No wait is too long for a passage to peace. The arrival of Mr Thuingaleng Muivah and Mr Isak Swu of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim in New Delhi can therefore mean a journey of hope , not just for them or the Centre, but for the people of the entire Northeast. That the two leaders who always insisted on holding the peace talks outside India have now agreed to do so in the capital is a welcome signal for the success of the negotiations so far. There is more than a symbolic meaning in the Naga leaders beginning their peace mission with a visit to the samadhi of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi at Rajghat. It has indeed been a long road from the jungles of Nagaland, where they led a bloody insurrection against the Indian state, inspiring several generations of Naga youth to die for their cause.
Both sides have worked hard over the past few years to prepare the ground for the rebels’ homecoming, the NSCN(I-M) honouring the ceasefire agreement and New Delhi reciprocating the gesture by lifting the ban on the outfit. Obviously, resolving the issues that have kept the Naga insurgency alive for long decades remains as great a challenge as ever. But there is one fundamental change that has made the peace process reach even the present stage. Both sides seem to have moved away from old perceptions. New Delhi has accepted that the Naga insurgency is a political, and not a law and order, problem. The Naga rebels, on the other hand, have realized that negotiations can achieve what armed offensives had not given them in half a century.
The most intractable issues remain the NSCN(I-M)’s demands for “sovereignty of the Naga people” and for a greater Nagaland that would include Naga-majority areas from some neighbouring states. There are reports suggesting that the two leaders want special arrangements for a separate flag, citizenship, defence, trade and currency for their proposed territory. These are the symbols of sovereignty and symbolism can go a long way in any peace process. But it would be wrong to assume that the fate of the talks is linked only to these symbols. The symbols actually stand for the Nagas’ desire to not only retain their separate ethnic — or even subnational — identity but also have it recognized by the rest of India. One cannot dispute the Naga leaders’ contention that a homeland is a geographical boundary only unless the people are free to nurture an identity of their own. There are other substantive issues the two sides have to thrash out before the question of sovereignty or its symbols is taken up at the negotiating table. But it is crucial that symbolism does not overtake the real thing in the forthcoming peace talks. There would be sceptics both within Nagaland and outside who would be wary of the concessions to the NSCN(I-M)’s demand for sovereignty. But instead of weakening India’s sovereignty in the area, a hard-won peace with the Nagas may actually strengthen it. Besides, it may carry the message of peace to other rebel groups that have drawn material and ideological support from the Nagas for long.