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'Son of the Soil': Why UNLF Leader Rajkumar Meghen is Not Just Another Separatist

Sana Yaima at a camp In Myanmar (Source - Special Arrangement)

Sana Yaima at a camp In Myanmar (Source - Special Arrangement)

The descendant of legendary Manipuri king Bir Tikendrajit, who, supporters say, is being illegally detained by authorities, could be a crucial factor in influencing the peace process initiated by the government with insurgent groups in the Northeast.

Former chairman of the banned Manipur-based separatist outfit United National Liberation Front (UNLF) Rajkumar Meghen, alias Sana Yaima (son of the soil), was whisked away to Delhi by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) soon after he stepped out of jail in Guwahati more than a week ago. The move was greeted with surprise but the plan seems to have been finalised at least a couple of months in advance by the government.

Meghen, in his mid-seventies, was accompanied by his son and lawyer, M Gunedhor Singh, who later confirmed to the media that they had been taken to the national capital. The rebel chief was apprehended in Bangladesh on September 29, 2010 and later handed over to Indian authorities. He was awarded a ten-year sentence along with other senior functionaries of the outfit by a special court of the NIA for waging war against the country.

Authorities are apprehensive about the fallout of Meghen’s presence in Manipur at a time when an agreement with Naga militant outfits has been given shape by the government. He commands immense popularity in Manipur’s Imphal Valley which is already edgy over the forthcoming accord with the Nagas. NSCN(IM)’s demand of Greater Nagalim, which has been rejected by the government, had evoked sharp reactions from the states in the region that have areas inhabited by the Nagas.

This apart, sources claimed that the government would also offer the olive branch to Meghen for engaging in talks on the lines of the peace process underway with other rebel outfits in the Northeast. There are indications that the Centre does not want to drag the peace process in the region for too long and it would also like to rope in the separatist organisations that have spurned the option of a negotiated settlement.

The royal road to rebellion

Meghen is no ordinary rebel leader. He is a direct descendant of legendary king Bir Tikendrajit, who opted for a life in the jungles after completing a postgraduate course in international relations from Jadavpur University. And unlike many leaders who preferred to stay at far-off locations, away from the camps, Meghen spent most of his time in Myanmar and had also met journalists in 2005.

He trekked twice to Kachin (the northernmost state of Myanmar bordering both China and India)and in 2001, he escaped narrowly from being convicted in Myanmar when he was apprehended by the army along with other high-ranking functionaries after the UNLF procured a consignment of weapons from different sources. Top intelligence officials from New Delhi rushed to the Manipur border town Moreh, hoping that he would be handed over. But the UNLF managed to secure Meghen’s release after payment of a hefty amount to the army.

Founded in 1964, the UNLF is the second-oldest separatist organisation in the Northeast after the Naga National Council (NNC) and currently the biggest with around 3,000 cadres among all the outfits from the region based in Myanmar. UNLF is part of an alliance called Coordination Committee which has six groups from Manipur as its members and it has close ties with another coalition called the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) which was formed by NSCN(K), KLO and the anti-talks factions of ULFA and NDFB in 2015.

However, most of these organisations are on the back foot after the operations by Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) since January. The camps at Taga region were dismantled and six senior functionaries of NSCN(K) have been jailed for ‘unlawful association’ with rebel outfits from the Northeast. Many ULFA cadres have since crossed the border and surrendered to the security forces. In the prevailing circumstances, there are greater chances of the UNLF and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) surviving longer since they have established their presence in different parts of Myanmar with alternate sources of income.

Some officials say that a large number of cadres from the smaller groups could be willing to engage in talks with the government if they are given the opportunity. “There are hardliners in every group who would rather die in the jungles than opt for a settlement within the Constitution. It is the fear of these stubborn cliques that would prevent the moderates from taking any decision,” said an official. He added that Meghen’s participation in the talks would have a decisive impact in the camps across the border.

The difference in the motivational levels among the cadres is palpable with the bigger outfits from Manipur displaying a greater degree of commitment towards continuing with the campaign for independence. This is also evidenced from the profile of the cadres and leaders who had surrendered in the past couple of decades.

Will he talk?

Meghen could be a hard nut to crack for the government. Many overground militants who have met him are of the opinion that he is an uncompromising leader who would not easily be lured by the offer of talks. “I was with Sir (Meghen) for a long time in Kachin and had interacted very closely with him. His commitment and wisdom are without any parallels,” said Pranjit Saikia, who was among the 140 cadres of ULFA in the second batch to Kachin in 1988.

Years later, before he was apprehended in Bangladesh, a former Manipur governor had reportedly described the UNLF as “dissatisfied brothers” and had invited the outfit for talks. Meghen responded by reiterating the demand for holding a plebiscite in Manipur under United Nations’ supervision and declared that he would not only accept the results but also deposit the weapons to the UN.

On September 26, 2011, this correspondent interacted with the separatist leader briefly at the special court of National Investigation Agency (NIA) in Guwahati, months after he landed at the jail in the city. When asked about the possibility of talks with the government, he replied, “I am a servant of Manipur. I will never participate in talks without the consent of the people. And we have already laid down certain preconditions years ago.”

While it is likely that Meghen’s confinement in the capital would continue till the accord with the Nagas is clinched, the government's future plans with him are uncertain. He has not been rearrested and nor can he be detained for an indefinite period without specific charges.

(The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. Views expressed are personal)