The deadline set by the government for settling the seven-decade-old Naga issue has come and gone. The ultimatum to “settle by October 31 or else” did not weaken the resolve of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muviah) to persist with its key demands.
In the end, it seems that the Nagas have neither given up their demand for a separate flag nor for a Naga constitution. New Delhi has wisely chosen to blink first but made it clear that it does not recognise these two demands. However, it has also agreed to keep discussions open on them in the ongoing peace process.
Reports that the NSCN (I-M) had agreed to the use of the Naga flag only for social and cultural purposes now appear to be misleading. This was apparently a suggestion of the government that was rejected by the NSCN (I-M). The Naga argument has always been that the flag is a symbol of their identity and its importance cannot be eroded.
Contrary to the misconception that the Naga flag is the flag only of of the NSCN (I-M), it predates the formation of the organisation. It has been hoisted by the Nagas since 1956, beginning with legendary separatist leader Angami Zapu Phizo, who declared Naga “independence” on August 14, 1947, a day before India attained freedom. It has been the symbol of Naga identity and struggle and binds all Naga tribes. It is unlikely that any Naga group will agree to give up easily on the flag, least of all the NSCN (I-M), which has lost hundreds of lives under that banner.
The NSCN (I-M) has also not retracted on its demand for a separate constitution, but has agreed to discuss the issue further. The demand for a separate constitution derives from the Naga belief, much as New Delhi may not like it, that they were never a part of India either by consent or by conquest. The Framework Agreement signed between the government of India and the NSCN (I-M) on August 3, 2015 recognised the “unique history and position” of the Nagas and the “universal principle that in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people”. It, therefore, proposed forging “an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of two entities”. This relationship was to be defined by “sharing the sovereign power as defined in the competencies” in the Indian Constitution.
The agreement’s recognition of the Nagas as a separate entity was read by the NSCN (I-M) as acceptance by Delhi that the Naga people were sovereign who were ready for “sharing sovereignty” by defining a new federal relationship with the Union of India. As a separate entity or a “nation”, the NSCN (I-M) believes that it is entitled to its own constitution even while seeking a close relationship with Delhi.
The Indian government’s negotiators perhaps read the agreement differently and did not mean to concede the Naga interpretation of “sharing sovereignty”, or implying that because “the history and position of the Nagas” was unique therefore the power sharing with them would also be unique.
The dilemma of the government is unenviable. As a signatory to the Framework Agreement, the space for manoeuvre for the government’s negotiators is fairly limited. So as not to jeopardise the peace process, the two sides seem to have put the contentious issues aside for the time being, promising to discuss them nonetheless in the future.
The government has made it clear that it is not in a position to concede either the Naga flag or a Naga constitution, but has emphasised that it understands the Naga sentiments. The NSCN (I-M) also understands the difficulties of the government. To this end, it has been noted that “both sides understood each other’s position” and therefore, “respecting the will of the Naga people and prevailing sentiments, the GoI and NSCN agreed that the two issues will be resolved amicably at the earliest possible through (an) earnest peaceful political process”.
The compromise saves the 22-year-old peace process and pending the settlement of the contentious issues, other details of defining the federal relationship -- of sharing of competencies or subjects listed in the Union, State and Concurrent Lists of the Indian Constitution — can proceed apace.
Meanwhile, there were seven groups — the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) — that were eager to settle with Delhi without a separate flag and a separate constitution. But Naga civil society groups were opposed to any such move and NNPG leaders, fearing that they would be isolated, were not keen to sign an agreement if it excluded the largest armed group, the NSCN (I-M).
Although New Delhi had opened parallel negotiations with them, now government negotiators have suggested to NSCN (I-M) interlocutors that they should include the NNPGs the final peace accord. The NSCN (I-M)’s argument against the NNPGs is that its members are either those who have signed past accords that failed, or worse, are factions that exist under the protection of the Indian security forces. These groups, they assert, have lost any right to represent the Naga nationalist cause.
The NSCN (I-M)’s position is that allowing them to participate in the dialogue, given their factional and hostile activities in the past, has to be based on a clear political understanding. This common political position can be acceptance of the Framework Agreement of August 2015. That agreement was hammered out after decades of negotiations led on the Naga side by the NSCN (I-M), and sets the political boundaries of any final accord.
While there seems to have been considerable agreement between the two sides on the competencies of the Nagaland government, several contentious issues remain. Though not insurmountable, they are complex. The proposal on creating territorial autonomous councils for Nagas in the states adjoining Nagaland — Manipur, Arunachal and Assam — without impacting their boundaries, for example, will not be easy, as the state governments will have to be brought on board. The Naga peace settlement is, therefore, still some distance away. It requires considerable patience and political acumen — not ultimatums.