The signing of the agreement between the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), or the NSCN-IM, and the Central government had all the drama of a reconciliation ceremony. But the details remain shrouded in secrecy. There appears to be much less to it than meets the eye. The ceremony had the telltale signs of a pseudo-event. Pseudo-events are occurrences designed to generate press coverage. Their relationship to reality is uncertain. But it is their inherent ambiguity that explains public interest in them.
Ambiguity has marked all official pronouncements about the ceremony. The Press Information Bureau headlined it as the prime minister having witnessed the signing of a “historic peace accord.” However, it referred to it later as a “framework agreement”. The news took key stakeholders by surprise. Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh of Manipur said that he did not know what the agreement says and reiterated his government’s position that it will not accept any accord that disturbs Manipur’s territorial integrity. The demand for the integration of all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas has been a highly contentious subject, nowhere more so than in Manipur. But the protracted Assam-Nagaland border dispute is also part of the same faultline.
The structural flaws in the design of the Naga peace process have been obvious for a while. The format — bilateral and secret meetings between NSCN-IM leaders and the government’s interlocutor — leaves out critical stakeholders. It is unlikely to produce a durable settlement.
NSCN-IM leaders have said from time to time that they are not asking for greater or smaller Nagaland, but only for the integration of areas where Nagas live. The formulation is clever, but it does not resolve the fundamental contradiction. The Central government is expected to make territorial concessions that evoke intense emotions in neighbouring states over the heads of popularly elected state governments.
However, there has been significant movement in this area in the course of the negotiations. Public statements that both parties recognise each other’s “compulsions” and talk of a solution that accepts “contemporary realities” point in that direction.
But the structural flaw of the peace process becomes painfully apparent in what an unnamed official source told The Hindu about the procedures that will be followed. Apparently, the interlocutor to the Naga talks will prepare a draft note for the home ministry. The views of relevant Central government ministries and state governments will be elicited. Following that exercise, a draft bill will be presented to the Central cabinet. Once the cabinet approves it, the bill will be submitted to Parliament. Whatever the merits of these procedures, they raise serious questions about the meaning of the ceremony.
Of course, the design of the process is not of this government’s own making. Key elements have been in place for a long time. Negotiating with leaders of particular insurgent groups and marginalising their rivals has been a key element of the Indian approach to conflict management in the region. It is difficult to alter the design of any peace process once it is set on a particular course. It becomes path-dependent — past decisions constrain options. It may have been obvious that negotiations that leave out neighbouring states carry significant risks. But it has been hard even to think of these states as stakeholders. What then justifies the optimism displayed by the NSCN-IM leaders and the government?
The government seems to be counting on potential shifts in the public mood in Manipur and Assam as a result of a number of major decisions it is considering, not all of them directly connected to the Naga issue. In Assam, conceding to the longstanding demand of six communities for ST status would mean a radical increase in the number of reserved seats in the state assembly. It would impact Assam’s parliamentary representation as well. But it will have an adverse impact on significant communities. The process of updating the National Register of Citizens is also likely to satisfy key constituencies. Significantly, these two issues now feature in the dialogue between the Centre and the pro-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA). However, it is too soon to say whether all of this would make the potential effects of the agreed terms of the Naga settlement on the disputed Assam-Nagaland border more acceptable in Assam.
Some version of an alternative arrangement for the Nagas of Manipur — perhaps the creation of autonomous councils — is clearly under consideration. But the crucial issue is the umbrella under which it gets linked to the Nagas of Nagaland. Even if it is only a symbolic gesture, it is far from obvious that it would be acceptable to Manipuris — Nagas and non-Nagas alike.
However, what happens to the issue of the Inner Line Permit in Manipur will be very significant. Even a partial acceptance of this demand would mean that, for the first time since the late 19th century, a colonial-era institution would be extended to a new region. It would undoubtedly soothe Manipuri public opinion. But will it really prepare the ground for the acceptance of an otherwise unpopular Naga accord?
Acceptance of the agreement by the Naga public in general is also far from certain. The NSCN-IM leaders sitting as equals with India’s PM and the country’s top political leadership was an important symbolic gesture. So were some of the PM’s words. But are the agreement’s provisions substantive enough for the Nagas to justify the sacrifices they made during their long struggle for independence? These are significant hurdles yet to be crossed.
What then accounts for the timing of the signing ceremony? Many rumours are making their rounds. However, one piece of speculation seems most plausible. The poor health of Isak Chisi Swu — one of the two Naga leaders negotiating with the government — may have prompted the decision to hold the ceremony. It is feared that if Swu does not survive, rumours that he may not have been a party to the agreement would fatally undermine it. But was this a good reason for the PM to tell the world that “a historic peace accord” has already been signed?
The writer is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York