The broad contours of a proposed solution to the Naga peace talks is already visible. While most other Naga groups, most importantly the Naga National Political Group, NNPG, a conglomerate of seven Naga underground factions, most if not all Nagaland based, have agreed to a settlement within the Constitution of India, only the NSCN(IM) is refusing to surrender its old position of a settlement that is nothing short of sovereignty, though euphemistically rephrased as “shared sovereignty” with a separate Naga Constitution and Flag. Considering the Government of India, GOI, is unlikely to concede to such a demand, it does not seem likely there will be a comprehensive resolution to the problem in the near future. The GOI, through its interlocutor, R.N. Ravi, who is now also the Governor of Nagaland, has indicated that if the NSCN(IM) continues to stick to this stance, GOI will go ahead to sign a truce with or without the NSCN(IM). Whether this is only a threat aimed at pressuring the NSCN(IM) to fall in line, or else it will go ahead and walk its talk remains to be seen.
Interestingly, in a recent video interview with Karan Thapar of The Wire news portal, NSCN(IM) chief Thuingaleng Muivah, though resolute in his stance on Naga sovereignty, also indicated in the same breath that as a first step, he and his organisation would be willing to go for Territorial Councils for Nagas outside of Nagaland. As to how this can be reconciled with the stance of no settlement within the Constitution of India is intriguing, but let that be for the negotiating parties to sort out. As keen observers of the developments regarding the negotiations however, we can only speculate this may be an indication of where and how a compromise can likely occur. In other words, there will be two separate settlement packages. The first package will be for Nagaland state, and for this there are indication that it may include a bicameral assembly, with a house of elders added, handsome developmental funds, more seats in the Parliament from the current one each for the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, etc. The second package will be for Nagas outside of Nagaland, and this is where the idea of Territorial Council comes in. Indications are, these councils will have a measure of autonomy similar to the powers given to 6th Schedule Autonomous District Councils, ADCs, of the Indian Constitution. How acceptable this will be to the states in which they are proposed to be introduced, will obviously depend on how these councils are modelled and negotiated with these states. It is also quite apparent that the most problematic state in this negotiation will be multi-ethnic Manipur, precisely because of its multi-ethnicity. Probably recognizing this complexity, the Territorial Council proposal for Manipur is peculiar and interesting, therefore deserves serious discussions.
For Manipur, the proposal seems to be for three such councils, North, Central and South. Interestingly again, it also seems these councils will be given ethnic neutral titles, prompted probably by a recognition of the multi-ethnic demographic profile of the state. It is however not difficult to see that the North would be largely to accommodate the Nagas, the Central for the Meiteis of the Imphal Valley and the South for the Kukis and aligned tribes. While it would be preposterous to predict how such a proposal will be received by the different communities, the proposal does seem like an attempt at an out-of-the-box solution to a vexing problem. Our appeal is for the proposal be met with a rational discussion first and foremost before outrightly accepting or rejecting it. All stakeholders also need to remind themselves that splitting the state into three autonomous Territorial Councils does not necessarily have to mean a compromise on the state’s territorial or emotional integrity. Under this arrangement, the Manipur state can still remain as the supra structure within which are these three autonomous units function. It would in effect be a smaller version of the federal structure of the Indian Union, where several states and union territories are bound together within the Indian Union, and state powers are shared between the Union and the federating units as per the 7th Schedule of the Constitution.
There is also the ready model of Meghalaya to demonstrate this can work. All of the land area of Meghalaya is split between three 6th Schedule ADCs – the Khasi ADC, Jantia ADC and Garo ADCs. All three are then yoked together under the Meghalaya state’s patronage. The only stretch of land not coming under the 6th Schedule is the cosmopolitan Shillong city cantonment and municipal area. These ADCs are given the power to administer certain matters, largely pertaining to the customary world and practices under an autonomous budget head, but the Meghalaya state looks after the larger issues of governance of the aggregated public life, administrative as well as judicial. In Manipur too, we already have a local self-governance model covering the entire state – the ADCs, though not the 6th Schedule variety in the hills, and the Panchayati Raj in the valley districts. If the proposal is for a more elaborate and stronger version of what we already have, there ought not to be any serious objections. In giving these thoughts a serious scrutiny, let us keep in mind that the Naga problem deserves an honourable resolution, but this resolution must also not be at the cost of others sharing the same physical and emotional living spaces. What needs to also be recalled is the Game Theory, using which American mathematician John Forbes Nash worked out what came to be known as the “Nash equilibrium”, and for which he received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. The Nash story is common knowledge after a Hollywood hit, A Beautiful Mind was made on his extraordinary story. The basic contention of his theory is that a stable state can be reached only when no player can gain advantage through a unilateral change of strategy assuming others would not change theirs. This is a situation in which no one side in a complex multilateral equation is left to gain at the cost of others, but one in which all players agree on a state of equilibrium in which all have something to gain and none is left the loser.
Including the valley districts in this settlement model probably is part of a hunt for such an equilibrium and will likely have some more advantages. For one, it would among others be a halfway house for those demanding Scheduled Tribe status for the Meiteis. It may not mean ST status right away, but in matters such as conduct of customary life, as well as other the autonomies accorded to the ST status, would become their too. Most importantly, one of the things they have come to be most insecure about, that of land protection in order they do not end up marginalised in their traditional grounds, would also come to be somewhat guaranteed. At this moment, because of these structural vulnerabilities brought about by a peculiar turn of post-colonial politics, there can be no argument that they have been left with a sense of siege. There is first of all the peculiar land administration mechanism by which they are prohibited from settling anywhere in the hills while at the same time the Imphal valley where they live is open for settlement and purchase by everybody – a skewed policy which as I have argued in a previous article https://www.fpsjreview.in/home/articles/393/haraothel-case-is-a-reminder-manipur-can-also-see-extreme-right-turns-and-backlashes-if-remedial-measures-are-neglected is an inheritance from a British classification of revenue and non-revenue land in the early 20th Century in Manipur, a legacy from their own land administration mechanism evolved in Assam in 1873 and the drawing of the “Inner Line”.
Second, there is the generous reservation policy India adopted at the time of independence by a centre-left socialist leaning leadership who were determined to level out the playing fields so no section of the society is left behind in the development march. While all this was very well, and needed very much to be done, seven and half decade later, when the system is still not open to recalibrating the mechanism, those outside this protection are now beginning to see it as unjust. The emergence of far right outlook and extremism, not just as political opportunism that the state is familiar with in the defection drama every term, but as fundamentally rooted beliefs, amongst the valley population, is on the increase. The demand for ST Status amongst a section as a reverse strategy of levelling the job market playing fields which they now feel has been tilted against them, should be treated as a warning signal. It is interesting that we see mirrors of what is happening in Manipur’s microcosm in much of the rest of the world where liberal democracies are coming under threats of right-wing outlooks. Look at the USA, where leaders like Republican senator Tom Cotton are openly campaigning for end to all affirmative actions, who believes those left behind are because they lack calibre, who wrote a controversial article in The New York times calling for troops to be used to suppress the Black Lives Matter protests in the streets – an article which created such a stir not just amongst the public, but also within The New York Time resulting in the sacking of an editor. The division in the American society today is frightening, and it must be added that India today is not doing too well either on this count. In Manipur’s effort to mend itself, serious thought must be given as to whether the three Territorial Council model proposed can be not just a solution to the Naga issue, but also the Kuki issue, and indeed, a way out of the right-wing extremism alley now seemingly opening up for the valley population as well. At no cost must we allow the unfortunate ethnic fissures in our society to deepen any further.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author