Just a few weeks after the revocation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir that led to the erstwhile state’s closer integration with the Indian Union on 5 August 2019, several Naga rebel cadres owing allegiance to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M) moved out of Camp Hebron near Dimapur in Nagaland and into the neighbouring Sagaing region of Myanmar as well as Yunnan in China. The NSCN (I-M) was terrified that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government would do to them what it had done to Jammu and Kashmir.
This backdrop is key to understanding why, one year later, Naga rebels and the Modi government’s interlocutor and Nagaland Governor R. N. Ravi are at loggerheads over finding a solution to India’s longest standing insurgency, going back at least to 1956. It was then that Jawaharlal Nehru had first sent the Army, which had little experience in handling counter-insurgency, to Nagaland, resulting in several gross human rights violations.
Naga peace: Nehru to Modi
Saam, daam, dand, bhed: India has applied every trick in its book to establish peace with the Nagas. Just like Modi today, Nehru had no illusions about the Naga insurgency. He and every prime minister since has used both carrot and stick to bring Naga rebels overground. Like Sheikh Abdullah in Jammu and Kashmir, the Nagas too had demanded special status within the Indian Union, but never got it. When Modi did away with J&K’s special status, it was a sign to the Naga rebels that the time for dialogue under the 2015 Framework Agreement was up.
That’s why Ravi’s comments about “vested interests” who have “misappropriated” the peace dividend in Nagaland, during his Independence Day speech in Kohima, are significant.
Nagaland’s Governor Ravi’s speech must have been vetted by the Modi government, or more likely by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, whose handpicked man he is believed to be. Doval and Ravi are both from the Kerala cadre and have worked closely together in the Intelligence Bureau. Ravi played a key role in the Naga peace talks by getting Isak Swu (one of the two main NSCN leaders, the other being Thuingaleng Muivah, the I and M in NSCN-IM) to sign onto the agreement from his hospital bed in 2015. He passed away in 2016.
The Chinese shadow
Ajit Doval is likely sending a message to 86-year-old Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, to stop running with the hare and hunting with the hound – something the NSCN has been doing since it was founded in 1980 by Muivah, Swu and S. S. Khaplang, a Hemi Naga from neighbouring Burma.
Since then, NSCN cadres — trained, funded and supplied with arms by the Chinese next door — have waged insurgency against the Indian State. Even when rebel leaders returned to India some years later because, it is said, there were no churches in China and the Chinese discouraged them from praying – Isak Swu’s father was a Christian evangelist from the Sumi Naga tribe and Swu himself studied in the American Mission school – the NSCN continued to be in bed with the Chinese.
A resolution to the Naga insurgency would be a feather in Modi’s cap. Every PM has tried his hand at it, meeting Naga leaders living in a variety of capitals abroad — P.V. Narasimha Rao met Muivah and Swu in Paris in June 1995, H.D. Deve Gowda met them in Zurich in February 1997 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee met them in Paris in September 1998. Manmohan Singh nearly resolved the issue in 2011-12, but a solution was thwarted at the last minute when then Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh did not agree to give “autonomy” to Naga-dominated hill districts in Manipur and got then Congress president Sonia Gandhi to sign off. All this, despite an agreement between Congress heavyweights like Pranab Mukherjee, P. Chidambaram and AK Antony and Muivah and Swu.
The NSCN (I-M) is today demanding its own flag and Constitution. But as Ravi has signaled, they are not going to get it. The NSCN (I-M) had agreed to drop the idea of its own Constitution in its talks with the Manmohan Singh government. Although several cadres are threatening a return to insurgency – and by implication, a return to Chinese assistance — it’s unlikely that the ageing Muivah can go back to the fires of his youth.
With the Chinese having intruded into Ladakh, Delhi will be careful about stoking the fire too much.
Meanwhile, here is what Governor Ravi thinks about the China factor in India’s north-east insurgency. He was speaking at a webinar organised by the Intellectual Forum of North East in Guwahati on 24 July: “China looks upon the North-East as a vulnerable periphery…if the objective is to prevent, pre-empt the rise of India, one weak spot is the North-East… Next is to keep India embroiled in itself. If it remains occupied in the major issue of internal stability, it consumes an enormous amount of national wealth…So China engaged in a proxy war with what it calls as ‘bleeding through a million cuts’….aiding and abetting insurgencies in the North-East. It also has territorial ambitions, like Arunachal Pradesh, which it claims as its territory…”
Views are personal.