An official report from New Delhi, announced on national TV channels as well as on the Press Information Bureau website, said a historic peace accord has been concluded between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) and the Union Government this afternoon, bringing to a happy conclusion 18 years of negotiations and more than 60 years of violent insurrection by the Nagas against the Indian state.
It is too early to comment or presume foreknowledge of what might come about next. It would also be absurd to either celebrate or condemn the agreement for no details of the agreement have as yet been revealed. The PIB website simply says this will be made known in a few days. Until then, everything will be just speculation, and there will be plenty, some of it informed and some, quite frankly, wild.
But as an editorial in the Imphal Free Press anticipated a day ahead of the accord, something of the nature of a compromise was becoming all too imminent. The NSCN (IM)’s top leadership is getting far too old and this would have brought in some sense of urgency on either side of the negotiating table to bring the contentious Naga issue to a close as quickly as possible. The fact that one of the two top leaders of the organisation, Isak Chishi Swu, is critically ill, would have driven this urgency to a point of desperation.
While we await the details of the accord, let us try and assess what the contents of the agreement might be by piecing together information already available and from knowledge of some of the relevant chapters of the Naga struggle.
From the indication given in Monday’s function at the Prime Minister’s residence, it does appear as if the two main planks of the Naga struggle – that of sovereignty and integration of what are claimed to be Naga areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar with Nagaland – have been abandoned. It also appears that the major concession the NSCN negotiators managed was in having the Government of India agree to acknowledge Naga history as unique, and some more allowance in administrative autonomy for the Nagas in determining their future within the broad confines of the Indian Constitution. If this picture is true, what then would be the likely problems ahead for those who fashioned the accord, and those who would be covered by the purview of the accord?
What is most likely to have been agreed upon is a watered down versions of Naga sovereignty and Naga integration. It remains to be seen if these will be acceptable to the neighbouring states, on the one hand, and more importantly to the larger Naga public. Indeed, it must have been a very fine balancing act that the negotiators must have had to go through. For they must have been aware all along that they can end up damned from either side of the divide for diluting these two questions too much or too little.
The question of sovereignty might, for instance, have been interpreted as the Nagaland government and/or Naga companies being made stakeholders in mineral resource extraction undertakings in Naga territories, which would include oil, of which Nagaland’s Wokha district is now known to have a major deposit. Sovereignty could also have been watered down to mean more autonomy under the Indian Constitution, as for instance 6th Schedule type grassroots governance models, especially for Nagas in Manipur, since Nagaland – as a separate state of the Indian Union – already has considerable autonomy in self-governance.
Assuming these are indeed the main contours of the agreement, what would be the problems ahead? Probably the dissenting voices from states neighbouring Nagaland would be manageable if not negligible, for their territories would be untouched. In Manipur, the autonomy model can come up for some serious criticism, but this should not be beyond negotiation if autonomy concessions, including on the Inner Line Permit System, are made for the non-reserved, non-tribal districts as well. The bigger problem in such a scenario foreseeable would be from Nagaland, particularly if today’s accord offers to the Nagas nothing substantially more than what the Shillong Accord of 1975 promised.
It may be recalled that Isak and Muivah had rejected the Shillong Accord, calling it a betrayal and opted to continue the Naga struggle for sovereignty under the banner of the NSCN. Under the circumstances, the difficult question the NSCN (IM) will be left to answer is what the need was for 40 years of suffering for the Nagas if all that is now presented as achievements is not much more what was laid out in the 1975 accord.
The other likely problem is if the present accord is mostly about concessions for the Nagas in Manipur – in terms of autonomous administrative models – the Nagas of Nagaland many resent the fact that they were dragged into four decades of turmoil for what in the end has turned out to be a deal that mostly benefits the Nagas of Manipur.
This is, however, only speculation, and things could turn out to be very different from the picture imagined aloud here. All one can do, then, is to wait and see what the exact contents of the agreement turn out to be.
Pradip Phanjoubam is editor of the Imphal Free Press.