The bachelors were doing well—I complimented the two Kuki Inpi colleagues for the steady supply of tea. The laughter done, Haokip returned to business.

‘As KI our first step is to close the people’s grievances. India has a justice system. Accordingly do justice, that’s all.’

What does the government of Manipur say?

‘The Assembly seats are 20:40,’ Haokip mentioned the hills-to-plains ratio in Manipur’s Assembly. Kukis, he said, like other hill people ‘as a whole’ have been demanding autonomous councils under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution—a position repeatedly articulated by the UNC too. But the government? ‘They say “no, no, no, no, no”.’

No dilution of administrative control by Imphal. It’s a position frequently and strongly articulated by Meitei interest groups. I’m told of a meeting in Shillong at which Haokip was present, and so were representatives of United Committee Manipur and AMUCO—All Manipur United Clubs’ Organisation—two influential organisations whose motto could be said to be ‘territorial integrity of Manipur’ given the frequency of such statements at every hint of a peace deal with I-M and of course the instance of the ultimately abortive extension of the ceasefire with I-M beyond Nagaland. ‘They said: “No, no, no, no, no”.’

‘I told them: whatever tribals demand, you say “no”. Now Kukis demand Kuki state, Nagas demand Naga state … Manipur government is more or less majority command, na?’ he spoke of the Meitei overhang. ‘So, tribal alienation started. Then Kuki-Naga problem started. Beginning is negligence of state government also, initially.’

It usually is. State governments across this region have been remiss in providing governance for decades before problems erupted. Manipur has experienced it. So has Tripura. Giant Assam was once the copybook instance of how-not-to, a massive state that had administrative control over present-day Mizoram and present-day Meghalaya until they were hived off as separate administrative entities—and by then, rebellion and ethnic unrest had spilled over into bloodletting. I have always maintained that, rebellions in the Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao regions of Assam were targeted against the apathy of Assam’s government, not the government of India. Similarly, in the northern part of West Bengal, the Kamtapuri agitation and the explosive Gorkha political movement in the Darjeeling hills were first a reaction to poor governance by West Bengal than poor governance by India. Entire states in India have been born as a result of this sort of federal snafu: Jharkhand from Bihar, Chhattisgarh from Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh. And there will certainly be more.

It was a mix of a deliberate lack of development, myopic administration, arrogant administration, and an ineffective criminal justice system that repeatedly spawned unrest and anger in Northeast India as much as it has spawned and perpetuated, say, the Maoist rebellion in central, eastern and southern India. It’s what Ajai Sahni, a New Delhi-based security analyst with one of the sharpest minds in the business, liked to term ‘privileging violence’.

From a localised unrest, matters have so often escalated when people took to arms. And, just like that, the matter graduates from a local issue to taking to arms against the Republic of India. From complaining against a state, to becoming an enemy of the State.

In the context of my conversation with Haokip, there was also the matter of Myanmar besides dealing with the governments of Manipur and India. The Kuki people, like the Naga, have people across the border in quite large numbers; indigenous to that area and separated by lines drawn by the colonial British. But that’s a near-impossibility at present, I suggested. No country in the region is about to permit a hiving away of territory for an integrated ethnic homeland. Not in the foreseeable future anyway.

‘India and Burma, they (will) never agree,’ Haokip readily agreed. Then he added with a laugh, ‘It’s not impossible also.’

Indeed. Maps change. South Asia’s map has changed since 1947 to create India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Maps within these countries have changed to create new provinces, states and districts. Border maps are under constant negotiation and occasional conflict for control, variously between India and China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. India absorbed independent Sikkim in 1975. China eyes parts of Bhutan.

I was nudged into such reflection not too long before this conversation with Haokip, during an extended online conversation with the readers of the ‘Northeast’-focused journal thethumbprintmag.com.

A social-sector professional and activist from Assam, Banamallika Choudhury, had prodded me with her observation. ‘Apart from the state, many Indians too—although they have never been here or do not know much about it—carry a proprietorial feeling towards the Northeast,’ she suggested. ‘A mutual separation followed by a mature neighbourly relationship seems out of the question, and concept.’

What you say is largely true, I had replied. And that is a major part of the problem: both the establishment and many even seemingly progressive Indians accept this Livingstonian construct as far as Northeast India—indeed, any part of what is declared and claimed as India—is concerned. To them, India’s integrity is non-negotiable.

I have for long held a different view. India’s integrity is not about being watertight with a map, a paranoid ‘barbarians at the gate’ approach, but about India’s integrity being morally sound and politically sound—as it should be in a democracy.

India became what it is on account of a highly contentious Partition, with several ‘princely states’ and ethnic groups choosing to, or not—or compelled—to be a part of the Indian Union. If a people wished for autonomy then and wish for such a thing now, then it is incumbent upon India to hear them out and work out a practicable solution rather than destroy people and their legitimate criticism and aspiration back to the Stone Age.

Excerpted with the permission of Simon & Schuster India from The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East by Sudeep Chakravarti

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