“I see no reason why there cannot be a settlement,” Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said in his maiden election rally in Manipur on Wednesday, wooing the Naga population and urging them to vote for the Naga People’s Front (NPF) candidates.
Rio himself heads NDPP-BJP-NPF regime in Nagaland; he hails from NDPP and was invited by the NPF – the party he split in 2017 – to address election rallies in neighbouring Manipur, which goes to polls in two phases on February 28 and March 5.
The NPF has fielded 10 candidates for the 60-member Assembly and it is keen to play a major role post the results in the formation of the new government in Imphal.
“Whatever competencies agreed, make the agreement. And whatever cannot be resolved, continue the discussions,” Rio stated.
He is not the first leader to say so. But it is important that Rio has echoed these sentiments. The same words and sentiments were earlier echoed by former Nagaland Governor, R.N. Ravi.
The Central BJP leaders too have been pressing for the same and so did a conglomeration of seven Naga ultra-groups, NNPG (led by N. Kitovi Zhimomi).
But Rio echoing the same issues and ‘concerns’ flagged earlier by the Central government agencies and former Governor Ravi on the issue of extortion carried out by Naga rebel groups makes a lot of political as well as administrative sense.
Neiphiu Rio was a Congress leader himself and a former lieutenant of veteran S.C. Jamir. Rio is known as one of the few Naga leaders who has developed proximity to Thuingaleng Muivah, the powerful NSCN (IM) general secretary, over the last two decades.
The former Congress stalwart Jamir, who later became Gujarat Governor during the tenure of Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister, had strong differences and ‘bitter rivalry’ with Muivah and NSCN (IM).
Jamir was even shot at by suspected NSCN (IM) gunmen in Delhi’s Nagaland House in 1993.
In his speech at Senapati on Wednesday, Rio also said, “The Naga movement is a partial success already… The government of India has recognised the earnestness of the Naga history.”
“Naga struggle, I will say, is not a total failure,” Rio said, perhaps hinting towards a somewhat antagonistic stand taken by the rebel group National Socialist Council of Nagaland – NSCN (IM).
This rebel group led by Thuingaleng Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul region, has a substantial support base in Manipur hills and had created major hurdles in the peace process by raising the bogey of separate Constitution and Naga flag (in 2019) during the peace talks.
Echoing the sentiment that actually clamours for early solution to the Naga political problem, Rio went on to say — though his state (Nagaland) is set to go to the polls early next year — he is “not (very) keen to have elections”.
“I want solution…,” he said.
Ravi, who is a retired Special Director of the Intelligence Bureau, was shunted out as the Governor of Tamil Nadu.
Rio said, “There should be no violence in our society…. There should be no extortion,” and went on to add, “The burden is too much.”
“Nagas have so many tribes and now Naga groups have so many camps. It is not workable…. Today our society is already divided,” said the Nagaland Chief Minister, blasting at the extortion culture, and maintained, “We have so many taxations… Over and above organisations, so many individuals.”
Speaking against extortion, the Chief Minister said, “Burden is so much on the common people. We have to seriously think, otherwise there is no future.”
“This cannot sustain,” Rio said, virtually echoing what former Ravi had said two years back.
Such a statement from the then Governor Ravi had also created differences between Rio and Ravi.
In his speech at a students’ conference in Phek in Nagaland on Tuesday, Rio had said that the Centre is willing to grant additional seats in the Assembly and Parliament to resolve the decades-old Naga political issue.
At present, Nagaland has a 60-member Assembly and one Member of Parliament each in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
The Naga peace talks have been put on fast-track lately and the Centre also reached out to an umbrella group of rebel leaders, NNPG, led by N. Kitovi Zhimomi.
Both Rio and NPF leader and former Nagaland CM T.R. Zeliang lauded BJP Chief Minister N. Biren Singh of Manipur for respecting the Naga sentiment and NPF representatives in the Manipur assembly.
They both flayed Congress stalwart O. Ibobi Singh and said the then Chief Minister in 2011 had strongly opposed the formation of the NPF unit in Manipur.
Rio also said that then Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram had advised him not to visit Manipur’s Naga areas to launch the NPF party in the state.
Meitei Manipuris have a strong apprehension that Naga rebel group NSCN (IM) would try to impact the ‘territorial integrity’ of Manipur with their demand for a ‘greater Nagalim’. This demand has been rejected by the Centre.
However, one NPF general secretary, Huska Yepthomi, criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for failing to deliver the Naga peace formula in 18 months as was promised earlier.
Yephthomi also slammed the BJP for attacks on churches in various parts of the country. He criticised Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for not mentioning northeast and eight states in one of his controversial tweets.
The NPF general secretary said that the Congress has been reduced to being a “Mother-son-daughter party”.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is also the author of books, ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’ and ‘Modi to Moditva: An Uncensored Truth’)