Lasting peace in Nagaland remains as elusive as ever. There have been many twists and turns in the road to the Naga peace process, and one such twist was added by some influential Naga insurgent groups when they accused Nagaland governor R.N. Ravi of creating tensions among the parties involved in the ongoing peace talks, asking for his removal as the interlocutor.
Last month, six militants belonging to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN-IM, were killed in a gun battle with security forces in Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district. A few days before this incident, Ravi had written a strongly worded letter to Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio, asserting the governor’s constitutional powers under Article 371A of the Indian Constitution. Expressing his annoyance over the culture of extortion and the collapse of law and order in Nagaland, Ravi had mentioned the “unrestrained depredations” by organised armed gangs who run their own parallel administrations and collect so-called taxes from the people.
R.N. Ravi is a former deputy national security advisor; he retained the interlocutor position even after becoming Nagaland’s governor in August 2019 due to his vast expertise and long experience of the matter. Ravi must be praised for underlining the rampant culture of extortions in the name of taxes in Nagaland. However, this is not an earth-shattering revelation; extortions have been a regular phenomenon in many northeastern states, irrespective of the party in power in New Delhi, where the highest administrative officials are aware of this practice, but prefer not to discuss it openly because they are helpless.
An outsider not familiar with the region might find it difficult to believe that businesses, small traders and government employees have to regularly pay “tax” to the Naga armed groups. Since the terms of ceasefire permit the NSCN-IM cadres to retain weapons, the refusal to pay extortions or donations can have life-threatening consequences. Insurgent footprints can be found in every economic, developmental and political activity in Nagaland. The problem has become so entrenched that people complain only when a certain threshold is crossed, otherwise they either pay or negotiate the amount of extortion. Hence, by pointing out the fundamental incompatibility of a state government’s claim of sovereignty cohabiting with the armed groups’ audacity to claim a right to extortion, Ravi has only taken the bull by the horns.
Hurdles in Naga peace talks
One should be aware that the NSCN-IM’s insistence for a separate flag and constitution has been a major stumbling block in the delivery of the final Naga accord. And state governments in the northeast have been very apprehensive of its demand of ‘Greater Nagalim’. Although there is no clear indication yet, even if the outfit agrees to pursue a solution that will not require the redrawing of boundaries, New Delhi will find it difficult to fulfill many of its other demands.
The Naga problem, one of the longest political conflicts in Southeast Asia, can be traced to the politics of sub-nationalism. And in the era of the resurgence of nationalist feelings worldwide, it would be risky to underestimate the power of Naga sub-nationalism. Although these two elements often come into tension with each other, it is still possible to blend them through a democratic process of give and take. Seen in this context, the Naga interlocutor’s recent actions reflect the views of a leadership in New Delhi that is not willing to accept a downgrading of the government’s bargaining position in subsequent discussions with the Naga groups. One cannot disagree with this logic, but there is a dilemma.
At a time when New Delhi is negotiating hard with the Chinese to disengage from the disputed areas from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the challenges of the Naga peace accord seem to have only multiplied. The manner in which Beijing is risking a military conflict with its nuclear-armed neighbour amid a global pandemic should leave nobody in doubt that China’s revisionist policies constitute a threat for India’s national security. Beijing’s brazen attempt to turn Nepal against India is also a matter of serious concern for New Delhi. Ravi should, therefore, take the geopolitics of the volatile region in the post-Galwan era into consideration if he is keen to push for peace with different insurgent groups, including the NSCN-IM.
Much ado about nothing
It needs to be noted that the NSCN-IM and the Narendra Modi government had signed the framework agreement in August 2015 amid much fanfare. It was then claimed that the final accord would be inked soon. But the prevalent sentiment of being very near to an accord was basically rooted in a combination of wishful thinking and misreading of ground realities of the northeastern region. There has been no sign of a final accord even after five years of this framework agreement and more than two decades of ceasefire.
However, the Modi government enlarged the peace process by roping in seven other extremist groups under the umbrella organisation Naga National Political Groups. The reason was simple and straightforward: involvement of all stakeholders in the process would effectively put New Delhi in a better bargaining position during negotiations. However, this strategy does not seem to have worked.
The NSCN-IM as well as some influential Naga political groups are unhappy with governor Ravi. The NSCN-IM, in response to the governor’s letter, said that if Ravi “finds pleasure to handle the Naga issue as a ‘law and order’ problem, he is not the right person to solve the long standing Indo-Naga problem.” The NSCN-IM has always believed that it has a sovereign right to collect taxes since it claims itself to be the “recognised and legitimate” representative of the Naga people.
Governor Ravi’s ‘game plan’
The main reason that the central government engages any insurgent group in the peace process is because of its influence with the local people. And the NSCN-IM is the most influential and powerful of the armed insurgent groups in Nagaland in terms of finance, cadre and weapons. Since the local people are forced to pay multiple, excessive ransom to insurgent groups, the final Naga pact cannot ignore this issue. Hence, it is entirely reasonable to believe that governor Ravi’s main purpose is to convey a strong message to the people in Nagaland that New Delhi is with them in their sufferings, while attempting to delegitimise the NSCN-IM’s claim of being their legitimate representatives.
Why the killing of some NSCN-IM cadres in Arunachal Pradesh raised eyebrows is because there are disputes regarding the territorial reach of ceasefire in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, where the NSCN-IM has a sizeable presence in addition to its stronghold in Nagaland. One can surmise that the purpose of this incident is to bring into question the ceasefire itself by promoting different interpretations of its terms. Moreover, the Nagaland government’s recent directive to all its employees to self-declare if any of their family members and relatives are members of underground organisations should also be understood in the wider context of Ravi’s thinking on the issue. The NSCN-IM has understood governor Ravi’s larger game plan of converting the Naga dispute into a ‘law and order’ issue.
If history is a guide, finding a lasting solution to Naga political issues acceptable to all groups is not going to be an easy task. One should remember that Nagaland and Jammu & Kashmir are geographically as well as culturally far apart. Thus, it is time to bring the tottering Naga peace process back on tracks, since the failure to do so could undermine not only the peace in the northeast but also the very foundations of India’s ‘Act East’ policy.
Mahendra L. Kumawat is former chairman, Ceasefire Monitoring Group, Nagaland and former Special Secretary, Internal Security, Ministry of Home Affairs; and Vinay Kaura is assistant professor, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. Views are personal.