The year 2020 marked the fifth anniversary of the much anticipated signing of Naga peace framework agreement. As on 3rd of August, 2015, a peace framework agreement took place between the Government of India in the presence of PM Modi and NSCN (Issac -Muivah), the most powerful faction among all armed Naga groups. Even though it has now been a few months of the due deadline set by Government of India as 31st October, 2019 but till now no concrete progress can be seen as such in all these months regarding its implementation.
Many experts consider it to be a historic deal as NSCN(IM) seems convinced with the fact that the Government of India recognized the unique history and position of Naga people.
For the first time it seems like both sides reached some mutual consensus as NSCN (IM) agreed to settle the dispute within Indian union by sharing sovereignty. This Agreement is being projected by the Indian Government as one which is expected to bring peace to this region.
But the question stands as to whether it is that simple to achieve peace in this region which has witnessed protracted armed conflict by armed Naga nationalist groups with ethno-nationalist aspirations from last six decades? Will this deal finally bring sustainable peace to this region?
From the recent political developments that are taking place this claim seems somewhat precarious. From the last few months there has been a tussle of opinion between the Nagaland governor who also happens to be the chief interlocutor named RN Ravi and NSCN(IM).Recently NSCN (IM) had made public the peace framework agreement which till then had been kept confidential by mutual consent between both signing parties (Pisharoty, 2020). They accused RN Ravi of manipulating the agreement by changing it. As a proof they released both original and manipulated copy of the peace agreement. They pointed out to the last paragraph of the original document which states that this agreement will endure inclusive new relationship of peace between the two entities. Now they accused RN Ravi of deliberately omitting the letter ‘new’ from it which changes the whole meaning of the agreement and acts against Naga people’s interest.
It all started with Ravi’s letter addressing Nagaland Chief minister which somehow got leaked. In the four-page letter Ravi sharply criticized the deteriorating law and order situation in the state by comparing armed Naga groups to extortionist gangs. He further threatened to invoke special power as specified under Article 371A (1) (b) which applies exclusively to Nagaland. According to which, Governor for all practical purpose has the final say on all matters related to the state’s law and order (Saikia, 2020).
In response NSCN(IM) accused him of attempting to derail the peace process by creating tension among various parties involved in the ongoing peace talk and demanded his removal as interlocutor. NSCN (IM) released a statement saying “We want peace but Governor Ravi is taking us back to the fighting days” (Chakrabarti & Longkumer, 2020).
They even asserted that RN Ravi is trying to take all these hard earned developments back to square one by describing it as a law and order situation.
This move divided various other Naga groups and leaders into two halves. Major stakeholders of this peace process like NNPG(Naga National Political Groups) , Naga Gaon Burah federation and Naga Hoho, an apex body of fourteen tribes back RN Ravi to stay as the interlocutor (Deccan Chronicle, 2020). It is mostly due to the fear of derailing or at least delaying the ongoing peace negotiation.
Moreover, it is easier said than done because RN Ravi has played a crucial role in this peace process till now. Much to his credit he was successful in engaging various other stakeholders of Naga society consisting of civil society groups, student organizations in this peace process. Also, he was the one who helped forming a cauldron of seven Naga armed rebel groups excluding NSCN (IM) under the banner name NNPG (Naga non political groups) in the year 2017.
NSCN (IM) is adamant in their core demand for sharing sovereignty by rejecting to be included within Indian constitution, and instead having their own constitution which in naga dialect termed as Yephazo and their own flag. Secondly, they demand the unification of all Naga inhabited territory that is under Indian state which they collectively called as the Greater Nagaland/Nagalim. Indian Government clearly finds this as a hard bargain bearing in mind its multifaceted political implications and hence Governor Ravi is hell bent to solve this issue within the parameter of Indian constitution. The core issue of contestation between Government of India and Naga political groups always lies around the issue of sovereignty of Naga inhabited area. After seven decades of fighting this battle, this is the first occasion where some sort of consensus is reached between the warring sides, although demands were both evolved and modified from what it initially was to suit both sides.
To understand the context of these arguments of sovereignty we need to look at important events in the history of Indo -Naga conflict.
History of Indo- Naga Conflict
On the eve of 15 August ,1947 when India woke up to life and freedom, the Naga people led by NNC (Naga national council) demanded Sovereignty from the Indian Union. Naga National council (NNC) that was formed on 2nd February, 1946 emerged as the only political organization of relevance in the hill areas of the region. NNC was led by charismatic Naga nationalist leader named Angami Zapu Phizo who also happens to be the ideologue of the organization. AZ Phizo advocated for self determination for the Nagas, seeking to avoid an involuntary incorporation into independent India (Thakur & Venugopal, 2018).
In 1951 he organized what many Naga still refer to as plebiscite where it claimed almost 99 percent voted for independence from India (Lintner, 2015).
Indian government dismissed this exercise as political hoax. In response NNC launched civil disobedience movement. This progress was dealt by the Indian state with iron fist and subsequently they banned and arrested several of NNC members. This resulted in NNC taking the path of armed resistance for attaining sovereignty from Indian occupation. To quell this resistance in the Indian Government in the year 1956 declared the whole of Nagaland as disturbed area (Lintner, 2015) .This marked the beginning of what is today known as India’s longest running insurgency.
Then on 9th of November, 1975 the famous Shillong accord was signed that led to the partition of Assam into various states. NNC was also part of it where they accepted to be ruled according to constitution of India along with other demands of surrendering weapons. This didn’t go down well with all section of NNC. Many saw it as an act of treachery which compromised the core demand of Sovereignty on basis of which Naga movement has its origin (Thakur & Venugopal, 2018). This led to the birth of a hardline armed group named NSCN (National socialist council of Nagaland) with an aim of creating a sovereign Naga ethnic homeland. Formed in 1980 by Naga nationalist leaders and former NNC members Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Swi Chu, and S. S. Khaplang, the NSCN claimed to represent the interests of Nagas both in Nagaland and Myanmar, and changed the dynamics of Naga conflict by surging their violent offensives against Indian government facilities. Subsequently in 1988, NSCN split into two rival factions along ethnic lines – the NSCN (IM), dominated by Nagas from Manipur, and the NSCN (K), whose leadership is more closely tied to the Nagas of Myanmar (Cline, 2006). It led to start of fratricidal killings and factional fight between the two rival factions which claimed hundreds of naga lives.
Over the time these groups grew into powerful entities as they shared political legitimacy amongst the section of Naga society and has successfully established an extensive network of internal and external support to procure the hardware of violence.
Which they unilaterally abrogated by in March 2015. Subsequently NSCN(K) split into two faction one Khango Konyak faction and another as the Yung faction ( Hindustan Times, 2018). Among them Konyak faction joined the working committee of NNPG and is a part of the ongoing peace deal.
At present, both groups are running a parallel defacto government in their respective Naga inhabited region, levying taxes from its citizens. Offically they represent themselves as Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Nagaland (GPRN).
Hence we need to realize the uneven power dynamics prevailing in the Naga society. NSCN (IM) can’t call the shots for peace on its own. If it does ignoring the other actors, then it will never lead to an enduring peace in the region.
The Conflict Within Themselves
Ethnic politics plays a major role in the Naga society. Naga nationality is made up of several tribes knit together by an imagined (shared) history, common tradition, and a deep attachment to their land and particular way of life.
Naga identity is a pan ethnic identity; Nagas live in the peripheral part of India and Myanmar. Naga society is divided into fourteen major tribes. Historically these tribes have a tumultuous relation amongst them and have been on logger heads time to time. It is only the Naga movement and Christianity that brings all of them together under a common Naga identity.
These different tribes have their own unique identity and priority. It can be understood by the fact that AZ Phizos’s NNC was dominated by Angami tribe predominantly settled in Kohima. Likewise, NSCN (IM) is mainly dominated by Tangkhul tribe majority of the tribe live in Manipur and NSCN(K) is mainly constituted of konyak tribe and are based in Eastern Nagaland and adjoining parts of Arunachal Pradesh.
Similarly, the tribe named Sumi is mostly settled around Dimapur, which is considered to be the major economic hub of Nagaland.
Even powerful Naga civil society groups i.e. Naga mother association, Naga Hoho have their loyalties determined by region and tribe they belong to.
The current political friction between these groups in regards to peace talk clearly highlights a significant aspect of growing divide between various Naga tribes based on their ethnic identity and geographical location.
Considering this aspect of internal conflict of interest, the question that arises is about the feasibility of achieving a lasting peace by only complying solely with NSCN(IM) because over the last few decades it has becomes quite evident that apart from NSCN(IM) certain other players had come to play a substantial role in Naga politics.
The Contentious Issue of Nagalim
The another major complexity in Indo -Naga peace is the issue of territorial claim by Nagas over a large swathe of territory which is now a part of present day Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam . It is mainly proposed by the NSCN (IM) who seek territorial change with its stated political objective, that is territorial unification of all Naga-inhabited areas in northeast India and a sovereign-independent state called as Nagalim (Goswami, 2008).These areas are claimed by Nagas to be their ancestral land which is mainly based on oral histories.
The North East region being in the margin of Indian state always has been a contested space among various ethnicities. Here majority of conflicts occurs between various ethnicities over the claim of land resources. So if the proposed Nagalim is granted while signing the Naga peace deal then it will have major repercussion, triggering a chain of conflicts by other ethnic groups.
If we take the case of Manipur which is home to various ethnicities with Meiteis being the majority of the population, then the Nagas and the Kukis; the political landscape of Manipur is charge with ethnic tensions. Historically the complexity between each communities is due to overlapping claim over land resources.
The demand for Nagalim which includes four hill districts of Manipur has led to various violent clashes in past. To name few:
The Naga – Meitei clashes in the year 2001, which is observed every year since then by Meitei’s as Great June uprising. It occurred as the Government of India signed amended ceasefire agreement with NSCN(IM) inserting the words “without territorial limits”. It led to serious implications as agitated Meitei crowd attacked government facilities and burned down the legislative assembly. In this incident eighteen protestors lost their lives (The Hindu, 2020)
Like wise, the infamous Mao gate standoff in the year 2010. It is occurred over NSCN(IM) chief kilonsner Th .Muivah’s (senior minister) decision to visit his ancestral village that is situated in Naga tangkhul dominated Ukhrul district in Manipur. It triggered a fierce standoff between Meitei dominated Manipur Government and local Naga population at Mao gate which acts as Nagaland- Manipur border (Rahman, 2010).
Even, the Naga kuki clashes of 1993-94 that resulted in massacre of hundreds of people from both communities was fought over issue of contesting ownership of land resources.So granting Nagalim will mean putting all these other ethnicities of Manipur in vulnerable position hence sowing seeds for future conflicts.
In the case of Arunachal Pradesh, its eastern most part falls under the territory of proposed Nagalim. This area is considered to be volatile and has a stronghold of both NSCN (IM) and NSCN(K). This can be comprehend by the fact that on May, 2019 NSCN (IM) allegedly shot dead West Khonsa Hills MLA Tirong Abah along with eleven others in a deadly ambush in Tirap district (Lepcha, 2019). Considering the present situation AAPSU (All Arunachal Pradesh student Union), an influential apex student body strongly opposes to any kind of “territorial changes” to the state in pursuit of finding solution for Indo –Naga conflict (Press Trust of India, 2020).
Considering all these complexities, it is clear that as of now, peace as proposed by the Naga peace deal is fragile in nature. This situation requires urgent intervention with sensitivity. At present it seems to reach a deadlock where various stakeholders are apprehensive about the ongoing peace process. The only possible way to achieve peace is by taking all these stakeholders together and to find a middle ground for negotiation. Though it seems a daunting task for Government of India but that’s the only practical way to solve this complex six decades old conflict.
If this peace deal fails, the ultimate causality will be the common people considering this is a region where tentacles of insurgency and counterinsurgency attach itself to everyday social and political life.