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New Delhi: In a late evening announcement on September 9, the President’s office declared the appointment of new governors and the reshuffling of others.
Among those who were shuffled by the Narendra Modi government was R. N. Ravi, who transferred out of the Nagaland Raj Bhavan to take over as governor of Tamil Nadu.
The appointment of Ravi, a trusted former Intelligence Bureau (IB) official who after his retirement had served at the Prime Minister’s Office as the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, as the governor to Tamil Nadu – a state ruled by a BJP opponent DMK – is in itself newsworthy. Under the Modi government, there is a history of ‘friendly’ governors in several states either smoothening the path for the BJP to form a government even after failing to get the public mandate or making intermittent attempts at interfering in the day-to-day work of an elected government run by a party opposed to the BJP.
In Ravi’s case, lately, such an accusation in the corridors of power in Nagaland was common, even though it is a government led by the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), an ally of the BJP which too is part of the ruling dispensation. After the news of his transfer reached Kohima, NDPP president Chingwang Konyak expectedly told The Hindu, “He interfered in the affairs of a popular government.”
There are several examples of his “interference” in the Neiphu Rio government in local media reports. But the bigger question after Ravi’s shift from the Kohima Raj Bhavan to that of Chennai is: how should one look at this development from the prism of the Modi government’s prolonged peace talks with a slew of Naga armed groups under ceasefire, particularly with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN(I-M)] faction. This is because Ravi, aside from being the Nagaland governor, is still the serving interlocutor for the stalled peace talks.
For over a year now, the NSCN(I-M) supremo Th. Muivah has been quite vocal about his hostility towards Ravi, triggering a demand from the outfit for his replacement as the interlocutor. Only this would ensure that talks will proceed to a phase where the Naga Accord could indeed be signed with the Union government, bringing down the curtain on India’s oldest insurgency movement.
In August 2020, Muivah had made public the clauses of the Framework Agreement signed with the Modi government in the presence of the prime minister in August 2015 in New Delhi – accusing Ravi of doctoring it. The strategic move came after Ravi and Muivah traded accusations. Soon, the NSCN (I-M) also wrote to Modi, seeking his intervention and categorically stating that the outfit had lost trust in Ravi as the interlocutor.
Clearly, the move was meant to shift all the blame for the delay in signing the peace accord on to Ravi alone, while keeping the Union government and Modi’s leadership immune from it. It also aimed to send a message to the other Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) that while Ravi might have roped them into the dialogue, it was with the NSCN (I-M) that the Modi government had signed the Framework Agreement in 2015. Therefore, the outfit’s primacy in how the talks should proceed must not be challenged – either by Ravi or the NNPGs.
By then, Ravi had termed the NSCN(I-M) an “armed gang” and had told the media that the accord would be signed “with or without NSCN(I-M)”, meaning, with the NNPGs alone. In tandem with Ravi, the NNPG convener N. Kitovi Zhimomi also gave media statements expressing their willingness to go ahead without the NSCN(I-M). Together with Ravi, Zhimomi set aside the two core demands of the I-M group – a separate constitution and New Delhi’s recognition of the NSCN(I-M)’s flag as the flag of Naga-inhabited areas in the Northeast.
Ravi calling NSCN(I-M) an armed gang was self-contradictory though, considering the prime minister himself had formally flagged off the talks with the group on a ceasefire with India in a photo-op with its top leadership in 2015.
Meanwhile, New Delhi looked on silently while the souring of relations with Ravi had led the NSCN(I-M) to export out of the country three of its top military leaders. The outfit clearly sent a message to New Delhi that it is ready to go back to the jungles to wage war against India if its domination in the peace talks for a solution to the vexed Naga political issue is undermined. The battle lines were firming up in spite of close surveillance by the Indian intelligence agencies. This past August, The Wire had reported that a leaked database featured the phone numbers of the top leadership of the I-M and the NNPGs as potential targets of surveillance by Israeli spyware Pegasus, thus indicating the possibility of using such a tool to monitor their movement.
Overall, these developments make it clear that the strategies used by the former top IB official to squeeze out an accord from the NSCN(I-M) had backfired. Ravi, by using close surveillance and creating factions within the negotiators of the armed groups in the Northeast, hoped to hand out a watered-down deal.
Therefore, it was evident to close observers of the Naga peace talks that it was only a matter of time before Ravi was shunted out as the interlocutor.
After his removal as Nagaland governor, sources in the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) have told The Wire, “Both the governor and interlocutor’s positions in Nagaland are interrelated. Ravi was sent as the governor there, much to NSCN(I-M)’s dislike, to do the needful and speed up the peace process. This didn’t happen. So his replacement would most likely be announced soon.”
The sources also claimed, “Ravi will most likely be replaced by Akshay Kumar Mishra, retired additional/special director of Intelligence Bureau. The 1987 batch IPS officer of Rajasthan cadre has anyway been dealing with the NSCN after relations between Muivah and Ravi plunged.”
According to a source in the Nagaland government, state chief minister Neiphu Rio had two meetings with Union home minister Amit Shah in the past ten days in New Delhi. “While the first meeting was on the Naga peace talks, the second one, held at the BJP national president J.P. Nadda’s house late on September 6, was on a formula to run an all-party government in the state, which was seen as imperative to the smooth conduct of the peace talks.” The source informed, “The meeting, aside from Shah and Nadda, also had BJP national secretary (organisation) B.L. Santosh and Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma among some others.”
The Wire has learnt that Muivah has also conveyed to the MHA that “for the smooth conclusion of the talks, the NSCN (I-M) would need a written assurance from the prime minister himself this time.”
“Muivah wants the prime minister to intervene directly and not leave the matter to bureaucrats or any of his ministers.”
Rio’s meeting with Shah is also significant considering the former had a closed-door meeting with Muivah in Dimapur prior to it. “In that meeting, Muivah had expressed deep resentment that the Union government was trying to undermine the Naga movement led by the NSCN,” said a reliable source in Kohima. Muivah specifically mentioned the fact that on the Nagaland Statehood Day in December 2020, Ravi had installed at the Raj Bhavan a bust of Imkongliba Ao, the late president of the Naga People’s Convention.
As per local news reports, the bust was unveiled by Ravi as the governor in the presence of Rio and S.C. Jamir, the former Nagaland chief minister and member of the committee which had talks with the Nehru government on the Naga issue. Those talks had led to the 16 point agreement and formation of Nagaland as a state in 1960. Jamir was one of the signatories to that agreement which, however, was rejected by several Naga leaders including Muivah, ultimately leading to the formation of the NSCN and the separatist movement. Imkongliba Ao, considered the primary force behind a movement for statehood to Nagaland, was later assassinated by the separatists.
Jamir, a former governor of Odisha, is widely viewed as ‘New Delhi’s man in Nagaland’ and is often promoted by the BJP-RSS. After Modi became prime minister in 2014, Jamir was among a handful of governors who were left untouched.
Like Imkongliba, Jamir is also from the Ao tribe, one of the largest sub-groups of the Nagas and into which the RSS has made considerable inroads.
“Ravi was clearly seen pushing the RSS-BJP agenda in Nagaland through that move. He tried to put the clock back, which was unacceptable to Muivah,” the source added.
A day before news of Ravi’s removal became public, news broke that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had entered into a year-long ceasefire agreement with yet another small Naga armed group, NSCN (Nikki). It is a breakaway faction of the NSCN–Khaplang operating primarily in Myanmar. The group leader Nikki Sumi is an Indian Naga and had split with the parent group after Khaplang’s death in 2017 as per their nationality and had returned home in 2019 to form his own group.
The MHA’s September 8 move gets more interesting if the Naga sub-group that Nikki belongs to is taken into consideration. Like the NNPG convener N. Kitovi Zhimomi, Nikki is from the Sumi sub-group, yet another large Naga tribe who, like the Ao, mostly reside in the present Nagaland state. After the death of Isak Chisi Swu (I of the I-M faction), the top leadership of the NSCN (I-M) is largely from the Tangkhul tribe which resides largely in the Manipur-Myanmar belt. Muivah too is a Tangkhul Naga.
Therefore, the primacy of the outfit led by him as the ‘voice of Nagaland’ is at times questioned by a section within the communities residing in the state. Bringing in Zhimomi to the peace talks as the convener of the NNPGs by Ravi is also viewed by some political observers in Nagaland as an attempt to highlight that cleavage and help squeeze out a favourable peace deal for New Delhi.
In an interview to Nagaland Post in 2019, Zhimomi had presented the NNPGs not only as the representative of the Nagas of Nagaland but also of Nagas in other states, a statement that can be read as the creation of a competitive force to the NSCN (I-M) at the negotiating table, at Ravi’s behest.
“With the addition of Nikki Sumi to the calculation, it is not difficult to gauge what would be the MHA’s expectation from him,” commented a source in the Nagaland government.
Looking back at the trajectory of the Naga peace talks under Ravi, it is now clear that his aggressive and divisive moves against the NSCN(I-M) became the former Nagaland governor’s object of failure.
So far, it is advantage Muivah.