Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to Lungwa in Nagaland’s Mon district on the India-Myanmar border on May 30 was aimed at boosting the morale of both the Indian security forces guarding this treacherous terrain and the residents of Nagaland’s Mon district, perhaps to assuage their fears that their land is in danger of being carved up by artificial boundaries. However, the defense minister’s visit (which came close on the heels of a series of stories by The Irrawaddy concerning the plight of local residents along the India-Myanmar border in Nagaland) was unfortunately marred by some unpleasant incidents soon after her departure for New Delhi.
On June 5, an armed Underground Group (UG) attacked a security post in Mon district’s Lampong Sheanghah village manned by soldiers from the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary unit. An Assam Rifles soldier was wounded in the pre-dawn attack. So far no armed groups have claimed responsibility for the incident, but the Indian military suspects it to be the handiwork of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K). The incident comes at a very difficult time, with the peace process being negotiated by Naga armed groups and the government delicately poised. The government hopes to deliver its much-touted solution to the protracted Naga conflict before the next monsoon session of the Indian Parliament.
The Indian government signed a ceasefire with the leading Naga armed rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), on July 25, 1997. Peace negotiations have had their share of ups and downs since then, with more than 80 rounds of talks paving the way for a “framework agreement” that was signed on Aug. 3, 2015. Six other groups under the banner of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) have joined the peace dialogue.
The defense minister’s visit to the security post at Lungwa and her attempt to freely mix with the Konyak Naga locals generated a certain amount of goodwill among local residents and Naga groups in general. Her visit to the house of the Konyak village chief, Angh Longwa, whose kitchen straddles the India-Myanmar border, left Sitharaman amused, prompting a tweet from her as she ventured across the line.
Though her visit lasted for only a few hours, locals appreciated her willingness to listen to their concerns regarding a proposed fence by Myanmar along the border, and India’s security measures in the area. Sources in the Indian Defense Ministry who accompanied the minister informed this writer that New Delhi had taken note of the recent reports published in The Irrawaddy that examined the challenges faced by residents of Dan village (in Nagaland’s Noklak district) owing to harassment by security forces, and the threats posed to the natural environment of the Khiumniungan Nagas. The harmful consequences on the traditional system of livelihood — “jhum” (shifting) cultivation which feeds thousands of people in this extremely difficult and challenging topography — was also highlighted by the local elected representative and community leaders.
The Naga peace process is in its final leg and may soon be ready to deliver a peace accord. Following her visit, Sitharaman barely had time to get back to work in her South Block office in New Delhi and start discussing alternatives to the proposed fence to ensure the process is not derailed, when the June 5 attack occurred. The incident has left the Indian administration understandably anxious and there is already talk of a fresh review of the situation on the ground.
On the ground, however, there have been strong reactions from various Naga groups. For instance, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organization (ENPO) and the Konyak Students Union (KSU) were among the first to voice their opinions. The ENPO condemned the incident, sending out a reminder of its Dec. 18, 2007, Tuensang Resolution, which declares that “the public of Eastern Nagaland are opposed to any form of violence, threats, intimidations or bloodshed within its jurisdiction, Eastern Nagaland.” The KSU demanded that those responsible for the incident “state publicly” the reason for “causing such atrocities upon the peaceful soil of the Konyaks.”
Both these organizations were perhaps echoing what others have been saying, that the return of peace is paramount to Nagaland. An ENPO press release appealed for peace and tranquillity and for all parties “to honor the same in the interest of peace in the region in particular and the entire state in general.” The KSU was a bit more aggressive in its reaction, saying it failed to comprehend why the assailants stormed the Village Guard (VG) camp. In fact, the VG camp is located adjacent to the Assam Rifles post. “Village guards are the protectors of the village. Their sole duty is to maintain a peaceful environment within its confined jurisdiction. Such atrocities upon the Konyak VGs are not expected,” KSU President Manlip Konyak and General Secretary Honang Konyak said in a statement.
But the question to ask is, can such incidents be prevented? Besides attacks by armed groups, be it the NCSN-K or any other, there have also been sporadic clashes between villagers and security forces. Only days before, as Defense Minister Sitharaman was contemplating a visit to the Pangsha area in Noklak, an angry mob of hundreds of villagers picked up their daos (machete) and chopped down the bamboo gates of a Assam Rifles post near Dan village after personnel at the post refused a request from the local village council to allow a village vehicle to pass and collect timber from a nearby forested area. “Such small incidents can be big for locals and it can cause a major conflict as was almost the case the other day,” said Hempao Lam, a church leader from the area.
“I am not surprised by the recent incident in Mon, and there is a possibility that such types of incidents will erupt again,” said Rosemary Dzuvichu, an adviser to the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), the state’s largest grassroots women’s organization, during a conversation with this writer. Though the identity of those responsible for the recent attacks is yet to be fully ascertained, the message that goes out is for the government to rethink its peace strategy in Nagaland and reach out to all other groups that are not part of it, especially the NSCN-K.
Stating the position of the NMA peace team, Dzuvichu said, “We have been very clear that if there is going to be any peace dialogue and bringing them [NSCN-K] back into the ceasefire, we really need to consider lifting the ban on the organization. There has to be some give and take before you can request them to come back to the ceasefire.” She added, “These are serious things that the government needs to understand. Just because you are talking with major groups you simply cannot wipe away this major group that’s across the border.”
The outfit, which predominantly operates out of Lahe, Lay Shi and Nanyun in Sagaing Region of Myanmar, was banned by New Delhi after it abrogated in 2015 a bilateral truce signed with India in 2001 and has since been involved in offensives against Indian security forces. It attended the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in Myanmar but has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
The NMA adviser said the Lampong Sheanghah village incident should serve as “a wake-up call” for New Delhi and warned against anything that is tantamount to window dressing only. Her sentiments echo those of many other Naga scholars and peace activists who feel that there have been too many encounters between the Indian security forces and the NSCN-K. “It’s been a waste of life,” she said. Dzuvichu has no qualms about voicing her skepticism over Defense Minister Sitharaman’s visit, saying, “We have to wait and see what is the outcome of her visit. I am quite skeptical of what is happening.”
“We have been the people who have been visiting the borders,” she said. “It is very clear that the Indian government has no interest in building up relationships with whatever organizations are there. We know what has been going in the borders, the violence, the killings, the clashes between the NSCN-K and the army. A lot of it is also fake encounters. In such a situation we really cannot say how serious the government of India is.”
This helps explain why many Naga intellectuals and even members of the various Naga tribes say that a visit now and then from a minister does not make any difference.
What might make a difference would be if New Delhi started to take seriously the consultations it has had with the different Naga organizations (including the NMA) regarding making the peace dialogue an inclusive process. NMA representatives have had meetings with Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh and his deputy, Kiren Rijiju, in this regard. Dzuvichu is of the opinion that “knowing full well what is happening in the border and not making gestures to really reach out to them [the NSCN-K leadership] is one of the biggest mistakes in the whole peace process.”
The NMA adviser has, with other members of the association, trekked through treacherous terrain to meet the NSCN-K leaders at their headquarters in Myanmar a number of times in the recent past. Each time they came back there was hope that the Indian government would respond positively and revive the ceasefire with the outfit. However, so far that hasn’t happened.
The Naga issue is sprinkled with various other concerns that could easily open up new fault lines and derail the already highly complex peace process. New Delhi has to understand that the various dots have to be connected or else the efforts (conflict transformation and peace) will be piecemeal. Thus, while a visit by Sitharaman assumes great significance for New Delhi, what is also important is that the delegation that traveled with her puts together a comprehensive report addressing all other issues surrounding the Naga peace process as inclusively as possible.
Putting aside the optics of the visit and assessing its actual impact, it would certainly be worthwhile to view this as a way forward to keep New Delhi engaged in the process of peace and reconciliation in Naga society and vice versa. That would certainly add value to the peace process and help to take it forward in the most inclusive manner possible.
Lastly, it must be said that there are many others, like the organizations that reacted strongly to the attack on the Assam Rifles post, who believe it is important for New Delhi to keep sending its emissaries, be it the defense minister or someone else. Perhaps for many it does not matter, even as India’s right-wing ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tries to deepen its foothold in Nagaland for obvious political gains ahead of the 2019 general election, as long as the political future of Nagaland, which will be dictated largely by the contents of the peace accord, is not compromised.