The Naga peace process is a decades-old chaos of iffy ceasefire, ethno-political hubris, misdirection, one-upmanship and snafus.
Besides the general good of the Naga people and intertwined futures in the neighbourhood, there is another compelling reason to transform the absence of war to true peace and reconciliation. Even a trace of unease in the Naga homeland or any part of Northeast India hampers the true potential of India’s so-called Act East Policy, which seeks to link India and Southeast Asia with geopolitical and geo-economic threads ranging from roads and railways to trade and investment. This future cannot arrive by leapfrogging over urgent issues of identity, aspiration and dignity in this gateway region.
August 1 marked the 25th anniversary of the Government of India signing a ceasefire with National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group, in 1997, and August 3 marked the seventh anniversary of the high-optics Framework Agreement signed between the Government of India and NSCN (I-M) in 2015 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The ceasefire in 1997 sought to resolve what several Naga rebel leaders felt were the imperfect peace deals of 1960 and 1975 — the first of which led to the creation of the state of Nagaland in 1963 and the second led to the mainstreaming of several more rebels. These were seen by rebel leaders like Isak Chishi Swu (the I in I-M), Thuigaleng Muivah (the M), and SS Khaplang as selling out to India by eschewing autonomy —even Independence— for the Nagas, a dream since the cusp of India’s Independence. In 1980 Swu, Muivah and Khaplang formed the undivided NSCN. Khaplang violently broke away in 1988. Both factions have since spawned other splinters as a result of competitive egos and India’s intelligence craft.
The Framework Agreement of 2015 was expected to use NSCN (I-M) as a pivot to finally lay to rest decades of distress, anger and rebellion.
The error of the Framework Agreement was to effectively elevate NSCN (I-M) as the preeminent voice of the Nagas. It ignored more than a half dozen other rebel groups, including the breakaway Khaplang —or K faction— and several subsequent splinters. It also ignored the people of Nagaland and three other states in which there are Naga homelands: Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and, to a lesser extent Assam. It ignored their governments. The Agreement was sprung on them as fait accompli of lasting peace when it was really a flashy play typical of this government.
When government negotiators realised their folly, they began a parallel stream of negotiations with other Naga rebel factions — dubbed NNPGs or Naga National Political Groups. This also created pressure against NSCN (I-M). Government negotiators resumed discussions with Naga tribal organisations and influential church groups. Government ambassadors began evangelising comprehensive peace to legislators and voters alike across the four Naga catchment states.
The importance of this intertwining cannot be understated. Northern Manipur largely comprises Naga homelands. South-eastern Arunachal Pradesh is Naga. There are Naga pockets in Assam. Non-Naga ethnicities, like the majority Meiteis and the minority Kukis of Manipur with a relatively recent history of mutual tension and bloodletting largely triggered by Naga rebel groups, are wary of Naga pre-eminence. Indeed, in Manipur a hint of a peace deal ceding territory to an aspirational greater Nagaland remains an explosive issue.
In 2001, riots erupted in Imphal Valley over the wording of an agreement between Government of India and NSCN (I-M) that included all Naga areas in the ceasefire’s ambit. Several protesters died in police firing. The wording was recanted to maintain status quo —which unarguably remains the most bizarre ceasefire agreement in the world. The ceasefire with all Naga rebel groups extends only to Nagaland. Technically, the ceasefire doesn’t extend to Manipur, Arunachal and Assam — but is maintained at the peace-making sufferance of rebel groups and government forces!
The government also contributes to the problem by pandering to rebel groups in ceasefire or peace talks with the government, which are with full government complicity permitted to recruit, arm and train cadres. They enforce parallel administrations and influence elections. Weapons, narcotics, wildlife and timber smuggling, and extortion pay their way. Moreover, local political satraps often use rebel groups and the seductive economy of conflict for their own ends.
For their part, rebel leaders have for long lost the ideological plot. More provisions of autonomy and equity have been provided by India’s Constitution than any charter of governance —the Yehzabo— designed by rebels. Article 371A of India’s Constitution also guarantees for Nagaland the primacy of ‘religious or social practices of the Nagas’, ‘Naga customary law and procedure’, ‘administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law’, and ‘ownership and transfer of land and its resources’, besides preference for government jobs and other matters.
Article 371C provides for administrative safeguards for the tribal ‘Hill Areas’ of Manipur; while local laws safeguard the land and customary rights of tribal folk. Various other sections of Article 371 offer protection and security to citizens in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh; and to Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. It’s an irony that Article 35A, that guaranteed similar rights to the people of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was scrapped in 2019 on grounds of it hampering development!
There is a further complication, but one that rides on undeniable progress shepherded by government negotiators — most notably RN Ravi, who was reassigned from his role as negotiator and Governor of Nagaland in September 2021. This includes the aspect of rebel cadres being absorbed into society with reskilling and rehabilitation, and various police forces and paramilitaries. There is a proposal for a bicameral legislature for Nagaland to accommodate legislators drawn from various rebel groups. And a delimitation exercise aimed at increasing the number of seats in the assemblies of Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal and Assam.
There have also been suggestions to offer Manipur massive development sops and offer emotional sops to the Northeast in general by lifting the brutal Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, in Nagaland, Manipur and elsewhere to offset any perceived loss as a result of a comprehensive Naga peace deal.
There remains a problem. Swu passed in 2016, and I-M’s foe Khaplang in 2017. Would Muivah, his faction’s leadership, and leaders of other factions —used to vast power and funds— be content with ceremonial or political offices? What of their immunity from law and aggrieved citizens? What of their riches? Last-mile roadblocks are really about the post-conflict lives of rebel leaders.
I-M’s agitprop harps on the need to a special constitution and flag for the Nagas —either those or bust. But the slim chance evaporated when the government nixed similar special provisions in J&K in 2019.
The solution may now lie with the people of Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam—and their demand of more accountability from both political and rebel leadership for there to be any chance of a lasting peace.
(Sudeep Chakravarti is a historian, author, and commentator on matters of conflict-resolution and the intersection of democracy and development. His latest book is The Eastern Gate: War and Peace in Nagaland, Manipur and India’s Far East.)