Many Pairs Of Eyes
Armed Naga and other groups also important in conflict resolution:
- National Socialist Council of Nagaland [Khaplang] NSCN(K) led by S.S. Khaplang; other half of old NSCN
- Naga National Council/Federal Government Nagaland (NNC/FGN) Led by S. Singnya and Zhopra Vero, ended fight amongst Naga rebel groups in 2009
- NSCN(KK) [Kitovi-Khole]: formed by Naga leaders who wanted to honour ceasefire against wishes of Khaplang
- UNLF Largest representation of the Meitei, objecting to a greater Nagalim.
- Kuki National Organisation (KNO): For a contiguous state for Kuki tribals.
- Smaller Naga groups: Zeilangrong United Front, Manipur Naga Revolutionary Front. Unlikely to accept current deal.
Looking for a quick-fix solution to a nearly 100-year-old movement—involving the identity and aspirations of over two million people with a unique culture and history—could never be easy. The August 3 agreement signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) leader Thuingaleng Muivah and the government of India’s representative, R.N. Ravi, in the prime minister’s residence in New Delhi may, therefore, be deemed too premature to be considered a success.
Nonetheless, PM Narendra Modi, in whose presence the agreement was signed, described it as a ‘historical peace accord’, even though the ‘framework’ put in place to reach a final solution to the Naga struggle evoked mixed reactions in Nagaland and other Northeast states.
To thwart any unnecessary speculation about divisions within their ranks about the agreement, Naga leaders drove down straight from 7, Race Course Road to a private hospital in the capital to get it signed by the NSCN(IM)’s ailing chairman, Isak Chishi Swu. But observers who have been closely watching developments involving the Nagas for years feel that the agreement, though a ‘big step’ in the right direction, has a long, arduous journey ahead of it.
Several of Modi’s predecessors, beginning with India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, had made earnest attempts in the past to find a lasting solution to the Naga issue. But most of them ended in failure and relapsed to long phases of distrust and violence between the Indian army and Naga rebels. Hundreds of lives were lost; property worth crores were ruined.
A cautious response, including from Muivah, was, therefore, understandable. “Better understanding has been arrived at and a framework agreement has been concluded,” he commented tersely. For, unlike the effusive Modi, Muivah knows too well that the task ahead of him, if the agreement has to succeed, needs support from a host of stakeholders. They include not only people within his outfit and among the Nagas, but from other people and tribes in neighbouring states.
One problem about the framework agreement, observers say, stems from its largely unknown contours. Indications are that even Union home minister Rajnath Singh was informed about it at the last minute. But before long, the details will have to be aired, especially since it needs support from all possible groups.
To start with, a series of consultations with groups in Nagaland will have to begin soon—an initiative for which the government and the NSCN(IM) leadership will be responsible. All the groups and tribes will have to be consulted and, individually, consent has to be gained from each. “It cannot be a top-down approach. Each of them will have to be an equal partner in this agreement,” admits a retired North Block official.
He and others point out that key questions pertaining to the future role of the NSCN(IM) leadership remain unanswered. For example, they say that unlike the Mizoram Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi in the ’80s, where the Mizo rebel leader was easily accommodated as the Mizoram chief minister, no such provision can be made for Muivah in Nagaland, since he is a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur.
While ‘greater autonomy’ could work for Nagaland, the important question is how the non-Tangkhul leaders and cadres (from Nagaland itself) of the NSCN(IM) would be accommodated in the state. More importantly, how the other dominant Naga tribes, particularly the Ao and the Angami—traditionally influential in politics and bureaucracy—would respond to their presence.
If Muivah and the other Tangkhuls are to be accommodated in Manipur itself, it also calls into question their future relations with the Meitei leadership in the Manipur state assembly as well as the Meitei insurgent groups in the state. A key question is how the IM faction will respond to control over Chandel district in Manipur, where rival Kukis had in the past fought bloody and prolonged battles with Muivah’s boys for control.
Then there’s the question of arms that remain with the Naga rebels as well as with other northeastern insurgents. Will the pact in New Delhi now force others to the negotiating table, or will it further fuel fractious bloodletting in the region?
While the full import of the agreement will take some time to unfold, many have already expressed surprise at the Modi government’s decision to choose Ravi as its key interlocutor.
In 2014, a war of words had broken out between Ravi, a retired IB official with years of expertise on the Northeast, and leaders of the NSCN(IM). Ravi had minced no words in making his feelings known then. The NSCN was, he said, a “promiscuous killing machine to terrorise people into submission” and the ceasefire with New Delhi was merely “capering about the mulberry bush without a stopwatch”. The NSCN responded in kind, referring to “Mr R.N. Ravi’s desperate attempt to confuse and legitimise phantoms...an exercise in futility”.
On August 3, as the ‘peace accord’ was signed at the PM’s residence, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone. When Ravi was appointed interlocutor, there was widespread opposition to it in the Northeast. Suspicion lingers as the Naga hills await the details of the framework agreement.
So what really made the government fast-forward a peace process that has consumed over 80 rounds of talks and five agreements to end the oldest running insurgency in the country? It wasn’t just the promise made by Modi last year or the failing health of top NSCN leaders.
Intelligence sources had been picking up chatter as early as January 2015 that lower-rung NSCN(IM) cadre were getting restless at the slow pace of talks. The commando-style ops of the NSCN (Khaplang) faction appeared to be far more attractive to them. Consequently, there was fear of large-scale defections to the Khaplang group. In other words, the GoI-IM ceasefire could break anytime.
Along with this was talk of large-scale recruitment and increase in cadre strength in NSCN(K). Intelligence agencies also reported an increase in movement of armed cadre outside territory ‘restricted’ as per the ceasefire agreement.
When the Khaplang faction broke the ceasefire in March, then showed their intent with the ambush of a military convoy that killed 18 Indian soldiers on June 4, New Delhi worried that the IM faction would go the Khaplang way. There were reports too of movement of arms from China and Myanmar, meant for the NSCN(K). In fact, intelligence inputs pointed to a major attack and a preparatory build-up. The June 4 attack only hastened things up in New Delhi.
Then, existing bloopers make this a special case. The framework agreement is being touted as an ‘accord’. The PMO seems to be quite oblivious to the fact that an accord needs cabinet approval and is signed by the head of the government after details have been hammered out through drafts that circulate between various ministries and stakeholders.
Indeed, this is a strange case of a deal whose contours are unknown. Not only the Union home minister, the home secretary and other senior officials, including the joint secretary in charge of the Northeast, the Nagaland governor and CMs of neighbouring states were also kept in the dark. The mystery is adding to the simmering unease in the Northeast. Already, the NSCN(K) is making ominous noises. Government officials in Nagaland admit that it held an emergency meeting on August 4, and submitted a fresh set of demands. They worry that their interests have not been addressed by a government blatantly favouring the NSCN(IM).
In fact, as late as July 27, the Nagaland assembly reiterated its past demands of a greater Nagaland by joining all contiguous Naga areas with the state of Nagaland and passed a resolution urging the Centre to implement the same. Both Assam and Manipur have promptly declared they will oppose any compromise vis-a-vis the states’ territorial integrity.
North Block officials say, to begin with, there isn’t much of a difference between what was decided on August 3 and what had been agreed on July 18, 2011 (between New Delhi and Muivah). Apart from that, “differences between the two parties have narrowed”. But the question is whether all issues have been addressed. Past words uttered in 2014 by a vexed R.N. Ravi has the potential to embarrass. “The ‘ceasefire’ with the outfit was in utter disregard for the logic of the prevailing situation. The stakeholders—the elected state government, traditional Naga bodies...were excluded from the process. New Delhi missed the vital fact that the NSCN(IM), notwithstanding its pan-Naga pretensions, is essentially a militia of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur with little resonance with the broad Naga family. A deal cut with it would not be acceptable to Naga society,” he had apparently said. But much of this could be grouse on the part of home ministry officials kept out of the loop by the PMO.
If a solution has been found, then the Nagas aren’t celebrating. The mood in the hills is of edgy speculation. If the stakeholders are unimpressed, then, in the words of R.N. Ravi again, it would be “impossible to expect sustainable peace from the ongoing process between New Delhi and the NSCN(IM)”.
Much of this initiative to find peace with the Naga rebels could well be part of Modi’s greater plan to ‘Act East’, where he is keen to connect India to other regions of Southeast Asia. With its role as the region’s ‘liberator’ off Beijing’s policy, at least officially, an aggressive China may diminish as a factor in the Northeast.
But more than anyone else, Isak Swu and Muivah would well remember Naga history. They were among the key Naga dissenters of the 1975 Shillong Accord, which had led them to float the NSCN along with Khaplang to protest the ‘sellout’ of Naga interests to New Delhi. If the August 3 Naga agreement and its contours are not sold well to Naga stakeholders, they may soon face a situation where the ‘sellout’ tag will be put on them by the younger generation of Nagas.
By Pranay Sharma and Meetu Jain