Several weeks after the August 3 ‘historic accord’ — since diluted to the status of a ‘framework agreement’ — between Delhi and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (I-M)], the contours of what was agreed upon remain unclear. Instead, it has all the makings of a ‘riddle wrapped in an enigma’.
It is not the first time that the NSCN (I-M) has claimed to have reached an agreement with the Indian government. Consequently, the publicity given to the signing ceremony on August 3 — at which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh were present — and the symbolism attached to it seem rather exaggerated. More so considering the outcome, and the fact that a great deal of work still needs to be done.
Giving up demand for Nagalim?
Mr. Muivah, a holdover from the period when China actively backed ‘wars of national liberation’, has been a canny and shrewd opponent and an even smoother operator at the negotiating table. Considering the hype surrounding the agreement, Mr. Muivah seems to have reconciled to (i) upholding allegiance to the Indian Constitution and (ii) giving up his demand for ‘Nagalim’— a euphemism for a homeland for all Naga tribes of the Northeast. The latter would implicitly involve redrawing the boundaries of at least three States — Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland.
However, less than a fortnight after the Delhi ‘accord’, on the occasion of ‘Naga Independence Day’ in Hebron (August 14), Mr. Muivah declared that there was no question of giving up the demand for ‘Naga sovereignty’, and that the Nagas appreciated the fact that ‘New Delhi had changed its mind regarding these issues’. Unfurling the ‘Nagalim Flag’ to mark the day, he went on to say that both sides now accepted the concept of ‘shared sovereignty’ — the details of which had still to be worked out.
On Naga integration, he declared that there could be no solution without integration. Given Mr. Muivah’s reputation as a master dissimulator, the need for greater clarity on what had transpired has become essential.
Details of what was agreed upon are still not in the public realm. From remarks attributed to the government of India’s interlocutor to the talks, it would, however, appear that sharing of ‘sovereign power’ — or ‘shared sovereignty’ as the case may be — did figure in the talks with the NSCN (I-M). Further, according to the interlocutor, sharing of ‘sovereign power’ would not be confined to mere semantics, and that the Nagas could hope to become ‘almost sovereign-like’. The play on words is rather disturbing. The implications of ‘shared sovereignty’ are far-reaching. It cannot be accepted before all its implications have been fully studied and examined.
The NSCN (I-M) leadership has, no doubt, mastered the art of semantics, but it has hardly endeared itself to other Naga communities in the region.
Whether we are at the point of a ‘historic accord’ or a ‘framework agreement’, adherence to certain fundamental principles is vitally important. Accepting the Indian Constitution is an inalienable principle, and whether ‘shared sovereignty’ violates the basic principles of the Indian Constitution needs to be examined.
Almost every ethnic group in the Northeast has, at different times, come up with somewhat similar prescriptions — the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), for example, had championed the cause of ‘dual citizenship’. ‘Shared sovereignty’ also has implications and repercussions well beyond the borders of Nagaland, not only impacting States like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, but many other regions of India as well.
There are other issues that also need to be taken into consideration. The NSCN (I-M) leadership has, no doubt, mastered the art of semantics, but it has hardly endeared itself to other Naga communities in the region. The NSCN (I-M) does not represent all Naga communities. It is today, is a debilitated entity, though it seeks to convey a different impression. The NSCN (Khaplang), the NSCN (Konyak-Kitovi) and the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organization, all act independent of the NSCN (I-M). The Naga Hoho, the tribal council of the Nagas, has not endorsed the latter’s leadership of the Naga cause. Additionally, there are intrinsic conflicts between the Sema, the Angami, the Ao, the Lotha and the Konyak tribes, which further weaken the NSCN (I-M)’s claim. The fact that Mr. Muivah is a ‘tangkhul’ Naga from Manipur also affects his leadership claim. Consequently, any expectation that an agreement with the NSCN (I-M) will be the harbinger of peace in the region will be a mistake.
Politics in the region also clearly matters. This is particularly true as far as moves on the Naga chessboard are concerned. India has plenty of experience in the effective management of conflicts in the Northeast and, by and large, these have been dictated by a broader strategic vision.
The existence of different ethnic and tribal entities in the Northeast gives identity politics here special traction, and violence is often a given. Additionally, many pockets in the Northeast suffer from a sense of siege. Political narratives, hence, have to be carefully thought through, lest these foment newer demands, including that for territory. This could vitiate an already disturbed atmosphere.
Problems in other Northeast States
The doctrine of ‘shared sovereignty’, for instance, can have unexpected consequences. India’s State-based identity has not suffered any damage and does not require the cement of ‘shared sovereignty’ to prop itself up. If an idea is floated in order to solely arrive at a settlement with the NSCN (I-M), it can have an adverse impact and could open a Pandora’s Box of problems across the country. In the Northeast, ‘shared sovereignty’ will, almost immediately, give rise to a new round of violence, especially in Manipur, and to a lesser extent in Arunachal Pradesh.
Manipur is already on the boil consequent to violent protests over the passage in the State Assembly of three Bills recently, including the Protection of Manipur Peoples Bill. The agitation pits the Meiteis against the Kukis, Chins, Mizos and other tribes in the plains areas of the State, and has already resulted in eight deaths. The danger is that ‘shared sovereignty’ is likely to be perceived in Manipur as an attempt at pan-Naga integration, thus bringing the Naga dominated Hills district of the State into the vortex of the conflict. This has the potential to tear the State apart.
It is imperative that prior to finalisation of any ‘framework agreement’, care is taken to see that there is an across the board acceptance of ‘fundamental principles’ and ‘objective necessities’. Different communities in the Northeast compete for power and rank, and an identity crisis afflicts most tribes and communities. It is essential that the special social mechanism that sustains tribal orthodoxy is not disturbed. Otherwise, it would have a tectonic impact on peace and tranquillity in the entire region.
There is some merit in preserving the present ‘frozen spatiality’ in the region. This should not be disturbed through an inadequately thought out peace agreement with just one segment of the Naga leadership inside Nagaland. For Mr. Muivah, whose influence is clearly waning, and who is a ‘tangkhul’ Naga from Manipur, this may be his last throw of the dice, but there is no need for India to go along with his desire.
(M.K. Narayanan is former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal.)