The Naga peace talks are back in the headlines. The scramble started on August 17 when the interlocutor for the talks, and now governor of Nagaland, R N Ravi disclosed that the prime minister has asked him to conclude the talks in three months. “In the last five years, we have resolved all the substantive issues,” he said.
This has been the government’s position for some time. Last year, Ravi told a parliamentary committee that the framework agreement of 2015 was signed after the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak Muivah), or NSCN-IM, gave up the idea of Naga sovereignty and “agreed for a settlement within the Indian federation”. Subsequently, the NSCN-IM also came to accept that the “boundaries of any state will neither be changed nor altered”. The NSCN-IM is the body representing the Nagas in the talks. On its part, the Indian government reaffirmed its recognition of the uniqueness of Naga history. A special status on the lines of Article 371-A will be explored for Naga areas outside Nagaland.
Given this, there is nothing surprising about the prime minister getting impatient with the talks. But then, other things happened. On August 5, the Narendra Modi government abrogated the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution. This provoked anxiety in Nagaland and other northeastern states, most of which are endowed with different levels of special status under different sections of Article 371. It also emerged that the demands for a separate Naga flag and constitution — the very same things that were taken from Jammu and Kashmir — were what had stalled the talks.
The response from the NSCN-IM came through a series of aggressive statements. On September 11, the group stated that “the Nagas will not merge with the Union of India”; that they “do not accept Indian Constitution, but Nagas and Indians will share sovereign powers based on competencies”. This follows the group’s statement on August 24 that an “honourable” accord demands acceptance of the Naga national flag and constitution and that “talks sans integration of all the contiguous Naga areas will be a futile exercise”. Thousands of Nagas had sacrificed their lives for these causes and we cannot dishonour their sacrifices, Muivah said. The three-month deadline was denounced as a unilateral ultimatum.
With this, the unlikely honeymoon between the overtly Christian NSCN-IM and the Hindu BJP regime comes to an end. Should we be surprised?
It is important to remember that the two foundational, and explicit aims of the Naga movement — from Phizo to Muivah — were sovereign statehood and territorial integration. Sovereignty was claimed on the basis of prior sovereign existence and difference, which is today expressed in terms of “uniqueness”. Second, the “artificial boundaries” separating the Nagas will be dismantled and be placed under one administration.
On sovereignty, the NSCN-IM’s manifesto was categorical: “We stand for the unquestionable sovereign right of the Naga people over every inch of Nagaland whatever it may be and admit of no other existence whatever.” Yet, the goal of sovereignty was effectively given up long ago. And territorial integration also turned out to be not possible. According to Ravi, the NSCN-IM had already accepted that.
So, the NSCN-IM was left with little of substance to begin with. No amount of grand spectacle can hide this cold reality. And when the symbolic yet significant demands for a flag and constitution are not acceded to, what are they left with? The Naga side cannot simply walk away now when everyone is expecting a final solution. They had oversold their prospects and over-interpreted the government’s recognition of Naga uniqueness.
The taste of relative peace since 1997 emboldened the people and they are unlikely to be happy with renewed violence. Against the NSCN-IM’s objections, other Naga groups are asserting themselves and the government is happy to indulge them. The NSCN-IM manifesto warned that negotiations, if indispensable, should be done only from a position of strength. Today, they seem to be grasping at straws.
Muivah faces an inevitable dilemma. The uncompromising, hardline position that gave them legitimacy during the struggle returns to haunt them in the end when they realise that compromises are the only way to a solution. Ironically, it was Muivah’s former comrade-turned-enemy S S Khaplang, who had predicted this. The book, Rendezvous with Rebels, recorded Khaplang’s thoughts on the peace talks: It was a “huge mistake” that will preclude sovereignty and integration. And ultimately, “they will have to be satisfied with whatever scraps the government concedes”.
The NSCN-IM is apparently weighing its dwindling options. Modi, who has invested so much, will be ill-advised to insist on his three-month deadline and end up with a non-final agreement. The next few weeks may tell us where the road will lead.
The writer teaches political science at Churachandpur College, Manipur
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