An agreement on Nagaland’s status will replace the lack of understanding that has long characterised the relations between the Nagas and the rest of India with goodwill
Exactly nine years ago, Atal Bihari Vajpayee made the first road trip from the only airport in Nagaland at Dimapur to Kohima, the capital, by an Indian Prime Minister. Reflecting on that journey, Mr. Vajpayee wryly remarked, in his inimitable style, at a public reception: “I was told that, of all the roads in the State, this is the best. If this is the best, it is difficult to imagine how bad the worst is.” Well, the four-lane highway that the Prime Minister announced at that meeting in 2003 is still being built but the political gaps among the Naga pro-independence groups that were enormous when his predecessors P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda and Inder Gujral began the process, have substantially shrunk although crucial differences remain.
It is worth remembering here what Mr. Vajpayee said in 2003 because that set the tone and pace for a possible Naga settlement and it is worth quoting at length because no one in the successor government has that flair for oratory, that touch of sensitivity or compassion. In his public appearances, Mr. Vajpayee emphasised a key phrase: “peace with dignity and honour” several times, for he had been well advised on the Naga belief in these values and those remarks were greatly appreciated.
‘Era of peace’
“For too long this fair land has been scarred and seared by violence. It has been bled by the orgy of the killings of human beings by human beings. Each death pains me. Each death diminishes us. My government has been doing everything possible to stop this bloodshed, so that we can together inaugurate a new era of peace, development and prosperity in Nagaland. The past cannot be rewritten. But we can write our common future with our collective, cooperative efforts … Rather than remaining tied to the past, we have to take care of the present and look to the future … This is the time for reconciliation and peace-making. It is true that, of all the States in India, Nagaland has a unique history. We are sensitive to this historical fact.”
That ‘sensitiveness’ was not on display from the 1950s to the 1990s when the state showed that it was prepared to bludgeon the Nagas into submission. This was followed by a recognition that political issues could be resolved only politically, not by military means. As a result, ceasefires and cessation of hostilities and operations began to herald a fresh political process in Nagaland and other States blighted by armed confrontations, including Assam, Meghalaya and, to a lesser degree, Manipur. Yet, problems remain — including the existence of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in key States, despite the virtual end of organised violence by armed separatist groups.
It is thus encouraging that negotiators for the Government of India and the principal Naga militant group that goes by the acronym of NSCN (I-M) are hunkering down for what could arguably be the most difficult and decisive phase of over 15 years of dialogue and ceasefire. A range of key issues is yet to be finalised and it would be foolish to discount their importance.
These include the phrasing of the constitutional amendments that will give the Nagas greater cultural and political space without providing territorial gain (the most contentious issue in the region that affects Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh), giving the former ‘underground’ groups and their leaders a political role in the State of Nagaland, and rehabilitating the Naga fighting cadre in existing formations of the Indian army such as the Naga Regiment, the paramilitary forces or the State police.
This challenging stretch of talks has begun with efforts to convince the States of Manipur, Assam and, to a lesser degree, Arunachal Pradesh of the need for a settlement and that this will not harm their interests. Officials on either side indicate that efforts are on to enable a package to be announced before Nagaland goes to the polls for a new Legislative Assembly in April 2013 although there have been reports about a ‘Christmas’ or New Year announcement by the Centre.
The latter appears unlikely despite growing pressure from leaders like Chief Minister Nephiu Rio, whose Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, aligned to the Bharatiya Janata Party and bidding for a third term, has offered to resign along with the other 59 members of the State Assembly to pave the way for the Naga rebels to take charge of the State before the elections.
New actors and factors
All this is also taking place in an environment that has seen the growth of several new actors and factors: one is the emergence of an increasingly articulate civil society that resists being pushed around by one side or the other, especially the armed groups; a second is a clear demand for reconciliation among the factions, a process which is finally taking place led by civil society and church forums (it should be noted that this is happening after decades of internecine blood letting which at times has been as brutal as the conflicts with the Indian forces); a third is the growth of a younger generation that, while passionate about Naga rights, is not as committed to the larger goals of the older generation; many younger Nagas today also see virtue in living in a larger and more flexible political and economic framework and are visible in universities, professions, the service and other industries.
The developments have been pushed forward by the accession of the main NSCN to a role within the Indian Constitution, although the latter would have to be amended to reflect Naga interests and needs. The 30-odd demands put down by the NSCN (I-M) at the start of a formal dialogue with New Delhi have been narrowed down. The negotiations have been held in as diverse settings as Malaysia and South Africa, the Netherlands and Switzerland. And while the Indian interlocutors have changed — from Swaraj Kaushal to K. Padamanabhiah, former Home Secretary, and currently to Raghaw Pandey, former Nagaland Chief Secretary who is credited with the Communitisation (greater self-governance) Programme that has won international acclaim, the Naga leadership in the NSCN (I-M) has remained the same: Isak Chisi Swu, the chairman of the group, and Th. Muivah, the general secretary.
Those demands have now been narrowed down as both sides have agreed on a separate flag for Nagaland, new names for its Assembly and Governor, and a pan-Naga cultural and social body (that can protect the cultural interests of the Nagas wherever they live). Whether this body will eventually become a formal political structure, spanning State boundaries, is a difficult and tricky issue. Manipur’s response and that of Assam will be critical to this effort, especially as there are major criminal charges against leaders of the Naga organisations in these States. Will an amnesty mean that such cases would be dropped?
In addition, once an agreement is inked, the NSCN (I-M) will have to reinvent itself as a political party for its political goals would have to be changed and its armed cadres would need to serve in Indian units. In addition, AFSPA should be removed from Nagaland and other parts of the northeast as a Confidence-Building Measure.
There are problems within Nagaland itself, not to be confused with the demands for a united Naga homeland that the NSCN has been making. Thus, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organization wants a Frontier Nagaland state to be carved out of four districts inhabited by six tribes, saying they have not benefited economically or politically over the past decades.
These show how tough the road to accord will be. Other militant groups may cry foul but must be persuaded that this is in the best interests of the Nagas at a time of relative peace. The journey has been long in the making, well over 60 years, and obviously an agreement will not satisfy all groups. That is the nature of political dialogue and the process of political resolution. But it should replace the ill-will and lack of understanding that has long characterised relations between the Nagas and the rest of India with goodwill.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is Saifuddin Kitchelew Chair and Director of the Centre for North East Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, and founder of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research in the northeast.)