What Ails the Naga Peace Process?

The Centre has inherited a peace process structured around the NSCN-IM, but is unable to conclude it for a variety of reasons.

Nagaland’s Governor R.N. Ravi stirred a hornet’s nest when he questioned the state government’s alleged hands off approach to law and order in the face of “rampant extortions and violence by…armed gangs” and invoked Article 371A to ask the government to seek his approval before the “transfer and posting of officials entrusted with maintenance of law and order.”

Ravi used a constitutional provision that the former chief minister, the late Hokishe Sema had left unattended, when he hurriedly redrew electoral and administrative boundaries to strengthen his position before the 1974 assembly elections.

The state government belatedly offered a tame defence that was followed up by a circular allegedly at the governor’s behest, asking all government officials to identify their relatives associated with insurgent groups. While the leaked letter to the state government, and the subsequent circular, has raised hackles, it merely reiterates Ravi’s earlier assessment of insurgent groups and their relation with the state.

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

Ravi outlined this in his op-eds published in The Hindu (on November 15, 2012 and January 23, 2014) before appointment as the interlocutor. In these pieces, he argued that the ceasefire allowed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland/Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) “to set up multiple garrisons, almost in every district to help expand its reach” despite “popular opposition” and “resulted in the retreat of the state… and subversion of democratic politics.”

He concluded that a dialogue with the NSCN-IM, “a militia of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur with little resonance with the broad Naga family,” will not yield “a sustainable peace.”

In another development, six NSCN-IM cadre were killed on July 11 in Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district prompting the outfit to seek clarification about “the validity and extent of ceasefire agreement” within a week and issue a warning that “we shall not be held responsible” for the “ugly aftermaths evolving spontaneously out of such situation.”

Contrary to the fears of some observers, the breakdown of ceasefire is not the logical conclusion of the game of chicken between the governor and insurgent groups.

First, a majority of the present cadre of insurgent groups joined after the ceasefire and have been mostly involved in non-combat activities around camps including in Dimapur, a bustling commercial town in the plains.

Second, any group that violates ceasefire will face resistance before it returns to the jungles because tribal bodies and the church have invested a lot over the decades to sustain peace.

Third, a lot has changed over the past two decades including the turn to democracy and a tortuous peace process in Myanmar, the decay of Manipur’s (linguistic) syncretism, shrinking sanctuaries for insurgents in neighbouring countries, entrapment of most insurgent groups of the North East in peace processes and the linking of youth with metropolitan job markets.

The hurdles facing the NSCN-IM, let alone the smaller groups, in resuming fighting notwithstanding, the government ought to honour its commitment to the more than two-decade long peace process.

Home minister Rajnath Singh, PM Narendra Modi and T Muivah of NSCN (I-M. Credit: PTI

A 2017 photograph of then home minister Rajnath Singh, PM Narendra Modi and T Muivah of NSCN (I-M. Photo: PTI

However, before we can hope for a negotiated end to the insurgency, we need to acknowledge that the Naga society has changed immensely since the first ceasefire but the emergent diversity is not represented in the peace process that is hamstrung by tribal, territorial and generational divides.

The NSCN-IM continues to command respect as the foremost champion of the nationalist cause. But that does not balance out concerns about its overwhelming Tangkhul character. These concerns have only intensified after Isak Swu’s death. The NSCN-IM qua Tangkhul outfit has been under attack in Nagaland because its decision-making processes bypass the Nagas of Nagaland and its top leaders are viewed as arrogant and condescending.

Further, the Nagas of Nagaland realise that territorial integration of Naga areas is not feasible and that any non-territorial integration of Naga areas will draw in Nagas from other states and strain Nagaland’s scarce resources.

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

The Meiteis based in the Imphal Valley made clear their commitment to Manipur’s territorial integrity through the Great June Uprising (2001) and Ibobi Singh’s blocking of Muivah’s visit to his birthplace (2010). Myanmarese Nagas too are gradually arriving at a modus vivendi with Naypyidaw.

In response to such developments, groups representing the Nagas of Nagaland forced the government to roll back the recognition of Rongmeis as an indigenous Naga tribe even though it benefitted only a few thousand people already counted as indigenous inhabitants by virtue of having settled before the state’s formation.

Rongmei Nagas of the erstwhile Tamenglong district are among the largest tribes of Manipur. The Nagas of Nagaland saw the indigenisation of Rongmeis as a testing of waters by Tangkhuls and a breach in floodgates that had so far held back large Naga tribes of Manipur out of Nagaland’s crowded job market.

Okram Ibobi Singh. Credit: PTI

Okram Ibobi Singh. Photo: PTI

These concerns intensified when Ibobi Singh redrew internal borders before the 2017 elections reducing the size of Naga-dominated districts to minimise the potential loss of territory to the proposed “Greater Nagaland”. The NSCN-IM seems to be haggling with New Delhi for an arrangement to protect Tangkhul interests in Manipur as they are not quite welcome in Nagaland. The Tangkhuls, who provided several chief ministers to Manipur, find themselves trapped in a shrinking middle ground between Nagaland and Imphal Valley. After decades of rallying behind ‘Greater Nagaland’ they find themselves unable to respond even to the partition of their native district Ukhrul.

Lastly, peace is being negotiated by leaders in their 80s. But it will have to be lived by the youth. The NSCN-IM cannot coerce the younger generation that came of age around the massive mobilisations led by Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation (ACAUT) to accept its version of peace.

Over the past two decades, the NSCN-IM could have reached out to other stakeholders and expanded its negotiation team. Instead it squandered its political capital to remain the exclusive representative of Nagas.

It threatened those who raised questions and cynically manipulated pan-Naga civil society bodies to manufacture consent undermining their legitimacy in Nagaland in the process.

The NSCN-IM made matters worse by refusing to disclose the August 3, 2015 Framework Agreement to the Nagas of Nagaland. Alarmed by their marginalisation, a section of civil society leaders helped bring together the long neglected Nagaland-based “Naga National Political Groups” (NNPGs).

Watch: The Naga Question: Insurgency, Ceasefire and the Peace Process

The NNPGs condemned the “unrepentant theatrical politics” of the NSCN-IM in its “nonexistent land called Nagalim [Greater Nagaland].” Several civil society organisations also criticised the Naga Hoho, which is seen as close to the NSCN-IM, as “entirely lopsided and helplessly drifting southward [toward Manipur] with imaginative domain which is null and void”.

Not coincidentally, some of the civil society leaders who helped unite the NNPGs had earlier in 2013 lamented the inability of the Naga Hoho and other pan-Naga bodies to “protect the interest of Naga people” and floated an alternative pan-Naga body for Nagaland.

The NSCN-IM ignored these developments only to find the Working Committee of the NNPGs signing an “Agreed Position or Preamble” with the interlocutor on November 17, 2017.

The government is now caught in a Catch-22 situation.

It has inherited the peace process structured around the NSCN-IM. However, it is unable to conclude the peace process as its key interlocutor enjoys a shrinking acceptance among the Nagas of Nagaland as well as Manipur but is unable to come to terms with the emergent diversity of the Naga society and accommodate other Naga stakeholders, let alone non-Naga indigenous tribes such as Kukis and Kacharis, on the negotiating table.

Vikas Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is co-author of Numbers in India’s Periphery: The Political Economy of Government Statistics, Cambridge University Press (2020).