Are those who do not learn from history condemned to repeat it? It would certainly seem so in the case of the proposed Naga settlement that the Narendra Modi government hopes to reach with the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). The main insurgent group with whom the government has been negotiating for 22 years is likely to stay out of the agreement.
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, did something similar.
In July 1960, the Nehru government signed an agreement with the Naga Peoples’ Convention instead of the underground insurgents led by Angami Zapu Phizo. Known as the 16-Point Agreement, it led to the merger of the Naga Hills District of Assam and the Tuensang Frontier Division of NEFA into a single administrative unit, the present state of Nagaland. The Naga Peoples’ Convention was initially organised to facilitate dialogue between the armed insurgents and Delhi. However, the facilitators themselves became the main party to the agreement. That did not resolve the Naga insurgency.
The Modi government, reluctant to learn anything from the Nehru regime, may be headed towards a similar misadventure.
Three major hurdles have emerged: the Naga insurgents do not want to be a part of the “Indian Union”; they want a separate flag and a separate Constitution. The roots of these differences lie in an agreement reached in 2015 which has become different to sustain after the developments in Jammu and Kashmir after August 5.
After 18 years of prolonged negotiations with the largest armed insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN(IM), a “Framework Agreement” was signed with them on August 3, 2015. It was precipitated by the ill-health of Isak Chishi Swu, chairman of the NSCN(IM), who was fighting for life in the Intensive Care Unit of a private hospital in Delhi. An agreement to guide future negotiations was hastily put together and Swu’s signature appended to it from his hospital bed. As a Sema Naga from Nagaland, Swu’s agreement indicated the wider acceptance of the peace process since Thuingaleng Muivah is from Manipur. The agreement was projected as historic and lent legitimacy to subsequent negotiations.
Perhaps it was the hasty drafting of the Framework Agreement that has led to the present impasse. Celebrating “better mutual understanding” between the two sides, the agreement notes that after “due appreciation of the imperatives of the contemporary realities and regard for future vision” they agreed to end violent confrontation to “usher in comprehensive progress in consonance with the genius of the Naga people”.
Further, recognising that in democracies sovereignty lies with the people, the two sides committed themselves to respecting the peoples’ wishes “for sharing the sovereign power as defined in competencies [referring to subjects in Union, State and Concurrent Lists of the Indian Constitution]”.
This was followed by the statement that, “it is matter of great satisfaction that dialogue between the Government of India and NSCN has successfully concluded and we are confident it will provide for an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of the two entities (emphasis added)”. This phrase is the nub of dispute now.
The use of the term “two entities” had created confusion earlier in a ceasefire agreement signed in June 14, 2001. Since then the standing instruction to Indian negotiators was to never use the term which suggests that India and Nagaland are two separate entities. It is difficult to understand why then it was used again in 2015.
By the term “two entities” the Indian side probably meant the two signatories to the agreement, India and the NSCN (IM). However, it is being interpreted by the Nagas to mean that India and the Nagas are different sovereign entities. And as two different entities they have decided to forge a new relationship by sharing sovereign power, they believe that they have a right to retain their own flag and Constitution.
Similarly by an “inclusive” relationship Delhi means inclusion of other Naga groups in negotiations. This was used to justify dealing with the NNPGs. The NSCN(IM) insists that “inclusive” means applicability of the agreement to all Nagas whether living in Nagaland or in contiguous states. Their fear is that the settlement could be with the state of Nagaland alone as the NNPGs are based there.
After removing the separate flag and Constitution of J&K, the Modi government cannot concede them to the Nagas. Since the Prime Minister himself has apparently set a deadline to conclude the peace agreement by October 31, the attempt is to either bring the NSCN(IM) to heel or sign the agreement with those who were never a part of the 22-year-old negotiation but are eager to assume political power in Nagaland.
However, instead of trying to force a separate and meaningless “peace”, the Modi government can still avoid repeating Nehru’s mistake.
To begin with, it can admit that the framework agreement had been drafted in ambiguous language. Since that cannot now be undone, the government can suggest to the NSCN(IM) leadership that it take the draft final agreement of power sharing, which is indeed unique, to the Naga people through public consultations.
The people may well conclude that the power sharing they can achieve through this agreement is sustainable, pragmatic and satisfies their political aspirations even without a separate flag and a Constitution. That may give the NSCN(IM) leadership the opportunity to sign the agreement citing the people’s wishes.
If the people say that they are willing to convert the flag into a state insignia or emblem and that the peace agreement itself, incorporated in the Indian Constitution, can be called “Yehzabo” or the Naga Constitution, then that could be considered favourably. Then the “Naga Constitution” would become an
Article of the Indian Constitution.
However, setting artificial deadlines and not allowing time for the NSCN(IM) to hold public consultation on the flag and Constitution would be unwise.
Thuingaleng Muivah who has led the Naga peace negotiations with great patience and commitment is already 85 years old. Should these peace talks fail, it will take a few more decades for another visionary Naga leader to emerge.