Is the Naga peace process heading in the right direction?

A quarter of a century would have gone by on 1 August 2022 since a ceasefire was signed with the NSCN (IM). It was hoped that a lasting solu...

A quarter of a century would have gone by on 1 August 2022 since a ceasefire was signed with the NSCN (IM). It was hoped that a lasting solution to the insurgency would come about with the cessation of hostilities and institution of dialogue between the NSCN (IM) and New Delhi. But for one reason or the other the talks — even when there were signs of breakthrough — have got mired in controversy and have broken down. Analyses seem to point to the rigidity with which both sides have approached the peace process. The fact that the Naga issue has multiple stakeholders and consequently there is a delicately poised tightrope for the stronger party (read: New Delhi) to tread is clear. But on many occasions incredible ad hocism has been exhibited by New Delhi, leading thereby not only to impasse but wanton violence.

On 14 June 2001, there was an absurd agreement between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India interlocutor, K Padmanbhaiah, whereby the ceasefire was extended without territorial limits. The result was complete mayhem in the Manipur Valley resulting in the burning down of the Manipur Assembly. The day is still observed as “The Great June Uprising, Unity Day” in Manipur. Fourteen years later New Delhi came up with yet another “rabbit-out-of-the-bag” trick. This time around it was the historic “Framework Agreement” which nobody but a few chosen people were privy to. It has now come to be known that the “riddle wrapped up in an enigma” was hurriedly drafted in order to procure the signature of the president of the NSCN (IM), Isaac Chisi Swu even as he lay on his death-bed.

The motivation was but to ensure that the NSCN (IM) was not just a Tangkhul organisation and Swu’s signature would corroborate that “false perception”. After all the dying president of the NSCN (IM) was a Sumi Naga! In any event the scriveners of the “Framework Agreement” could not hold onto the deception for long and the much tom-tommed “Agreement” and talk of a “resolution” just round the corner too met a proverbial end. The bizarre appointment of the interlocutor, RN Ravi as the governor of Nagaland and Ravi’s subsequent “brawl” with the NSCN (IM) leadership led to yet another breakdown of talks which ended with the ouster of Ravi from his gubernatorial assignment in Kohima.

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In any event, a new interlocutor, AK Mishra has been appointed and talks have re-started. However, there are already murmurs that the NSCN (IM) is not happy about the manner in which the talks are progressing. The organisation continues to stick to its demands about a separate flag and constitution as well as the integration of all Naga-dominated areas into its concept of Greater Nagalim. It is analysed that the primary reason for the repeated breaking down of talks between the two is lack of trust. The article makes certain pointed recommendations by which trust can be rebuilt in the Naga Peace Process.

·        The negotiations should be kept away from public gaze as far as possible. Hype, frequent proclamations that peace is round the corner, denunciation and quarrels in public have been the bane of the post-2015 negotiations. Care must be taken to be as circumspect as possible.

·        Major developments would naturally draw publicity. But it must be ensured that the momentum is maintained with well-calibrated steps leading up to a well-grounded conclusion. The grandiose publicity about the “historic” 2015 Framework Agreement which was not made public, and the slow progress thereafter eroded faith and created the perception that the “Agreement” was in effect a strategy to wear down the NSCN (IM). The reaction, therefore, was one of protestation and belligerence.

·        Avoid complicating interlocutor responsibilities. RN Ravi’s appointment as governor of Nagaland over and above his duties as a neutral interlocutor placed his constitutional responsibilities at odds. As an interlocutor he was expected to maintain cordial relations with the NSCN (IM) which was not the case when as governor he began making unsavoury statements about the activities of the NSCN (IM).

·        The NSCN (IM) may be positioned to extract negotiating leverage from the breakdown in talks in the Ravi era. There is a possibility that they might exploit both a) the renewed regional instability in Myanmar/India-China boundary and b) political and civil society pressure as leverage to obtain concessions.

·        Stand firm against pressure to secure a quick fix. Time, space and sustained dialogue are necessary to rebuild trust in the Naga relationship. Years, not months, should be the expected timeframe.

·        However, it is important not to drag out negotiations excessively. While a “peace dividend” has decreased the risk of a full mobilisation/return to the jungle, any future changes to the NSCN (IM)’s post-Muivah leadership may risk a more belligerent position. The NSCN (IM) remains a large, active militant organisation able to shape ground-level law and order realities, whether extortion-related or active operations in contested areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh. Perceptions of a Kautilya-esque strategy of wearing out insurgencies undermine the spirit of goodwill and honourable solution.

·        The appointment of a new interlocutor was a positive step. However, patience will be required to rebuild the trust that Ravi succeeded in destroying.

·        The talks can start afresh by reviewing the existing 31-point charter of demands, focusing on reaffirming existing progress on non-territorial issues.

·        Priority should be on studying and working on aspects such as autonomy in the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur and the workings of a pan-Naga body. The “Flag and Constitution” are likely to remain on the table until other contentious issues, such as the extent of autonomy in the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur and the workings of a Pan-Naga body have been correctly worked out.

·        The move to the “Flag and Constitution” issue should be kept until the end. It is almost a given that a separate “Constitution” will not be acceptable to the Government of India. However, an innovative workaround for the “flag” could be explored. While the abrogation of Article 370 from Kashmir has restricted the negotiating space for the Naga issue, a provincial flag is not legally prohibited, provided it is subordinate to the Union flag in official settings.

·        Confidence-building measures should be seen as interventions into a delicate ecosystem of actors and not just to repair bilateral relations with the NSCN (IM).

·        A Task Force to revisit the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Bill 2021 should be constituted immediately. A revised bill could redress longstanding inequalities in land purchase rights, presents an opportunity to equitably distribute power and lay the basis for connecting with a Naga “Autonomy Plus” deal even as it assuages the concerns of the Manipur Valley.

Negotiating a vexed issue such as the Naga issue would require not only novelty, but also the need to focus on bridging the chasms and ironing out thrust areas. The process would, unfortunately, be slow, but patience marked by bonhomie, respect and mutual trust are going to be critical features that could one day herald the end of the longest-standing insurgency in post-independent India.

The writer is a well-known conflict analyst and author of several bestselling books on security and strategy. Views expressed are personal.

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Is the Naga peace process heading in the right direction?
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