Bringing Peace in Nagaland

The Past, The Present and The Challenges

Naga Peace Talks
Naga Peace Talks

The consolidation of India post-independence into a union is long drawn and the process has been highly contentious. While the consolidation of Jammu and Kashmir gets most of the attention of the media, the common population and the political elites, the insurgency and counterinsurgency and the demands of the stakeholders in Nagaland is frequently missed by almost every single one of them. Ironically, the demand by one of the most important stakeholder (the National Socialist Council of Nagalim- Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM)) in Nagaland is similar to what was abrogated in Jammu and Kashmir- a separate constitution. What makes it more interesting is that, the NSCN(IM) are the same group who had signed the Naga Peace Accord, a Framework Agreement in 2015, with the Government of India.

The current demands which has brought the peace process to a stalemate is similar to certain degrees to the demands put up seven decades ago.

The Past- Birth of Naga Nationalism

The mountain fastness of the eastern Himalayas along the Burmese border is home to the Nagas, their population mostly scattered in the region. The distance from the plains and the terrains blocked the political and social developments which had swept the rest of India in the early 20th century. The Naga hills was a part of Assam till 1963, sharing borders with China, Burma and East Pakistan. The population was highly diverse even by Indian standards with hundreds of communities living in upland and lowland regions. Unlike the rest of India, the colonial masters administered the region lightly not interfering in the local traditions except one- headhunting.

The story of emergence of Naga nationalism began in 1918 when 2000 Nagas were recruited as labour corps by the British and sent to France.  These Nagas upon their return, formed the Naga Club in 1918. The Naga club provided the sociopolitical foundation to the Naga nationalist movement. The Naga nationalist movement further gained hold of imaginations when it submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 declaring that the Nagas do not have anything in common with mainland India. The main demand of the memorandum was that the Nagas be left out of the reformed scheme of administration that was being contemplated by the Simon Commission for British India.

In 1946, while the future of British India was being decided, a group of English educated Nagas formed the Naga national council (NNC). The NNC stood for the unity of all Nagas and ‘self-determination’- a term which had multiple contradictory interpretations. The Angami Nagas thought it meant a full independent state with ‘a government of the Nagas, for the Nagas, by the Nagas’. Whereas the Ao Nagas (moderates) thought that the Nagas could live with dignity within India as long as their land and customs are protected and they had the autonomy to form and enforce their own laws. The early days of NNC saw vigorous debates between these two factions.  The moderate wing had begun negotiations with the Congress leadership, however, the radicals still stood for complete independence.

In June 1947, a NNC delegation met the Assam governor, Sir Akbar Hydari to discuss the terms by which the Nagas could join India. Both sides agreed that the tribal lands would not be alienated to outsiders, religious practices of Nagas would not be affected and that the NNC would have a say in the staffing of government offices. Next an NNC delegation went to Delhi to meet Jawaharlal Nehru who reiterated that the they could have autonomy but not independence. Here they also called upon Mahatma Gandhi who supposedly told the delegation that the Nagas could declare their independence and no one would compel them to join the Indian Union. Mahatma Gandhi also advised his visitors that economic self-reliance was the way to complete independence.

Among the delegation which met Mahatma Gandhi was Angami Zapu Phizo, a charismatic leader of the Nagas who would change the whole Naga movement. In 1950 Phizo was elected president of the NNC and committed the Nagas to complete independence. In 1951 Phizo and his men toured the Naga hills conducting a plebiscite, obtaining thumbprints and signatures for support for an independent Naga state. The bundle of thumb impressions and signatures weighed eighty pounds and it was revealed that 99.9% had voted for an independent Naga state. During this time the political elites of New Delhi were busy with healing the wounds of partition, settling refugees, integrating princely states and little heed was paid to the Naga question. In the last week of 1951 Phizo met the Prime Minister, seeking independence but was put down. The NNC responded by boycotting the general elections. After the elections Phizo again met the Prime Minister (PM) in Delhi. The PM once more restated that while independence was not an option, the Nagas could be granted greater autonomy.

In 1953 while PM Nehru was visiting Kohima, the Naga capital along with his Burmese counterpart, the audiences walked out from the public meeting. This hardened the PM’s stance against the Nagas. Meanwhile Phizo and NNC had started arranging arms and organizing groups of home guards in villages. The state on its part moved platoons of paramilitary Assam Rifles into the district. The NNC leadership had gone underground by the summer of 1953. By 1954, things took drastic turn after an army officer accidentally knocked down a passerby and the police fired in panic killing a NNC member. This alienated the Nagas and extremists took over NNC abandoning petitions, preparing for an armed rebellion. In September 1954 the rebels declared the formation of ‘federal government of Nagaland’. In a bitter battle in 1955 in Tuensang area, 60 houses and several granaries were burnt down. By 1956, a full scale war was on in the Naga hills and killings and counter-killings became fairly regular.

In 1960, the Government of India and the Naga People’s Congress signed a sixteen point programme as a part of which a new state of Nagaland was created in 1963. However even this failed to quell the movement as majority of Naga inhabited areas were left outside the new state. In 1964, a Nagaland peace mission was formed which signed a ceasefire with Phizo which lasted till 1968. In 1975, the Shillong Accord was signed and the NNC agreed to give up arms and accept the Indian Constitution. Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu  who were members of the NNC revolted and termed the accord as a compromise on the Naga sovereignty demand. Along with S.S. Khaplang, Muivah and Swu formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). In 1988, due to leadership differences the NSCN split up into NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K).

The NSCN (IM) emerged as a major insurgent group and successfully integrated rival Naga ethnic groups which otherwise stood divided, by holding People’s Consultative Groups (PCGs) meetings across Naga inhabited areas. The outfit’s political causes of establishing the uniqueness of Naga history and ‘Greater Nagalim’ by integrating Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur struck the right chords in the Naga society.

In 1997 a ceasefire agreement was signed with the NSCN(IM) preceded by rounds of talks since 1995. Key feature of the agreement was that there would be no counter-insurgency attacks by the Indian forces on the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN(IM) would not attack Indian forces. Subsequently in 2001, a similar agreement was signed with NSCN(K). Apparently, the ceasefire agreements were signed to bring a lasting political solution to the long drawn out Indo-Naga issue.

With the death Isak Chisi Swu of NSCN(IM) in 2016 and S.S. Khaplang of NSCN(K), T. Muivah remains the senior most Naga rebel leader.

The Present Scenario

In 2015 the Government of India and NSCN(IM) signed the historic ‘Framework Agreement’ to find a possible solution to the Indo-Naga issue. The agreement was signed by R.N. Ravi, the interlocutor for the Naga talks and T. Muivah of the NSCN(IM) in presence of the PM Narendra Modi. The details of the Framework Agreement were first time tabled in the Rajya Sabha in 2018 as a part of the 213th report on security situations in the North-East by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs. The committee was informed that the agreement was about recognition of the uniqueness of the Naga history by the Indian government and that some special arrangement has to be made with the Nagas. On the question of special status the committee was appraised that the a status similar to Article 371A can be given with few local variations for Nagas outside the state of Nagaland.

By the Framework Agreement both the entities agreed to the concept of shared sovereignty and peaceful coexistence. In contrast to what was held by the Parliamentary Standing Committee the NSCN(IM) worked out in details all the factors that would define the nature of the relationship. The NSCN(IM) wants that the Nagaland government to cover all Nagas even those living in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, ultimately integrating all lands inhabited by the Nagas. According to NSCN(IM) there would Naga regional council in these 3 states having its own legislature, executive and judiciary. Natural resources would belong to Nagaland (presently less than a fourth is shared by the Central government). International relations would be with India except for matters related to Nagaland. There would be separate foreign offices for culture and education. The Nagas would have their own education system and also expect reservation in Indian educational institutions. Security would be with the local government but defences would be shared with the Indian army. The NSCN(IM) aspires to have a separate constitution, anthem and flag. The agreement reached will not be abrogated unilaterally and would require a two-third majority in Parliament as well as Nagaland assembly. The Armed Forces Special Power Act would be removed and not be imposed by India.

Immediately after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, the central government wanted to sign a final agreement with the Nagas within three months i.e. October 31st and integrate Nagaland with India just like any other state. To reach a final accord the government brought onboard a group of six organisations called Naga National Political Group (NNPG). The NNPG had raised questions on the proposed constitution of Nagaland. However, the NSCN(IM) has remained adamant about the flag and constitution.

There was a chance here to bring an end to the 22 year long dialogue process that started with the ceasefire agreement in 1997. However sidelining NSCN(IM) has brought the whole peace talks to an impasse. Further, T.Muivah has warned that if the peace process fails then it would be very difficult for the Indian government to bring them back to the negotiating table.

Until now, the central government has kept the state government at bay and not included them in the whole process. This undermines the popular will of the people and the democratically elected government which should have definite role in the peace process. Also, it is unclear why  R.N.Ravi, now the governor of Nagaland is still acting as the interlocutor (the office of Governor being a constitutional body and acts according to the centre).

The Challenges

The demands of the NSCN(IM) are similar to what Article 370 provided to Jammu and Kashmir which was separate laws, rights and degree of autonomy higher than the other states. The abrogation of Article 370 has not gone well with the Naga peace process and threatens to destabilize the entire north east. The North-East is a strategically crucial area as it shares boundaries with China, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Historically, the North-East has served as a gateway to Southeast Asia. For centuries invaders from China came through the North-East, settled down and assimilated with the local populations. In the post-independence era when violence erupted in North-East, insurgent groups sought and received arms, training and refuge from China.

Unlike Kashmir, which has a few hundred militants, the NSCN(IM) has nearly 7000 soldiers who are heavily armed. So, if the peace process fails the whole region would be destabilized. Further the NSCN(IM) has refused to give up on their key demands and are ready to hold back agreement. This would also mean that the other states in the region would be up in arms if the Indian government accepts NSCN(IM)’s demand. Meeting the demands would also provoke other ethnic tribes who have also guarded their identities and culture for centuries.

The Indian side are counting on the hope that the 22 years of ceasefire has blunted the NSCN(IM) cadres who would no longer be keen to go back to the jungles and reinvigorate the fight.

If the peace process fails to fructify it would be a major setback for the Central government. It would end up fighting insurgency in two fronts- Kashmir as well as the North East. The North East would again become a battleground for the Indian forces and NSCN(IM)

In the End

The only beneficiary of the whole peace process till now is the Governor of Nagaland, R.N.Ravi. R.N.Ravi started as a special director to Intelligence Bureau for North East going on to become the interlocutor for Naga peace talks and then Governor of the state. Other than him, no other involved party has found a solid ground to hold onto. For one, the Framework Agreement was kept in secrecy for far too long to arouse suspicion among the Nagas. And, then the signatory to the Framework Agreement was sidelined for a final solution. Probably, the centre has failed to understand that the Naga issue is different from the rest of the country and solutions that have worked elsewhere would not fructify for this problem.

The Indo-Naga issue has been continuing for far too long now and needs to be put to an end. A Naga doctor in 1956 wrote to Charles Pawsey, the last British deputy commissioner of Naga hills- “ as I see it, 0.5 percent of the Nagas are with Phizo, 1 percent with the moderates and want to break from Assam and come under Delhi and 98.5 percent just wants to be left alone…”. The above lines would stand true even after 6 decades.

The government on its part needs to be more pragmatic with the steps and tread carefully. Hasty moves by both sides is how the problem started at the first place. The North-East is important for India’s Act East Policy. But before the Act East Policy, India must act towards its North-East.

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