In the northeast, there is finally hope in the air. India’s longest insurgency is heading towards closure after six decades. The final Naga Accord missed its 31 October deadline, but there are enough indications that the contentious issue of the NSCN(I-M) version of a confederal union with ‘shared sovereignty’ between India and the Naga ‘nation’ with a separate flag and Constitution has been subsumed by a focus on cultural identity with constitutional guarantees.
The armed separatist group National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M), the key stakeholder in the talks with Narendra Modi government, is back on board, and is now likely to strive to negotiate the best deal under the Indian Constitution.
How we address the Naga issue will have many lessons for policymakers and security experts on how to go about addressing the complex issues in Kashmir and Manipur.
Merits of democracy
The first agreement between the Indian government with moderate Naga groups in 1957 saw the creation of a union territory, which after subsequent negotiations became a state in 1963. Article 371A was enacted in the Indian Constitution to preserve Naga identity and culture. “Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, no Act of Parliament in respect of religious or social practices of the Nagas, Naga customary law and procedure, administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides,” it said.
In my view, Article 371A motivated the Naga people to accept the merits of Indian democracy. Now, its modified avatar with additional concessions or safeguards will be key to the final Naga Accord.
Demand for independence
The numerous Naga tribes with their diverse set of languages and cultures are spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Myanmar, but there is one thing that unites all of them — the desire to preserve culture and ethnicity. That was the root cause of the Naga insurgency.
The Naga tribes had enjoyed quasi-independence under the British rule since the 1840s. Their demand for independence started in this period.
Once the British left, the Naga nation wanted to transition from being a ‘nation’ to being a ‘sovereign state’. This led them to seek independence from India, which led to a classic full-fledged insurgency in the forested hilly terrain conducive for guerrilla warfare. The Naga Nationalist Council (NNC) formed under A.Z. Phizo in 1946 provided political and military leadership. External support was available in later years from China and East Pakistan.
But an inexperienced Indian state blundered into battle, treating it as a law and order problem requiring a military solution.
Killing of Dr Haralu
The brutal killing of Haralu, the region’s first doctor, in an encounter by a 2 Sikh patrol on 2 July 1956 on the outskirts of Kohima, was a turning point for both the insurgents and the Indian Army. The ‘murder’ of the most respected Naga senior citizen hit national and international headlines, and made even moderates join the underground movement.
The Indian state also learnt its lessons. It evolved a unique strategy based on people-friendly military operations, winning the hearts and minds of the people through development, persuasion, dialogue and constitutional concessions/guarantees to seek a political solution.
The first phase of the insurgency ended in 1975 with the Shillong Accord being signed with the NNC, which accepted the Indian constitution and agreed to give up arms.
But it also resulted in the creation of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), which refused to accept the agreement and broke away from the NNC. They felt that the Naga cause — creation of Nagalim as an independent state with a flag and constitution and only a quasi-confederal relationship with India — had been compromised.
A two-decade negotiation
With time, insurgents were worn down by relentless operations by the Indian Army including many transborder operations with Myanmar.
People began to enjoy the fruits of democracy too. Development and education opened up new opportunities.
Doors for negotiations were kept open and a ceasefire agreement was signed with NSCN(I-M) on 1 August 1997. Since then, insurgent activities have been sporadic at a relatively lower scale. The bigger problem was that being part of the underground had become a way of life for the jobless youth. This underground movement sustained itself by running a parallel government and large-scale extortion and tax collection.
Meanwhile, the negotiations with the Indian state dragged on for two decades with the NSCN(I-M) insisting on a confederal relationship with New Delhi, with a flag and constitution of its own.
A winning strategy
The Narendra Modi government having made political inroads into the northeast, pursued the negotiation more vigorously and signed the Naga Framework Accord on 3 August 2015, and is now on the cusp of clinching the final agreement.
After scrapping of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the NSCN (I-M) became increasingly suspicious and hardened its stand on Nagalim, constitution and flag, and even threatened to walk out of negotiations.
The Narendra Modi government responded by roping in six other armed Naga outfits under the banner of Naga National Political Groups and some civil society groups for the negotiations. Home Minister Amit Shah also gave assurances about the sanctity of Article 371A, unlike the ‘impermanent’ Article 370.
Details of the final agreement are not yet clear. But as per my assessment, the Nagalim demand has given way to the cultural integration of the Naga people with a pan-Naga cultural assembly and autonomous councils for Naga predominant areas in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. The Naga flag may be used at cultural events. Possibly, a modified Article 371A with specific cultural provisions and more concrete guarantees to avoid circumvention of legislative assembly through Governor’s rule may have been agreed to.
The moral of the Naga story is that the strategy evolved by the Indian state to tackle insurgencies requires patience and perseverance to find a political solution, and must never be abandoned. The Naga people moved on through political and economic empowerment. The underground movement was caught in a time warp and no longer represented the will of the people. Hopefully, the agreement will put an end to lawlessness perpetrated by the insurgent cadres.
It is time to replicate this strategy in Manipur, the Red Corridor, and above all, in Kashmir.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.