Sunday, Dec 05, 2021

An Unending Dialogue

Despite 60 rounds of talks with the NSCN (IM), the stalemate continues. The GoI needs to institutionalise an inclusive conflict resolution mechanism involving other Naga actors like the NSCN (K), the NNC and the Naga Hoho.

An Unending Dialogue
An Unending Dialogue

On March 02, 2010, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim-Isak-Muivah--NSCN (IM) -- leadership led by its Chairman, Isak Chisi Swu and General Secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah held a dialogue with the government of India’s newly appointed Naga peace interlocutor, R S Pandey in New Delhi arguing for a sovereign state of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland).  

The separatist armed group presented a 30 point agenda to the government, during the talks, which also included, besides the sovereignty issue, matters relating to finances, taxation and the cultural heritage of the Nagas. The NSCN (IM) leaders also met the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and Home Minister, P. Chidambaram the same day. 

All agreed that ‘an honourable solution’ to the Naga ethnic conflict ongoing since India’s independence is a priority policy issue. An indefinite cease-fire is already in place between the government of India and the NSCN (IM), first signed in 1997.

Yet, despite the cease-fire and 60 rounds of peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the government of India, the political stalemate continues. 

The NSCN (IM)’s demand for sovereignty and unification of Naga inhabited areas in the Northeast is unacceptable to the government on two counts: first, the sovereignty demand is a direct affront on India’s territorial integrity and its notion of diversity. Second, other states in the Northeast like Assam and Manipur refute the NSCN (IM)’s idea of Nagalim as it includes huge chunks of their territories. 

(Significantly, in a field visit by the author to Naga inhabited areas in the North Cachar Hills district of Assam in 2008 and 2009, the general opinion held by the Naga tribes there was that they did not want to join Nagalim as that meant giving up their own religious faith ‘Heraka’ and converting to Christianity as dictated by the NSCN (IM) in its “Nagaland for Christ” statement since 1993.) 

On the other hand, the NSCN (IM) refuses to accept the fact that not all Nagas want to be included in its map of Nagalim; neither is it ready to look for a solution to the Naga conflict within the Indian Constitution. Consequently, dialogue, which should have resulted in changed relationships, has not been operationalsed in its fullest sense due to the ‘incompatibilities’ in the stands in the context of the Naga talks.

How is 'dialogue' understood by its practitioners? 

According to Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners published by the UNDP, IDEA and GS/OAS in 2007, dialogue implies ‘a sense of creating meaning through talking or reasoning together’. Dialogue deals with the challenge of understanding complexities at the social, political, and cultural levels buttressed by differences in perceptions of the contextual situation, vagueness regarding the causes of conflict, and ambiguity with regard to the future. 

Hence, the idea behind a dialogue is to squarely meet the challenge of coordinating meaning through participatory processes by bringing together diverse groups of actors with differences in personal experiences, perceptions, and at times, a history of violent conflict between them. The aim of dialogical conflict resolution mechanisms is to create conditions for coordinated action towards a common goal: the end of violence and the emergence of an inclusive and peaceful society.

Is a dialogue, as explained above, happening in the Naga peace dialogues since 1997? 

Not really. 

The reality in Nagaland and Manipur is that there is tremendous ‘security deficit’ in Naga inhabited areas due to intense inter-factional rivalry between the NSCN (IM) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland--Khaplang--NSCN (K)-- and ethnic armed ‘others’, like the United National Liberation Front of Manipur--(UNLF), a Meitei insurgent group from Manipur. 

Ironically, the Naga political dialogues, while successful in thwarting violence between the NSCN (IM) and the security forces have turned a blind eye to rampant extortion networks run by the NSCN (IM) in towns like Dimapur and Kohima, its blatant use of violent coercion to ensure population support, and its explicit hand in the small arms network running from Thailand, to India, via Myanmar.

The government of India’s policy of talking only to the NSCN (IM) also falls short of the notion of dialogue since there is no common ‘meaning making’ for peace in Nagaland and other Naga inhabited areas as the present dialogue framework leaves out other affected ‘diverse groups of actors with differences in personal experiences, perceptions’; groups like the Naga civil society actors, namely the Naga Hoho (Apex Tribal Council), the Naga National Council (NNC), and the other armed group, the NSCN (K). Without them included in the dialogue table, the future of Naga talks will be limited to cease-fires and a means of ‘prestige and status-building’ for the NSCN (IM), which does not represent the whole of the Naga community. 

Important Naga tribes like the Angamis, who pledge their support to the NNC, and the Konyaks, loyal to the NSCN (K), question the legitimacy of the NSCN (IM) as the sole representative of Naga political aspirations. 

Hence, there exists no concrete holistic vision for the future except the abstract NSCN (IM) proposals for sovereignty for Naga areas which incidentally is not, as the author discovered in a recent field visit to the affected Naga areas, the overlying sentiment of the Naga population. Most young educated Nagas are tired of insurgent cross-fires and extortions, and increasingly view India as an opportunity to better their prospects.

If one scans the ground in Nagaland, more legitimate groups like the Naga Hoho, Joint Forum for Gaon Burahs (village headmen) and Doaibashis (village elders) or the JFGBDB, and the various Tribal Hohos (councils) are the ground actors who have made ardent efforts over the years to bring about peace in Naga areas. They have conducted peoples’ consultative meetings, spoken out against the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) inter-factional violence, declared an underground cease-fire between all armed Naga outfits in 2007, and ensured that people have someone to go to against the extortions and criminality of the armed outfits. The Nagaland state has failed to provide basic security whereas civil society has succeeded in a limited way to fill that security gap. 

It must be understood that while the NSCN (IM) has continued with a rigid posture of sovereignty in the peace talks thereby creating obstacles to a reasonable solution to the Naga problem year after year so that it remains in business, the people of Nagaland by and large have expressed a deep seated desire to elevate their lives to a more dignified level, and are tired of the delaying tactics and “power-methods” utilized by armed outfits in their midst to extract their hard earned money from them. 

This has resulted in desperation and many young people have fled the state to other places in India or abroad for peace of mind. A young Naga in Australia lamented to this author last year that the sheer impunity with which the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (K) utilizes violent means to frighten their own people to submission have deterred her from ever thinking of going back to her own land in the future; the land of the mountains and the pristine streams that she once so loved in her childhood.

Why are the Naga people getting more and more disillusioned with the NSCN (IM)? The answer is not difficult to find. 

The armed group falls short on the three Rs -- Representative- ness, Rationality, and Responsibility --which usually qualifies a group or party to represent a community.

Representativeness: When it comes to representativeness, the NSCN (IM) falls short in a serious way. Most of its cadres are from the Tangkhul tribe in Manipur and so is its leadership. Large Naga tribes like the Konyaks and the Angamis do not view the armed group as representing them. Hence, an exclusive talk only with the NSCN (IM) will not help us to move forward in order to resolve the Naga problem. Significantly, NSCN (IM) supported candidates have even lost elections in its own so-called support base: Ukhrul in Manipur.

Rationality: The rationality of the NSCN (IM) is under serious question especially with regard to its use of violence to establish itself as a credible force in Naga society and achieve its political objective of Naga sovereignty. This show of force is most evident through its Naga Army and visible showcasing of its weapons. This has created an insecure environment. Rationality is thereby under question here on two counts:-

First, the NSCN (IM) for sure, knows that it can never defeat India militarily. Hence, its decision to continue its armed struggle in order to achieve its political objective has only come in the way of development of Naga society in a progressive manner.

Second,  the armed outfit thrives on a “narrative of victim- hood” blaming all the ills of the Nagas like economic and educational backwardness, and poverty on the Indian state while cleverly hiding the actual truth that it is perhaps most responsible for the culture of fear and poverty that pervades Naga society.

Responsibility: The practice of extortion, which includes house taxes and work permit taxes in Naga inhabited areas by the NSCN (IM) have ensured that no private investor dares to invest in Nagaland. Sadly, as a consequence, Naga youth, who are well qualified, leave the state in search of a better life in other Indian states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The use of violence by the NSCN (IM) has also created an atmosphere where people fear to venture out after dark in Nagaland or Manipur. This is a sorry state of affairs and tells badly on the NSCN (IM) as a responsible actor, which it claims itself to be. How can one trust the future of an entire community as brave and enterprising as the Nagas on an armed group that funds its daily activities through illegal and non-democratic means? The answer is obviously in the negative.

Therefore, it is not enough for the government of India to talk only with the NSCN (IM) in a conflict that has multiple stake holders equally affected by the violence. The government should seriously re-think in terms of institutionalising an inclusive conflict resolution mechanism, which has space for other Naga actors like the NSCN (K), the NNC and the Naga Hoho.

Otherwise, we may as well have to wait for a long time for peace to return to the Naga areas.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. 


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