This is to highlight the complex tapestry of the century-old issue of sovereignty of Nagas in the northeast India which is a strategic location as it adjoins countries such as China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and others, in addition to the simmering ethnic tension and unstable law and order in the region.
On February 2 this year, we had written a short piece about the chequered history of the Naga nationalism starting from 1662 AD in a national daily The Pioneer with the title, “For a lasting peace in Nagaland”. By playing up the strategic importance of the region in the wake of the unfolding India-China tension, some experts seem to have taken a middle position so as to not displease either the NSCN-IM or R. N. Ravi, governor-cum-interlocutor of Nagaland. However, in their attempt to prescribe a formula of “compromise”, we believe they have not shed enough light on the developments in the past five years since the Framework Agreement (FA) was signed on August 3, 2015 between the central government and the NSCN-IM.
Since the signing of the FA, which was mysteriously and imprudently kept as a secret until recently when the outfit chose to release the agreement to the press, Ravi has taken up some bold decisions to include most of the Naga organisations in the fold of the final agreement or solution, prominently Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) and the Nagaland Gaon Bura Federation (NGBF). The so-called achievements of Ravi as the interlocutor has become a spoke in the wheel as the new entrants in the talk process have reportedly put out divisive agenda questioning the authority of the NSCN-IM as the decades-long Naga voice in the peace talks and speaking out about the Manipur-Nagaland conundrum of the Nagas/leaders.
Is it a new design woven into the peace talks to open an alternative channel(s)for peace talks or was there always a deep-rooted divide? The shrill voices whipping up this divide were given a platform by the decision to start the Registry of Indigenous Inhabitants of Nagaland (RIIN), and amplified by political legends like S.C. Jamir who was one of the signatories of the July 1960 agreement that resulted in the creation of a separate state of Nagaland.
This political engineering was gaining momentum alongside the October 31, 2019 deadline the central government set ambitiously banking on Ravi’s appointment as the governor of the state. From an interlocutor, a non-Constitutional and non-political responsibility, to a governor, a Constitutional and increasingly political post, Ravi’s induction into the political system was in itself an encrypted message sent out to the stakeholders of the peace talks that the peace process would now take a different turn altogether. In fact, no career-bureaucrat interlocutor who is on-the-job has ever become a governor.
Probably, Ravi’s appointment was an attempt by the government to change the approach to the problem from bottom-up to top-down, meaning the higher-ups in the political hierarchy will now dictate the process rather than the ground reality guiding it. This could be seen in the hurriedly fixed timeline for the completion of the RIIN-related survey by October 30, 2019, one day before the government-set deadline for the Naga solution. However, the plan did not go as expected. After this, frantic efforts have been made to break the NSCN-IM’s spirit and legitimacy by relegating them, on the one hand, while increasing the involvement of NNPGs and the NGBF, and bringing them to the forefront, on the other hand.
It is understood that the NSCN-IM would not cosy up with its breakaway or subordinate groups (read as NNPGs) that have long lost the credibility in the power game, to be on the same negotiating table undermining their grit and perseverance in sticking to the resolve of taking the Naga issue to its logical conclusion. Whether it is NNPGs or the NGBF, because of the effect of RIIN or the recent design favouring them to open an alternative channel for the talks, the vocal divisive statements targeting or snubbing the NSCN-IM, particularly, Thuingaleng Muivah, the Manipur-born chairman of the pan-states Naga outfit, have increased dramatically.
Ravi on his part started with a reminder in his Republic Day address this year that “…violence has never succeeded and shall never succeed… In democratic India, the people are supreme. We resolve our differences through peaceful dialogue, not under the shadow of guns”. There was a conspicuous corollary of his reminder in the crackdown in the Naga self-administered zone in the Sagaing region of Myanmar by a joint team of Indian and Myanmar armies since February this year causing hardships, and a July 11 operation by Indian army and state police at Longding, Arunachal Pradesh killing six cadres of the NSCN-IM in violation of the ceasefire in place since 1997.
As expected, the tone of the interlocutor-cum-governor has now become more hostile with his letter of June 16 wherein he equated the NSCN-IM with “armed gangs” and its alleged “legitimate taxes” with extortion. Given that Ravi has had a long experience of the insurgency in the northeast, the letter and the claim in it, which was not well received by the Nagaland government and the NSCN-IM, came as a surprise because the practice of collecting taxes/extortion money by insurgents is routine in the region. When the approach to the peace talks was bottom-up, such statements were not made but it came with the shift to top-down approach, i.e. the interlocutor was speaking as a governor, in this case: a potential conflict of interest because of the two caps he wore.
A series of events has taken place since the statement came, starting with NSCN-IM coming out unfazed and with a bolder attitude in a press statement of reducing the “legitimate taxes” to 3% in view of the Covid-19 induced hardships. The state government buckling under pressure of the June 16 letter issued a circular asking its officials to declare any association with underground organizations. Following this, the outfit accused the interlocutor of mistreatment of its members and blamed him for deleting certain word(s) from the agreement. It was followed by the outfit’s demand to replace Ravi as the interlocutor, while NNPGs and the NGBF have taken to backing Ravi speaking the divisive language in attacking Muivah.
In short, Ravi’s contribution has become exclusionary, not the other way round. Confirming the shift to top-down approach, the government recently deputed Intelligence Bureau members even as Ravi’s influence looms large in the whole process, and involvement of maverick politician Himanta Biswa Sarma from Assam to keep the ball rolling. All these developments point to a confused stand of the central government which will complicate and delay the political solution. In addition, the neighbouring states which are against any settlement with the Nagas at the cost of their territorial integrity have not yet been taken into confidence. Apparently, the central government is hoping to use the service of Sarma, who was instrumental in installing BJP or BJP-backed governments in those neighbouring states, however, it is left to be seen as to how this strand completes the complex tapestry.
Co-authored with Md Chingiz Khan
The writer is an Assistant Professor at Gauhati University, Guwahati, Assam and Md Chingiz Khan is a Ph.D Scholar at the Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi