| Vajpayee with a delegation from Nagaland in New Delhi
Five years ago in a down-market hotel in a suburb of Bangkok, Isak Chishi Swu, chairman of the underground insurgent organization, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), said to this correspondent, clutching a copy of the Bible: “We believe that god did not create the Indians to kill the Nagas. God wants India to glorify his name. India is one of the greatest democracies in the world…If the Indian leadership believes in the power of force then it would be acting against god.”
This was barely a month after the ceasefire declaration between the Indian armed forces and the Naga insurgents. According to Naga lore, more than 150,000 Nagas have been killed in the attempt to subdue them in the last five decades. There was murder, rape, arson and the grouping of villagers into virtual concentration camps. But none of this deterred the Nagas from continuing their armed rebellion against India.
Five years and four ceasefire extensions later, the Naga problem now seems ripe for settlement. The NSCN(I-M) is the largest and the most well-trained insurgent group in India’s northeast. It has trained other insurgents in the region and has been a role model for them. As long as the Naga insurgency is active, the other insurgencies in the region will also flourish. But settle with the Nagas and the others too will see it as a way of settling their differences with New Delhi.
Given the political will, a permanent settlement to India’s longest running insurgency could be reached within the next few years. Several developments have paved the way for a possible resolution of the issue.
First, the recognition that the Naga problem is not one of law and order but a political issue requiring a political solution, has gone a long way to help start the present peace process.
Second, the government of India has finally accepted that the history and situation of the Nagas is unique. By this formulation the Nagas want New Delhi to accept that unlike the other constituents of the Union of India, they did not become a part of India by accession, consent or conquest. However, this does not mean that from this unique position the Nagas cannot renegotiate a close relationship and bonding with India.
Third, the willingness of the government of India to look beyond Article 370 in Kashmir has also created a context in which it may enter the process of political negotiations with the Nagas with wider options. There can be little doubt that the devolution dialogue in Kashmir and peace negotiations with the Nagas will have a direct consequence on each other.
And finally, the negotiations between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan state have also opened up space for wider political negotiations in the subcontinent. Who would have thought that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam would give up the notion of independence and separation in favour of self-governance and homeland — after years of bloody war' The devolution of powers to Tamils in Sri Lanka in all likelihood may become the model for other such settlements in the region. The Sri Lankan Tamil, Kashmiri and Naga histories may be different but the issue being debated is the same — self-governance in historical homelands versus separation.
All these factors combined have contributed to the context within which the Naga issue has entered the political stage. Now that insurgency has been given up and there is no overt talk of any separate destiny for the Nagas (other than forging close links with India), major difficulties in the peace process have been removed. The negotiations can now move to substantive issues.
The NSCN(I-M) has submitted a document on its proposed relationship with India. Its details are not known but it clearly seeks to define the relationship between India and Nagaland in a manner acceptable to both sides. It is not impossible to find a language which will define the future bonds between the Nagas and New Delhi by reorienting the positions of both sides and recognizing the right of the Nagas to self-governance and maintaining their cultural identity.
A proposal to help settle the Naga problem was put forward publicly by R. Suisa, a Thangkul Naga, who was the member of parliament from Manipur between 1957 and 1962. In 1966-67, he delineated it in letters to the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and to the leaders of the federal government of Nagaland. The Suisa proposals for a compromise are worth examining as an initial negotiating position even today.
Although his ideas were not well fleshed out, in essence what Suisa wanted was the following — Nagaland and India to form a federation (“or call it by any name”, he wrote), Nagaland to be under the obligation not to do anything detrimental to the interests of India, a division of competencies, defining the ambit of separate as well as individual operations of the federal and the Naga government (akin to the Union, concurrent and state lists), close economic links (to begin with, Nagaland to use Indian currency, India to initially subsidize the Naga economy, no duties to be levied by India on goods moving from India to Nagaland), roads and the posts and telegraph in Nagaland to be maintained by India, the return and integration of all Naga territory, and Nagaland to preserve its distinct identity “in all matters of her own affairs and self-concern”.
Suisa wanted defence, foreign affairs and communications to be common subjects. He wanted India and Nagaland to have separate armies with a common defence policy; each party to have the freedom to forge relationships with any country provided such contact or relationship was compatible with the federal policy; control over communication (Suisa meant transport) to rest with either party in its territory but with no duties to be levied on goods moving between the two territories and the seat of the federal government to be Delhi or anywhere in India.
Not everything in the Suisa proposal may have been acceptable to India then or is acceptable even now. But as points of departure in a dialogue, his proposal is as good a place to begin as any. In the negotiating process, proposals and demands get transformed as confidence is built on both sides.
The only thorny issue in the Naga peace process is the integration of all Naga areas and the emotions it evokes in the region. It remains to be seen how creatively New Delhi can balance the need for maintaining the unity and integrity of the Indian nation with the sensitivities of the states which claim that the integration of Naga areas threatens their integrity.
What is needed now is a structured dialogue on substantive issues with no undue haste — so that the mass of the Naga population comes on board and has the time to discuss the peace proposals. Such a dialogue cannot take place with the Naga leaders living in Bangkok or Amsterdam. That is why the prime minister has invited them to Delhi for a sustained dialogue. But the negotiations now need to be elevated to the political level and the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has to choose a politician rather than a bureaucrat to deal with the Nagas.