Could the Home Ministry Bring More 'Facilitators' to Break Naga Peace Talks Deadlock?

While the demand for the removal of interlocutor R.N. Ravi grows, the arrival of key leaders in New Delhi suggests a measure to smoothen disagreements could be in the offing.

New Delhi: Amid the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak Muivah’s reported demand for a change of the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, the Ministry of Home Affairs is looking at the possibility of bringing in a set of new “facilitators” to break the deadlock, it is learned.

The home ministry, however, plans to keep the present interlocutor in place.

The NSCN (I-M) is the signatory to the framework agreement (FA) with the central government.

Several sources that The Wire spoke to in New Delhi and Nagaland, along with top civil society leaders in the north-eastern state who are privy to the latest developments, have corroborated this fresh development.

A senior official at the MHA, on condition of anonymity, said that though the NSCN (I-M) “is more for a change of the interlocutor” – Nagaland governor R.N. Ravi – the “Ministry is not likely to concede (to it) at the moment. Instead, it may look at the possibility of bringing in a few more facilitators, though, nothing is final yet.”

Going by the NSCN (I-M)’s statement issued to mark five years of the inconclusive talks after the signing of the FA in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi in 2015, The Wire had stated on August 3 that the organisation may be aiming for a change of interlocutor for the accord. 

Also read: NSCN (I-M) Blames Interlocutor – the Nagaland Governor – for Peace Accord Delays

In the last few months, the unease between the NSCN and Ravi has been coming out in the open. In that anniversary statement, while the NSCN praised “the dynamic leadership of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi” for signing the “historic framework agreement” with it, it was scathing in its criticism of Ravi, accusing him of “deceptive manner of handling the FA”.

It said he “deceitfully went beyond the call of interlocutor to indulge himself in playing divisive game among the Nagas to dismantle the very foundation of FA”.

All of these were a clear indication that the organisation may be seeking a replacement of Ravi due to deteriorating relations. An Indian Express report on August 9, citing “sources” in the NSCN, also stated that they would request that the forthcoming round of talks “be conducted by a new interlocutor”.  

Speculation in local news dailies have it that the names of A.B. Mathur, the Centre’s interlocutor for the NDFB talks and the continuing talks with the ULFA in Assam and the UPF-KNO of Manipur, and Lt Gen (retd) Himalaya Singh from Manipur are doing the rounds as a possible new interlocutor of the Centre for the Naga talks.

However, on past August 9, a senior MHA official told this correspondent that at the behest of the Ministry, Nagaland chief minister Neiphu Rio and Assam finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had air-dashed to New Delhi late last week in a chartered flight along with some others, including former president of the Naga Hoho Keviletuo.

Signing the Framework Accord. Credit: PTI

Signing of the Framework Agreement in 2015. Credit: PTI

The team met NSCN general secretary Th. Muivah who has been in New Delhi since July 20 for the twin reasons of getting his health checked and to seek a change of the interlocutor by the MHA to break the deadlock in the talks. The scheduled talks of the NSCN in the second week of July with Ravi did not take place. Among the sustained issues with the organisation have been a strong demand for a separate flag and a constitution. 

Also read: What Ails the Naga Peace Process?

None of the stakeholders are, however, ready to officially talk about the government’s latest line of thinking at the moment, though the MHA official has stated that Rio and Sarma are likely to be a part of it. The Wire had contacted Sarma for a confirmation of the meeting with Muivah and the likelihood of him being a part of the talks but he didn’t comment on either. 

A top source privy to it in the Nagaland government has however, confirmed the meeting to The Wire.

“It looks like the Central government at the moment is not likely to change the interlocutor but other factors can be brought in to help facilitate the talks, and most likely it will happen. The talks have been going on for long, it is the break it or make it point, all efforts will be made at the moment to make it a success,” the source said, refusing to be named here citing that reason that, “till it happens, nothing can be confirmed”. 

After Muivah, his wife and a few NSCN leaders reached Delhi in a chartered flight on July 20, a five-member team of the group flew to the National Capital from Nagaland on August 7 by a special flight. This was followed by another nine-member delegation of top leaders who arrived on August 8 by another hired flight. Since the governor-cum-interlocutor Ravi is also learnt to be travelling to Delhi on August 11, the expectation is that the stalemate will be broken and a round of talks will begin in Delhi.

“We can’t confirm the meeting or the exact date at the moment but since all of the top NSCN leaders are in Delhi and so is the interlocutor, the next round of talks are most likely to happen,” said the source. 

According to a news report in The Deccan Chronicle on August 10 citing “authoritative security sources”, the Prime Minister’s Office has “set a September deadline for the final settlement of all Naga political issues”, adding that Ravi has been asked to restart the process “next week” to “thrash out differences over some of the minor rhetorical issues”. 

While in some sections of the media, there have been speculation of a Naga peace accord announcement by Modi on August 15, going by this report, and The Wire’s conversation with government and BJP sources in the Northeast, it seems highly unlikely. However, there is a precedent to such announcements on the Northeast.

In 1985, the top leaders of the Assam Movement were brought in batches by special flights to New Delhi and the Assam Accord was signed on the intervening night of August 14-15. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had announced it in his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort.       

The Centre’s likely attempt to involve a senior leader of a neighbouring north-eastern state (may be Sarma) to help sort out a vexed issue is also not new. So there is precedent of the Centre including a chief minister of the state to help solve major peace issues with an armed group. 

While in Assam, then Manipur chief minister Dorendro Singh was asked by the Indira Gandhi government to act as an intermediary for a possible solution to the Assam foreigners’ issue in the early 1980s, the Mizoram chief minister Lalthanhawla was kept in the loop during the Centre’s peace talks with the Mizo National Front, leading him to vacate his seat for Laldenga to become that state’s chief minister after the signing the Mizo Accord with the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1986.

Meanwhile, back in Nagaland, two of the prominent civil society groups are of the opinion that the interlocutor, Ravi, is functioning in an “autocratic” manner. In a separate memorandum to the Prime Minister, the Naga Hoho, the apex body of all Naga tribes, and the Naga Mother’s Association have reportedly stated that Ravi has been “hounding” the same Naga groups with whom he is supposed to negotiate and conclude the peace talks. 

However, the Nagaland Gaon Burah Association or the body of the village heads, in a press statement, have opposed the demand for change of interlocutor. The working committee of the seven Naga National Political Groups, brought in by Ravi to join the peace talks, are also opposed to the idea of changing him as the government’s intermediary stating that it would turn the clock back on the talks.