Eighteen armed groups from the camps of KNO and UPF recently signed for suspension of operations with the Government of Manipur and the Centre. With a long way to go, the agreement has finally put the horses before the cart. The question is how long will it run when it starts running?
Positive signs of peace and progress are on the tracks as the Kuki National Organisation (KNO) comprising 11 armed groups and the United Peoples’ Front (UPF) consisting of another seven armed groups, formally entered into tripartite agreement and signed the Suspension of Operations (SoO) on August 22, 2008. The three parties included the 18 armed groups that constitute the KNO and UPF, the Centre and the Government of Manipur. Naveen Verma, Joint Secretary (North East), Ministry of Home Affairs, signed the SoO documents on behalf of the Centre and DS Poonia, Principal Secretary (Home), was the signatory of the Government of Manipur. According to sources, the SoO was duly signed with an agreement for all the parties involved to abide by the Constitution of India and the territorial integrity of Manipur.
It may be remembered that SoO agreements between the Indian Army and the constituents of KNO and UPF have been in force since August 1, 2005. After three years of near atrophy, with the Government of Manipur not being a party to the previous SoO, peace prospects have severely met hurdles on all tracks. Excluded from being a party to the previous SoO agreement, the Government of Manipur has been holding the whip when it comes to dealing with the KNO and UPF, which was and still is seen by the KNO and UPF as signs of “hesitancy”, “immaturity” and “half-heartedness” to their interest. That climate has slowed the peace prospects and the confidence building process was also injured.
However, the Centre walked the much needed extra miles to explore the prospects of Tripartite agreement, which finally resulted with the SoO agreement on February 4, 2008. With that the Government of Manipur is also a party to the talks and the feet dragging game came to an end. Both the representatives of the KNO and UPF expressed that the tripartite agreement for the SoO would still be in a mire without the significant role of the Centre. The instruments of the SoO are initially agreed upon for a period of one year.
Despite the signing of the SoO agreements, both the KNO and UPF were confronted with one sticking issue that demands them not to disturb the territorial integrity of Manipur. Much before the political dialogue begins “unnecessary hurdle” stacked the defining of the ground rules, which tolled too long of a time. “We had to cross lots of hurdles to reach this stage”, Seilen Haokip, spokesman, KNO said. “We had to go through unnecessary process, which was time wasting. The reason being, the first meeting was substantially to discuss the ground rules for the SoO, which itself makes it quite clear what it should be all about. It was not the time to bring in any political element in it. However the Government of Manipur set a pre-condition for the talks. We have said to the Government of India that we are responding to the olive branch handed out by the Prime Minister of India to all groups who would want to resolve their problems through dialogue. When we responded to that we even went to the extent of saying that we wanted to have our dialogue within the Constitution of India. It is a commonly understood and accepted fact that where there is to be a dialogue, it should be without preconditions. However, we said we don’t mind the Constitution of India, not as the pre-condition, but within that. Actually, even the Constitution of India should not be the pre-condition. But we said, barring that there should be no other conditions for talks. But the Manipur Government inserted a clause that says that the territorial integrity of Manipur should not be disturbed to which we objected to. And we objected in a rational manner, saying that we are aware that this is a sensitive issue and it would be primary in the minds of the government. However, this is not the time and place to disclose. We went to the extent of saying that this is an issue that should be brought out in the political dialogue, not here. The Manipur Government’s representative then said that they had to take the matter back to the State Government. So this went back and forth over this trivial matter. Well, I admit that we have come round to a point, despite all the odds. That’s the point where one always finds the SoO with that factor of territorial integrity in it because without that the Government of Manipur was instable. However irrelevant and incongruous it was, it insisted. So we said that KNO can, maybe, understand that their might be certain compulsions for the State Government to insist on this. So we will accommodate that and go ahead and sign the SoO based on that document, with the territorial integrity in it, provided we reserve the right to raise our political demands when the talks begin. We handed that in writing and it was addressed to the Ministry of Home Affairs and a copy to the Government of Manipur. So the fact that they accepted that paper and the fact that they also signed and allowed us to sign means we reserve that right. It is our fundamental right to raise any issue that we want. This is a common feature in any dialogue. The delay and whole obstacle only reflect the immaturity and the insecurity of the Government of Manipur. It is embarrassing. It is very immature. Just because they have that included, it can never mean that when the dialogue begins that we cannot raise our issues”, Seilen Haokip said.
Calvin H, member of the UPF also said that the UPF signed the SoO agreements after an “assurance” from the Centre, which the Government of Manipur is also aware of. “If one wants to raise any agenda, which is under the Constitution, any citizen has the right and liberty to raise any political agenda one likes. It is not a crime”, Calvin added. Calvin also opines that if there was no mediator like the Centre, signing of the SoO would not materialise. He also said, “Confidence building would still take time for the government as well as for the groups. That would be tested in the future.” Calvin strongly asserted that despite the stand of the Government of Manipur, there is no binding clause in the Constitution that says that State boundary cannot be changed. “According to the Constitution, we have the rights to put forward a host of agendas”, Calvin added. Calvin also said that the UPF was not expecting the issue of territory to come up as early as when they were defining the ground rules. “What surprises us is that it comes up too early. We were expecting this to surface when we have the political talks. Rather it comes up in the ground rules.”
With the sticking point that could change the course of political dialogue, Calvin said, “UPF has the liberty to back off at any point of time if they feel insecure or if they felt that they are not meeting the mark that is expected of the government. That can always happen.” Seilen Haokip, on the other hand, said, “Dialogues will have to begin with the State expressing its view candidly and also the KNO doing the same with the Centre participating in it. And after having discussed the issues thoroughly, the reasons should prevail. I don’t see why KNO or the Kuki people would not get what is their due. If they don’t , then they are not living in a democracy. They are, instead, living in a totalitarian state. Since it is going to be discussed within the Constitution of India, I believed there will be a solution in dialogue.”
Both the KNO and UPF representatives regarded the signing of the SoO agreement as a significant step and felt the need to take a careful step, one at a time. With Manipur embarking on the first ever SoO with the armed groups within the State, it has, from what it has today, to prove whether it would chose to be serious in finding a lasting solution despite the many odds that would be inevitable, or whether to pull the plug to return to square one. With big stakes involved, there is an immense need for all parties involved to tread all tracks and walk the talk.