The Irrawaddy

Naga Peace Process Hits Rough Patch: Indian Soldiers Killed in Ambush by NSCN-K Rebels

Naga rebel stands guard during 58th anniversary of unilateral day of independence at Hebron Camp, in northeastern Indian state of Nagaland. A Naga rebel stands guard during the 58th anniversary of unilateral day of independence at Hebron Camp, in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, August 14, 2005. Fifty-eight years ago, just hours before India won independence from Britain, Christian Naga separatists declared they did not want to be part of the new Hindu-dominated nation. Every year they renew that call. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi - RP6DRMVRVPAA

Even as the people of Nagaland await, believing that a solution to the decades-old conflict in the Naga hills is around the corner, the Indian government maybe be forced to do a rethink. This comes especially after the June 17 ambush on Indian security forces near Abhoi town in the Mon District of Nagaland bordering Myanmar, which left two soldiers of the 40th battalion of the Assam Rifles paramilitary force dead and four others critically injured.

The attack was carried out by the Khaplang faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K). It comes close on the heels of another attack in April this year by the NSCN-K, in which two Indian army soldiers were killed near lower Dibang valley district in the Arunachal Pradesh state of India, bordering Myanmar.

The outfit, which predominantly operates out of Lahe, Lay Shi and Nanyun in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar and shares borders with Nagaland and Manipur State of India, abrogated the bilateral truce with India (the truce was signed in 2001) in 2015 and has since been involved in offensives with Indian security forces. It attended the 21st Century Panglong peace process in Myanmar but has not signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

While the ambush has been questioned by a number of Naga groups, it has also once again brought to fore a concern that has been repeatedly aired by a number of Naga organizations – that of involving the NSCN-K in the ongoing peace process which may prove to be disruptive.

Most of the organizations that spoke out after the ambush on June 17 reiterated the need for including the NSCN-K, as they fear the current peace process between the Indian government and six Naga groups could be derailed if incidents like the one at Abhoi continue to recur. Even senior Indian government officials who did not want to be named feel that New Delhi needs to be introspective and weigh its options if it is to renew a peace dialogue with the NSCN-K.

The Indian government and the leading Naga insurgent group the NSCN (Isak-Muivah faction) or 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.

Six other groups – the Naga Nationalist Council, Federal Government of Nagaland, NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), NSCN (Reformation), National People’s Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord) and Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland (Non-Accord) have joined the peace process.

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.

The aggression of the NSCN-K – which is supported by the anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) – has raised serious concern. The anti-talk faction of the ULFA, which is also known as ULFA-Independent or ULFA (I), is headed by Paresh Barua and operates out of parts of Sagaing and Kachin State in Myanmar. The ULFA, which was formed as a separatist outfit in Assam in 1979, split into two factions following a decision by its chairperson Arabinda Rajkhowa to give up arms and become part of the pro-talk process in 2011. The Indian government outlawed the organization in 1990 citing it as a terrorist organisation, while the US State Department lists it under “other groups of concern.”

President of the apex Naga tribal body – Nga Ho Ho – P Chuba Ozukum was of the opinion that talks between New Delhi and the NSCN-K were the only option to ensure that the current peace process is not disrupted. The Naga Ho Ho leader believes that New Delhi may be reluctant to enter into a dialogue with the NSCN-K because currently it is seen as a Myanmar based group. “But to continue the peace process the Indian government must bring out a certain mechanism where Khaplang faction can also join,” he said, adding, “Let us not forget that earlier too, a ceasefire was signed with them.”

Ozukum is also of the opinion that unless New Delhi “removes the bounty” it has announced on some of the NCSN-K leaders, asking the outfit to come for talks would be futile. The Indian government banned the NSCN-K in 2015 and declared it a terrorist organization following an ambush by the outfit near the India-Myanmar border in Manipur that left 18 soldiers of the Indian army dead.

The Naga Ho Ho leader is surprised that “instead of bringing them NSCN-K back to the ceasefire the government has announced a bounty on some of its leaders.”

“Even if you want to renew the ceasefire they cannot come forward unless the bounty is removed. Why doesn’t India give another chance by removing the bounty against the NSCN-K leaders and talking to them,” he said, adding that all Naga organizations including the state government of Nagaland were ready to facilitate the process. “All of the Naga organizations are appealing to the NSCN-K to come and renew the ceasefire once again.”

On the Naga Ho Ho’s position on the recent killings of Indian security forces, the Naga leader had this to say: “Who likes killings? Nobody likes it. When people are fully focused on the peace process, I think this should not happen. That is what we feel.” However, he was quick to also explain that in the absence of a ceasefire between the NCSN-K and the Indian government, the tribal body could not “blindly condemn, or say anything against them (the NSCN-K),” adding, “I don’t mean I am supporting the killings or supporting the NSCN-K, all I am saying is that even when there was no ceasefire between the Indian government and the NSCN-IM there were so many killings. So the best option is how to convince the NSCN-K leaders and bring them under the fold of ceasefire once again.”

Recent interviews with a cross-section of Naga local groups, civil society and those that are part of the peace negotiations seem to reflect the same 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.

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 the other six other Naga outfits to be part of the peace talks besides the NSCN-IM.

The NSCN-K on its part has not responded or issued any statement on the peace feelers that have been supposedly sent out to them. If what is being played out is that only after the “terror tag” or the “bounty” is removed from the outfit and its leaders will it show some interest, then perhaps it would be sensible for New Delhi to ponder this and prevent an Abhoi-like incident.

As of now, all that has been heard from the NSCN-K is what its ‘deputy kilonser’ (deputy minister) Isak Sumi has said (as was quoted by the New Indian Express in an article published on June 17), that the attack was part of the outfits “summer offensives to sanitize the land against illegal deployment of occupational Indian forces and reign in their illegal activities, provocative movements, perpetration of terror and disturbances of peace and tranquility in the Naga country.”  On his Facebook page he wrote, “Wat a successful week…lesson teached to the illegal presence pf army in our homeland.” [sic]

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.