By Ajai Sahni*
A ‘historic accord’ was signed between the Government of India and the largest rebel Naga group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) on August 3, 2015, at once raising hopes and apprehensions against the context of what has been India’s most enduring insurgency. While few details of the actual contents of the agreement are yet available, the Centre’s principal interlocutor R.N. Ravi has clarified that the ‘accord’ is, in fact, a “framework agreement” that spells out the terms of a “final settlement”. Reports suggest that such a final settlement would be worked out in three months, and would exclude any claims to sovereignty or alterations in state boundaries.
There can be little doubt that, coming after nearly 18 years of negotiations under ceasefire, this accord has major significance. That it has happened under the leadership of the Narendra Modi Government, with R.N. Ravi as the Centre’s interlocutor, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval guiding the process, the credit will naturally go to the current dispensation. Nevertheless, it is useful to recognize that this is, at best, a no doubt big step in a journey on which several successive regimes had already covered many miles.
A release issued by the Prime Minister’s office on August 3, 2015, claimed that the Agreement would “end the oldest insurgency in the country… restore peace and pave the way for prosperity in the Northeast”, that it made an “honourable settlement” possible”, and that the “NSCN was represented by its entire collective leadership and senior leaders of various Naga tribes.”
The August 3 Agreement is far from a conclusive resolution of the ‘Naga problem’. There are still several armed factions that will need to be accommodated before the ‘Nagaland problem’ can be said to have been ‘resolved’, and at least some of these will be tempted to escalate violence in the immediate future, partially to increase their ‘leverage’ in future negotiations, and partly to occupy the militant ‘space’ purportedly vacated by NSCN-IM’s accord.
The Congress party has launched a campaign of rather strident, churlish and at least occasionally mischievous criticism of the accord, with party President Sonia Gandhi declaring that, since the ‘States had not been taken into confidence’, the accord was ‘insulting to the States and people of the Northeast’. The reality is, while details of the accord are yet to be disclosed, it is unlikely to deviate substantially from the underlying principles established under previous regimes, and would essentially reflect a continuity of efforts. Over 80 rounds of talks have been held between the Government and NSCN-IM leadership over the past 18 years. Through this process, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government led by the Congress did not ‘take the States into confidence’ any more than the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime has, and that is the nature of such negotiations. The accord is expected to contain the basic provisions that have crystallized over the past years, specifically, that the immediate deal will relate only to the territory of Nagaland, and that other territorial claims of the ‘greater Nagalim’ will be resolved consensually through dialogue with the neighbouring states. It is likely that the deal will pave the way to an election where the NSCN-IM or a successor political party will be facilitated to secure power through polls. The Congress party’s problem is sour grapes, because they weren’t able to push the deal to a conclusion during their tenure – though they were many occasions when a settlement was believed to be tantalizingly within reach.
There are, nevertheless, several aspects of the present Agreement that are troubling. Among these are the circumstances under which it is said to have been signed. The process is said to have been accelerated on the request of Isak Chisi Swu, NSCN-IM ‘chairman’, who is critically ill in a Delhi hospital, and wished to see the agreement signed in his lifetime, with several unsettled issues papered over.
At least some of this is already coming to the fore. Thus, NSCN-IM ‘kilo kilonser’ (‘home minister’) R.H. Raising has asserted, “we have agreed to share sovereign power with each other” and that “integration will be in the (final) agreement”. The ‘integration’ of all Naga dominated areas in neighbouring States is a sore point that led to widespread violence in Manipur in 2001, simply because the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM had been extended “without territorial limits”, an arrangement that had to be quickly reversed thereafter.
Further disturbing the projection of a wide consensus, Joyson Mazamo, Member Secretary of the Committee on Naga Political Affairs (CONPA) of the Naga Hoho, the influential apex body of the Naga tribes, insisted that “The IM group does not represent the entire Nagas” though he conceded that the group “enjoyed popular support.” However, he argued “We want integration and want all arbitrary boundaries removed.” The Naga National Council’s (NNC’s) President, Adino Phizo has declared, “Nagas are not Indians and Nagaland is not Indian territory”. Similar statements reflecting skepticism or hostility have come from a number of political formations.
There will, moreover, be renewed ferment among various armed Naga factions. The ‘final agreement’ with NSCN-IM would naturally and overwhelmingly favour this group and, at the same time, vacate a vast dissenting space which other groups – most significantly NSCN-K, but also the lesser formations, such as NSCN-Khole Kitovi, NSCN-Reformation, NSCN-Reunification, Naga National Council (NNC), Zeliangrong United Front and Zeliangrong Revolutionary Army, among others – will attempt to occupy. The contours of the final arrangement are already crystallizing, with Nagaland Chief Minister T.R. Zeliang declaring “I along with all members of the Nagaland Assembly are ready to step down, if an acceptable and honourable solution is found to the Naga people (sic), in order to make a new beginning.”
This is unlikely to satisfy the many other armed factions that are jostling for a place on the high table. NSCN-IM’s most irreconcilable adversary, NSCN-Khaplang, has already rejected the deal, with Niki Sumi, its ‘military supervisor (west)’, asserting that it was the ‘sole prerogative’ of NSCN-IM to ‘arrive at any kind of conclusion’ and was intended ‘exclusively’ for that group. Sumi declared, further, that the Nagas’ struggle for ‘sovereignty was an international political conflict between nations”, that “we do not recognize international boundaries” and insisted on ‘the intrinsic ideal of a compact Naga nation comprising every Naga-inhabited area as historically established.’
The NSCN-IM is, of course, by far the largest of armed factions, with an estimated cadre strength in 2012 of 5,600 based in nine designated camps in Nagaland. Another 100 cadres are located across the border in the Chittagong Hill Tract (CHT) region of Bangladesh. While the group has not engaged in violent activities targeting civilians or SF personnel for some time, one clash in December 2013 resulted in two civilian fatalities, and three Army personnel were killed and four were wounded in an ambush on April 2, 2015, in which NSCN-IM cadres are suspected to be involved. Nevertheless, the group has been involved in relentless turf wars with NSCN-K and, increasingly, with ZUF. Other Naga factions have had violent mutual rivalries, and there is little reason to believe that a quick consensus can be reached if the Centre is able to resolve its problems with NSCN-IM.
Further, the possibilities of a split within IM cannot be ruled out. IM was, itself, born out of a peace deal: the Shillong Accord with NNC in 1975, which some elements refused to accept, and came to create the then unified NSCN. When the loaves and cakes have been distributed, there will be many who feel they have lost out; it remains to be seen what they would do. The NSCN-IM does not represent the consensual leadership of all Naga tribes, and it is useful to recall that S.S. Khaplang broke away from the unified NSCN in 1988 along tribal fault lines, then claiming leadership of the Hemi, Ao and Konyak Nagas; even as the ZUF and ZRA were created in 2011 to represent the Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei Nagas. Isak Chisi Swu is a Sema Naga with his principal support base among his own tribesmen, while Thuingaleng Muivah has his political roots among the Thangkul tribe; the NSCN-IM leadership is far from representative of the kaleidoscope of Naga tribes, of which 35 are listed among the Scheduled Tribes under Article 342 of the Constitution, and this has often given rise to resentment.
Things are also likely to come to a head on the question of dismantling the NSCN-IM camps, of demobilizing and disarming its armed cadre, and of terminating the parallel ‘security’, ‘administration’ and ‘taxation’ networks long operated by NSCN-IM. Crucially, IM cadres are likely to plead that, unless all other Naga groups are disarmed, they will need to retain their capacities to defend themselves. Such a position, however, would lead to a perpetuation of an unacceptable status quo on the ground.
The deal with the NSCN-IM is also of critical importance for the insurgencies across the Northeast, because the group had become an opportunistic facilitator for a number of other insurgent formations in the region, and all these will suffer as a consequence of the loss of underground support from the IM faction. This may, however, mean that Khaplang will gain in influence. Nevertheless, the much larger infrastructure and capacities of the IM group would now, hopefully, be lost to the other surviving insurgencies in the region as well.
The peace process in Nagaland has dragged on for decades and has produced a succession of imperfect settlements. The NSCN-Reformation group, while welcoming the Centre’s accord with NSCN-IM with “high hopes” cautioned against to the “vast experience of failed accords and agreements in the past”. This tempered optimism is the only rational approach to perhaps the most complex and intractable of internal conflicts in India.
Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management & South Asia Terrorism Portal