(Written by Mahendra L Kumawat and Vinay Kaura)
More than three years ago, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced with much fanfare the signing of a historic framework agreement to end the Naga insurgency, which is often termed as the mother of all insurgencies in India. However, with just four months left to complete the term of the government, the peace accord remains a work in progress with virtually no hope of it being finalised. The leading civil society group in Nagaland, Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), is reported to be unsure of a breakthrough. In all probability, the accord is likely to become a damp squib.
The 2015 agreement was signed between the Centre and the Naga groups led by National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) after the latter agreed to give up its long-standing demand for sovereignty. There was a broad understanding on a settlement within the Indian constitutional framework, with due regard to the uniqueness of Naga history and tradition.
Maoist guerrilla leaders Isak Chisi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and S S Khaplang had created the NSCN in 1980 to oppose the decision of the Naga National Council (NNC) to accept the Indian Constitution — the 1975 Shillong Accord was signed by Angami Zapu Phizo-led NNC. After differences between the top leaders, the group split into the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K, which have been accusing each other of undermining Naga interests. After Phizo’s death in 1991, the NSCN-IM came to be recognised as the dominant voice of Naga assertion.
In 1997, the NSCN-IM agreed to a ceasefire which led to the start of almost two decades of peace talks with the Indian government. The process, however, hit a roadblock when the group insisted on a separate flag as well as the inclusion of all Naga-inhabited areas in one administrative apparatus. After many twists and turns, the framework agreement was signed in August 2015. According to some reliable accounts, it was Swu’s sudden worsening of health that prompted the Modi government to sign a hastily drawn up framework as he desired this to become his legacy. Many details of the agreement continue to remain shrouded in mystery.
In the NSCN-IM’s scheme of things, “Greater Nagalim” consists of present Nagaland and all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas, which includes many districts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, and most interestingly, a part of neighbouring Myanmar. While the area of Nagaland is approximately 16,500 sq km, the geographical spread of “Greater Nagalim” is sprawled over 1,20,000 sq km, evoking apprehensions and resentment among people of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal due to threat to the territorial integrity of their states.
In February 2018, the Centre interlocutor for the Naga talks, R N Ravi had assured that “Naga peace agreement is yet to be finalised and it will not compromise the territorial integrity of any state”. However, the Modi government informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee in July that some special arrangement would be made for the Nagas. In a recent submission before a Standing Committee of Parliament, Ravi observed that it was implied in the agreement that “some special arrangement” would be made for the Nagas.
One is left wondering about the contours of the “special arrangement”. Any casual visitor to Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur can without much difficulty observe the unique way in which the NSCN-IM has been asserting Naga “independence” without legitimately gaining “sovereignty” for the Naga people. An unwritten truce exists between the Nagaland government and the NSCN-IM. Extortion by insurgent groups has been a way of life for people living in India’s north-eastern states, particularly in Nagaland. It is an open secret that all separatist outfits run their own parallel governments and collect extortion money — sometimes more than 20 per cent of the annual income — from individuals, businesses, government departments and employees. While non-Nagas are heavily taxed, the Nagas themselves are not spared. Payment of this so-called “tax” to armed Naga groups can only ensure safety. Of course, this kind of “special arrangement” can satisfy neither the Indian government nor the Naga people.
Referring to the intricacies involved in the demand for a “Greater Nagalim”, which will need to be addressed in the final Naga Accord, the Indian Army chief, Bipin Rawat, has recently argued that “the resolution of Naga insurgency can be a forerunner to the Manipur insurgency situation. There are some linkages between the two. But, if that resolution does not satisfy Manipuris then the insurgency in that state will take a different turn.” The total area of Manipur is around 22,300 sq km, whereas the area claimed by Nagas is more than 15,500 sq km. The talk of special arrangement has thus added to frequent tensions in parts of Manipur, giving an opportunity to many militant groups to spread their vicious and violent propaganda against the Indian State.
There are many interpretations to “special arrangement” implied in the 2015 agreement, particularly on how the shared sovereignty will be exercised. But this has only added to the confusion. In his latest book, Strangers No More, Sanjoy Hazarika mentions: “What has been left unsettled is the explosive and interminable issue of garnering land from other states — which no government in Manipur, Assam or Arunachal Pradesh can part with at the risk of inviting public wrath and political denouncement.”
Issues of Naga symbols, in particular, a separate flag, have always been complicating factors in the peace process. Another problem with the final accord revolves around the Naga “customary law” which is not codified. Since it is a tradition and not a law, each Naga tribe disputes the capacity of the other to frame the law. This conundrum was clearly manifested when the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) recently agreed to discuss the demands of the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) to create a separate state. ENPO has been demanding a “Frontier Nagaland” consisting of the four eastern districts of Tuensang, Mon, Longleng and Kiphire. How will this demand affect the “Greater Nagalim”? Will the Nagaland government agree to give ENPO an autonomous council authority? There are more questions than answers.
Lasting peace in the Northeast is not possible without resolving the Naga insurgency, which had also lent some form of support to other disaffected elements in the region from time to time. However, given the complexities involved, there is no easy solution. In other words, any pronouncement about the Naga accord needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
(Kumawat is former chairman, Ceasefire Monitoring Group, Nagaland and former Special Secretary, Internal Security, Ministry of Home Affairs, and Kaura is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan.)