It's time to wrap up Naga peace process

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It's time to wrap up Naga peace process

Sunday, 17 November 2019 | Makhan Saikia

It's time to wrap up Naga peace process

It is over a fortnight since the deadline, fixed by the Union Government, for the Nagaland peace pact lapsed on October 31, 2019. However amid hopes and apprehension, the good news is that the peace talks have not stopped

A fortnight has already gone by since the deadline, fixed by the Union Government,  for the Nagaland peace pact lapsed on October 31, 2019. Even as the peace talks are inconclusive, the good news is that the both sides — Union Government’s interlocutor and Nagaland Governor RN Ravi  and Naga groups, including the NSCN  factions — have not stopped negotiations for a peace pact.

The ongoing Naga peace process, which was started in 1997, turned 22 this year. It could happen only after a ceasefire agreement was signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India.

Interestingly, the Naga insurgency has its roots in 1918. Against the backdrop of the First World War, the Nagas had decided to form Naga Club to bring Naga tribes under a single umbrella. The seed for the unique identity was germinated outside India — when various members of the scattered Naga tribes, recruited in the British Labour Corps, thought of forming a group of their own. And this Club approached the Simon Commission and informed it in 1929 “to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as we did in ancient times”.

It simply indicated that the Nagas did not want to surrender themselves either to then British imperial regime in India or any future Government of India. Also it showed its desire to live as they want. All these indicate that the Nagas never wanted themselves to be subservient to any non-native “foreign” domination. This precisely demonstrates the very idea of “Naga self-determination”, alive for a century now.

Later, when the struggle for India’s independence moved towards its final stage, the Nagas under the leadership of charismatic AZ Phizo formed the Naga National Council (NNC). And eventually, the NNC declared independence for the Nagas on August 14, 1947, just one day before India achieved hers. The NNC conducted a referendum in May 1951 which it claimed to have the backing of almost 99.9 per cent of the Nagas for full independence.

On record, the peace process with the Nagas started before independence in June 1947. Then Assam Governor Sir Akbar Hydari signed a Nine Point Agreement with the moderate leaders in the NNC, but the hard-core leaders like Phizo refused to accept the agreement. Almost a year later, Phizo, not seeing any further cooperation from the Government of India, formed an underground Naga Federal Government (NFG) and the Naga Federal Army (NFA). But then the Government responded with armed power and enacted the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in1958. In July 1960, the basis of a Sixteen Point Agreement led to the creation of a separate State in the Union of India for the Nagas. This actually came into existence on December 1, 1963. Here it must be noted that the peace agreement was signed between the Naga Peace Convention, a group of moderate Naga leaders, and the Government of India. The NNC refrained from signing and agreeing to form a separate State under the Indian Union.

After the formation of the State of Nagaland, a Peace Mission was constituted in1964 to advance talks with the NNC, but this could not produce any result despite a series of six rounds of historic negotiations. Finally, the mission was cancelled in the year 1967.

 In the midst of this turmoil, the NNC split in 1975 during the heyday of the Indira regime. And the breakaway group from the NNC formed the NSCN. Unfortunately, this happened during the period of a peace deal between the Government and the NNC in Shillong. As per the Shillong Accord, the NNC leadership agreed to give up arms. But then, many of its front-line leaders, including Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and SS Khaplang did not accept the terms and conditions of the peace deal and hence they together established the NSCN in 1980. But after more than a decade of the formation of the NSCN, differences cropped up among the leaders. As a result, the NSCN broke into two factions in the year 1988, one led by Isak and Muivah, named as NSCN-IM and other led by Khaplang, known as NSCN-K.

Later on these two groups fought fiercely, even killing their own cadre and damaging the chances of coming together. In fact this schism between the NSCN factions helped different political establishments at the Centre to deal with them separately. Further, NSCN-K made its operational area mainly restricted to Arunachal Pradesh and the NSCN-IM based its activities in Nagaland and Manipur. In later years, the NSCN-IM took the centre stage and held the centre of the “Naga sovereignty” movement.

In the year 1997, the NSCN-IM leadership signed a ceasefire agreement with the Government, preceding rounds of talks since 1995. The key principle of the agreement was that there would be no counter-insurgency operations against the NSCN-IM and in turn it would not attack Indian security forces. And this truce has survived for long.

Finally, the historic Nagaland Framework Agreement, popularly known as Nagaland Peace Accord, was signed between the NSCN-IM and the Narendra Modi Government in August 2015. The accord was inked after over 80 rounds of talks between the Government and various stakeholders of the Nagaland movement. The Nagaland Peace Accord brought lots of hope to the Naga people across the region and they thought a lasting solution would soon emerge. Interestingly, in 2017, after two years of signing the Nagaland Peace Accord, other Naga armed groups joined this peace process under the banner of Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). All of them now form one single group and take part in the ongoing discussions with the Government.

The 2015 Framework Agreement says: “The Government of India recognises the unique history, culture and position of the Nagas and their sentiments and aspirations. The NSCN understood and appreciated the Indian political system and governance.”

Though details of the Nagaland Peace Accord are not available in the public domain, it has been understood that the Naga leadership has accepted the broad terms and conditions to live under the Indian Union. With this, their demand for an independent Nagaland diminishes for now.

Interesting turn in this entire saga of struggle is that the senior-most leaders of the NSCN — Isak and Khaplang — died in 2016 and 2018 respectively. This left only Muivah to deal with the Indian Government for any future negotiations.

After the demise of Isak, who was the only Naga leader from Nagaland, the support for a Greater Nagalim has gradually waned within the region.  (Khaplang was a Naga hailing from Myanmar).

However, among a few side effects of this disenchantment is the wavering commitment of the Nagas from Nagaland towards the peace process. And finally, Muivah, a Naga belonging to Manipur, might face hurdles in negotiating the last remaining details of the truce.

Today, Centre’s interlocutor and Governor of Nagaland RN Ravi, who has been handling the Naga peace process for long, says that the procrastinating attitude of the NSCN-IM is simply delaying the inking of the deal. It is because the organisation is now insisting on a separate flag and a constitution for Nagaland.

Surely, the Union Government will not accept it and the NSCN-IM may handle such controversial issues too carefully. If NSCN-IM is sidelined at this moment and other groups take the centre stage, its efforts of nearly half a century will result in fiasco.

Since the Naga issue has been regarded as the oldest insurgency in the country, it is worth noting the thorny problems that may unfold violence in the North East.

First of all, the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) are advocating a solution for the Nagas within the State of Nagaland, whereas the NSCN-IM wanted to include all the Naga-inhabited areas across the region in the Nagalim or Greater Nagaland wherein it thought their problems could be addressed.

Second critical aspect of the truce between the Nagas and the Government is the territorial issue in regard to the Greater Nagaland. As the Naga groups desire and demand to include all Naga-inhabited areas into the Greater Nagaland, it has been increasingly making some of the States such as Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur restive.

Already Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Pema Khandu has welcomed the Centre’s initiative to solve the decades-old Naga problem, but categorically stated that there will be no compromise on the territorial integrity of the State. “We are clear in our stand and we want that Naga peace process should not affect the State at any cost,” Khandu said on November 16.

Also the Union Home Ministry has assured that before any settlement is arrived at with Naga groups, all stakeholders, including the States of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will be duly consulted and their concerns will be taken into consideration. Earlier during a “lengthy discussion” with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had urged the Centre to to take into consideration the interests of the people of Assam while going for any accord.

The core issue is that a future Nagalim could redraw the boundaries of these three Naga-inhabited States. It is reported that the proposed Nagalim includes 1,20,000 sq  kilometre area which expands beyond the territorial limits of the North East into Myanmar. Even before the signing of the Framework Agreement in 2015, the Nagaland State Assembly itself endorsed the demand of the “integration of all Naga-inhabited areas on five occasions: December 1964, August 1970, September 1994, December 2003 and July 2015”. This shows how the popularly elected Nagaland Assembly is in full support of the demand for a Nagalim.

Third, though the Union Government had simply fixed October 31 this year just to conclude the Naga peace process, it completely failed to do the same. To be precise, finalising such imaginary deadlines would not help bringing various Naga groups to agree to some watertight solutions.

Already differences are emerging between the NSCN-IM and the NNPGs.

Today, the Nagas are on a roller-coaster ride. Whatever may be the outcome of the current peace process, it would certainly not satisfy all the stakeholders involved in the process, particularly, the NSCN-IM.

The Government must take maximum caution as any attempt at sidelining or ignoring the NSCN-IM may force its cadre to take up arms or may help regrouping majority of the Naga tribes in the long run. Also playing any trick to divide the leadership of the NSCN-IM may fuel anti-India sentiments once again in the Naga dominated areas across the North-Eastern region.

The moot point is whether the Government can accept the Naga demand for a separate flag and a Constitution? Is it possible to say “yes” to a shared notion of “sovereignty” as the NSCN-IM has been demanding for a long time?

Precisely, looking at the current political strength of the Union Government, Prime Minister Modi will definitely say no to both these demands. The Government has already made it clear that these demands are not acceptable.

Considering the Modi Government’s resolute decision to abrogate Article 370 — which had long guaranteed a special status, flag and a separate Constitution to the State of Jammu & Kashmir — the NSCN-IM and the NNPGs should not be too hopeful about their demand for a shared sovereignty.

However, the Union Government should take utmost caution to ensure the patience the Nagas have shown towards a amicable solution should not go in vain.

Today, most of the ultras of the region have either laid down their arms or some of them are in talks with the Government for the peaceful solution. That’s why a region which was encountering fierce violence accompanied by anti-India sentiment has witnessed relatively calm and quiet atmosphere recently. But, with globalisation and proliferation of global terrorism widening the net wide, the Government must not take any chance with the NSCN-IM and other Naga terror groups.

Much beyond external financial support and arms supply from our neighbouring countries, the global jehadi elements such as the ISIS and the al-Qaeda may pitch into such troubled spots to recreate disturbances for the country. Considering the favourable geopolitical scenario for Delhi at the moment, a global consensus to fight the menace of terrorism, and friendly neighbouring regimes on India’s eastern front, the Modi Government has an absolute advantage to deal with the NNPGs and the NSCN-IM. It’s time to wrap up the Naga peace process.

While talking about shared sovereignty for the Nagas, the NSCN-IM must remember: “Starting a revolution is like lighting a match; it risks becoming extinguished as quickly as it was lit. Sustaining a revolution, however, is like starting a fire, and ensuring that it has the fuel to burn as long as necessary. As an agent of change, I need that fire for as long as it takes for results to emerge. Otherwise, I risk burn out.” (Stephanie Van Hook).

However, the grit and determination that has been displayed by the Naga leadership is truly commendable. Succinctly, its survival for the last 100 years bears this testimony. But then a revolution to sustain for such a long duration must have to encounter its course of ups and downs. And, the Naga revolutionaries have faced a number of contradictions, both violent and non-violent in the long history of their movement.

The common people in Nagaland still hope for the best as the peace negotiation is going on. What makes sense for them today is  the promise for an  early solution even as the October 31 deadline has lapsed. Unnecessary intransigence would make the long road to freedom not only difficult but purely unattainable.

(The writer is an expert on international affairs)

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