Fifteen days ago, when Indian special forces hit insurgent camps across the border in Myanmar, there was much chest-thumping in a nation infuriated by the army’s worst-ever peacetime losses. Now, though, a more sombre mood is setting in among policymakers in New Delhi, who are seeking to protect the fragile peace in Nagaland from the most serious threat it has faced since a ceasefire went into place in 1997.
The challenge isn’t an easy one. Last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a solution to the Nagaland crisis within 18 months of taking office. A year on, there’s no consensus on either side about a power-sharing formula both can live with. In Manipur, hostility to special rights for Naga-inhabited areas, a key demand of the insurgent leadership, remains strong. And, perhaps worst of all, there’s no sign that the National Socialist Council of Nagalim’s S.S. Khaplang-led faction, which carried out the June 4 ambush, has been militarily degraded. Indeed, wary of conceding to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim Isak-Muivah faction the right to speak for all Nagas, some in Delhi are pushing the home ministry to go slow on declaring the NSCN-K a proscribed group — leaving the door open for it to walk back into the ceasefire deal it left last year.
The tentativeness that surrounds the way forward is understandable. R.N. Ravi, the prime minister’s envoy on Nagaland, has history stacked against him. None of the three major peace deals of the past stuck, with hardline spoilers soon undoing agreements with moderates. In 1947, Assam Governor Akbar Hydari signed an agreement with Naga leaders that was rejected by a new generation of ethnic nationalists. A deal with the Naga People’s Convention in 1960 went the same way. The 1975 Shillong accord, similarly, led significant sections of the Naga insurgency to surrender arms and accept India’s Constitution. But it also led hardliners Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah to break ranks and begin a fresh insurgency. Now, Delhi is talking to them — while other hardliners lurk in the wings.
From this, Delhi ought not to conclude that peace is impossible. It should, however, understand that quick-fix deals, seductive as they might be for governments and politicians, do not end insurgencies. Instead, history tells us that peacemaking needs a foundation of real democratisation and development, as well as a sustained engagement with all political actors. Nagaland’s vibrant society has become the most effective lobby for peace — mobilising on everything from extortion by insurgents, to drug use and opportunities for young people. Delhi needs to find a way to make sure these voices are represented in the dialogue, if the deal it is working towards is to prove durable.