After much initial confusion, it is now clear that the Muivah-Ravi agreement or the Peace Accord of August 3, on the Naga issue, is not a “historic accord” as was originally claimed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his colleagues. The Union Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, and the Nagaland Chief Minister, T.R. Zeliang, have now both clarified that it was only a “framework agreement”, which means that it is an agreement to pave the way for a final settlement by laying out the framework on which it will be worked out.
So why the drumbeating that is becoming a signature tune of the government? Why the rush to the media to proclaim something that has not happened? Why call an agreement “historic” when the final agreement is yet to be signed? Why make the claim of there being “significant casualties” in a raid ‘deep inside Myanmar’ when Indian para-commandos only hit two rebel bases, one of them abandoned, and then killed only a few rebels? Jumping the gun is becoming a dangerous habit, something better avoided, especially on sensitive issues like the Naga problem.
The Naga journalist, Bano Haralu, has quipped that if 18 years has only led to a “framework agreement”, it left one wondering how much longer the Nagas and India would have to wait for a final settlement. Her poser: Is it “historic” because this accord has taken the longest to work out? Surely we will need to wait a while because contentious issues still dog the agreement to settle India’s longest running ethnic insurrection. The haze has not yet lifted over many of the contentious issues involved.
Sovereignty and federalism While Mr. Rijiju told The Hindu recently that the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN(I-M) has given up on “Naga sovereignty”, the NSCN’s Thuingaleng Muivah said the opposite on August 14, at the 69th Naga Independence Day in his Hebron headquarters near Dimapur town in Nagaland. The Naga rebel chieftain clarified that the NSCN had never given up on Naga sovereignty. But he clarified that the Indo-Naga final settlement will be based on the concept of “shared sovereignty” because if India recognises the “unique history of the Nagas”, the Nagas should recognise India’s problems and limitations. That spirit of give-and-take is most welcome but should not be misconstrued as a compulsion instead of a choice.
“Shared sovereignty” is not a bad idea because it can take Indian federalism forward to new heights. The Naga settlement can provide a new benchmark to fulfil autonomist aspirations elsewhere in the Republic and actually strengthen the bonds that hold this huge country together, because “shared sovereignty” within the Indian constitutional framework is an acceptance of the multiplicity of the Indian identity as a historical fact. In this subcontinent that straddles the crossroads of Asia, there are many with unique social identitites and who have a unique history and a distinct way of life despite an acceptance of trans-regional religions and an over-arching post-colonial state that many feel is rooted in an ancient civilisation. Yet, there are others who feel that it grew out of the British colonial experience that produced a unique nationalism that was federal in aspiration but unitary in terms of the state structure. A unique federalist solution would mean greater autonomy and more powers to the Naga state (and to other Indian States as well in future), whatever its final territorial shape is. But, Mr. Muivah’s insistence that they have not given up on Nagalim does complicate the scenario.
Regional reactions The Assam Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, and the Manipur Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh, have already issued warnings that they will oppose any final agreement on the Naga issue that has adverse impacts on the interests of their respective States. While there has been a war of words between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress over the Congress Chief Ministers being provoked, the truth is neither Mr. Gogoi nor Mr. Ibobi Singh can accept an accord that will make Nagalim a reality through a territorial reorganisation. So, the Indian government’s interlocutor R.N. Ravi and Mr. Muivah will have to work hard to find a “non-territorial solution” to meet Naga aspirations of unity and one that does not upset neighbouring Assam and Manipur. The “supra-state model” that Mr. Ravi’s predecessor, R.S. Pandey, worked on to provide cultural integration for the Nagas may find its way into a final settlement because a territorial solution will be difficult to sell to stakeholders.
The secrecy surrounding the August 3 accord is understandable because the claims about it do not clearly match what was achieved. So, unlike all the previous accords the Indian government signed — like in Punjab, Assam, Mizoram and, finally, Tripura, between 1985 and 1988 — the August 3 accord was kept under wraps. The signing of the previous accords, many of which I have personally covered as a field journalist, were immediately followed by the text being released to the media and into the public domain. Secrecy only triggers speculation and makes no sense in a democracy like India, where even a “framework agreement” should be subjected to some public debate.
It was a good idea to send a group of Naga elders and lawmakers to Myanmar to speak to the Myanmar Naga rebel leader S.S. Khaplang and get him to accept the agreement. This was a smart move by the Modi administration — instead of outlawing the Khaplang group of NSCN as was initially proposed. But Mr. Khaplang refused to meet them and instead deputed his military wing chief, Niki Sumi, to speak to the visiting delegation. That upset the Modi administration. Now, India has asked Myanmar to hand over Mr. Khaplang and three of his commanders, including Mr. Sumi, to India for their involvement in the ambushes that killed more than two dozen Indian soldiers. In March this year, the Khaplang faction broke the ceasefire with India and is suspected to be behind a series of violent attacks in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh where personnel of the 6 Dogra Regiment were killed in an attack on an Army convoy.
The Myanmar angle Myanmar, clearly upset with the mindless chest-thumping after the Indian para-commando raids, was trying to help India in facilitating a dialogue with Mr. Khaplang. Myanmar has some stake in India’s quest in finding its own Naga solution because it expects the impact of that to rub off on the Naga areas in Myanmar which the Thein Sein government in Myanmar is trying to control after years of failure. That is something New Delhi was trying to leverage. But now, New Delhi’s move to have Mr. Khaplang and his commanders handed over to stand trial in India makes it difficult for Myanmar. The Thein Sein government signed a ceasefire with Mr. Khaplang’s group in 2012 and it will find it difficult to renege on that unilaterally. Myanmar is facing enough trouble with the Kachins and the Kokangs and would not like to open up a fresh theatre of operations ahead of the Parliament elections in November. These are the country’s first general elections since a nominally civilian government was introduced in 2011, ending nearly 50 years of military rule. Sources in the Myanmar government say it would be best if India can bring Mr. Khaplang back into the dialogue process but that will not be easy partly because he is upset with India signing the deal with Mr. Muivah which gives his bête noire a position of primacy in the Naga movement. Defiant India-baiters like the chief of the military wing of the United Liberation Front of Assam, Paresh Barua, have also been pushing Mr. Khaplang to keep on the road to confrontation.
The trans-national and trans-border nature of the Naga problem has not only helped fuel Naga insurgency for six decades but also complicated the issue, making it difficult for a final settlement to be achieved. The Modi administration must refrain from temptations to claim success for a problem that has defied solution for six decades — surely not until a final settlement is worked out and implemented. Clarity of thought and brevity of expression are needed to work out a solution to India’s longest running ethnic insurrection. Rhetoric is best avoided even if that promises some immediate political mileage. The human rights activist and lawyer Nandita Haksar, who has intimate knowledge of the India-Naga negotiations, is right in saying that the real challenge to a Naga settlement lies in its implementation — not the least because the Nagas are a divided people, on account of the tribal nature of the society, and also because the Indian state has played divide-and-rule to contain the once powerful insurgency. So, the big push that the Modi administration has given to solve this problem is welcome because it gives a sense of urgency to a dialogue that has gone on for too long. But his team must learn to hold fire and not cross bridges before coming to them.
(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC Correspondent, is the author of the books on the Northeast, Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery .)