How will the Nagaland peace process pan out?   

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By Syed Ali Mujtaba

The elusive peace talks between India and Nagaland is on taters. Nothing tangible has come out in 23 years of negotiations and this has made Naga principal spokesperson Isak Muvia cagey. Hearing him, in the interview with Karan Thapar, on the ‘The Wire’ one gets the feeling that talks can break anytime. If that happens NSCN (IM) militia is going to take on Indian soldiers and India is going to take a final call on Nagaland.

Nagaland got statehood in 1963 and there is a semblance of Indian administrative structure present there. However, it’s a smoke screen and there is vociferous resentment to Indian rule.   While the Indian position in Nagaland is part of India, the Nagas demand is a separate country. This comes out clearly after watching the interview of Isak Muvia, the undisputed leader of the main insurgent group NSCN (IM) of Nagaland.

Muvia says Nagaland was never a part of British territory and India has no territorial claim over Nagaland. He wants India to accept Nagaland as a separate country. He wants India to recognize a separate Naga constitution and flag as symbols of Naga’s sovereignty.

Muvia says he cannot compromise on these two issues till the last man standing. He is only ready for incorporating some important sections of the Indian constitution in the separate Naga Constitution. He is also ready for shared sovereignty with India but on the basis of mutual respect of each other’s sovereignty.

The other demand of NSCN-IM is to create a ‘Greater Nagaland’ by uniting 1.2 million Nagas through the unification of Naga-dominated areas in northeast of India. Indian states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have Naga populations. He wants the Naga areas in the adjoining states to be amalgamated with Nagalim or Greater Nagaland.

These are very hard positions that India cannot accept. India has serious objections to the Naga’s right to sovereignty and claims to redraw the boundaries of the northeast states for their territorial unification.

The Naga peace talks have been going on since the 1950s with breaks and starting of the insurgency. India and the NSCN-IM have held more than 100 rounds of negotiations but no substantial result has come out of such talks.

The latest rounds of talks have been held since 1997 with Indian interlocutor Ravi, the current governor of Nagaland. India is demanding an official merger of Nagaland to Indian union and the NSCN-IM have rejected such demand.

With this it appears that the negotiations that’s been going on for the past 23 years is on the verge of a break down. The only option for India now is to assert its state power and military might as it has done in Jammu and Kashmir on August 5 , 2019 and the option for NSCN-IM is to go back to the insurgency path as it was the order before 1997.

The catch here is Naga insurgency is sustained by China. If India does that August 5, 2019 act on Nagaland, it will be handing China the new found opportunity to execute the ‘salami cuts.’ With the Naga population in the rear, China can run insurgency camps in Myanmar. If that’s the case, Myanmar cannot say no to China.

There is also a Christian angle to the Nagaland problem. Christianity entered into through its missionaries that converted the pagan Naga tribal, non-believers of any organized religion, to the Christian fold.

In this the American protestant church had a big role to play. The American evangelists in the Naga are right to self-determination.  The Christian world has backed Nagas insurgency as it has done Karan and Shan insurgents in Myanmar.

It is in this backdrop Nagaland peace talks have to be assessed. If India uses its muscular policy as it did on the state of Jammu and Kashmir on August 5, 2019, it has to plug the live wires that can spark at many places. Actually, the home Ministry had decided to take a call on Nagaland along with J&K but India’s strategic visionaries wanted to wait and watch to find out the fall out of the Kashmir policy.

 As far as now India has managed international, bilateral spin offs in Kashmir but to say it has solved the Kashmir problem through its unilateral action will be post post-truth.

However, when the peace talks with Nagaland are almost at breaking point will India apply the same muscular policy on Nagaland it did on J&K on August 5, 2020?

The Covid 19 has put a momentary lid on the tinderbox called Nagaland but soon India is going to take call to close it forever. If and when it happens it will be an interesting story to watch.

The genesis of the Naga problem dates back soon after India’s freedom. The Nagas were the first ethnic group in the northeast to revolt against New Delhi’s rule. On August 14, 1947 legendary Naga leader Angami ZapuPhizo and his Naga National Council (NNC) asserted that the Nagas were never a part of India.

The NNC in 1950 formally announced its desire to form a sovereign and independent Naga nation. This marks the beginning of the armed struggle in Nagaland.

The NNC in May 1951 claimed that 99 percent of the Nagas have supported a referendum to determine their future as a free nation but New Delhi summarily rejected such referendum.

  By 1952, the NNC launched a guerrilla movement, attacking Indian security posts to ignite a violent chapter in the history of Nagaland.  In 1956, Phizo formed a parallel government called the Naga federal government (NFG) and its armed wing, Naga federal army (NFA).

The Indian government in April 1956 launched a military crackdown on the erstwhile Naga hill districts in the undivided Assam. Phizo sneaked into East Pakistan and then to London. Since then, he led the NNC from London till his death in 1990.

In 1963, Nagaland was made a state of India. New Delhi made efforts to broker peace with the NNC and people like Jayaprakash Narayan and Rev. Michael Scott were then involved in the Naga peace process.

On Sep 6, 1964, a ceasefire was signed between India and the NNC.  Six rounds of talks were held but nothing came out of the talks India abrogated the truce in 1969 blaming the Naga rebels for continuing with violence and breaking the truce.

India banned three prominent Naga groups; the NNC, NFG and NFA. It was around 1971, chinks started appearing in the Naga freedom struggle. Members of the powerful Sema tribe broke away in 1968 and formed the revolutionary government of Nagaland (RGN). The RGN, under the leadership of General Zuheto Swu, joined the Indian mainstream with a number of its cadres inducted into the Border Security Force.

Indian troops also launched a massive anti-insurgency operation in 1973 and for the first time were able to force the guerrillas to surrender. The army operations forced the NNC to talk peace with the government. As a result, the Shillong Accord was signed on November 11, 1975, with the Naga rebels led by Kevi Yally, the younger brother of Phizo, accepting the Indian constitution.

But some within the NNC opposed the accord and prominent among them were Isak Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and S.S. Khaplang. Muivah was then the NNC general secretary and Swu a senior minister and Khaplang, a Burmese Naga, was president of the Eastern Nagaland Revolutionary Council, a wing of the NNC formed to protect Naga interests in Burma.

There was another twist in the Naga tale in 1980 when the trio of Muivah, Swu and Khaplang decided to sever ties with their parent body and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Muivah was made the general secretary, Swu the chairman and Khaplang the vice-chairman.

Since then the NSCN has emerged as the most powerful and radical rebel army in Nagaland.   The NSCN-led insurgency became bloody over the years. But soon the NSCN was mired in internal problems, with leaders differing on major policy issues on clan and tribal lines.

The NSCN split in 1988 with Khaplang forming a parallel NSCN (Khaplang) faction and Isak Muvia NSCN (IM). By 1992, the two NSCN factions were engaged in a fratricidal war over territorial supremacy. This provided New Delhi the much-needed opportunity to tackle insurgency. It forced the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) to come to the negotiating table.

A ceasefire accord was signed August 1, 1997.Since then the NSCN-IM and New Delhi have held more than 100 rounds of talks at various locations Switzerland, France, Italy, Netherlands, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia etc.

A similar truce was also signed with the NSCN (Khaplang) faction in April 2001but India has not opened any formal peace talks with NSCN (Khaplang) because of its feeble ground support.

Now, after prolonged twists and turns in the Naga rigmarole, the mood in both the sides is guarded. The Naga side wants ‘honorable settlement’ to end their long drawn struggle to establish their homeland. The Indian side does not want to entertain any such idea. The smoke screen of peace talks has been brought to prolong the matter.

Hammering out ‘honorable’ settlements with the Nagas is a major challenge that’s faced.   At the same time, truce with the Nagas is essential for the peace in the seven northeast states which is home to dozens of insurgent groups.

A permanent peace is needed in the northeast region which is so important for India to pursue its Act East policy.  If India really wants to push east it has to rework on the solutions to the Naga problem. In such a case it has to make peace with the NSCN (IM) the biggest insurgent group in the northeast region.

Nagaland is a mountainous state. It is bordered by Arunachal Pradesh to the north, Assam to the west, Manipur to the south and the Sagaing Region of Myanmar to the east.

Nagaland has an area of 16,579 square kilometers (6,401 sq mi). It has a population of 1,980,602 per the 2011 Census that are predominantly Christians. It is one of the smallest states of India. The Naga problem is one of the oldest disputes in South Asia. It has claimed more than 50, 000 lives so far.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist, based in Chennai, India. Heis author of the book India’s Eastward Thrust – Predicament and Prospects(Mittal 2020). He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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