Is Nagaland elections overshadowing the peace process?
Nagaland will attend elections to its assembly on 27 February. Results are due on 3 March, but the peace process will likely not be on firmer ground even after.
Meanwhile, the third anniversary of the announcement of what has come to be called the Framework Agreement for peace with the largest Naga rebel group will arrive on 3 August. On that day in 2015, in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood by the signatories to announce: “Today, we mark not merely the end of a problem but the beginning of a new future.”
The problem is far from ended.
The foremost equation right now is of course the political, in which Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has made an aggressive play for dominance. It announced the entry of non-BJP leaders and legislators into the party in mid-January. It negotiated an alliance with the newly-formed Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP), a destination, like the BJP, for disgruntled legislators as well as those enchanted by various perquisites. NDPP has as its best-known face Neiphiu Rio, a former chief minister who is already elected unopposed from a constituency in the region of Kohima. The BJP’s manifesto, like that of the Congress, has without a trace of irony also promised a free ride to the Promised Land to the elderly in this largely Christian state, even as it reduces pilgrimage subsidy for other religions elsewhere.
Seat sharing by the NDPP-BJP combine in a 40:20 split in the 60-seat assembly is designed to derail the incumbent Nagaland People’s Front (NPF), Rio’s former home and BJP ally with which both Rio and BJP broke off earlier this year when it became clear NPF strongman T.R. Zeliang, the current chief minister, was unwilling to share power with them. Rio and Zeliang—Rio’s former protégé—had briefly shared common cause last year, but as I pointed out in a column in November, that alliance was already on shaky ground.
Church and tribal groups have, meanwhile—and also without a trace of irony—opened a broadside against the BJP and its allies. Earlier this week, the influential Nagaland Baptist Church Council openly advocated that voters choose their future with “Christian and Naga identity and to have allegiance towards one’s faith, rather than by going with any communal party”. Dimapur-based The Morung Express published a somewhat bizarre appeal by The Ao Theological Association to “not to let the slogan of development and good governance persuade the Naga Christians to deny the Cross of Jesus Christ.” This stew is normal for Nagaland.
The outcome of the election could frankly go either way. The NPF will hope to directly and indirectly gain from church support and the heft of some factions among Naga rebel groups keen to place the BJP on the defensive in peace negotiations. The BJP will be hoping to gain power with the help of NDPP and a ninja manoeuvre, as it were, with any victory by candidates of the National People’s Party (NPP) run by Meghalaya’s emergent power-player Conrad Sangma. NPP helped a BJP-led coalition wrest power from Congress in Manipur last year.
This political jousting will overshadow the peace process for several months. Any real gain during this preoccupation can come about with India’s security establishment, in this case led by a multi-agency effort whose face is R.N. Ravi, the central government’s interlocutor for peace talks with the largest Naga rebel group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), and others. Ravi, compelled to work with the public relations and electoral compulsions of his political masters, has nevertheless managed a slow and steady manoeuvre of negotiation-chess and public trust-building.
He has held meetings with nearly every social and political interest group in Nagaland and neighbouring Manipur—where exist large Naga homelands, and where non-Naga people remain concerned about a Naga peace deal leading to de-facto loss of territory of the state. He has also steadily conducted negotiations with NSCN (I-M), ironing out details of the future of its leaders and cadres in post-conflict world of reconciliation and rehabilitation, and de-arming of the group.
There have been other important developments. The peace process, made hollow by the Framework Agreement’s engagement with just one rebel group, has since September been joined by six smaller Naga rebel groups. There is also greater acceptance, as I have repeatedly urged in this column by reflecting substantial public opinion, that there cannot be true Naga peace and reconciliation without NSCN’s Khaplang faction, the second-largest Naga rebel group, which is in active combat against India. There is ongoing effort to pressure Myanmar-based NSCN-K through military means, diplomatic overtures with Myanmar, and outreach by Naga civil society groups, to bring it back to a ceasefire with the government of India it broke in early 2015.
Real peace is how a new future for Nagaland and the Naga people will arrive. For that—and for a change—politicians may need to fall in line.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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