Opinion

No End in Sight for India’s Naga Peace Talks as Rebels Harden Stand on Flag, Constitution

By Jayanta Kalita 23 October 2020

The already fragile peace talks between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M), the largest rebel group in the country’s northeastern region, are likely to hit new roadblocks with the latter hardening its stand on the issue of a separate flag and constitution.

“We have stood our ground on these two non-negotiable issues and we shall continue to stand until the last man standing,” Thuingaleng Muivah, the octogenarian general secretary of the outfit, said in an exclusive interview with The Wire, a digital publication. He has also made it clear that “the Nagas will never be part of the Indian Union nor will they accept India’s constitution.”

The Nagas are a community comprising about 40 tribes (the exact number is unclear) spread across four northeastern states: Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as parts of neighboring Myanmar.

The Naga peace process, aimed at finding a permanent solution to India’s oldest insurgency, has been in limbo for almost a year now. And Muivah’s latest assertions may not go down well with the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, which only last year scrapped Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which allowed a certain amount of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, including its own constitution and a separate flag.

One step forward, two steps back

The NSCN (I-M), which entered into a ceasefire pact with federal authorities in 1997, seeks integration of all Naga inhabited areas with their Greater Nagalim homeland.

After years of negotiations with successive regimes, the rebel group signed a Framework Agreement with the Narendra Modi government in 2015. The latter then appointed RN Ravi, the present governor of Nagaland state, as interlocutor for the peace process. However, the NSCN (I-M) became suspicious about the government’s intentions when it initiated simultaneous talks with half a dozen other Naga outfits, known collectively as Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs).

Things started to go south in June this year when governor Ravi, a former top official of the Intelligence Bureau, wrote a scathing letter to Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio alleging that “armed gangs” were brazenly running their own governments in the northeastern state challenging the legitimacy of its elected authority and creating a “crisis of confidence” in the system.

While the letter stopped short of naming NSCN (I-M), it dropped broad hints about militant groups indulging in intimidation and extortion, and running what was seen as a “parallel administration” in the state.

The NSCN (I-M) hit back, saying, “There is a trust deficit on [Ravi’s] his role as interlocutor because he is desperately trying to undermine the Naga issue. The biggest question pricking the mind of the Nagas is if Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi has put in place the wrong person to help him solve the longstanding Indo-Naga political issue.”

The current crisis

In August, the NSCN (I-M) released, for the first time, the details of the 2015 Framework Agreement, accusing interlocutor Ravi of deleting a key word from the original document. It claimed Ravi “craftily deleted the word ‘new’ from the original” sentence that read, “we are confident that it will provide for an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of the two entities.”

The NSCN (I-M) also demanded the removal of Ravi as interlocutor. “The issue is now in the court of the Government of India that should come out with a finding that the Framework Agreement (signed in August 2015) is still alive in its original form and to be handled by somebody other than RN Ravi,” the rebel group said in a statement.

In addition, Muivah wants the talks be held at the highest level, and in a “third country.” In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, originally written on Feb. 25 of this year but released to the media earlier this month, he said, “We mentioned in our proposal that Nagaland shall use its National Flag, Anthem, Emblem and Insignia and have a Constitution called ‘Yehzabo.’”

Accusing Ravi of dividing the Nagas, Muivah wrote, “The activities of the Representative of the [government of India] is polarizing the Naga society instead of uniting the Nagas for an honorable political solution.”

Despite such allegations, the government is in no mood to replace Ravi as interlocutor, which means it’s a take-it-or-leave-it deal for the NSCN (I-M).

Commenting on Muivah’s latest remarks, Swedish journalist, author and strategic analyst Bertil Lintner said this could result in the NSCN (I-M) being excluded entirely from the peace process.

“If Muivah insists on Nagaland having its own flag and constitution and not being part of India, NSCN (I-M) will not be part of any peace deal. But how much military strength does NSCN (I-M) have left? And Muivah turned 86 this year; is there any successor with the same stature in Naga society?” he asked.

“Most likely, a deal between Indian authorities and a broad range of Naga civil society groups would marginalize the NSCN (I-M), a group which, in any case, has its main support base in Manipur, not in Nagaland,” Lintner, who has written widely on insurgencies in India’s Northeast and Myanmar, added.

The mood in Nagaland

Lintner is perhaps correct in his assessment that the Modi government might consider keeping NSCN (I-M) out of the peace deal and would involve the other Naga groups such as the NNPGs, which are already onboard. Even the Nagaland government is pushing for a solution at the earliest.

On Oct. 15, a crucial meeting between the Nagaland government and civil society groups passed a resolution urging the Naga armed groups to honor and respect the “Covenant of Reconciliation” and maintain the sanctity of non-violence for a “shared Naga future” as members of “one Naga family.”

It is yet to be seen how NSCN (I-M) will react to these developments. For its part, the government of India must avoid the temptation of replicating the Kashmir model in the northeast. As Lintner said in his book Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, a broader approach with a “proper understanding of the complex histories of the north-eastern peoples and the evolution of their fractious rebel movements and fragile alliances” is needed for a peaceful resolution of the conflicts in the region.

(Jayanta Kalita is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and its immediate neighborhood. The views expressed are his own.)

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