K. Padmanabhaiah, T. Muivah and Isak Swu during discussions
Once in a while, an Indian minister or senior bureaucrat or one from Nagaland expresses hopes of an early settlement. But nobody takes him seriously and chances of an early settlement of the six-decade-long insurrection remain as remote as ever. Sixteen years have passed since the Indian government started negotiations with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction, but the dialogue is stuck on the issue of territory. A ceasefire was signed with the NSCN’s Khaplang faction but it was not included in the dialogue. A third faction that broke away from Khaplang and is led by Khole Konyak and Khitovi Sema is pushing for inclusion in the dialogue, but Delhi has not agreed to that demand thus far. So for those who believe that a comprehensive resolution of the Naga question will not be possible unless all the rebel factions are part of the dialogue, even the basic ground for a settlement does not exist as yet.
The NSCN (I-M) is determined to achieve ‘Greater Nagalim’ through a merger of the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with the Indian state of Nagaland. It may give up on its long cherished dream of Naga sovereignty, but someone like Thuingaleng Muivah, the general-secretary who hails from Manipur’s Ukhrul district, is not expected to budge on the territorial question. Without his own district and those of other Naga areas of Manipur in a future ‘Nagalim’, Muivah’s own position in Naga politics would be less than tenable.
The NSCN (I-M) is pitching for a ‘special federal relationship’, as Muivah first told me in a BBC interview in 2006 in Bangkok. He talked of a comprehensive constitutional package that would enable the Nagas to largely govern themselves. The NSCN also insists on jointly guarding Nagaland’s international borders alongside Indian security forces and have a separate Naga Constitution. None of these proposals was ruled out by Delhi and could be fine-tuned through more negotiations.
But the NSCN’s pitch for a ‘Greater Nagalim’ by getting parts of three neighbouring states sliced off to unite 1.5 million Nagas has run into trouble. The state governments of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have opposed the proposal and when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government extended the Naga ceasefire to other states, the violence in Manipur drove home the point that here was an issue which could help India solve one insurgency and bargain for a few more. Every symbol of the State like the assembly and the ruling party offices were attacked by angry mobs in the Imphal valley, even though there was no attack on Nagas. Little wonder then that New Delhi backed off.
Two years ago, the idea of a ‘supra-Naga state’ was floated as a solution after R.S. Pandey took over as the chief interlocutor for the talks with the NSCN. A former chief secretary of Nagaland who later became a Union petroleum secretary in Delhi, Pandey has unique insights into Naga society which few Indian public servants can claim to have. But the moment the ‘supra-state’ concept was reported in the media, it ran into resistance in the three neighbouring states, specially in Manipur which was bound for elections. The powerful Naga unity movement in the Manipur hills has already weakened the grip of the state administration in the state’s Naga areas and the chief minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, is said to have confronted P. Chidambaram, the then home minister, telling him that the Congress should be prepared to lose Manipur if it went ahead with the ‘supra-state’ model. Chidambaram promptly denied the reports as speculations though the ‘status report’ of the India-NSCN negotiations, which referred to the ‘supra-state’ proposal, had already found its way into the public domain.
Since then, the Congress has come back to power in all the three states opposed to ‘Greater Nagalim’ with huge majorities — Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The local leaders, especially Singh, has profited by stoutly opposing the ‘Greater Nagalim’ and the ‘Naga supra-state’ proposals, keeping Delhi at bay, raising questions about the Congress’s intentions. Nagaland has returned chief minister Neiphiu Rio’s Naga People’s Front to power with a bigger margin than before but that makes it three to one anyway. In the last two years, the Centre has put huge pressure on the NSCN, first by arresting Anthony Shimray and unraveling his plan to ship a huge consignment of weapons from Southeast Asia and then by ticking it off on the issue of growing rebel extortions. The Indian government is well within its rights to haul the NSCN up if the rebels are found importing weapons illegally or subjecting citizens to extortions. But there is no denying the fact that unless the deal is inked and a settlement arrived at, the rebels will be restive. In spite of the ceasefire, they will try to get weapons or to raise funds to run their organizations.
The yearning for peace in Nagaland after many years of conflict is palpable. On September 17, two leaders of the Naga Mothers Association broke into tears during a seminar at the Northeast Centre in the Jamia Millia Islamia University while discussing the long years of conflict and what it meant for women. It is basically in deference to this growing constituency for peace that the NSCN factions have stuck to the negotiations and not returned to the jungle to resume the guerrilla war as the Naga National Council did in the late 1960s. Eight years of ceasefire negotiations (1964-1972) ended in smoke and the guerrilla war ended up being energized by the return of the first batches of the cadre of the Naga Army that were trained in China. As during the 1960s, so also now, recruitment to the rebel ranks has not dropped. The NSCN factions have twice (if not thrice) the number of fighters in their ranks now than when they started the negotiations in July 1997. So India has no reasons to take the stalemate for granted, even though its immediate tactical objective of keeping the Naga rebels away from the battlefield has been well served. In the last 15-16 years, these factions have fought one another in a vicious turf war, often drawing in civilian Nagas who are averse to conflict. This is why it might not be possible to work out a settlement that can be implemented unless all the rebel factions are taken into confidence.
This is where the Naga situation is so different from the one in Mizoram, where the Mizo National Front negotiated an accord with the Indian government as an united group. The MNF had suffered some splits before the 1986 accord, during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, but they were more in the nature of desertions as the guerrillas who left the MNF joined other political parties or just stayed away from politics. The MNF was hit by a split after it had come to power in 1987, but that did not affect the implementation of the 1986 accord. In Nagaland, besides the three NSCN factions, one will also have to reckon with the splinter groups of the Naga National Council, which spearheaded the insurrection until the 1975 Shillong Accord. Muivah and Isak, who formed the NSCN after opposing the Shillong Accord, will not have to get something more substantive for the Naga people than they have already got through the 16-point agreement that gave Nagas a full-fledged state with special autonomy provisions embodied in Article 371. Or else how would these China-trained veterans justify the long years of the armed movement?
For Muivah and his Tangkhul comrades, ‘Greater Nagalim” is as important as a ‘special federal relationship’ before they call it a day. But if India refuses to talk to Khaplang because he is Burmese Naga, that works to Muivah’s advantage as it helps him monopolize the Naga rebel space. But in the Khitovi-Khole faction, India has a Nagaland-based Naga rebel faction that is not keen on ‘Greater Nagalim’ and is willing to dump the idea as Muivah was to drop ‘Eastern Nagaland’ (Burmese Naga areas) from the concept of ‘Greater Nagalim’. So Delhi may be in no hurry to expedite the process as it has many options to play around with. But the ‘special federal relationship’ that India was not averse to offering the Nagas held out the promise of settling other conflicts facing the nation. Apart from the opportunity to tinker with the polity to accommodate ethno-nationalist aspirations, a settlement of the Naga problem would be a psychological breakthrough for the post-colonial republic.
Many rebel groups who have drawn inspiration from the Naga separatists to start their own guerrilla campaigns would be constrained to reconsider their own positions and seek dialogue with Delhi. In its order of priorities, finding a solution to the Naga imbroglio should have been higher than creating a new state of Telangana. A solution to the Naga problem would also have a cascading effect — one that would herald more settlements and resolutions as well as strengthen the cause of peace in India’s troubled regions.