Counterpoint Comment

Puncturing wrong notions of the Northeast

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, Chairman of NSCN (IM) Isak Chishi Swu, NSCN (IM) General Secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, NSA Ajit Doval and others at the signing ceremony of historic peace accord between Government of India and NSCN.  

Peace accords are always met with some amount of cynicism. The Naga Peace Accord signed on August 3 was no exception; it too had people just waiting for it to fail. Several of these people wrote long pieces in the media too. The problem with these experts is that they look at peace from the conventional prism of the state, putting so much pressure on militants that they eventually surrender. This method of bringing about peace in Nagaland was tried for several decades, but met with no success. This is because the Nagas want an ‘honourable settlement’, and that can only take place when the peace dialogue is among equals.

For someone living in what is conveniently termed a ‘conflict zone’, I may be forgiven for expressing hope that the framework agreement signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) [NSCN (I-M)] and the Government of India will lead to a process where not just the NSCN (I-M)’s terms will be included but also the terms of other stakeholders in what could finally become a peace deal. The others include elected representatives of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Assam; civil society groups; and factions of the NSCN, and other militant outfits in Nagaland. Those with dismissive attitudes towards the NSCN(I-M) are only betraying the mindset of many in this country, particularly those who head institutions of strategic importance.

Conventional wisdom says India has plenty of experience in the effective management of conflicts in the Northeast. But look at the result. Three-fourths of the Northeast is perpetually declared disturbed and dangerous under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA); there are over 4,00,000 troops deployed to hold the region together; the rule of law has virtually collapsed; there is rampant trampling of human rights. Does this make India proud? For those who believe that the Northeast is too complex and hence its problems can only be ‘managed’ and not resolved, such tactical management interventions have actually rendered the region untenable and the situation messy.

From management to resolution

Even the NSCN (I-M) talks began with the aim of ‘managing’ the violence. The present dialogue is a paradigm shift from ‘management’ to ‘resolution’, by enlarging the spectrum of engagement. At no point have so many disparate groups expressed their desire to be part of the peace dialogue.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that there seems to be serious doubts about the integrity of the citizens of the Northeast and Kashmir. AFSPA has been enforced only in these areas because these regions are ‘disturbed areas’. Yet, despite the horrific uprisings in Central, Eastern and Southern India, those Maoist-hit regions are not seen as ‘disturbed’. This says a lot. Also, how does the government sitting in Delhi expect a ‘disturbed’ region to behave normally when it comes to delivery of governance?

Kashmir has its inherent contradictions, but the people of the Northeast are, by and large, reconciled to the idea of nationhood even though they still battle with a past that privileges ethnicity over nation. Communal tensions are palpable, but the truth is that except for Nagaland and Manipur, the other five States are moving on an even keel despite the occasional gunfire. And the ordinary people in this region want a climate of peace where they can pursue their education and livelihoods without having to pay the militants an undue share of their hard-earned profit.

We are talking here of a region with disparate forces which had to be brought on board for the peace talks. This required a rather unconventional approach on the part of the government interlocutor, R.N. Ravi. The run-of-the-mill containment policy is passé. People here are tired of semantics from the warring sides. But they are also acutely aware of the entrenched orthodoxy in the higher echelons of this country, which is taking an uncharitable view of the Naga peace process. These people would like to believe that the Naga problem is merely one of law and order. In fact, the entire argument is based on the presumption that the NSCN (I-M) is Thuingaleng Muivah-centric and Mr. Muivah is a hold-over of the past; that his outfit is a debilitated entity; that its resonance is limited to the Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur. How far this is from ground realities!

‘Sovereignty’ also has other connotations that the two parties need to work out. For instance, the concept of sovereign power-sharing between the Centre and the States is not new; this is the essence of Indian federalism. If the States have, in the past decades, ceded much of their powers to a willing Centre because they find it convenient to do so, then they have themselves to blame. When the framers of the Indian Constitution cogitated on the idea of federalism, they perhaps envisaged that strong States actually make a strong Centre and not vice versa.

On the issue of integration, it has been reiterated by the interlocutor that re-drawing the political boundaries of the Northeastern States is not on the agenda. He seems to be suggesting a safety valve for fulfilling the political aspirations of Nagas to live together in future through a democratic process and not by effecting integration under the shadow of the gun.

There are also security experts who assert that Naga Hoho, the apex body of the Nagas, has not endorsed the peace framework. This betrays their ignorance. The Naga Hoho has repeatedly endorsed it. Even the Nagaland Legislature has adopted unanimous resolution in its support.

It is no joy to puncture certain well-entrenched viewpoints that find expression in the mainstream media and speak of the Northeastern region either from a position of patronage or of ignorance. But it must be done and this article is one such attempt.

(Patricia Mukhim is Editor, The Shillong Times, and former member, National Security Advisory Board.)

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 8:30:29 PM |

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