Written by Sandeep Pandey, Babloo Loitongbam and Meera Sanghamitra
Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) told a group of civil society representatives, including two of the authors of this article, who met him at Camp Hebron on September 27, that Nagaland may be weaker in a material sense but it is strong politically. The NSCN-IM, which started as an insurgent group, could engage the government of India in dialogue for 22 years after a ceasefire agreement in 1997; Muivah headed the parallel government established by the NSCN as the Ato Kilonser or prime minister. Even though the Narendra Modi government has removed the limited autonomy enjoyed by the people of Jammu and Kashmir, Muivah continues to keep alive his vision of a shared sovereignty and peaceful co-existence that guided the agreement signed on August 3, 2015 in the presence of PM Modi. Muivah has good reasons to be hopeful.
Unlike J&K, no instrument of accession was signed by the then popular Naga rebel leader, Angami Zapu Phizo, with the GoI when the British left the subcontinent in 1947. Nagaland was first made a part of Assam by the British and then by independent India. The Nagas resisted both times, never surrendered and still believe that the ongoing dialogue will result in a political solution. Muivah asserts that Nagaland has never been under foreign rule, either by consent or conquest. The Nagas had told the British that their fate should not be tied to the fate of independent India.
However, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent an army into Nagaland, though Mahatma Gandhi had promised the Nagas that they will not be integrated into India by force. According to Muivah, Nehru never respected the Nagas. It was only much later when P V Narasimha Rao met with Isak and Muivah in Paris, that he agreed on a dialogue to be held without pre-conditions at the highest levels, outside India. Subsequently, then Indian PM Deve Gowda met Isak Chisi Swu and Muivah in Bangkok. He wanted the Nagas to accept the Indian Constitution, which was not agreeable to them, and Muivah suggested that the two parties should go their separate ways. Two years later, the government of India admitted that Nagas were never formally under Indian rule and a unique solution to their problem was required. It was only after this that the concept of shared sovereignty was floated. After talks with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Amsterdam, the NSCN (IM) leadership decided to move back to India and continue the process of dialogue with the Manmohan Singh government.
The Modi government declared that an agreement had been reached with the NSCN (IM) leadership only to encounter the roadblock of a demand for a separate constitution and flag for Nagaland. Having taken away the constitution of J&K — which mentioned that J&K was an integral part of India — and its flag as part of its One Nation, One Constitution narrative, the BJP-led government is in a bind with respect to the Naga demand for a separate constitution and flag.
The response of the interlocutor in the dialogue process, now the Nagaland governor, R N Ravi, has been to bring on board another stakeholder since 2017 — Naga National Political Groups, a conglomerate of seven organisations, in an attempt to counterbalance the NSCN (IM). But he should know that if the NSCN (IM) is cold-shouldered, the chances are that it will slip back into insurgency. The NSCN (Khaplang), presently dormant in Myanmar, may also get reactivated.
The government should not rush into a solution by declaring deadlines to ensnare itself. It should patiently involve all stakeholders from within and outside the state of Nagaland without marginalising the NSCN (IM), and work towards a solution through a peaceful dialogue process that satisfies all. The NSCN (IM) must acknowledge that even though it may have been the only force to reckon with in the beginning, now there are others whose sensitivities will have to be kept in mind. For example, Kukis, another tribe engaged in fierce tussle with the Nagas in the Manipur hills, are unlikely to accept Naga dominance over their areas. L Kipgen, president of an organisation of Thodous, a Kuki community, has expressed his apprehension to the interlocutor for Indo-Kuki talks.
While it is likely that groups within and outside Nagaland are being projected at this time by the government to blunt the edge of the demands made by the NSCN (IM), it is also a fact that societies like Manipur are ethnically plural. These have withstood the test of time for millennia. They are unlikely to acquiesce to any arrangement that requires them to part with their resources and polity. The government and the NSCN (IM) must be completely transparent in their approach and must take into confidence all genuine political formations, civil society and ethnic groups.
There was a time when Naga leaders were impatient and wanted to go back to Europe leaving the dialogue process open-ended. Now, the government seems to be in some kind of urgency. The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation of self-congratulatory grandiosity in deciding the fate of Nagaland without proper consultations. If the fragile ethnic balance of the region — which has a history of violence — is not handled sensitively, it can potentially lead to an ethnic implosion.
Pandey and Sanghamitra are with the National Alliance of People’s Movements. Loitongbam is a Manipur-based human rights worker
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines