By Sandipani Dash
The 15 year old process of negotiations to solve the Naga insurgency in India’s Northeast – the earliest and longest insurrection in the country – appears to be as intractable as the trajectory of the conflict itself.
The Union Government has, so far, held at least 70 rounds of peace talks within as well as outside the country with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the principal militant formation in Nagaland. The NSCN-IM has been under an extended cease-fire agreement with the Government since July 1997, though talks were first initiated by then Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao in Paris on June 15, 1995.
Nevertheless, the issue of sovereignty and the demand for the creation of a ‘Greater Nagaland’ (Nagalim) comprising Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, remain bones of enduring contention after all these years of negotiation.
In February 2010, the Union Government appointed former Union Petroleum Secretary R.S. Pandey as the new interlocutor to negotiate with the NSCN-IM. The Government had earlier decided not to extend the term of former Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah as interlocutor with the Naga outfit. Padmanabhaiah had been appointed for one year as peace interlocutor in July 1999, but had continued to hold this position till his replacement by Pandey. He was preceded by former Mizoram Governor Swaraj Kaushal, who was appointed as the first negotiator for the Naga talks in May 1998.
Since the appointment of the new interlocutor, three rounds of negotiations (two in New Delhi and one in Kohima) have been held between the Union Government and NSCN-IM. The first of these lasted two days in New Delhi, on March 2 and 3. While the NSCN-IM delegation led by its general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, submitted a list of 30 demands, including sovereignty for Nagaland and territorial claims over portions of neighbouring States, the Centre had prepared a 29-point counter proposal for the discussions, which included financial sops and greater autonomy. The NSCN-IM leaders also met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. The NSCN-IM’s demand for integration of the Naga-inhabited areas for creation of Nagalim and a separate constitution to protect the ‘unique identity’ of the Naga people were, unsurprisingly, rejected by the Union Government, and were turned down on the second day of the first round of negotiations in this phase.
The Union Government was, however, willing to discuss the issue of expanding the scope of federalism to give greater powers to the State of Nagaland for the management of natural resources, within the framework of the Constitution. On the allegations of violation of cease-fire ground rules by NSCN-IM cadres, two new committees were instituted to monitor implementation. One committee was entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring the situation within Nagaland, while the other, headed by a Special Secretary of the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), was to deal with any violation outside Nagaland.
Allegations leveled against NSCN-IM cadres for violation of ground rules are taken up with the outfit’s leaders from time to time. According to one official source, “On some occasions, the NSCN leaders simply deny the allegations, and on others they give an assurance that they will discipline their cadres.”
Subsequent to the first round of negotiation, NSCN-IM general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, visited Nagaland where he had held consultations with community groups, political leaders and Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). Pandey, the Centre’s interlocutor, also undertook a tour to the State to get feedback from ground level. Earlier, the Nagaland Assembly had adopted a resolution hailing the Centre’s move to give fresh impetus to the Naga talks by appointing an ‘appropriate interlocutor’.
Nevertheless, addressing the ’30th republic day’ celebration of the NSCN-IM at Camp Hebron, Dimapur, on March 21, Muivah declared that the “Nagas will not accept Indian Constitution”, and that there could be “no imposition on us”. Commenting his meeting with the Prime Minister and Union Home Minister, he said, further, that both leaders had tried to push for a settlement within the Indian Constitution:
But we categorically rejected the imposition or pre-condition put before us… We have told both the Prime Minister and the Home Minister during our meetings in no uncertain terms that a permanent solution cannot be found within the Indian Constitution, since the Naga problem is unique it needs a unique settlement…If they don’t respect the rights of the Naga people, then there cannot be any solution. If India respects the rights of Nagas, they will respect them 10 times more.
Muivah argued, further, that asking the Nagas to accept the Indian Constitution was in total contradiction to the pre-ceasefire agreement, which clearly stated that talks would be held at the Prime Minister’s level, in third countries without pre-conditions. He accused Indian policymakers of ‘backtracking’ from earlier agreements.
Meanwhile, Pandey stated that India has a concept of ‘shared sovereignty’, which could satisfy the Nagas. In some matters, he asserted, States are sovereign, while in others the Center is. The State List, he said, could be further augmented, keeping in mind the uniqueness of Naga society: “That is where we have to explore to settle the problem.”
Another round of talks with the Union Government followed in New Delhi on April 17. The NSCN-IM had proposed a federal relationship with the Indian Union with additional financial and legislative powers, while the Center offered a financial package for socio-cultural development of the Naga people. Among the issues in the charter of demands presented to the Centre, the NSCN-IM pointed out certain taxation matters and preservation of cultural heritage.
If there were any substantive gains here, they were quickly dissipated by Muivah’s plan to visit his native village, Somdal, in Manipur’s Ukhrul District. [Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel Districts of the neighbouring State figure in the NSCN-IM’s projected territory of Nagalim]. The visit was indefinitely deferred as a result of widespread protests and the Manipur Government’s decision not to allow him to enter the State, and a subsequent intervention by the Union Government requesting Muivah to delay his visit.
Substantial damage had, however, already been done, with ethnic polarization in Manipur worsening and a transport blockade in Naga dominated areas choking off supplies – including essential commodities – to Manipur. Even as Muivah insists he will go ahead with his visit at an undefined date, violent protests and counter-protests have virtually paralysed normal life across Manipur. The State Irrigation Minister and Government Spokesperson N. Biren Singh, on June 9, disclosed that Manipur was facing an acute shortage of food and medicines, with supplies of essentials cut off for the 60th day, following the indefinite economic blockade: “The food crisis is simply acute and also there is a severe shortage of life saving medicines with the blockade entering the 60th day and still no chance of breaking the deadlock.” Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Union Home Secretary G. K. Pillai said that additional Central Forces would move in on June 15, to break the 65 day-old Manipur blockade.
The crisis in Manipur could not be resolved even after a third round of talks with the 12-member NSCN-IM team, led by Muivah, at Kohima in Nagaland on June 1. The joint Press Conference, at the end of the talks disclosed zero progress, with statements worded in vacuous generalizations about the “sensitive” problem, and the agreement to “find solution to the Naga issue that is honorable and acceptable on the basis of the uniqueness of the Naga history.” Pandey refused to comment on the impasse in Manipur and, when questioned by the media, retorted, “You ask Mr. Muivah.”
Muivah, on the other hand, declared, “The sovereignty of the Naga people lies with the Naga people and not with others”, and insisted that the crisis in Manipur was created, not by Nagas, but by the Manipur Government and it should be solved by them with the Government of India (GoI). He accused the Armed Forces of Manipur of using force on a Naga ‘peace procession’, killing two students and injuring about 100 others, at Mao Gate in Senapati District on May 6: “The Naga people rallying for the right cause were just smashed out and hundreds of them were wounded. That is a big mistake.”
Subsequent to the third round of negotiations, Muivah shifted to Pfutsero in Phek District in Nagaland on a ‘goodwill mission’, after camping at Viswema in Kohima District, bordering Manipur, for nearly a month. Sources indicate that the NSCN-IM leader has plans to enter Manipur from the Kohima-Jessami Road, and the Manipur Government has rushed additional State Forces to Ukhrul and Senapati Districts to prevent any such attempt.
Meanwhile, the NSCN-IM’s bete noire, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K), under an extended cease-fire agreement with the Union Government since April 2001, has rejected the GoI’s negotiation process with the NSCN-IM as a ‘localized issue’ revolving around ‘an individual’s visit to his native village in Manipur’, and not representative of Naga aspirations. The NSCN-K has infact accused the Naga Hoho, the apex council of Naga tribes, of escalating tensions in Manipur. The Khapalng faction stated that the Hoho, once regarded as the epitome of Naga ingenuity, maturity and statesmanship, has suddenly turned into a group of ‘wanton boys throwing flaming balls into the neighbourhood in accordance to the script written by Muivah’.
Despite the fractious rhetoric, however, there has been a significant decline in factional clashes among warring Naga groups in recent years, at least in part due to the reconciliatory efforts of the Church-led Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR). According to the SATP database, internecine clashes escalated sharply through 2005-2008, but have registered a dramatic reduction thereafter.