The Naga peace flight appears to have finally emerged out of turbulence and touched clearer skies after 22 years of negotiations. On Thursday evening, the Government of India’s peace interlocutor, Nagaland governor R.N. Ravi, and leaders of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN (I-M), the main protagonist of the Naga rebel movement, posed for photographs in New Delhi, clearly signifying the end of the negotiations. It is now clear — the deadlock over “core issues” with the NSCN (I-M) has ended. The hitch was over the NSCN (I-M)’s rigid posturing on its demand for a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas, triggering the obvious question: what have the two negotiating sides, the government and the NSCN (I-M), been doing all these years and why were the differences over the two demands not narrowed down until the last moment before the agreement is to be signed. But all’s well that ends well — New Delhi seems to have agreed to let the Nagas use their own flag, although nothing is clear on the other demand for a separate constitution.
Informed Nagas were indeed worried about whether there would be an inclusive Naga peace deal, one that has the consent and signatures of all the factions, meaning the NSCN (I-M) and the seven other Naga rebel factions that have come together and engaged in parallel negotiations with New Delhi under the banner of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). The question also arose whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi could be forced by circumstances to repeat the same mistake as Jawaharlal Nehru did in July 1960 to sign what is known as the 16-Point Agreement, not with Naga rebel stalwart of the time, Angami Zapu Phizo, but with the Naga People’s Convention, a facilitating group. But yes, one had to factor in the fact that year 2019 is not 1960, and that Narendra Modi is not Jawaharlal Nehru!
Since 1997, when the peace talks between the Government of India and the NSCN (I-M) began, the negotiation process ran into “bad weather” a number of times. But the two sides managed to emerge from such rough patches, leading to the signing of a so-called “Framework Agreement” on August 3, 2015, a document that was to be the basis of the final Naga peace accord. But now that the contents of the Framework Agreement has been revealed after four years, it emerged that it was this hotch-potch deal that also had the signature of NSCN (I-M) chairman Isak Chishi Swu, who subsequently died, that had led to the turbulence in the past few weeks.
The Framework Agreement was supposed to have recognised the Nagas and the Union of India as “two entities”. It is this construct — “two entities” — that has since been used by the NSCN (I-M) to push its argument that the two negotiating sides have agreed to have an arrangement of a “shared sovereignty”. Therefore, the NSCN (I-M) kept insisting on its demand for a separate flag and a separate constitution for the Nagas, and said there can be no solution without New Delhi conceding these two “core demands” of the Nagas. The government’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, R.N. Ravi, who was recently made governor of Nagaland, obviously with the mandate to clinch the Naga peace deal, had said in an official statement that it will not be possible for New Delhi to grant the Nagas a separate flag and constitution. In fact, after the Narendra Modi government abrogated Article 370 on August 5, the adoption of such a stand was understandable. But pragmatism and the obvious realisation that a piecemeal solution without the NSCN (I-M) was not going to resolve the Naga problem seems to have finally prevailed, and led to the change of heart on New Delhi’s part.
The 85-year-old general secretary of the NSCN (I-M), Thuingaleng Muivah, the group’s topmost leader, who is also the Ato Kilonser, or “prime minister”, knew very well, like the outfit’s other leaders, that if they do not manage to get a separate flag and a constitution for the Nagas, they cannot claim any “victory” whatsoever after 22 years of negotiations. Many thought that New Delhi could easily give the Nagas a flag and a statute because the NSCN (I-M) has watered down its demand from that of an independent Naga homeland to the bringing of contiguous Naga areas under a single politico-administrative unit to achieve what it calls “Nagalim” to that of border-less regional autonomy without altering the boundaries of the existing northeastern states.
The situation also saw a new drastic turn with the NNPGs taking centre-stage and increasing the momentum of their negotiations with the government over the past 18 months. The NSCN (I-M) has publicly described the NNPGs as “opportunists” and accused them of trying to capitalise on the situation. The question now is — with the NSCN (I-M) and the NNPGs on a collision course till the last moment, how would they work together in the coming days. One has to wait and watch. The NNPGs, unlike the NSCN (I-M), had sorted out the differences over the agreement some time ago.
Meanwhile, a former “home minister” of the NSCN (I-M), Hukavi Yepthomi, who was part of the NSCN (I-M) negotiating team, switched sides and joined the NNPG working committee last week. Published reports said he did so because he had to be “practical” and in sync with the “reality of the situation”. Another batch from the NSCN (I-M) has since joined the NNPG. If this trend continues, it may seem to weaken the hold of the NSCN (I-M), but things cannot be viewed so simply. Already, there are reports doing the rounds that scores of NSCN (I-M) cadres have disappeared from the designated camps where they have been staying for years, triggering speculation on whether they are gearing up for a renewed insurrection.
One thing which is clear now is that the Naga peace process had got entangled in layers, and unlike the two decades since 1997, when the key player was only the NSCN (I-M), there emerged other stakeholders in the form of the NNPGs to whom the government has attached lot of importance. But as long as the NSCN (I-M) and the NNPGs sign together on the agreement, the prolonged insurrection in the Naga areas would certainly reduce drastically, if not end altogether. But New Delhi cannot afford to ignore the fears of people in neighbouring Manipur and other Northeast states. This will have to be New Delhi’s topmost priority now. Of course, the government has said late Thursday evening that it would hold discussions with stakeholders in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal before the Naga peace accord is signed....