Explained | What is the NSCN and where do the Naga peace talks stand now?

What is the role played by the factions of the Naga insurgent group? What are their demands and what has happened since the peace talks began in 1997?

May 06, 2022 04:47 pm | Updated 04:47 pm IST

Dimapur, Nagaland: The NSCN(I-M), one of the oldest and most powerful of about 30 rebel groups in northeast India, was earlier fighting for an independent homeland for the Nagas, but has scaled it down to a Greater Nagaland, to be formed by slicing off parts of adjoining states that have Naga tribal populations.

Dimapur, Nagaland: The NSCN(I-M), one of the oldest and most powerful of about 30 rebel groups in northeast India, was earlier fighting for an independent homeland for the Nagas, but has scaled it down to a Greater Nagaland, to be formed by slicing off parts of adjoining states that have Naga tribal populations. | Photo Credit: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The story so far: The annual report of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) released recently said that the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) was involved in 44% of insurgency-related incidents in Nagaland in 2020.

One of the largest Naga groups, the NSCN-IM, which signed a formal ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 1997 when the peace talks began, is the main party to the negotiations. The Union government had signed a framework agreement with the NSCN-IM in 2015 to find a solution to the Naga political issue. The negotiations are yet to be concluded, 24 years on.

Why did the Naga insurgency begin?

The Naga tribes are said to have migrated from southwest China to Burma (now Myanmar) and Thailand, eventually settling in North East India and North West Myanmar. The term Naga was created by the British for administrative convenience to refer to a group of tribes with similar origins but distinct cultures, dialects, and customs. The Naga tribes are accumulated in Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Myanmar.

Residing in the Naga Hills of Assam during the advent of the British and the annexation of Assam in 1820, living in isolation and wanting no interference in their cultural ways and customs, the Nagas did not consider themselves a part of British India. The British adopted a way of governance over the Nagas that involved keeping in place to a large extent, their traditional ways of life, customs, and laws while putting British administrators at the top. Finding this approach favourable, the colonial government later declared the Naga hills an “excluded area” in the Assam province in 1935.

At the time of the withdrawal of the British, insecurity grew among the Naga tribes about the future of their cultural autonomy after India’s independence, which was accompanied by the fear of the entry of ‘plains people’ or ‘outsiders’ into their territory. These gave rise to the formation of the Naga Hills District Tribal Council in 1945, which was renamed the Naga National Council (NNC) in 1946.

Amid uncertainties over the post-independence future of the Nagas, a section of the NNC, led by Naga leader A.Z. Phizo declared the independence of the Nagas on August 14, 1947, a day before India’s.

The underground insurgency began in the early 1950s when Mr. Phizo founded the Naga Federal Government (NFG) and its armed wing, the Naga Federal Army (NFA). The Central Government sent the armed forces into Naga areas to curb the insurgency and imposed the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which is still in place in parts of Nagaland.

The Nagas, led by Mr. Phizo, demanding an independent state outside of India, boycotted the 1952 and 1957 general elections and armed clashes grew. Unlike multiple other areas in the North East, where groups were accepting some form of autonomy by forming district and hill councils under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, Nagas rejected this in favour of sovereignty.

Some leaders among the NNC formed their own group to hold discussions with the government, leading to the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1963. This, however, did not satisfy many in the NNC and NFG, who, following years of negotiations with the government, eventually signed the Shillong Accord of 1975, agreeing to surrender arms and accept the Constitution.

When did the NSCN come into the picture?

This signing of the Shillong Accord was not agreeable with many top leaders of the NNC and those operating from Burma as the agreement did not address the issue of Naga sovereignty and coerced them to accept the Constitution.

Three NNC leaders- Thuingaleng Muivah of the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Manipur's Ukhrul district, Isak Chishi Swu of the Sema tribe, and S S Khaplang from Myanmar’s Hemis tribe, formed the National Socialist Council Of Nagaland (NSCN) to continue the armed movement. The motto of the NSCN was to create a People's Republic of Nagaland free of Indian rule and based on the principle of socialism as an economic solution and Christianity as religious affiliation. With an initial cadre of 150, the NSCN soon had 3,000 recruits mainly from the Konyak and Tangkhul Naga tribes.

Watch | What is happening in Nagaland?

In 1988, after years of infighting and violent clashes along tribal lines and over the main cause of the movement, the NSCN split into two factions. One, led by Mr. Muiwah and Swu called the NSCN-IM and the other, led by Mr. Khaplang called the NSCN-K.

The NSCN-IM demanded and continues to demand ‘Greater Nagaland’ or Nagalim — it wants to extend Nagaland’s borders by including Naga-dominated areas in neighbouring Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, to unite 1.2 million Nagas. The NSCN-K on the other hand was suspicious of the IM secretly holding parleys with the government.

After the death of Mr. Phizo in 1990 and the split of the NNC, the NSCN-IM became the most powerful insurgent group, also playing a role in the creation of smaller groups in other states. Its armed operations intensified along with illegal activities like tax extortion, smuggling of weapons and so on.

The NSCN-IM and its activities became a political roadblock for three consecutive administrations at the Centre, with Prime Ministers P V Narasimha Rao, H D Deve Gowda, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee holding multiple meetings with NSCN-IM leaders Mr. Muivah and Mr. Swu in Paris, Zurich, Geneva, and Bangkok. In 1997, the Government of India got the NSCN-IM to sign a ceasefire agreement to begin the holding of talks with the aim of signing a Naga Peace Accord.

Where do the peace talks stand now?

After the 1997 ceasefire with NSCN-IM, there have been over a hundred rounds of talks spanning over 24 years between the Centre and the insurgent group, while a solution is still awaited. The NSCN-K which initially refused to take part in any ceasefire agreement or talks with the Centre later agreed to a two-month ceasefire in 1998, which was followed by countless ceasefire extensions over the years. In 2015, the NSCN-K violated its ceasefire agreement, later signing an extension.

New Delhi has been holding peace parleys simultaneously with the NSCN-IM, and the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) comprising at least seven other extremist groups, including the NSCN (K).

In 2015, it signed a Framework Agreement with the NSCN (I-M), the first step towards an actual Peace Accord. The then Joint Intelligence Chief R.N. Ravi was appointed the interlocutor for Naga peace talks and signed the agreement on behalf of the Centre. He was later appointed as Nagaland’s Governor in 2019 to further the negotiations. Mr. Ravi, on the Centre’s behalf, also signed an Agreed Position with the NNPGs in November 2017. Both the insurgent groups and the Centre said in late 2019 that formal talks had concluded. Despite this, an Accord remained elusive, resulting in further talks.

The negotiations hit an impasse in 2020, with the NSCN-IM demanding the removal of Mr. Ravi as interlocutor, accusing him of “high handedness” and tweaking the agreement to mislead other Naga groups. The NSCN-IM continued to demand a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas and the creation of Nagalim, which it claimed was agreed upon in the Agreement. R.N. Ravi, however, said none of that was on the table, also upsetting the NSCN-IM by calling it an armed gang.

After Ravi’s removal as the interlocutor last year, IB officer A.K. Mishra, who retired as special director, was first appointed as the centre’s adviser and then the interlocutor for the peace talks. On April 19 this year, Mr. Mishra visited the NSCN-IM’s camp in Dimapur to hold closed-door talks but issues over the Naga flag and constitution remain to be ironed out.

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