Sumi Naga tribals armed with spears, machetes and shotguns forced insurgents to evacuate a camp at Mukalimi in Naglaland’s Zunheboto district on Monday, following a two day siege which claimed at least three lives. Local residents, eyewitnesses told The Hindu, burned down huts, offices and vehicles after cadre of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland—Isaac-Muviah group fled the camp, leaving only a church standing.

The violent clashes come just weeks after New Delhi met with representatives of the NSCN-IM in the latest round of a long-running dialogue meant to hammer out a political compromise with the insurgent group..

“New Delhi is committed to ensuring the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM continues”, a senior Ministry of Home Affairs official in New Delhi said. “However, the siege underlines how fast public opinion in Nagaland is turning against the insurgents”.

Violent showdown

Friction had begun building at Mukalimi after two Suma women said they had been strip-searched at an insurgent check-point on December 21. The Sema Hoho, or tribal council, and Totimi Hoho, or women’s council, demanded that the cadre involved be handed over to the state police for prosecution.

In a statement to media, the NSCN-IM said its own police—known as Crime Suppression Division—had arrested and sentenced three cadre, who it identified as Mapam Keishing, Mahori and Ninoto.

However, the Sumi Hoho rejected the NSCN-IM’s internal punishment, demanding legal processes be implemented instead. Local villagers answered to a call from the Hoho, and laid seige to the Mukalimi camp on December 26.

Even as over a hundred Assam Rifles personnel stood by, bound by the terms of India’s ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-IM, the insurgents inside the camp opened fire on the protestors on December 28. Five protestors were killed, and one injured. Sumi protestors returned fire; police sources say two bodies of insurgents were found in the camp on Monday. The seige also cut off food and water to the hill-top camp, leading the NSCN-IM cadre to run out of supplies.

Further firing took place early on Monday morning, an Assam Rifles source said, but the insurgents eventually accepted a safe-passage offer facilitated by the paramilitary force.

Deadlocked talks

New Delhi, a senior government official told The Hindu, hopes the fighting will force the NSCN-IM to adopt “a more realistic posture, keeping in mind its actual ground strength and popularity.”. NSCN-IM chairman Isak Chishi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah had met government interlocutor RS Pandey for two days of closed-door talks on November 21.

Mr. Pandey, a senior government official told The Hindu, reiterated an earlier offer to give Naga communities in both Nagaland and Manipur similar substantial rights across state lines—but without territorial concessions from Manipur on Naga-inhabited areas in the districts of Tamenlong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel.

Later, though, Mr. Pandey has resigned as interlocutor after joining the Bharatiya Janata Party; the Union Government has made no fresh appointment.

The NSCN-IM’s leadership and cadre hails from the Tangkhul sub-tribe, based across the border in Manipur. It operates, though, in territories that are home to competing, and historically hostile, tribes. The Sumi Nagas, also known as Sema Nagas, who laid siege to the camp have long competed for power and influence with the Tanghkhul Nagas, who make up the bulk of the NSCN-IM’s leadership and cadre.

Kaito Sema, the former commander-in-chief of the Naga Federal Army, was among the earliest important insurgent leaders to join democratic politics.

Earlier this year, protests against proposed reservations for Manipur-based Naga tribes living in Nagaland pitted the newly-formed Naga Tribal Alliance, against the NSCN-IM backed Naga Hoho, which claims to speak for the entire tribe.

“India’s negotiations with the NSCN-IM have been driven by the belief that the insurgent group represents the people of Nagaland”, said RN Ravi, an expert on the region who earlier served with the Intelligence Bureau. “That belief was simplistic, and remains simplistic”.

Protests against the NSCN-IM’s parallel taxation structure, used to fund the insurgent group, also gathered momentum this year. Thousands defied NSCN-IM calls to rally in Dimapur on November 1 under the banner of the Action Committee Against Unabated Taxation to protest against taxes imposed on underground organisations on salaries, businesses and contractors.

Former Indian Administrative Service officer and social activist KK Sema called for “one government, one tax”.