A settlement to the protracted Naga conflict is possible only with the finalization of a peace accord, but that does not seem to come even after three years of deliberations since the signing of the “framework agreement.” What is causing the delay when the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government in New Delhi seemed confident of delivering on its promise of an acceptable solution for all to the Naga conflict before the next general elections?
India goes to the polls again prior to June 2019 and given the way things are, there appears to be little hope that the Naga peace deal will see the light of day.
On Aug. 3, 2015, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah or NSCN-IM and the Indian government signed the framework agreement that was meant to propel the peace process forward. The Indian government had shown its keenness to seal the peace deal before the Nagaland Assembly elections in February, which did not translate into action. The most recent talks of getting things moving before Parliament’s monsoon session were also short-lived.
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 has 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.”
Possible Reasons for the Delay
The ground situation is that of a growing sense of restlessness among the Nagas, and why not, as it concerns their lives and their future as a community. This growing frustration is palpable and more and more voices are now speaking out. “I wonder why this delay in signing the peace agreement,” asked the apex Naga tribal body Naga Hoho president P Chuba Ozukum. He told this writer that further delay would only complicate things and reiterated what he had said a couple of months earlier that “people are fed up and are looking for a solution.”
There seems to be no convincing reason for the unexplained delay. There have been speculations in several Indian news media reports attributing the delay to a lack of consensus among the Naga groups as to who should be a signatory to the final peace accord. Currently, the NSCN-IM and six other Naga groups under the banner of Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) are in peace talks with the Indian government.
But many Naga intellectuals who wished not be named are of the view that the actual reasons are far too complex, embroiled in a mesh of contradictions. “How can we have a peace accord when the core issue is still not addressed,” reacted a scholar of conflict studies from Nagaland.
Interestingly, the common person on the street holds a similar view. “Without settling the sovereignty issue, which is tied to the Naga integration issue, things will hit a roadblock,” said a group of young Dimapur-based entrepreneurs.
Sources in the Home Affairs Ministry too have said it that the issue of “integration of all Naga inhabited areas,” is still sticking out as the thorn in the flesh. In fact, the fundamental demand – that of sovereignty, which is entwined with the integration of Naga-inhabited areas – remains unresolved and appears to be not in sync with how the framework agreement lays out the peace guidelines.
The protracted Naga conflict started with the demand for “independence” from India and over the years it has changed to what is now a demand for a “separate Naga Homeland” or “Greater Nagalim,” comprising all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas in neighboring Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, to unite 1.2 million Nagas.
In July this year, the NSCN-IM issued a statement that said the integration of all of the Naga-inhabited areas in the northeast was an integral part of the ongoing peace talks with the central government. The outfit asserted that “the issue of integration of all the Naga territories is an integral part of the ongoing Indo-Naga political dialogue.” In fact, one of the key demands of the NSCN-IM has been integration of the Naga-inhabited areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur.
Most Naga groups like the Naga Hoho have categorically stated that integration is ‘non-negotiable.’ The Naga civil society from Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar have also articulated their desire to remain united as one family. 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.”
Meanwhile, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), an umbrella association represented by various organizations have in a statement on Sept. 8 titled “Declaration of the Naga Collective Spirit” made a categorical mention that Nagas “are in solidarity as one people on the issue of Naga Political and Historical Rights.” Though there is no reference to the Naga peace process or the framework agreement, the timing of the statement and the emphasis that “Naga Historical and Political Rights are the manifestation of our common hopes and dreams,” is clearly in sync with the calls for respecting Naga sovereignty and rights to territorial integrity.
The FNR comprises top Naga religious and social organizations such as the Naga Joint Christian Forum representing all Naga churches, Naga Mothers Association, Naga Hoho, Naga Students Federation, United Naga Council, Naga Women Union Manipur, All Naga Students Association Manipur, Rengma Naga Peoples Council Assam, Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, Consultative Committee for Just Peace, Naga Shisha Hoho, People’s Democratic Alliance Legislators and Naga People’s Front Legislators. All these groups have been active participants in the Naga peace process and have gone out of their way to reach out to various Naga armed groups to find a meaningful solution to the Naga conflict.
The FNR declaration said, “In asserting the Naga political position, we do not oppose any of our neighbors,” adding that “honoring the Naga Historical and Political Rights is not at the expense of our neighbors’ rights. Similarly, upholding our neighbors’ rights cannot be at the expense of Naga rights.”
Gaps in the Process and the ‘Special Arrangements’ Formula
There are clear contradictions between what makes up the framework agreement and the demand of most Naga groups regarding integration of Naga-inhabited areas under the “Greater Nagalim” model. The framework agreement essentially highlights acceptance of the “uniqueness of Naga history and culture” by the central government and the acceptance of the primacy of the Indian Constitution.
The framework agreement pledges to restore “pride and prestige” of the Nagas and is based on the concept of a “shared sovereignty” between the Nagas and the Indian government. It is a policy of give and take between the government of India and the Naga groups. India though has made it clear what it will not do. It will not go against constitutional norms, which prevent it from declaring any state or granting people full sovereignty. It also will not redraw any state boundary to accommodate the Naga-inhabited areas (Naga homeland) demand or allow a separate defense (military) formed from within the ranks of former armed combatants.
Recently, some important details of framework agreement (which until now was kept a closely guarded secret) were revealed as part of the 213th report on the security situation in northeast India. The report tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in the Rajya Sabha (Upper House) claimed that the Naga groups involved in the peace talks had agreed for a settlement with the Indian federation with a “special status.” The report also said that the Naga groups had reached a common understanding with the government that “boundaries of the states will not be touched” and “some special arrangements would be made for the Nagas, wherever they are.”
The report cited Article 371(A) of the Constitution which indicates that Nagas ought to be treated as a ‘special’ community and that “a similar kind of status, with some local variation, and some change to the Nagas in the neighboring states can be explored.”
However, the “special arrangements,” “special status” doctrine still comes across as vague to say the least, given that it still does not address the core issue of sovereignty. In fact, it has all the ingredients of triggering another conflict and with calamitous outcomes. The fact that organizations in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh have vehemently opposed the move and termed it the “creation of a state within a state” are clear indications of the underlying tensions and the sensitivity of this issue.
Opposition to Extension of ‘Special Status’
Last month a meeting between officials of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and the NSCN-IM scheduled to be held in Deomali in eastern Arunachal’s Tirap district bordering Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh had to be called off after objections from the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU). The organization had petitioned State Chief Minister Pema Khandu to not allow the meeting in Arunachal. The student union was of the view that the government of India had made it clear that “the (NSCN-IM) accepted the Indian Constitution to remain under Article 371 (A) and within existing Nagaland.”
Since the very beginning of the peace talks the three states of Arunachal, Assam and Manipur have been opposed to the demand for integrating the Naga-inhabited areas from within their territories.
The central government has on its part tried to pacify the concerned states and its people that nothing of the sort would be allowed. Indian Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh had on Dec. 8 last year said in response to questions on the issue raised by the three states that the territorial integrity of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur would not be compromised while inking the final Naga peace accord.
Finally, what perhaps assumes great significance is that even if the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in New Delhi wants to prove that it is serious about ending the decades-long Naga insurgency before the 2019 general elections, the big question is the peace deal itself and the response from the Naga civil society, parties that are in the peace process as well other states bordering Nagaland.
Let’s also not forget that the peace process would still be somewhat incomplete without the inclusion of the NSCN-Khaplang or NSCN-K. There have been calls from many Naga groups that the inclusion of the NSCN-K is a core issue for a holistic peace process and it remains to be seen if New Delhi will reach out to the outfit before the peace accord is finalized.
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.