer us any food or water that day,” said Gainingam.
The use of human shields is a violation of India’s national and international human rights commitments, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). While India has not ratified CAT, as a signatory it has committed to adhere by its principles. At it’s third universal periodic review in the UN Human Rights Council in May 2017, Indian authorities reiterated their commitment to CAT and reassured existing domestic laws also outlaw torture and degrading treatment.
Unsurprisingly, the incident has led to a considerable loss of faith in the peace dialogues between the Indian government and the IM. “This agreement between the GPRN and Indian government is questionable. Indian army using a common man as a human shield, even threatening the chairman and secretary of the village is not peaceful by any means,” Kamei says.
He has accused the CO of carrying out this operation solely in the pursuit of a promotion. About two weeks before the operation, the chairman signed a NOC valid for 90 days to a standing patrolling post of the 23 Assam Rifles with the caveat that it should not be established beyond the agreed period as the villagers were peaceful and not in need of security forces.
After the raid, Kamei submitted a memorandum to the district commissioner to reject the proposal indefinitely. “It’s like cats and dogs. They cannot live together”.
A new Zeliangrong brigade
Though the exact size or strength of the Jadonang brigade is not known, groups like the Rongmei Naga Council of Manipur (RNCM), an apex body of the tribe, estimate around 500 cadres. The formation or presence of a brigade named after the Rongmei leader, who wanted political integration of Zeliangrong tribes under a Kabui Raj to replace British Raj, has been largely unknown.
The late historian, Gangmumei Kamei, once wrote, “It is striking to find that how much an idea of an independent kingdom to be created by politicians in Manipur valley had not thought of starting such a movement; when the leasers in the Naga hills were satisfied with the demand for exclusion from the constitutional reforms being investigated by the Simon Commission…”. Essentially, the Jadonang initiated movement was to thwart the British rule whereas Phizo Naga movement resisted the occupation of Indian administration in Naga inhabited areas.
RNCM didn’t find any contradictions in a brigade that enmeshed the two movements, seen as independent by most scholars. “Naga freedom struggle begins with Jadonang, who was far ahead of Phizo. In fact, Phizo also acknowledged that the movement will end with Jadonang’s name,” said Daichui, a youth member of the RNCM, Nungba zone.
Since more Zeliangrong tribe villages converted to Christianity after India’s independence, the primary bone of contention between the Jadonang’s Kabui Raj and IM’s ‘Nagaland for Christ’ seems to have disappeared. A cadre from the Jadonang brigade camp in Nungba told The Wire that their leader’s religion had no bearing on the Naga struggle anymore although he wasn’t sure of the exact time of its creation.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said, “The brigade was formed in 2016 as per orders given by general secretary (NSCN) Muivah at the Hebron headquarters”. While the exact size and strength of the camp had to be kept confidential for security reasons, he revealed that it was equivalent to an army platoon.
Cadres and officials from the NSCN-IM told The Wire that while IM have an agreement with the government, the latter is yet to formally recognise the Jadonang brigade, which could be the reason behind conducting the raid. Moreover, “under the pressure of state government no designated camp is officially permitted in Manipur except Ngangping Battalion in N-Puilong (Buning) in Tamei sub division”, says, D.G. Robert, Secretary at the IM Secretariat in Hebron, Nagaland.
‘No clarity on whether ceasefire is with or without territorial limit’
Kenan Kamei, president of RNCM and chairman of Longba Longrem Zone, who met The Wire in Noney, said they consider the Naga areas in Manipur to be under Nagalim, not Nagaland. “What is the basis of this operation in our village? We demand to know why are they straying away from the agreement and ongoing dialogue,” he said.
The NSCN signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India (United Front government led by H.D. Deve Gowda) in 1997, which has been continuously extended since. The dispute here is that NSCN dropped ‘Nagaland’ from their name in favour of ‘Nagalim’, which covers all the Naga inhabited areas in the North East. However, for the Indian government, the ceasefire does not extend beyond the political boundaries of Nagaland state.
In a historic agreement signed between the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led Bhartiya Janata Party government on June 14, 2001 in Bangkok, the phrase “without territorial limit” was admitted in the ceasefire agreement. As soon as it was announced, the agreement led to protests in Manipur valley, in which 18 persons died and presidential rule had to be declared. Every year since then, Manipuris observe June 18 as the Great June Uprising to commemorate the protestors who died as martyrs while the United Naga Council calls for a curfew on Highways 37 and 39 to protest the betrayal of the Indian government, when Vajpayee revoked the enforcing of ceasefire beyond Nagaland a month later.
Since territory remains a highly emotive and political issue for valley communities, their umbrella body of United Committee Manipur expressed its concerns with central leaders in New Delhi, including Naga interlocutor R.N. Ravi in December 2017. However, there’s much fear and apprehension among them since information about the peace deal is trickling out in bits and pieces. In April, the Indian Express reported that while boundaries will not be touched, Naga territorial councils would likely be formed in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
“We all know that a territorial council is a precursor to the creation of a new state. The Indian government should know that satisfying the political aspirations of one state at the cost of another will amount to disintegration of India”, said UCM spokesperson, Elangbam Johnson. Moreover, he added, the blanket references to areas, as ‘Naga inhabited’ was a misnomer since districts like Tamenglong and Senapati were jointly inhabited by other communities like Kukis, Meiteis and Nepalis.
The Narendra Modi-led BJP government seemingly mended the broken trust by signing a framework agreement with Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu in August 2015 to pave the way for a ‘final’ Naga solution. However, since the details of the framework agreement have not been disclosed, there is no official confirmation on the territorial limit of the ceasefire unlike the preceding years.
Robert insists that the ceasefire is in effect wherever the government of India and NSCN-IM are present. “As long as there is ongoing dialogue between the two, the ceasefire will be in effect”, he told The Wire. In fact, despite encounters between the army and IM in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and several raids on IM leaders recently conducted, Indian authorities say the peace accord is almost reached.
For Nagas in Manipur, Daichui says, it’s not a question of the ceasefire anymore. “We’re at the eleventh hour now of the peace accord. At this point of time, why did they have to do this?”