Wednesday, May 31, 2023

War and Peace: A Brief History Of The Naga Issue

War and Peace: A Brief History Of The Naga Issue

The NSCN-IM is claiming for the past couple of years that New Delhi is misinterpreting the 2015 Framework Agreement. Peace negotiations had gone back to square one by October 31, 2019, the government's deadline for detailed peace accord, making 25 years of peace efforts futile.

Photo credit: Getty Images
The Naga agitation and bid for self determination

In June 1960, when a 57-year-old Angami Naga arrived in London, the British security officials detained him immediately.

“How come you can travel to London without a valid passport?” a security official asked. To which the man replied promptly, “The same way you came to my country without any passport.”

That was Angami Zapu Phizo, a fierce Naga rebel leader remembered as the Father of the Nagas. Phizo waged a war against the Union of India in the hope of forming an independent Naga nation by integrating 3.5 million Nagas since the 1950s and their territories scattered across India's Northeast and neighbouring Burma (present day Myanmar).

At a time when India was on the verge of getting Independence and it started solidifying its boundaries, Phizo first requested Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to not include Naga Hills and its surrounding areas, sandwiched between the windswept mountains of Burma and Northeast India, into the Union. Phizo was representing the Naga National Council (NNC), the apex Naga political organisation formed in 1946.

Nehru, who until then had ensured autonomy of the hills, declined Phizo’s request. Seeking self-rule, the NNC had also announced on August 14, 1947 the Naga independence. In 1951, it also held a Naga plebiscite in Kohima to assert their demand for a free, independent Naga nation, in which 99.9 per cent of Nagas who voted chose a sovereign Nagaland. The message was to leave the Nagas —an isolated hill tribe believed to have migrated from China from around the 10th century and settled in Myanmar and Northeastern part of India— on their own. However, the Government of India did not recognise the plebiscite.

Later Phizo formed the underground Federal Government of Nagaland (FNG) and a Naga Federal Army (NFA) to continue with his separatist movement.

Phizo fled the Naga Hills in 1956 following the advice of other Naga leaders when Nehru sent over 1,000 Indian forces to sabotage the growing separatist movements in the hills. He first fled to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and then to Geneva. He ended up living in exile in Britain for the rest of his life while trying to garner international support for a ‘Nagalim’. Meanwhile, the Government of India enacted the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 to give security forces more power to contain the Naga insurgency.

In 1963, the state of Nagaland was formed as the 16th state of independent India.

Brigadier (Retd) Dr SP Sinha, in his book, Lost Opportunities, wrote, “The new state of Nagaland was formed to take the wind out of rebel’s demand for independence.” He wrote that despite opposition from Government of Assam and the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Nehru had to accept the proposal, ostensibly because “the Chinese were getting extremely belligerent, and confrontation in NEFA [North-East Frontier Agency] had already taken place. The fear of a possible China-Pak nexus was ever present and it was considered prudent to tackle the volatile internal situation at the earliest”.

Phizo could never return to the Naga Hills, and in 1990, he died in London. Since then, the movement for a separate country for the Nagas has been helmed by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), a breakaway faction of NNC. In 1980, five years after the Shillong Accord was signed between NNC and Government of India where it accepted the Indian Constitution, following sustained military pressure from the Indian government, the NSCN broke away from the NNC. 

Bargain with the Indian government

Thuingaleng Muivah, the present General Secretary of NSCN (I-M) was the youngest leader of NNC who joined the organisation in 1964 when Lal Bahadur Shashtri was the Prime Minister of India. He became the General Secretary of NNC a year later. Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Ukhrul district of Manipur, reached Beijing in 1967 along with Thinoselie M Keyho, the another NNC leader, along with 132 Naga rebels. In Beijing, he and others underwent training with Chinese weapons and enjoyed support of the communist government of China. After sometime, two more leaders Mowu and Isak Chishi-Swu arrived in Beijing and joined Muivah. Muivah got furious with the ‘treachery’ of NNC which signed the Shillong Accord with the then-Governor L.P. Singh. One of the signatories was Kevi Yalla — the youngest brother of Phizo.

In 1980, when Muivah broke away from NNC and formed the NSCN, the manifesto of the new party reflected Maoist jargon, rejecting a multi-party system and emphasising the “dictatorship of the people through a revolutionary organisation”, besides the liberation of Nagas from the “exploiting class”. The same year, he returned to Nagaland. After his arrival, the Naga Hills saw violence between the two factions NNC and NSCN. The rebels of NSCN were equipped with AK 47 and other Chinese weapons. The church sided with the NNC.

In August 1991, 10 policemen escorting the Nagaland Assembly Speaker were killed by NSCN (IM). The same year in December, extremists killed 10 security personals and a driver in a successful attempt to steal Rs 73 lakh.

In February 1993, rebels ambushed paramilitary soldiers in Manipur's Senapati area, killing six. Two rebels were also killed in the attack. The list goes on and on. 

According to reports, from 1992 to 2000, Naga insurgency claimed over 1,600 lives, both of civilians and Indian Army.

Meanwhile, the Indian government kept on conducting counter-insurgency operations in the hills. In 1995, Operation Golden Bird was carried out by Indian Army on Indo-Myanmar border to interdict a large consignment of weapons escorted by NSCN-IM. It resulted in insurgent casualties and seizure of the consignment.

Amid growing counter insurgency attacks by security forces, the NSCN (I-M) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government of India in 1997, where 11 ground rules were set, barring offensive attacks by NSCN (I-M) and security forces upon each other. It also said no safe haven or sanctuary to any armed group or elements among other. However, the agreement did not spell out any specific geographic limitations of the ceasefire. In 2001, the ceasefire extended without any territorial limits.

In the next 18 years, the ceasefire agreement ensured relative peace in Nagaland. The period also involved intensive negotiations with Government of India involving six prime ministers of different political parties and over 80 rounds of talks. 

A year after the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power at the Centre, NSCN-IM entered into a Framework Agreement with the government of India which the former termed as “historic.”

The NSCN came into existence rejecting the Shillong Accord in 1975. It had been demanding a sovereign Naga territory wedged between India and Myanmar. It did not recognise national borders. In the 2015 Framework Agreement, it was stated that “both sides have understood each other’s respective positions and are cognisant of the universal principles that in a democracy, sovereignty lies with people. Accordingly, the Government of India and NSCN, respecting people’s wishes for sharing the sovereign power as defined in the competencies, reached an agreement on the 3rd of August 2015 as an honourable solution”.

The copy of the Framework Agreement was kept confidential by mutual consent for the next five years citing security reasons

Differing on what’s agreed upon?

Peace negotiations are back to square one after the government’s deadline for a detailed peace accord by October 31, 2019 ended. Meanwhile the NSCN-IM's demand for a separate flag remain as deadlocks for all future negotiations.

For the past couple of years, the NSCN-IM has been alleging that the Indian government is misinterpreting the Framework Agreement of 2015. In March, addressing the General Assembly of Unrepresented Nations and People's Organisations in Washington, Muivah claimed that the "Framework Agreement" says that both Nagalim and India will co-exist as two entities, sharing "sovereign power" which will be defined by competencies. “Co-existence means, Nagas will not merge with the Union of India but they will co-exist with India maintaining normal entities,” said Muivah.

Muivah also said that the Indian government recognised the territories of the Nagas, stating that land and all the natural and mineral resources on the surface and beneath of it belongs to the Nagas. It also recognises the legitimate right of the Nagas to territorial integration of all Naga areas under one political roof.

“Since the unique history of the Nagas and the sovereign right of the Nagas are recognised, it is understood that the Naga flag and constitution are ingredients of their sovereignty,” he added.

It seemed both the parties differed on the understanding of the Agreement.

However, in April 2022, A.K. Mishra, the Centre’s interlocutor in the Naga peace talks, reportedly told the NSCN-IM leaders staying in Camp Hebron in Dimapur that the government would not change its earlier position of not allowing a separate flag or constitution for the Nagas. It was conveyed that the groups can have a separate flag for only their cultural activities.

The peace talks between NSCN-IM and the Indian government hit the first deadlock when two years after the Framework Agreement, the Centre invited the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs), a confederation of seven Naga rebel organisations for talks. It led to the signing of “Agreed Position”. According to a press note of the NNPGs, in the ‘Agreed Position’, “GoI recognises the political and historical rights of the Nagas to self-determine their future in consonance with their distinct identity”.”

Unlike NSCN-IM, the NNPGS are not demanding a separate flag and a constitution.

However, in 2019, the Centre and the NSCN-IM agreed to sign an accord that included a "conditional flag" that could only be used for non-governmental purposes and did not include a separate Naga constitution.

A separate flag and constitution for the Nagas bears little chance after the abrogation of Article 370 by Centre in 2019.

However, NSCN-IM has been firm on its stand so far, creating a major block in the way of solving India’s one of the oldest insurgencies.

According to Neingulo Kromei, a rights activist and the General Secretary of Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), side-lining the NSCN-IM and negotiating with a different group like NNPGs is a strategic move of the Indian Government to delay the peace process.

Kromei told Outlook, “Since the beginning of the movement in 1946-47, the political accession, the 1952 public referendum where 99.9 per cent voters said they want an independent Nagaland, the mood of the public is still the same. But along the years, a lot of different categories of people have come to the stage, a lot of people from the privileged class group have been created over the years. These few privilege class people don’t want to sacrifice their comfort. These are people who are now saying that they want a solution which is not originally based on the principles of what the Naga people want.”
Kromei, who has been raising the Naga issue in international forums like United Nations, feels the Indian government created clearly people of two different school of thoughts. This is where the main conflict lies now.

Autonomy vs Sovereignty

“Take what you have got so far,” said Dr. SC Jamir, 90, the five-time Chief Minister of Nagaland, and the lone surviving signatory of the 16-point Agreement between Naga People’s Convention and Government of India in 1960 that led to the formation of Nagaland as the 16th state of Indian Union.

He told Outlook, “I want to tell those people [fighting for an independent nation] that whatever you have sacrificed, we appreciate. But whatever possible under the present circumstances, whatever is drawn up, let’s be proud of that. Tell the Naga people that we have tried for so many years, but this is the only possible thing which is available today under the present political environment.”

Jamir, who met the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah in May, said, “The Home Minister and the Prime Minister both are very clear that they will not agree on separate flag and constitution. In fact, the Naga people also want autonomy incorporated in the Constitution. My only suggestion is that whatever is decided so far should be put in action. You cannot keep lingering to the issue for so many decades.”

Notably, Jamir, who has survived several attacks by separatist rebels during his tenures as Chief Minister of the state, is still criticised for signing the 16-point Agreement.

The Naga Hoho, the Apex Tribal Naga body, whose origin dates back to India’s Independence, feels that two separate agreements are creating confusion among the people of Nagaland.

Talking to Outlook, K. Elu Ndang, General Secretary of Naga Hoho, said, “When the framework agreement was signed, people were given with a ray of hope that now there will be a situation where the Nagas will have a better life. But that expectation, the joy did not last long. Instead of strengthening the framework agreement by bringing all the groups together which is inclusive in nature, the Government of India decided to sign another agreement which is called as Agreed Position. When this agreement came in, this gave a shock to all the Nagas. This led the entire Naga people into a very confused stage.”

He also said that Naga Hoho and other civil organisations have been insisting on the Government of India, through its interlocutor, to make sure that the Naga political dialogue and the outcome should be inclusive.

He said, “It cannot be exclusive. It has to be inclusive of all the Naga Political groups from all the Naga areas scattered across boundaries.”

According to Kromei, Naga groups like NSCN-IM should keep negotiating peace as it is the only solution. 

He added, “Nobody wants to go back to pre-ceasefire situation. So we say keep talking and find a solution which is honourable for both the parties.”