Has Governor Ravi's Bid to Assert Control Jeopardised the Naga Peace Accord?

Public frustration over 'taxes' raised by various Naga groups has given New Delhi a handle to insist the elected state government assert its legitimacy. But the NSCN (I-M) and others are wary of what this means for them.

New Delhi: On the afternoon of June 23, a police station in Nagaland’s capital, Kohima, received a distress call from a trader. He needed help as two armed persons had arrived at his shop on the city’s Old NST Road to extort money “in the name of NSCN (K)” – the proscribed insurgent group National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang).

According to a press statement issued by the Kohima senior superintendent of police (SSP) K. Sophie later that night, the anti-extortion squad of the state police swung into action. News reports quoting the police said, “Since it was a public place with shoppers around, efforts were made to apprehend the two with the use of minimum force”.

However, while one of the men was caught, the other succumbed to a bullet injury. According to the police, he was accidentally shot while engaging in a scuffle with a police officer. The deceased, identified as 35-year-old K. I. Assumi, had served as a havildar in the Indian Army’s 164 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) before he was relieved on health grounds.

What happened before and after that incident just outside a shopping complex in the state’s capital is an illustration of how everyday life in a disturbed area is often fraught with life-threatening situations. But it is also a reflection of underlying complexities linked to the unfinished peace process in Nagaland.

On June 16, R.N. Ravi, the Nagaland governor and the interlocutor for the ongoing peace talks, wrote a three-and-a-half page letter to chief minister Neiphu Rio asserting his powers under Article 371A of the constitution, “proposing” that henceforth “important law and order decisions like the transfer and posting of officials entrusted with maintenance of law and order… of and above the district level will be after the approval of the governor.”

Also read: In Centre’s Haste to Seal a Naga Accord, Peace Shouldn’t Be the First Casualty

The stated reason why Ravi, a former deputy national security advisor, wrote the letter was the “unrestrained depredations by over half a dozen organised armed gangs, brazenly running their respective so-called ‘governments’, challenging the legitimacy of the state government without any resistance from the state law and order machinery and “creating a crisis of confidence in the system”.

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio. Credit: PTI

Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio. Photo: PTI

Referring to an earlier letter written to the chief minister on August 23, 2019, and a meeting conducted in the presence of the state home minister in November that year to urge them to take “certain actions” on the collection of “taxes” by these groups, Ravi pointed out that “nothing has been done.”

“Law abiding citizens – be they daily wage earners, petty vendors, businessmen, shopkeepers, owners of restaurants, road construction companies, entrepreneurs or government servants are made miserable by rampant extortion and violence by the armed gangs. The state government development departments are under duress to give regular ransom to the armed gangs. ‘Town commands’ of these gangs keep the people in towns and its neighbourhood terrorised. Brazen display of fire power by the rival gangs for turf control drive the people to panic,” he added.

Three days later, the governor held a meeting with Rio’s cabinet to further consult them on his suggestion. According t0 some ministers present at the meeting, Ravi also blamed the state government for the delay in delivering the Naga Accord.

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the framework agreement with the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) faction in August 2015, top BJP leaders have been steadfast in their rhetoric about the accord being signed “soon”. This assurance was repeated by BJP national secretary Ram Madhav during his visit to Kohima last week. However, those watching developments in the state believe the final accord will not be reached anytime soon, at least, not in the form that Ravi had envisaged – an agreement that would satisfy all stakeholders.

Trends of peace talks in Northeast so far

In the past, peace accords between the Centre and armed groups and agitation leaders in the Northeast have been of three broad kinds.

First, an accord signed to facilitate the handing over of power to the signatories – but one in which, over time, most clauses would not be implemented by New Delhi. The Assam and Mizo accords belong to this category.

Second, an accord which may be repeated over time with different players over the same issue, as has happened with the various deals struck with the different Bodo groups.

Third, the Centre factionalises its potential interlocutor before bringing some groups to the table and tiring them out through a long peace process – during which their networks and sources of funding are weakened – so that a watered down peace accord may be handed over for an honorary exit. In some cases, an agreement may not be necessary at all. It may prod some leaders to join state politics instead (ULFA-pro-talks, Kuki groups in Manipur, etc).

While the engagement with Naga groups seems to fit the third pattern – the Centre stretched the peace process with the NSCN (I-M) out for years – New Delhi’s efforts have not borne the desired results – yet.

Also read: With J&K’s Special Status Revoked, Alarm Bells Ring in Nagaland

Even though the framework agreement was signed with the I-M group, the Centre has since roped in seven other Naga national political groups (NNPGs) with the argument that all stakeholders must be on board for lasting peace. By widening the playing field in this way, the Centre was actually putting itself in a better position to bargain for an accord of its choice.

However, this strategy has not worked so far.

It is here that the governor’s recent letter to the chief minister, which was subsequently leaked to the media, assumes significance. The letter warns the state government to assert itself and help staunch the flow of funds to these groups. Else, New Delhi would step in.

Predictably, the state’s leadership is unhappy with the governor wading into a subject that they believe is the elected government’s domain. But the way in which NSCN (I-M) and the NNPGs have also reacted to the governor’s letter and the June 23 killing of the alleged extortionist suggests they believe New Delhi is trying to throttle the source of their funds as a prelude to pinning them down to signing an accord.

In a press statement on June 28, the working committee of the NNPGs “condemned the murder” of the man “in broad daylight”, adding, “It is most unfortunate that a group called anti-extortion squad is on the prowl like street dogs with shooting orders.” Since the trader who informed the police is presumably a non-Naga, it played the outsider card too: “What moral authority can the police force adopt to stop national workers from seeking and soliciting humble contributions from shops and commercial centres particularly those who come to Nagaland and [are] making huge profits?”

Earlier that day, in another press statement, NSCN (I-M) took offence at the governor referring to them as an ‘armed gang’. Calling itself “the recognised and legitimate national organisation of the Naga people”, it termed its collection of ‘taxes’ from the public “the inherent right of any sovereign people and nation”, thus holding up the ‘legitimacy’ of its parallel government in the state. It added, “Taxes have been the sources of sustenance that has brought the Naga political movement this far.”

Signing of the Framework Agreement in 2015. Photo: PTI

Anticipating this argument, Ravi’s letter had noted, “Civil society organisations, at great personal risks to their members, have been raising voices, from time to time, against such blatant unlawful activities of the armed gangs”, and added that he has received “several representations of public for intervention.”

Also read: Naga Peace Accord Remains Hazy and Full of Pitfalls

The primary reason New Delhi engages any insurgent group in the Northeast in peace talks is due to its hold over the local public, most of whom see them as their representative voice. That the public in Nagaland has been suffering from heavy taxation by these groups, including the NSCN (I-M), is reflected in the formation of organisations like ACAUT (Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation)  and the ability of such groups to find resonance in the general public. Also, that violence by members of these groups on common people has become the order of the day is no more an unknown fact in the state.

By officially highlighting the suffering of the public at the hands of some of these groups, New Delhi believes it is delegitimising their claim to being people’s representatives – and therefore their ability to demand more at the table. The NSCN (I-M)’s demand for a separate flag, a separate unit for its cadres in the Indian security forces, etc., highlighting its ‘unique history’, are some of the crucial factors delaying the delivery of the accord. The government seems not in a position to hand out most of these demands. But a key element in this strategy is the role of the elected state government.

Turf protection

By reminding chief minister Rio of the constitutional powers the governor enjoys, New Delhi is attempting to nudge Rio to assert himself over these groups. Having fought elections under the constitution, he has a legitimacy that the Naga groups do not. If a parallel government run by the NSCN (I-M) is ‘legitimate’ and comes with the right to ‘tax’ people, then what is the standing of his elected government, voted to power by the same public?  That Ravi’s letter said these ‘gangs’ are ‘running so-called ‘governments’ challenging the legitimacy of the state government’, in itself makes the point clear.

This is not the first time the Centre has sought to act against the extortion of money through private ‘taxes’  in Nagaland or in the rest of the Northeast. In early 2016, an order by the NE desk of the MHA required each district in the region to have an anti-extortion squad. A senior police official in Nagaland related to this correspondent how these squads were formed during the time of the additional director general of police Rupin Sharma “and did some excellent work”.

“At least 200 letters of appreciation were issued to lower officials for their action to stop extortion in 2016. In 2017, a non-Naga trader had shot dead a person demanding money in Chumoukedima area of Dimapur in self-defence,” the official related. “However, over time, the efficacy of the squad slowed down due to continuous political interference in support of the armed groups, and also a low trust level in the public towards the police force”.

It is this squad that has been reactivated by the state government following the governor’s letter and which carried out the shooting of the alleged extortionist in Kohima on June 23.

Also read: Separate Flag, Constitution Key for ‘Honourable’ Peace Solution: Naga Group

Will the accord suffer?

The question on several minds at the moment is whether the governor’s tough rhetoric will create a roadblock to the accord instead of boosting its chances.

Most political leaders, activists, journalists and security officials that The Wire spoke to view Ravi’s intervention as “a local problem” and not particularly disadvantageous to the delivery of the accord, especially because “the governor’s letter also has a wider public support for speaking up against extortion”.

However, answering this question without taking into consideration the geopolitics of the region would be imprudent.

With Myanmar militarily asserting itself over the areas bordering India and clearing up some of the pockets where Northeast insurgent groups have thrived, the Centre’s push for peace with different groups, including the NSCN (I-M), has received a boost.

However, India will also have to take into consideration an assertive China post-Galwan, particularly since Beijing has aided such groups before, along with Pakistan.

The current Mizoram chief minister, Pu Zoramthanga, was among the early batches of youth trained by Pakistan and had procured arms from China to fight the Indian government. In his autobiography, Zoramthanga said that Mizo National Front insurgents had visited China to meet the then premier Zhou Enlai among others and had received help in the form of arms, etc.

That was in the 1960s, soon after the Chinese incursions in the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA). With India-China relations at their lowest point since then, New Delhi may need more than a tough talking governor to keep the peace in Nagaland and the wider region.