The Nagas may soon find their worst fears – fundamentalist rule, fratricidal war, the loss of traditional ways of life and the plundering of natural resources – confirmed.
Kohima: ‘Kuknalim‘, or ‘victory to the land’, is a greeting that has been long associated with the Naga freedom struggle. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the sensitive border state of Nagaland to inaugurate the Hornbill Festival in December 2014, he ended his speech with a resounding triple invocation of ‘kuknalim’, surprising and impressing his audience. Much to their bemusement, it was Nagaland’s chief minister, T.R. Zeliang, who ended his speech with ‘jai Hind’ (‘victory to India’).
What did the Naga public make of this surprising turn of events?
“Modi’s incorporation of ‘kuknalim’ did not imply respect for the Naga struggle. It meant ‘we will neutralise you,'” observed one perceptive Naga.
A recent month-long trip across Nagaland revealed a state preparing for a fast approaching storm. The Nagas may soon find their worst fears – about what the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isaac Muivah, or NSCN-IM, have in store for them – confirmed.
The August 2015 ‘Naga Peace Accord’ (subsequently rephrased as the ‘Framework Accord’), as well as the move towards a settlement between the NSCN-IM, the most powerful Naga insurgent faction, and the Modi government, have comprised an important starting point to the talks that have been dragging on since 1997, without any solution in sight. These talks presented a historic opportunity for India to engage with the people of the Northeast as a whole. This is necessary because a piecemeal solution addressing one or the other section of the population cannot be lasting, since the problems of the region are manifold and interrelated.
A manipulation of the truth
Over the past decade, however, the Naga public, through its organisations, has made it clear that although the NSCN-IM is the dominant faction and is leading the talks on its behalf, it has to represent a consensus between the different Naga factions and civil society, in order to be taken seriously. This has not yet been achieved. Naga civil society leaders in Kohima say that the NSCN-IM holds “consultations” without revealing any details, gets people to sign their names and then goes to Delhi claiming they have the mandate of the Naga people. This is a manipulation of the truth, they say.
Ignoring civil society’s demand to be consulted on the terms of settlement, the Centre and the NSCN-IM went ahead to secretively design the Framework Accord, which was signed in the presence of Modi. In May 2016, the contents of this accord were leaked and appeared in the national media. Many within Naga civil society view this as an NSCN-IM bid at ‘kite flying’ to gauge the strength of the Naga public’s responsiveness.
The leaked contents of the accord have nevertheless alarmed civil society groups to such an extent that, despite facing the barrel of the NSCN-IM’s ‘silencing guns’, they are now rallying the public to seek urgent clarification on the questions that have been raised.
On May 18, at a public meeting in Dimapur, the Naga Tribal Council (NTC) and the Naga Gaon Bura Federation (NGBF) came together to demand that the NSCN-IM divulge the terms of the accord and take their views into consideration. Its declaration warned: “[a]nother political blunder [reference to the Shillong Accord of 1975] leading to bloodshed cannot be tolerated by the Nagas”.
The accord indicates a serious paradigm shift from democracy to communist, fundamentalist rule, civil society leaders say. “It’s hard to decide whether the terms of this accord are inspired by Maoist China or RSS [Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh] headquarters in Nagpur,” observed a youth leader from Kohima village.
According to the leaked version of the accord, first published by senior journalist Bharat Bhushan, Naga law, which has been defined by the NSCN-IM as the ‘Naga constitution’ or ‘Yezhabo’, is to be incorporated into the Indian constitution.
But what is this Yezhabo? Who has written it and whose mandate does it hold?
Naga leaders ask if the NSCN-IM’s Maoist China-inspired Yehzabo can indeed be the ‘Naga constitution’ and be incorporated into the Indian constitution, which is committed to a democratic ethos.
Until recently, few Nagas had read the Yehzabo. A close study of it reveals ideas that appear in the Framework Accord. Most Nagas, especially in rural areas, are unaware of its serious implications, says Kohima-based, retired IAS officer Khekiye Sema.
The Yehzabo speaks of a “one-party-one-government system” in which “the National Socialist Council of Nagaland is the only authentic National Council and the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland its legitimate government.” This means that India’s systems of multi-party elections and democratic administration will not be practiced in Nagaland and all candidates standing for elections will do so only under the NSCN-IM flag.
The accord seeks to reduce Nagaland to a mere ‘Autonomous District Council’ (ADC), which would make it equal to the Naga-inhabited ADCs in Manipur (where they already exist), Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. These ADCs will be controlled by a Pan Naga Hoho (the Yehzabo does not specify how this body will be elected or be truly representative), who will in turn nominate an apex body of top leaders. Sema said: “Why would the Naga[s] of Nagaland give up the gains of statehood and settle to be part of an ADC? Past negotiations had offered them a far higher status.”
In Nagaland, there is widespread fear of one Naga group asserting itself over the others. The recent declaration of the Nagaland governor Padmanabha Acharya (an RSS functionary), that 4,000 of the NSCN-IM’s cadres will be incorporated into the armed security forces as soon as the accord is implemented, has caused alarm.
The Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur dominate the NSCN-IM cadres. The Naga public leaders ask who will control this force – the NSCN-IM or the Indian army. If under NSCN-IM command, numerous factions will undoubtedly rebel. The NSCN-IM will declare these rebels ‘anti-nationals’ who must surrender or be wiped out. This would yet again plunge Naga society into fratricidal war, with civilians caught in the crossfire.
Incidentally, the Yehzabo specifies that the council president or chairman who heads the government will appoint the chief justice and justices of its own supreme court (which will be the highest court of appeal and whose many functions will include deciding cases of ‘high treason’). This head will also appoint a chief election commissioner and army chief.
The Yehzabo also declares: “No region will be allowed to secede from the nation.” This is a pointed reference to the eastern Mon, Tuensang and Kiphire districts, which are determined to pursue their own destinies distinct from those of the western districts and have withdrawn from the Naga Hoho, the Naga Students’ Federation and other such institutions.
The proposal that promises to be the most devastating is that land, forests, resources and property will be ‘nationalised’. This effectively nullifies traditional customary rights, which are protected under Article 371A of the Indian constitution and were enacted with Nagaland’s creation. This constitutional provision, not applicable to any other region of India, ensures that all land, forests and natural resources in Nagaland belong to Naga individuals and communities. (Government-owned land is limited to that which has been acquired through the payment of compensation.) This unique land ownership pattern has ensured the survival of Nagaland’s rich biodiversity and natural forests. Nationalisation will mean the NSCN-IM and the Centre will partner to explore and exploit Nagaland’s rich oil, mineral and bio-diversity resources.
While warning of the consequences of traditional rights being lost, the NTC and NGBF said that “Naga customary law and traditions”, on which Article 371A is “founded”, are “the outcome of our forefathers’ rich cultural legacies, which were carried on without wavering”.
Meanwhile, in an extraordinary move since November 2015, the 60-member Nagaland state legislative assembly now has nobody sitting on its opposition benches. All members of the opposition Congress have joined the ruling party. The Naga People’s Front (NPF) has declared its collective resignation to make way for an NSCN-IM government once the accord is sealed.
“This is a very serious paradigm shift that will forever change the face of freedom and democracy in Nagaland,” said Sema.
He further questioned: “Have our elected representatives taken the consent of the people and have they thought about this abnormal proposal to replace democracy with communism? While the signing of the Mizo Peace Accord saw an interim government headed by the Mizo National Front leader Lal Denga and the then ruling Congress chief minister Lal Thanhawla stepping aside to facilitate this process, it was still under India’s democratic electoral process. How will the multi-party election process be held under such an accord? Can India allow such a constitution as defined by the NSCN-IM?”
In an article in a local Nagaland newspaper, Naga Congress leader and the current governor of Odisha, S. C. Jamir, states that it would be impossible to incorporate the NSCN-IM’s accord based on the NSCN-IM’s constitution into the existing Indian constitution, which is committed to a democratic ethos.
While both the NSCN-IM and the Centre have said that Naga sovereignty and the integration of Naga-inhabited areas were not discussed, the accord will nevertheless have far-reaching implications for India and its democratic constitution. Modi, who was present at the signing of the accord, will need to clarify these issues, say Naga public leaders.
Meanwhile, developments at ground level in Nagaland reveal that the ‘neutralisation’ of the Naga people has already begun. Privately-owned land is being sold to the government and corporates, as has happened through the building of highways through rich rainforests and a railhead at Zubza, in the Angami tribal area of Kohima district, explorations for oil and natural gas in the Lotha area of Wokha district and coal mining in the Konyak area of Mon district. Signs of the lure of undreamt-of cash and the promise of the latest cars, luxurious homes and lifestyle of the powerful are all too evident in Naga urban areas.
Even in Khonoma village, the heartland of the Naga struggle for independence and the birthplace of Angami Zapu Phizo, ‘development’ threatens precious natural resources and ways of life. An elderly man explained how the village has readily given up a portion of its community land, free of charge, for a highway to cut through a precious biosphere reserve. “How can we stop the highways or prevent development?” he asked.