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Forcing The Issue

NAGALAND chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s 28 May foray into Senapati district of Manipur, which is part of the map of “Nagalim”, despite strong protests from that state government, is like throwing down the gauntlet for Manipuris to pick up. The response will be interesting to watch. Rio had ostensibly gone to launch a unit of his Naga People’s Front. This party’s manifesto speaks of integrating all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh under one political umbrella.

Considering that the Nagalim issue is a very sensitive one that is under negotiation with the Centre, Rio seems to be pushing his luck a bit.

Interestingly, he visited Senapati district only and not Ukhrul or Tamenglong, although both are ostensibly Naga-dominated areas. Senapati is the home of the Poumai, Mao-Maram and other smaller Naga tribes who found their political identity fairly recently. Nagas believe they all originated from a place called Makhel in Senapati, from where they went off in different directions.

A Naga intellectual speaking about this says wryly, “Ever since, the Nagas have been moving at a tangent. Our attempts to unite always result in greater ferment.” I recall visiting Makhel some years ago with a couple of Naga friends who proudly spoke of their own “Garden of Eden”. Perhaps it is this that prompted Rio to launch his movement from the hearth of Naga existence.

It is also doubtful if Rio would be applauded if he had visited Ukhrul, home of the proud and enterprising Tangkhuls. This tribe is conscious of the fact that the current Naga peace talks are being led by one of them — Th Muivah, who hails from Somdal, a small, apparently sleepy little village in Ukhrul. Although Nagas (of Nagaland) would not admit this, you can sense that they resent the fact that the Naga movement has gone out of their control. It must be said of the Tangkhuls that they are disciplined and have a one-point agenda which they have followed consistently, which is that they must continue to be in the driving seat as far as the Naga movement is concerned. Tangkhuls are also as clever and resourceful as the Meiteis — a result of having lived and interfaced with them more than with fellow Nagas of present Nagaland. It needs reminding that the Nagas of Nagaland have time and again served quit notices on Tangkhuls but have not succeeded in making any impact. If Rio were to launch his NPF party in Ukhrul, it is possible that he might have to face reprisals back home. These are bitter truths that are often explained away by euphemisms such as Naga unity. The explanations fool no one but the Nagas themselves.

Rio’s actions have many ramifications. Nagaland is heading for assembly polls in early 2013. The Naga people are already gearing up to meet this five-yearly extravaganza with a new mission. Recently, the civil society of Nagaland invited the Young Mizo Association and other Mizo thinkers to come and share their experiences of conducting elections with minimal expenditure. The Election Commission had actually hailed Mizoram as a model state as far as curtailment of election expenses is concerned. After the 2008 elections, some young professionals of Nagaland had conducted a survey to ascertain the amount spent during the assembly elections. They found it was a whopping Rs 250 crores but said it could be more.

Now the elders of Nagaland want to usher in a “Clean Election Campaign” so that by 2013 there will be mass awareness about the evils of buying votes and the cycle of corruption thereafter.

Rio has been in office for two terms. Although he is handpicked by the NSCN (IM) to push forward its agenda, anti-incumbency could afflict the best of governments. And whether the NSCN (IM) could be the bulwark for Rio to fend off anti-incumbency darts remains to be seen. It must be said to Rio’s credit that he has invested adequate resources in roads and other infrastructure. These are visible at least on the DimapurKohima highway. The roads seem better than they were 10 years ago. But the rural hamlets of Nagaland have not changed. Many are still unconnected to the district headquarters. This is what irks the people of eastern Nagaland. I am afraid their angst remains ignored by successive governments. Hence their movement for greater autonomy has only gained momentum!

However, elections in Nagaland are not only about the popular mandate. The NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) both play their respective roles in influencing voter behavior in their areas of influence. This is what the civil society of Nagaland, aiming at a clean election campaign, needs to tackle head on. Surprisingly, Nagaland also registers a very high poll percentage when compared to other North-east states. We are told that there are still huge swathes of unreached spaces where the Election Commission is unable to enforce its vigil. In such places one village headman (gaonbura) could be paid by any party to push the EVM button in favor of that party and to vote on behalf of all his village kinsmen and women. I am also not too sure that Election Commission officials will not succumb to threats from gun-toting militants. After all, why would an official put his life on the line for something not worth dying for?

It is in this perspective that the next elections in Nagaland are to be viewed. Those wishing to usher in a climate of greater accountability and transparency and desirous of cutting down humungous election expenses ought to pan out into the villages and hamlets and the jhum khetis (slash and burn cultivation fields) of Nagaland. It is pointless for all discussions to be centered round Kohima. A cursory glance will tell any visitor to some of the posh areas of Dimapur and Kohima that corruption is rampant and that it is almost second nature among politicians and bureaucrats.

The son of a senior Naga minister is perhaps the only one who owns a Hummer sports utility vehicle, the price of which ranges from Rs 40-80 lakh. But this does not even raise eyebrows in Nagaland because it is taken for granted that a politician is entitled to splash the Delhi money that comes with no strings attached.

Nagaland has no internal revenue generation. Unlike most North-east states, it has no mineral resources to help it bolster its own revenues and also create employment through value addition. Dimapur, the commercial hub, is owned by a clique of Naga crorepatis who have also made their money from their proximity to the political rulers. No one ever questions the buying power of the Nagas and where they are able to cough up so much of money for the swanky luxury vehicles that crisscross the potholed roads of Kohima, Mokokchung or Dimapur.

As long as the peace talks continue, the government of India will continue to pour money into Nagaland. A professor, who served in Nagaland for several years and has now retired, once asked a Naga gentleman, “Why do you want sovereignty? You Nagas are very free now under the government of India. No one questions how you use the crores (of rupees) that come in year after year. Will you be able to continue this kind of extravagant and lavish lifestyle once you earn sovereignty?”

A good question indeed – one that should make the Nagas think a little deeper!

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.

*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at patricia17@rediffmail.com

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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