Intransigence as villain of the peace?

In Nagaland, aspirations of a new era can seldom be seen from an aging, fixed vision; the NSCN(IM) must recognise this

November 04, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

It is fortunate that the peace talks between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), NSCN(IM), did not break down on October 31, the government’s deadline for concluding an accord. Although there are no specific details, both sides apparently agreed to step back a little from earlier stances and to sign a deal sometime soon. This delay, however, cannot be for long as other Naga groups have already been promised a settlement with or without the NSCN(IM) if the deadlock with it holds; going against this promise can result in complications.

Potential spoilers

The deadlock was on the insistence for a separate flag and constitution by the NSCN(IM) to make way for India and Nagaland to be independent allies in a shared-sovereignty federal relationship. Conceding to this, especially after the abrogation of Article 370, would have been impossible for the Government. The uncertainty, however, was also on account of many other thorny internal contradictions — some old and some new; in the days ahead, they can show up to become spoilers.

Call it determination or obduracy, the most pronounced of these is a seeming intransigence of vision on the part of the NSCN(IM), and a refusal to accept radical shifts in aspirations all around brought by new challenges and opportunities of a new era. Ernest Renan’s “a nation is a daily plebiscite” must be heeded by the nation and its challengers alike, for aspiration of any collective of people is a moving target which can seldom be hit from a fixed vision.

The 70 years of struggle by the Nagas is heroic; so is the identity formation among these linguistically disparate tribes at constant war with each other in pre-modern times. There is now no lack of a sense of peoplehood around the Naga identity, and considering the germination of this identity is just about 100 years old, this is phenomenal. As many scholars have pointed out, the watershed years were the First World War. Tribesmen from these hills recruited in the British Labour Corps, discovered their commonness of destiny in Europe. The formation of the Naga Club upon their return, their memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 asserting their distinct identity and wish for self-determination, the formation of the Naga National Council and its decision under visionary leader A.Z. Phizo to take to armed struggle not long after Indian independence, etc., are well-documented. The grit and romance of this resistance was magnetic, and affiliation to the Naga identity expanded among more tribes in these hills, crossing established political boundaries, and in the process creating their shares of ethnic frictions.

Need for moderating notions

Several decades down the line, the fight is getting weary. Obviously, no revolution can sustain on 70-year-old slogans. Moreover, this struggle has also seen violent splits, ugly divisive tribalism, fratricidal feuds and untold sufferings. These also have to be factored into this story of a unique history. If history is the record of a given state building project, and is blind to events which do not contribute this exercise and relies on memory and myths — as the Naga story often does — to reconstruct the past can be equally problematic. Memory too is extremely selective and chooses to forget events which go against the image of the past being constructed. It also often confabulates to fill gaps in the story. Therefore, all notions of unique histories and ancestral homelands will need moderation against this scale.

Decisive shifts

Even in the last 22 years of Naga peace negotiations, radical shifts in perspective have been evident. For instance, when parleys began in 1997, it was exclusively with the NSCN(IM). In 2001, the NSCN’s other major faction led by the late S.S. Khaplang, NSCN(K), too entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Government, but they were not made part of the peace negotiations, ostensibly because of objections from the NSCN(IM), which instead offered amnesty to all other factions if they joined them. Expectedly, the NSCN(K) began showing signs of disintegrative pressures from within. By 2011, two important leaders, Kitovi Zhimomi and Khole Konyak, had left in moves allegedly engineered by Indian intelligence to separate the Myanmar Nagas from India in anticipation of a settlement. Khaplang is from Myanmar. In 2016, Khole Konyak formally joined the NSCN(IM).

Erosion from within the NSCN(K) ranks continued and Khaplang, in June 2015, decided to abrogate the ceasefire agreement. Two months later, on August 3, the Government signed the Framework Agreement with the NSCN(IM). The latter continued to hold centre stage but not for long. Realising that the NSCN(IM) cannot be the sole representatives of the Nagas, in 2017 other Naga underground factions were also brought to the negotiating table, lowering the prestige of the NSCN(IM). Today there are seven of these factions under an umbrella organisation, the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), taking part in the parleys, and they are willing to sign a peace pact under the Constitution, leaving other demands to be pursued later.

The Framework Agreement envisaged a bilateral truce between “two entities”, but today it is set to be a multilateral one. Not only this, as a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson clarified through the Press Information Bureau on October 31 evening, the accord will only be concluded after consultations with Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, all States which have a stake in the matter. Till date the talks were in complete secrecy, raising anxiety in these States.

The other tangible mood in Nagaland is, if the settlement is for an Indian state and not a sovereign Naga homeland, they are happy with the present Nagaland State. The willingness of the NNPG, most of whose leadership are Nagaland based, to keep in abeyance demands such as for a Greater Nagaland, is an indication. There are now more urgent indicators. On October 25, a total of 17 leaders of the NSCN(IM) ditched the organisation to join the NNPG. All defectors are Nagaland based and most are from the Sema tribe. This is significant. When the NSCN(IM)’s respected Sema leader, Isak Chishi Swu died in June 2016, there was speculation this might erode the support base of the NSCN(IM) among Semas, thereby its foothold also in Nagaland, leaving it largely a Manipur-based organisation. Most of its other top leaders and cadres, including its supremo Thuingaleng Muivah, are from Manipur. Today this prophesy seems to be unfolding.

There has also been a growing social movement in Nagaland for consolidation of Nagaland’s own people. The demand for a Register of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland, and now the formation of the Nagaland Indigenous People’s Forum on October 28 (at its launch, former Nagaland Chief Minister and retired Governor of several States, S.C. Jamir, unambiguously reminded the Nagaland public that the State is already burdened with difficulties and should not take on more excess baggage) are some of these.

A Nagaland-centred truce would indeed leave the NSCN(IM) in a bind. For then, from the lofty demand for a sovereign homeland, the people may be left to be content with territorial councils in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Even such a settlement will not be without resistance, as these States, most vocally Manipur, are unwilling to make compromises to their territorial integrity or administrative structures. Whatever is to be given to the Nagas in their State, they want it done via their existing State governments and institutions.

It is not too late yet, but the NSCN(IM) leadership should have read the writing on the wall earlier to make way for aspirations of the new era. Shakespeare put it so well in King Lear: “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure. Their going hence, even as their coming hither: Ripeness is all.”

Pradip Phanjoubam is a senior journalist and author based in Imphal

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