If NSCN (I-M) and New Delhi fail to deliver on the most important Naga demand, the region may see a return to conflict

Last month, Manipur was on fire once again. This round was triggered by the accusation that Colonel Livingston of the NSCN (I-M) had molested Meitei actor Ms Momoko on December 18, 2012. Protests turned violent when the State government claimed he was beyond their reach, inside a “peace camp” protected by the Indo-Naga ceasefire agreement with the NSCN I-M (National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah) group. Compounding the problem, NSCN justified the incident — Momoko had “abused the Nagas.” Nagas in Imphal and those travelling back to their villages in the hills for Christmas were attacked by Manipuri insurgent groups. Two Naga men were killed in Kongkan village, Ukhrul district. The Nagas declared a 72-hour “bandh” in the hills. It showed that all it required was a spark to ignite the tinderbox of Manipur where the dominant Meteis and minority “southern” Naga coexist in uneasy tension. A peace agreement that leaves out justice for the Nagas outside Nagaland is destined to join the dust heap of faltering peace accords.

At the core

The issue of integration of Naga inhabited areas lies at the core of the ongoing negotiations. It is an old demand and figures in the succession of peace agreements to resolve the Naga conflict — the Akbar Hydari Agreement 1947, the Sixteen Point Agreement 1960 establishing Nagaland state and the Shillong Accord 1975 which precipitated the emergence of the NSCN. Subsequently, the Nagaland Legislative Assembly in several resolutions called for unification of all Naga inhabited areas under one administrative unit.

New Delhi rejects the demand. Political and partisan reasons dictated by the compulsions of coalition politics constrain the government. Apparently, some negotiators believe the NSCM (I-M) can be persuaded to abandon integration. In their assessment, only the Manipuri Nagas are pushing for integration. They see Naga society as still divided on tribal and communal lines and the anti-Tangkul agitation of 2008 as evidence of a persisting divide. In particular, intelligence agencies argue that apart from historic tribal hostility, the Angami, Sema, Ao and Jakasang Nagas who dominate Nagaland State fear they would lose jobs to Tangkul (Manipur) Nagas in an integrated Nagalim.

To bank on this old divide ignores new parallel ongoing processes of reconciliation initiated by Naga civil society bodies, especially the Forum for Naga Reconciliation formed at the height of the anti-Tangkul agitation for communal amity. The Naga Peace Convention, in 2008 paved the way for bringing together panoply of Naga traditional and social organisations and engaged the underground groups in a series of dialogues for reconciliation towards building a common front. Similarly, in Manipur, the southern Nagas initiated a tripartite dialogue with the State and Central governments on an interim “Alternative Arrangement” for a state within a state. The inspiration and organisational zeal for such initiatives come from a proximate group of middle class educated professionals active in human rights, student, environmental and gender rights groupings.

The NSCN (I-M) is aware that it cannot afford to make a compromise on the demand for integration. New Delhi is also aware of this position. Instead of an “integration” of all Naga inhabited areas, the compromise on offer is a “supra state body.” According to the Guwahati-based The Seven Sisters Post, in November 2011, the government was willing to create an overarching body to oversee the cultural, traditional and other aspects of Naga life inside Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. It was vehemently opposed by the political parties and sections of the people of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. The Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister denied it; so did the NSCN (I-M). But the newspaper corroborated the story as based on the “status report” submitted by the government’s interlocutor, Mr. R.S. Pandey, to the Prime Minister. Such confusing reports have fuelled fears that the NSCN (I-M) has surrendered several key demands of the Nagas including that of integration.

At the last round of talks in November 2012, the joint statement spoke of an “honourable solution” based on recognition of “contemporary realities and a future vision consistent with the imperatives of the 21st century.” Evidently, “contemporary realities” refers to the violence that broke out in Manipur in opposition to the extension of the ceasefire to its hill districts and Imphal’s continuing rejection of integration. The Nagas see this as an attempt to pressure the NSCN (I-M) to acquiesce to a halfway house, the contours of which are yet to be clarified.

Where the dialogue is going

Analysts argue that the relative peace and prosperity created by the prolonged ceasefire has brought the Nagas closer to the mainstream of Indian society. The burgeoning migration of Naga youth to Indian cities for higher education and employment has deepened social interaction and economic relations. It has expanded the base of Naga middle classes who are breaking out of traditional social and cultural mores. In a significant development, Naga civil society, which was as divided as the underground groups, has joined hands and formed civic bodies that cut across tribal, community and denominational divides. This has provided a forum to the various underground groups to work together for an “honourable” solution.

The time has come for reassessment of the negotiation process. One cannot emphasise more the need for a larger political vision. It is important to recognise that the focus on the demand for integration marks a vital shift from the earlier position of “no compromise on independence.”

Already, at the outset, the NSCN (I-M) had agreed to keep the issues of Nagas in Myanmar and right to self determination “outside” the ambit of the discussions. It reflected willingness to seek an “honourable solution that recognised the uniqueness of Naga history” within the larger Indian polity.

In Manipur, New Delhi is engaged in counterinsurgency operations against underground Meitei groups waging an armed struggle for independence. A division of the former “Manipur Raj” is anathema for Meitei armed groups and a section of Meitei elite. While the Meitei groups are still locked in hostile competition for supremacy, Naga armed groups are talking to each other. The internal process of reconciliation initiated by Naga civil society indicates a general acceptance of the terms on which the NSCN (I-M) is negotiating with New Delhi. Integration is high on the agenda. If the NSCN (I-M) fails to deliver, a return to the dangerous days cannot be ruled out. New Delhi needs to take note of Nagaland’s Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s warning — “We are hoping that good sense will prevail and lead to early settlement. If the government of India fails to reach a settlement, it will be a lost opportunity.”

(Tapan Kumar Bose is associated with the South Asia Forum for Human Rights)

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