After two rounds of discussions between the Centre and the insurgent group, before the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) [or the NSCN-IM] came around, the two sides sat again at 11 AM on Thursday to find common ground. The deadline for wrapping up the Naga peace talks had arrived. From all indications so far, the insurgent group was refusing to back down from its demand of a separate Naga flag and a constitution.
The Governor of Nagaland, RN Ravi, who is also the government’s interlocutor, was leading the talks happening at an undisclosed location in the capital. It is believed that Ravi made it clear to the group that no talks would be held on the agreement after 31 October. From the NSCN-IM, apart from its senior-most leader Thuingaleng Muivah, the top brass (referred to as collective leaders) was being represented by VS Atem (former chief of the group’s armed wing), TT Among, Rh Raising.
The NNPG’s latest statement speaks of how no group would want to weaken the sanctity of the Naga flag, post solution, and legislating on how it could be used in the future.
In Absence of Isak Muivah, Will a Peace Accord Bring Real Peace?
Before the NSCN-IM came around, more and more of its leaders were joining the Naga National Political Group (NNPG), an umbrella organisation of seven Naga insurgent groups who are on board with the government’s proposal.
Before the current rounds of talks, a framework agreement was inked in August 2015. PM Modi, with a Naga shawl draped over his shoulder, described it then as a ‘historic agreement’ towards settling the ‘oldest insurgency’ in India.
The Naga flag, a rainbow flag embossed with the Star of David has often been underlined by all Naga groups as sacred to their identity and a covenant with God. The NNPG’s latest statement spoke of how no group would want to weaken the sanctity of the flag, post solution, and legislating on how it could be used in the future. It is still unclear whether a peace accord will truly bring peace.
Looking Back at the 2015 Framework Agreement
Before the current rounds of talks, a framework agreement was inked in August 2015. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with a Naga shawl draped over his shoulder, described it then as a ‘historic agreement’ towards settling the ‘oldest insurgency’ in India.
A photograph of NSCN-IM leader Th Muivah along with other top IM leaders and the prime minister, was seen as setting the stage for the ongoing peace talks. The ‘I’ in the ‘IM’ — Isak Chise Swu — signed the accord from his hospital bed in the capital. He died in 2016. Much of what was in the framework agreement remained under wraps all these years. In the interim, the Naga movement also lost another leader: SS Khaplang, the leader of the Myanmar-based Naga rebel group NSCN-K, died in 2018.
In 2015, after not getting an invitation from the government even once in over 13 years for talks, Khaplang unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire agreement. The NSCN-K was believed to be behind the deadly attack on the 6 Dogra regiment of the Indian Army, in Manipur’s Chandel district in 2015, in which 18 soldiers died. The signing of the 2015 pact came after nearly 80 rounds of negotiations that spanned 16 years, with the first breakthrough in 1997, when the NSCN (IM) signed a ceasefire agreement.
Did Policy of ‘Wait & Watch’ Pay Off?
Many in the government have believed that the policy of ‘wait and watch’, and the art of ‘wearing down the Naga leadership’ had paid off. In 1997, when the ceasefire was signed, then Joint Secretary (North East) GK Pillai, had told the BBC’s Subir Bhaumik that the, “NSCN will never be able to go back to the jungle”.
More than two decades later, it is one of the hard facts staring the NSCN-IM leadership in the face, even as it maintains camps, cadres, sophisticated weapons and discipline within Manipur and Nagaland, and runs a parallel administration and economy.
There is apprehension in Manipur that the conclusion of talks and the signing of the agreement may affect the state’s territorial integrity.
In the run up to these talks, there have been reports of the main Camp Hebron in Nagaland being emptied out, but NSCN-IM kilonsers (ministers) insist that this a shifting of the cadre. In Manipur too, where the NSCN-IM maintains camps and cadres, and the Indian Army keeps a tenuous ceasefire going, there are reports of both sides being on ‘very high alert’.
While Dimapur in Nagaland is tense but calm, in Manipur the talks were being watched with anxious anticipation. Several government orders have been circulated requesting uninterrupted power supply, ambulance, first-aid kits, fire tenders, and requisitioning of college buildings for housing companies of central paramilitary forces, all for the ‘current law and order situation’.
There is apprehension in Manipur that the conclusion of talks and the signing of the agreement may affect the state’s territorial integrity. Many people lost their lives when the ceasefire between the Centre and NSCN-IM was extended without territorial limits.
For many among the Nagas, including the NSCN-IM, Modi 1.0 was seen as an extension of the Vajpayee era.
It is believed that the framework agreement and the accord being finalised “does not change the boundary of states, provides for autonomous Naga territorial councils for Arunachal Pradesh Manipur” — both of which have Naga-dominated areas, as well as the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), and the rehabilitation of soldiers of the NSCN-IM and other groups. The map of Greater Nagalim, as envisioned by the NSCN-IM, had comprised 1,20,000 sq km of land that sprawled across the Northeast states. While a breakthrough is believed to have been achieved on this front, neighbouring states like Manipur continue to be out of the picture, and therefore tense and anxious.
How Vajpayee Won the Hearts of Nagas
“Ami laga bhai aru boyni-khan. Aami Nagaland-te matiye karone besi khusi paise dei.” (My dear brothers and sisters. I am very happy to be amid you on the soil of Nagaland.)
A sentence that is often quoted by the Nagas and specially the NSCN-IM, as they fondly remember Vajpayee. In October 2003, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while opening his speech at a public reception in Kohima, had referred to the ‘unique history’ of the Nagas. He went on to talk of their patriotism, mentioning the jawans from Nagaland who had died in the Kargil war, and the inspiring example of Rani Gaidinliu, a Naga ‘Joan of Arc’ who had started one of the first acts political disobedience against the British.
For many among the Nagas, including the NSCN-IM, Modi 1.0 was seen as an extension of the Vajpayee era. In its second term, it is clear that the Modi government wants to bring an end to one of the oldest insurgencies in the world. It is also clear, that a peace accord without the NSCN-IM, would have been impossible.
(Anubha Bhonsle is an independent journalist. She tweets @anubhabhonsle. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)