The accord, whatever its substance, has further burnished the perception that the BJP-led NDA government is a government that gets things done, particularly in the northeast
These are exciting, if anxious, times for anyone interested in the history and politics of India’s northeast region.
Last week, the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) announced they had come to an ‘historic’ agreement on the Naga issue. We were even treated to a televised accord signing ceremony.
But what exactly have the two sides agreed to? More than a week has passed and we are none the wiser. What we know now, through selected leaks, is that the most contentious and crucial demand of the NSCN (I-M), i.e. political integration of Naga-dominated areas in the northeast, is not a part of the accord. The sovereignty issue was discarded a long time ago. As for what’s in the accord, we may have to wait till the agreement is placed before Parliament, as the government has promised to do. However, the fact that the NSCN(I-M) has agreed to formally end its armed insurgency and come to a compromise agreement with the government is itself very significant.
The accord, whatever its substance, has further burnished the perception that the BJP-led NDA government is a government that gets things done: while the BJP is a party of action, the Indian National Congress (INC) is a party of the status quo, at least in matters concerning the northeast.
This perception is not without basis. On matters concerning the northeast – which is usually seen through the prism of ‘national security’ – the INC has always seemed undecided, always second-guessing every option. Take the case of the Armed Forces (Special Powers)Act. The BJP’s position in support of AFSPA is well known, and nobody expected it to do anything about the Act. However, the ambivalence of the Congress-led UPA government on the issue is telling. It was convinced that AFSPA needed to be either repealed or amended. Toward this end, the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee was set up. The committee recommended the Act be repealed but the government didn’t have the stomach for this. P. Chidambaram, who was home minister in the UPA government, has since confirmed that while he was in favour of repeal and pushed for it, the government ultimately dared not overrule the objections of the army.
On the Naga issue, it was, indeed, the Congress-led government under PV Narasimha Rao that first decided to search for a political solution through talks. There soon emerged a consensus amongst all the major parties on this. But, it was the BJP-led Vajpayee government that was willing to recognised, in a written declaration, the ‘uniqueness’ of Naga history and situation. Of course, it was also this government that took the decision – which proved untenable and politically costly in the wider region – to extend the ceasefire ‘without territorial limits’. Throughout UPA-I and UPA-II, NSCN(I-M) leaders fretted and fumed about the lack of leadership in the government, and how they wished a ‘statesman’ like Vajpayee come back to power. Now the Modi government, in a little more than a year, has produced an accord. Even if it is just a ‘framework’, with a lot of details still to be filled in, the BJP certainly has some bragging rights.
The dramatic manner in which the accord came about is also telling. News reports say that only four people – the Prime Minister, the National Security Advisor, the official interlocutor R.N. Ravi, and the Home Minister – had advance knowledge of the accord. The home ministry bureaucrats and the army were apparently kept in the dark. Modi himself said that his office directly oversaw the final stretch of the talks process. For some people, this is yet another sign of the centralising nature of Modi. May be it is. But it is also marks the welcome reassertion of the civilian executive vis-a-vis the national security establishment in matters of the northeast. In any case, the issues and the compromises necessary have long been well known, so it is disingenuous to say that more consultations are necessary.
Will the Naga accord help the BJP in terms of electoral politics? It is important to note that the BJP has been seen as a Hindu party in the hill states of the northeast, some of which are predominantly Christian. In the 2014 general elections, while the Modi-led BJP wave swept through mainland India, the northeast remained an outlier to this national trend. Out of the eight northeastern states, including Sikkim, the BJP managed to make its presence felt only in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In Assam, which has 14 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP won seven seats while the INC got only three. In 2009, it was the INC that won seven and the BJP four. In Arunachal Pradesh, the BJP wrested one seat (out of two) from the INC, which had won both seats in 2009. In Nagaland, the Naga Peoples Front (NPF), which has an alliance with the BJP, retained the only seat. The party failed to make its mark in the other five states.
There are many reasons for this. The BJP’s Hindu character is certainly one. To the tribal Christians of northeast India, the BJP’s pet themes like ban on cow slaughter, its emphasis on Hindi, uniform civil code, etc. are anathema. The recent attacks on minority religious institutions and the general ascendancy of Hindu right groups make them worry about religious freedom. Also, the BJP has never had committed cadres and grassroot organisations in the region to match that of the Congress. The northeast has never been the BJP’s priority.
In places like Manipur valley, the Indo-Naga talks have cast a dark shadow. It is significant that in the summer of 2001, when Manipur valley was in turmoil over the Central government’s ill-fated decision to extend its ceasefire agreement with the NSCN(I-M) without territorial limits, the BJP had 26 MLAs in a 60-seat assembly. In the assembly election held the next year, 2002, the BJP’s tally came down to four seats and in the last two assembly elections, in 2007 and 2012, the party drew a blank even as the Congress further consolidated its gains, both in the valley and hills.
The latest Naga accord will further cement the Manipur valley’s hostility towards the BJP. But in the hill areas, things may change. The hill-valley divide is deep. While the valley is consumed by fear of the nameless outsider which presently expresses itself through the agitation for the Inner Line Permit system, the hills are in fear of being overwhelmed by the valley Meiteis. As the INC-led government in the state and the party itself come to be seen as representing Meitei interests, the hill tribals are on the lookout for a party sympathetic to their concerns.
Sixth Schedule as way forward
While the politics of the Naga dominated districts is generally aligned with the greater Naga movement, politics in the Zomi-Kuki areas is controlled by two underground groupings, i.e. the United Peoples Front (UPF) and Kuki National Organization (KNO), both of which have had a Suspension of Operations arrangement with the Indian army since around 2005. They are demanding an ‘Autonomous Hill State’ and a full-fledged Kuki state respectively and anxiously waiting for political talks with the Indian government. With no talks on the horizon, they have become increasingly frustrated with the state government and the INC generally. Their anxiety is heightened by the present accord which will likely contain something about the Naga areas in Manipur. What will become of the Zomi-Kuki areas, they ask.
Under the circumstances, the longstanding demand for the provisions of the Constitution’s Sixth Schedule be implemented in the tribal areas of Manipur is expected to escalate in the coming days. The Sixth Schedule is titled ‘Provisions as to the Administration of Tribal Areas in the States of Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram’ and envisions the creations of districts and regions within these states that can enjoy a measure of administrative autonomy on certain subjects.
Between the Meitei stand against dilution of Manipur’s territorial unity and the hill tribals’ insecurity, the Sixth Schedule seems to offer the best compromise for both sides. The demand for the Sixth Schedule for Manipur Hills has a long history. As recently as September 2014, members of the six Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) in the Manipur Hills held demonstrations in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar demanding upgradation of the existing ADCs to Sixth Schedule areas. Indeed, it was on this issue that a crack opened up between the state government and the ADCs, both of which are controlled by the Congress, during the ADC elections in May-June this year.
In 2010, when ADC elections in the hills were held after a gap of 21 years, it was dominated entirely by the INC. In the last election held in June, the picture became fragmented. In Churachandpur district, which is the biggest district in Manipur dominated by the Zomi-Kuki group, most of the incumbent candidates, who were already awarded INC tickets, spurned the Congress party and contested as independents. 18 independent candidates were elected (out of a total of 24 elected seats) and 17 of them later formed the Hill Peoples Alliance (HPA). The INC managed to win only five seats while the BJP opened its account by winning one seat. In fact, while the INC was in power in all the six ADCs during the last term, the party managed to retain a majority only in the Sadar Hills ADC this time round. While HPA leader Langkhanpau Guite, who was re-elected Chairman of the Churachandpur ADC, says he endorses the demand for an Autonomous Hill State for Manipur Hills, he also recognises that the Sixth Schedule remains the most feasible way forward under the present circumstances.
Thangkhanlal Ngaihte is an independent researcher based in New Delhi