Dimapur: A cocktail of emotions — fear, anxiety, excitement — pervades the air in Nagaland as the countdown to a possible peace agreement enters its last lap.
Come Thursday, 31 October, Naga groups are expected to wrap up their 23-year-old dialogue with the central government and possibly end a conflict that can be traced to the early years of the 20th century. A conflict older than Independent India itself.
It’s a milestone event and rumours are rife. Among them, one in particular has local residents worried.
It is feared the central government will sign the peace accord with the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), which consists of seven armed outfits, and leave out the influential National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) over disagreements regarding a separate flag and constitution.
Such an arrangement, they worry, may set off another period of discord the people, who have suffered under a decades-old insurgency, can ill afford. The NNPG itself opposes the idea.
“In the last 70 years, no exclusive agreement with one particular organisation worked for us, including the ones signed in 1947, 1960, 1975, 1997 and 2001,” said Shikuto Zalipu, the general secretary of the Nagaland Gaon Burhas’ Federation (NGBF).
The NGBF is the apex body for tribal village heads, a powerful organisation that describes itself as the custodian of tribal customs.
The Shillong accord of 1975 was struck with the Naga National Council (NNC) and called for insurgents to give up their arms. But three leaders of the NNC split from the outfit in protest and formed the NSCN, which has been at the head of the Naga movement since. The leaders were Nagaland-born Isak Swu, Manipur-born Th. Muivah and S.S. Khaplang, a Myanmarese Naga.
In 1988, the NSCN further split into two factions, one led by Isak and Muivah, and the second by Khaplang. Muivah, 85, is the only one still alive. While Isak died in 2016, Khaplang passed away the next year.
The NSCN (I-M) has been involved in peace talks with the central government since 1997, when it signed a ceasefire agreement, while Khaplang’s group has been a deadly threat — in 2015, they allegedly masterminded an Army ambush in Manipur that killed 18 personnel.
The oldest insurgency
Nagaland, as its name suggests, is home to the Nagas, a group of tribes native to the region.
According to the website of the state government, it is sometimes referred to as the Switzerland of the east — with rolling greens dotted with lush hills, clear water bodies, spotless blue skies and pleasant temperature rarely known to top 30°C.
The state was inaugurated on 1 December 1963, as the 16th state of India. It lies along India’s eastern boundary, and is bordered by Assam to the west, Myanmar on the east, Arunachal Pradesh and part of Assam to the north and Manipur in the south.
Nagaland currently comprises an area of 16,579 sq km. It is also home to India’s oldest insurgency, whose first expression can be traced to 1929, when a group of Nagas told the visiting Simon Commission to “leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times”.
One of the key demands of Naga groups has been the establishment of a greater Nagaland or ‘Nagalim’, a region over seven times the state’s size and comprising Naga-inhabited parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and Myanmar.
In 2015, the NSCN (I-M) and the Modi government signed a historic framework agreement that sought to end “the oldest insurgency in the country… restore peace and pave the way for prosperity in the northeast”.
It was established after the NSCN (I-M) reportedly agreed to surrender sovereignty claims and settle for a solution within Indian borders and one that wouldn’t require redrawing of state lines.
But the demand for a separate constitution and flag, which the Modi government has refused to concede, has now put a question mark on their involvement in a final peace accord.
Its insistence has, in fact, even put off its own members, with many breaking ranks to join the NNPG, which became a participant in the talks in 2017.
While resigning from the NSCN (I-M) last week, a member of the negotiation team, Hukavi Yepthomi, said he and fellow defectors were “convinced that the interest, pursuit and potential of future Naga generations must not be jeopardised by unresolved symbolic issues”.
“This peace process has been going on for the last 23 years. We have been yearning for peace and stability for a long time. And this is not possible if any particular faction is left out of the peace accord,” said Zalipu, who is also a member of the NNPG working committee.
“In August 2017, we met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and requested him to giving us an inclusive peace agreement. He asked, what according to us is inclusivity? Being inclusive in nature means talking to all factions, and taking all stakeholders on board,” said Zalipu.
“We explained this to the PM and he cordially agreed to our suggestion. Leaving one faction out means inviting trouble for people… We want the peace accord to be signed amicably with the government, and other issues, including the flag and the constitution, may be discussed later through democratic process… We appeal to the NSCN (I-M) to be a part of the deal,” he told ThePrint.
In August, Nagaland Governor and peace interlocutor R.N. Ravi revealed that PM Modi wanted the dispute settled within three months, that is, by 31 October.
The same month, the NNPG, which comprises more than 8,000 village heads as members, submitted a memorandum to the PM through Ravi, seeking an “honourable and acceptable” solution for the Nagas that can be translated into a practical and workable political mechanism.
‘The moment to make history has come’
The demand seems to resonate among different sections of Nagaland who are as eager to preserve their unique culture and traditions as they are to find lasting peace. Just this Monday, the Naga Students Federation held a candlelight vigil in Dimapur to appeal for an “inclusive solution”.
“We hope that all the leaders come to a common platform and take the process forward, keeping political positioning and power politics away for the time being. The moment to make history for Nagaland has come,” said a senior member of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), a powerful group of Naga intellectuals and civil society members.
“If this can’t be done, then the two-decade-long process cannot be utilised to reach a resolution and it will give birth to further complication and factionalism,” the member said. “We, the people of Nagaland, want them to explore every opportunity.”
Meanwhile, a retired civil servant from Nagaland said the NSCN (I-M)’s demand for a separate flag and constitution might be “genuine”, but they should know the 2015 framework was signed under the Constitution of India.
“How can the government now agree on a different constitution?” the bureaucrat added. “Moreover, the constitution they are talking about, we do not know what is there. People of Nagaland must know what lies in the constitution as it is going to be the future of the Nagas,” the bureaucrat said.
“Moreover, is there any consensus on the flag and constitution? Did the NNPG agree on that? If no, then they will continue to defy this and it will again lead to another confrontation,” the bureaucrat added. “A confrontation is the last thing any Naga will want.”