In its Final Leg, Naga Peace Accord Comes with More Questions than Answers

By Bidhayak Das 29 May 2018

In what appears to be the final countdown to the signing of the Naga peace accord, in all likelihood before the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament, there are hopes all around that the finalization of the accord will bring an end to the longest-running insurgency in India’s eastern frontier. However, the hope also comes with skepticism, as the fundamental issue – that of sovereignty – continues to be blanketed in mystery. Equally unclear are the answers, mostly speculative thus far, to the question of integration of Naga inhabited areas and the inclusion of all parties in the conflict, especially the armed groups that are based in the Naga hills in Myanmar, which is commonly referred to as Eastern Nagaland.

On the issue of absolute sovereignty, the Nagas have always felt that it is their inalienable birthright that was “illegally” taken away from them when the Naga hills were divided following the Anglo-Burmese Yandabo agreement in 1826 and later in 1953 under the Indo-Burmese demarcation in Kohima on the Naga territory by Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu, the then Prime Ministers of the two countries.

The Initiation of the Naga Armed Movement

The Naga conflict started in 1952 when the government of India sent the army to crush an insurgency that started with the formation of the underground Naga Federal Government (NFG) and the Naga Federal Army (NFA). In 1958, India enacted the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and used it to fight the Naga insurgents. The NFG is an offshoot of the Naga National Council (NNC). which was formed under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo, that declared Nagaland an independent state on August 14, 1947. The Naga hills were annexed by the British in 1881 and the first signs of Naga resistance began in 1918 with the formation of the Naga club. India included Nagaland (which was known as the Naga hills) as part of Assam in 1947.

The first attempt at settlement was made as early as November 11, 1975, when the Indian government succeeded in signing a peace accord in Shillong (called the Shillong Accord) with a section of the NNC and NFG agreeing to give up arms. However, not everyone agreed to the accord and about 140 members led by Thuingaleng Muivah and with support from Isak Chisi Suu and S S Khaplang formed the national Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. With the NSCN becoming the new chapter in the Naga insurgency, the NNC faded away with the death of its leader Phizo in London in 1991. However, in 1988 the NSCN had split into two, the NSCN-IM led by Isak and Muivah and the NSCN-K led by Khaplang after violent clashes between supporters of the two groups.

For the record, the Indian government and the NSCN-IM entered into peace negotiations on July 25, 1997, with the signing of a ceasefire agreement. The peace negotiations have over the years had their share of ups and downs and since then, there have been more than 80 rounds of talks paving the way for a “framework agreement” that was signed in August last year. The framework agreement was signed between the Indian government and the NSCN-IM on August 3, 2015.

The Peace Formula: Framework Agreement

The framework agreement, which pledges to restore the “pride and prestige” of the Nagas, is based on the concept of “shared sovereignty” between the Nagas and the Indian government. While the contents of the framework agreement have been kept closely guarded and have not been revealed to the media, what is clear is that the NSCN–IM, which is at the forefront of the peace talks with the Indian government, is keen on finding a “final settlement” to the vexed Naga insurgency that has witnessed extreme forms of violence and human rights abuses by both the Indian armed forces and also cadres belonging to different Naga armed groups.

It remains to be seen how the concept of “shared sovereignty” plays out in reality. Simply put, shared sovereignty is a policy of give and take between two entities (in this case the government of India and the NSCN-IM) which would attempt to deliberate on what is possible for New Delhi to accede to and what is not. The few things that India would not do are: go against constitutional norms that prevent it from declaring any state or people full sovereignty; redraw any state boundary to accommodate the integration of the Naga inhabited areas (Naga homeland), or demand or allow a separate defense (military) to be formed from within the ranks of former armed combatants.

On the surface, this approach to peace may seem acceptable, especially given that the conflict has taken its toll on Naga society and everyone wants a solution as was mentioned by the apex Naga tribal body Naga Ho Ho President P Chuba Ozukum during a recent tete-a-tete with this writer in Kohima. Other local Naga leaders echoed similar sentiments: “People are fed up and are looking for a solution, as the younger generation is a bit detached and it does not know about Naga history. Many youths who have gone outside don’t want to come back. How can I see my children suffer? I at least want to give my children a future.” But when we look at the bigger picture, it certainly appears that the core issue that led to conflict in the first place has yet to be clearly addressed. The talk of “shared sovereignty” certainly does not come close to addressing it.

However, when viewed from a conflict transformation perspective it would suffice to say that the ceasefire is only temporarily holding and it has helped to curb the violence. That’s about it. Given this viewpoint (and from what appears in the news media) it must be said that a general understanding or a comfort zone has been created among a certain group of people that gives a sense of “some kind of agreement.” But the moot question of whether the agreement will provide a solution needs to be asked. And it is not that this question is not being asked. Most Naga groups like the Naga Ho Ho have categorically stated that integration is “non-negotiable.” Naga civil society from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar have also articulated their desire to remain united as one family. This desire was clearly expressed by most of them at the last Naga Independence day celebration on August 14 at Hebron near Dimapur in Nagaland. The Naga Tribes Council (NTC), an umbrella of 15 Naga tribes, has also been quoted in local media in Nagaland as saying that “any efforts to integrate the Nagas emotionally or administratively without territorial integration cannot be considered a workable solution.”

The core issue of sovereignty is not just the trigger to the Naga conflict but it has also paved the way for the conflict theater in the Naga hills to become extremely complex. Thus, the coming together of the principal actors, and this means the NSCN-K and the NNC among others, and deliberating on a common understanding of sovereignty is crucial. This is more so because the core issue is integral to the issues of integration of Naga areas.

Therefore, while all the talks of what the framework agreement can provide would possibly help to propel the peace process forward, it still it does not answer the big question. From what has been reported in different national and local media, it appears that under the current agreement what India can deliver on is autonomous Naga territorial councils for Arunachal and Manipur; a common cultural body for Nagas across states; specific institutions for state’s development, integration and rehabilitation of non-state Naga militia and the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.

A traditional Angami Naga tribe welcome gate on the way to Kohima/Bidhayak Das

The Issue of Sovereignty and the Involvement of the NSCN-K

What iterates loudly is the central argument that if the core issue remains out of bounds there will always be a question mark. It would not be wrong to say that many scholars of peace and conflict studies who have observed the developments are spot on when they say that the current developments “have limited the peace process to the negotiating table.” Not only is it not inclusive but also a peace process should surely be seen in its entire form. One Naga scholar compared the peace process to the wheel of a bicycle, the outer rim of which seems to be connected to the center without all of the spokes. “With many spokes damaged and many missing the entire structure is fragile,” he said adding, “The spokes are transparency, trust-building, and confidence-building measures. Some mechanism has to be there. You can name the spokes and it’s not that they are abstract.”

Recent interviews with a cross section of Naga local groups, civil society and those that are part of the peace negotiations seem to reflect one major concern—the involvement or the absence of the NSCN-K in the peace process. Surely any talks in which the NSCK-K are not involved are incomplete. The outfit, which predominantly operates out of Lahe, Lay Shi and Nanyun in Sagaing Region of Myanmar, abrogated the bilateral truce with India (the truce was signed in 2001) in 2015 and has since been involved in offensives with the Indian security forces. It attended the 21st Century Panglong peace process in Myanmar but has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

Indian media The Times of India in a report published on March 23 this year quoted the NTC secretary Theja Therieh as saying, “We have also sent feelers to the NSCN-K and it has been conveyed to us that they are not averse to peace talks. Last November, the government of India had told us that if they (the NSCN-K) are willing, it too is willing to invite them for talks. The government said that if there were no takers for its peace talk invitations, it would be an uncomfortable situation.” The NTC has been successful in bringing six other Naga outfits to be part of the peace talks besides the NSCN-IM.

Many others spoken to by this writer during a recent trip across five districts of Nagaland echoed similar apprehensions that “leaving a key player out directly implies that one is not interested in addressing the core issue.” The Naga issue is unique in the sense that the various ethnicities that make up the tribe have been divided into different administrative and political entities without their consent.

The Peace Package and the Challenges for New Delhi

There isn’t any doubt that both New Delhi and the NSCN-IM have had extensive deliberations on what is permissible under the Indian Constitution for the Indian government to accede to, which surely conveys limitations of the latter to give anyone any right to declare any state of India or people full sovereignty. And this is perhaps reflected in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s messages in one of his many meetings with Naga delegations where he said that “independence lies with the people.” Modi’s message also echoes what the Indian government has been saying on the NSCN-IM demand for sovereignty – that India accepts the uniqueness of Naga history and culture and Nagas are partners in India’s nation-building process and have as much claim and right over India as India has over Nagaland.

But as the process moves forward questions will be asked, perhaps posing more challenges than solutions to New Delhi, the NSCN-IM and the six other groups that have sat at the negotiating table. Some issues are symbolic like that of a separate flag for the state, a separate passport and a joint defense force. These issues are, however, very tricky and would also add to the tests for Indian government appointed peace interlocutor R N Ravi going forward. There have been other equally tricky issues that have been voiced by many other Naga groups like an independent Constitution, creation of a local police and judicial system, the right to use Naga currency, and a permanent UN representative. Whether these issues will eventually define the question of Naga sovereignty or the peace accord will hold in its current form and be accepted by all Naga groups and civil society is the million-dollar question.

What perhaps assumes great significance are questions raised by many scholars and thinkers who have been observing the peace process such as “can the NSCN(-IM) speak on behalf of more than three million people? Even if they do, the question is, would the framework agreement be acceptable to all Nagas including our brothers and sisters from the other side?

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.