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Navigating the Northeast

A political settlement with the Nagas will require the backing of the non-Nagas as well. BARUN DAS GUPTA on the peace moves in the Northeast.

CLOSE ON the heels of the Union Home Minister, Mr. L. K. Advani's hint in Kohima last Sunday that the Naga ceasefire might be extended to other areas of the Northeast, the Army announced a ``suspension of operations'' against all militant groups in Manipur for 15 days from March 1, in view of the holi festival, which the Manipuris call ``Yaoshang''.

The next day, the Manipur Government went a step further by announcing a one-month ceasefire during which the State police and the paramilitary forces would observe a similar restraint. Obviously, the Army and the Manipur Government took the step at the instance of the Centre. In Manipur, there are about a dozen and a half militant outfits of Nagas and Kukis mainly active in the hills, and of Manipuris or Meiteis operating in the valley.

It was in August, 1997, that the Naga ceasefire between the Centre and the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) first came into force for three months. It was routinely extended every three months. However, from 1998 the period was extended to six months. Last August, it was extended by a year, implying that the Centre was satisfied that the ceasefire had worked well.

There were differences between the NSCN(I-M) and the Centre on the ceasefire on two counts. First, the former wanted it extended to all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. But the State Governments concerned were dead against it. Second, the NSCN (I-M) maintained that the ceasefire was between the Centre (that is, the Army) and itself, but the Centre insisted it meant that the faction desist from all violent activities - whether directed against the State police, the rival Khaplang faction or common people - and stop all forms of extortion.

The Congress(I) Chief Minister of Nagaland, Mr. S. C. Jamir, has all along been opposed to the Centre holding peace talks with one faction only. When the NSCN(I-M) made an abortive bid on his life on November 29, 1999, despite the ceasefire, he demanded its immediate termination. He alleged that the NSCN(I-M) was honouring the ceasefire only by its flagrant violation.

Intriguingly, last Tuesday the NSCN(I-M) announced it was ``exempting'' some sick and newly-established public and private sector enterprises from payment of ``loyalty tax'' to its Government, the so-called ``Government of the People's Republic of Nagaland'' or GPRN, but all other organisations would continue to pay the ``tax''. Employees of all organisations will also continue to contribute a part of their salary as they have been doing.

On the eve of Mr. Advani's Kohima visit, the Nagaland PCC, headed by Mr. Jamir, passed a resolution pooh-poohing the Isak-Muivah faction's claim that it alone had the mandate of the Naga people to hold talks with the Centre.

The NPCC proposed that a common platform ``comprising all sections of Nagas'' be set up for holding ``direct political talks'' with the Centre. The PCC suggested that the Church take the initiative for the dialogue. It stressed that no ``single group or organisation'' could resolve the Naga problem. Other bodies such as the NSCN(K) and the Naga National Council (Federal) had also to be involved in the negotiations.

Mr. Jamir pointed out at the PCC meeting that no substantive political issue had been discussed by the Centre with the NSCN(I- M) in the last three and a half years that the ceasefire had been in force.

This is true enough. It was Mr. Swaraj Kaushal who first started the negotiations with the NSCN(I-M) on behalf of the Centre. But soon, following serious differences between him and the Prime Minister over certain offers that the former wanted to make to the militant outfit, Mr. Kaushal quit. His place was taken by the former Home Secretary, Mr. K. Padmanabhiah.

He had several rounds of talks with Mr. Muivah. After Mr. Muivah was arrested by the Thai authorities in Bangkok in January last year, the talks were stalled for some time. But the thread was picked up by Mr. Isak Swu, chairman of the outfit. But, by Mr. Advani's own admission, no substantive talks have been held for arriving at a comprehensive political settlement. The deadlock in talks has dismayed public opinion, particularly the NGOs.

The deadlock is natural. Because, any settlement will mean not only that the militants give up their demand for secession and sovereignty but also that the Centre agree to give much more autonomy to the Nagas.

This may require amendment of the Constitution for which all major political parties will have to be consulted and a consensus arrived at.

Anything granted to the Nagas will, arguably, have to the conceded to other States also. So, a political settlement with the Nagas will require the concurrence of non-Naga opinion as well.

The Centre's immediate aim seems to be to consolidate and stabilise the peace. That is why the last extension of the ceasefire was for one year. And now it has been extended to Manipur as well.

Opinion in the Manipur valley, cutting across political lines, has been very firmly against either extending the ceasefire to the Naga-inhabited areas (mainly the Ukhrul district) of the State or making any territorial concessions to the proposed Greater Nagaland - or Nagalim, as it is called now.

That the Manipur Government readily agreed to announce the ceasefire implies that in the recent political changes in the State, resulting in the ouster of the Nipamacha Ministry and the induction of a new regime headed by Mr. Radhabinod Koijam, the BJP has acquired a great deal of political clout.

It stands to reason that the Centre will next try to persuade Assam and Arunachal Pradesh also to declare a ceasefire in Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills (Assam) and in Tirap and Changlang districts (Arunachal Pradesh).

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