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

Nagaland governor R.N. Ravi has categorically stated that, if required, the Centre would drop the NSCN (I-M) – the principal signatory of the agreement – and proceed to deliver the accord with other stakeholders.

New Delhi: Going by the recent statements made by the central government regarding the ongoing Naga peace talks, come this October 31, it appears that there will be a ‘Naga Accord’ in hand.

Duly signed by ‘stakeholders’.

The ‘Accord’ will be the culmination of a peace course that has been underway since August 2015 after the Narendra Modi government entered into a framework agreement with the Isak-Muivah flank of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN).

At this point, what is to be not discounted, however, is the tone and substance of the statements – made by the peace talks interlocutor-turned Nagaland governor R.N. Ravi – encapsulating the progress in the talks, or the lack of it, surrounding the October 31 deadline.

Of late, the former deputy National Security Advisor (NSA) to the Modi government has not only accused the NSCN (I-M) of “mischievously” delaying the peace pact “under the shadow of guns” but has also categorically stated that, if required, the Centre would drop the outfit – the principal signatory of the agreement – and proceed to deliver the accord with other stakeholders. Essentially, Ravi meant that at this point in time, the Centre was ready to set aside the framework agreement – once termed “historic” by Modi himself.

Much to Ravi’s credit, over the last four years, he did engage with non-armed but crucial stakeholders from Naga society – the Naga Mothers’ Association, Nagaland Gaonburrah (village head) Federation, the Naga Hoho, United Naga Council (from Manipur), Church leaders among several others – in the peace process. At this juncture, however, those whom Ravi has indicated as the stakeholders that the Centre would rather take on board the peace bandwagon are the six (now seven) Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs).

These NNPGs are also armed rebel groups, currently under ceasefire, just like the NSCN–IM. They are the Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN), GPRN/NSCN, Naga National Council (parent body), National People’s Government of Nagaland of the NNC (Non Accordist), NSCN (reformation), Naga National Council/Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland and the K. Konyak faction of NSCN. Together, they constitute a working committee, formed in November 2017.

The joining of the last rebel group, NSCN (Konyak), early this year, also highlighted the fact that a formal de-linking has happened between the Nagas of the Myanmar-based NSCN (Khaplang) group on the basis of their nationalities. The Indian Nagas in the K-faction are now represented by Konyak and have crossed over to Nagaland to join the peace process.

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

This can certainly be termed an achievement, delivered through a joint effort of the Indian and Myanmarese governments, as it has now brought the vexed Naga issue well within the present-day geographical confines. The mother group of the NSCN-K will now look at resolving its political issues by being a part of the Myanmarese peace process.

Earlier this year in February, the Myanmarese army had also taken control of the NSCN (K) headquarters.

The presence of the Myanmarese army in the contiguous Naga areas close to the Indian border also indicates that it would not be easy for the NSCN-IM to carry out its business as usual in Myanmar in the event that the ceasefire with the government of India ceases due to a breakdown in talks, and military action ensues.

Going by the tone and substance of Ravi’s statements, the government seems to be hinting at such an option. In what was clearly an attempt to check the pulse of the people’s representative bodies in this regard, Ravi held a meeting with delegates of the 14 Naga tribes and non-Naga communities among others at Kohima’s Hotel Japhu on October 18.

He reportedly made it clear to them that the meeting was held only to pass “information” (to them about the Centre willingness to proceed with the peace deal without the NSCN-IM if required) and not to hold a “consultation” with them for suggestions to break the stalemate. The attempt was also to underline that NSCN (IM) was ‘one of the stakeholders’ in the Naga peace talks and not the sole one.

The Centre may be hoping to take the risk of keeping the NSCN-IM out from the peace deal, if necessary, and possibly launching further action against it by banking on simmering resentment amongst most Nagas of Nagaland over the imposition of steep taxes on them, at times at the point of a gun.

That the IM group is dominated by just one Naga tribe (Tangkhuls of Manipur, including Thuingaleng Muivah) is another point of growing resentment among other Naga tribes. This discontent is also a reason behind the gradual weakening of the Naga Hoho, the apex social body of the Nagas, considered by many as being close to the IM faction. In turn, the Hohos of each tribe have been gaining strength. In effect, it means the Naga voice is no longer as united as it once used to be.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with NSCN (IM) General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah at the signing ceremony of historic peace accord between Government of India and NSCN, in 2015. NSA Ajit Doval is also seen. Photo: PTI

However, in the hurry to ink an agreement, the government must not allow a key thought to fall through the cracks. While the NSCN-IM may very well have divided devotion among the Nagas today for various reasons, the issue of Naga identity is still a raw sentiment amongst common people and has the ability to bind various Naga tribes together.

Due to continuous unrest for over half a century, the people are tired at this point and may want to engage with whatever is being offered to them to usher in peace. But that in no way means that many amongst them will not engage, sooner or later, with the framework agreement that the government is now looking at setting aside.

Also read: Timeline: Nagaland Waiting for Light at the End of a Long and Dark Tunnel

Kept a secret all this while, the terms and words mentioned in the agreement – the basis of the present peace talks – is spilling into the public domain in bits and pieces through local newspapers. It is only now that the public is engaging with the framework agreement. Hurrying the peace process shouldn’t lead to another chapter in the already existing notion among people of the region about the Centre’s continuous ‘step-motherly’ treatment of them.

It is well known by now that the root of this purported threat by the Centre to leave the NSCN (IM) out of a peace deal even though it was principally initiated with it – as also by previous governments in the last 22 years – lies in the outfit’s demand for a separate flag and a constitution for the Nagas.

To add weight to their demand, top leaders of the NSCN (IM) have been pointing at phrases mentioned in the framework agreement, such as ‘shared sovereignty’ with India and ‘unique history’ of the Nagas. NSCN (IM) military head Anthony Shimray recently told The Wire that the government of India, through the agreement, had conceded that the history of the Nagas was ‘unique’ and that there would be ‘shared sovereignty’ with the rest of India.

Clearly, the Centre is not on the same page as the armed group when it comes to interpreting these words. Ravi has stated clearly that there would be no separate flag and constitution for the Nagas under the peace deal. In a press statement issued by his office this on October 18, Ravi said that the NSCN-IM has “adopted a procrastinating attitude to delay the settlement raising the contentious symbolic issues of separate Naga national flag and constitution on which they are fully aware of the Government of India’s position.”

Significantly, the Centre’s stalemate with the NSCN-IM reached its zenith only after the reading down of Article 370 of Jammu and Kashmir. In one stroke, the Modi government abolished the provision under which the state had a separate flag and a constitution.

Though several armed groups in the Northeast, including the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) in Assam, had been referring to Article 370 to demand a similar provision from the Centre (the All Assam Students Union too had sought a similar provision for Assam at one point of time), it was primarily the NSCN (IM), the largest and the deadliest insurgent group in the region, which had caught on to the idea more firmly than the others.

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

Examining the developments unfolding in the Naga talks, a question arises: Did the Centre take into account the outcome of the Naga peace talks before taking the decision to scrap Article 370? Was it merely a coincidence that, less than two weeks after Article 370 was scrapped, Ravi announced in Nagaland that Prime Minister Modi had asked him to conclude the peace talks within three months’ time ending on October 31?

Anthony Shimray recently told The Wire that he was himself present in a meeting where the issue of a flag and constitution were discussed and the Centre had said that it would see how well it could deal with it.

Nevertheless, hectic parleys have been on for the last few days, both with the NSCN(IM) and the NNPGs, in New Delhi and in Kohima, to break the stalemate over the unresolved issues even as the October 31 deadline approaches.

Meanwhile, with news reports of Manipur and state government resorting to a security overdrive, with the Nagaland police directing the reserve battalions to stock ration and fuel for two months and with the army recently being removed from Assam with the caveat that they could be deployed to the other northeastern states, fear and uncertainty among the people is palpable.

Early this month, people in Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland, were alarmed to have spotted Sukhoi and Hawk fighter jets hovering low over their houses. As the memory of the Indian Army’s bombing in Mizoram in the 1960s to curb insurgency has not been fully forgotten in the Northeast, the social media was throbbing with rumours over a possible link to the uneasy developments over the Naga talks. Later though, the Indian Air Force announced it was ‘a major wartime preparedness’ exercise using six civilian airports in the north-eastern states and West Bengal.

Delhi-based students from Nagaland stage a protest march demanding solution to the issue of Naga peace talks, and a decision on the framework agreement, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI/Files

In an effort to ally growing public fear and an environment of confusion fuelled by the lack of clear information to the public surrounding the peace talks, the state police chief, the state chief secretary and the Assam Rifles gave statements to the media. However, the Assam Rifles, empowered by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, has said that it would continue its routine searches of houses etc. while on the lookout for insurgents.

With Ravi as the governor – bestowed with powers to control the law and order situation in the state as per Article 371A (meant for Nagaland) more and more firming up the battle lines by taking on board the NNPGs – panic is rising among the public over possible fratricidal killings post the accord.

Recent news about the Ministry of Home Affairs bidding to bring Assam Rifles under its wings has further added to the suspicion of possible military action against those not willing to toe the government’s line. It could well be a tactic of the Centre on the NSCN-IM to bow down to the pressure but having been in the midst of crossfire between militants and the security forces for too long, the fear of the common man in Nagaland is substantial and the worst is being imagined.

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

Speaking to East Mojo, a Guwahati-based news website, well-known anti-corruption activist K.K. Sema pointed out:

“When the governor gives a very serious ultimatum (at the October 18 meeting) that come what may, the government of India would conclude the negotiations, it means that if there is any one group among them which refuses to sign, it will have to be taken out in whatever manner the government of India feels best. It obviously implies that the government will be using force in order to tackle them. Now the problem is, the people of Nagaland, the stakeholders, the common man, he is going to be right in the middle of the crossfire when the government goes against them. For those of us who have seen violence in the 1950s, it is not a pleasant sight to behold.”

He cautioned against the haste being shown by the Centre to cut the deal.

The NNPGs may well be on board now but it’s essential to also underline that, in mid-2018, they had walked out of the peace talks too, citing a raid by the Assam Rifles at the residence of V. Nagi, the co-convener of the working group.

Can we then read the development as some sort of pressure tactic already put using the might of the Assam Rifles on these groups to toe the line?  Some news reports in Nagaland have said that their willingness to sign the accord is hinged on an ‘economic package’ to be tailored for their cadres. Reports from Nagaland have said several cadres from the IM group are already shifting their allegiance to these groups in the hopes of getting a share of the pie.

As per latest news reports, top NSCN-IM leader Hukavi Yeputhomi, a member of the negotiating team of NSCN-IM, has also moved over to the working committee of the NNPGs along with 16 others. This may well lead to a split in the NSCN (IM).

As the government tries to find a solution by possibly making use of the clear division brewing amongst the Naga stakeholders, it brings us to another question: Will it end up committing the same mistakes made by the previous central governments while entering into peace accords in the Northeast by going with one set or sets of stakeholders and leaving the hard nuts for the security forces to tackle?

Perhaps, at this point, a reminder is necessary to the readers that several synthetic peace accords had previously come with an expiry date in the region. Various accords had failed to deliver permanent peace in the region even with an economic package as the primary component. So far, the only accord that can be called a success in the region is the Mizo Accord of 1986, not because of any effort by the Centre but due to the concerted work by the Mizo society to ensure lasting peace.

Watch: With J&K’s 370 Gone, Nagas Skeptical That Centre Will Impose Its Will on Them Too

Importantly, the government must not overlook the key takeaway from the failure of the previous endeavour at peace with the Nagas. The Shillong Agreement, signed in 1975 between the central government and the underground leadership, including the NNC founder A. Z. Phizo’s brother Kevie Yalie, fell though, mainly on the grounds of not finding wider acceptability of the Indian constitution and that the representatives of the underground organisations were not given ‘reasonable time’ to formulate other issues for discussion for the final solution. The agreement was also led by the then Nagaland governor L.P. Singh.

The failure of the Shillong Agreement to usher in peace only led Muivah and the others to break out of the NNC to form NSCN. Muivah, now leading the talks with the Centre on behalf of NSCN-IM, would then naturally be cautious on the issue of the constitution.

Some in Nagaland even go to the extent of saying that Muivah, the last of the tall Naga revolutionary leaders, would rather go down in history as a ‘martyr’ who didn’t relent to pressure from the government of India without an ‘honourable solution’ for the Nagas than concede to a watered-down version of a peace accord.

In the next few days, it would be clear what entails the fate of not just the NSCN-IM but also that of octogenarian Muivah, residing in a ‘safe house’ in New Delhi under the watch of the Centre.