Naga legislators offer to step aside for peace

The government of India, I-M and other Naga rebel factions could do worse than working towards the reward offered by Nagaland’s legislators


A file photo of Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Photo: AP
A file photo of Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Photo: AP

At a meeting on 15 June in Kohima, Nagaland, all 60 legislators of the state’s assembly and its two members of Parliament remarkably put aside political and tribal differences. They resolved to “put pressure” on the Indian government and the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagalim, or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group with which the government signed a framework peace agreement on 3 August last year, to speed up the process.

They even resolved to give up their seats to absorb rebel leadership into the political mainstream. (There’s a grand example. Mizoram’s Congress chief minister Lal Thanhawla stepped aside to accommodate rebel leader Laldenga of the Mizo National Front in the wake of a peace deal in 1986. That peace still holds.)

It’s not the first time Nagaland’s legislators have taken such a stand. They adopted a resolution in mid-2012 to give up their positions to accommodate rebels to aid the process of peace and reconciliation. Then, as now, it mirrored the desire of the Naga people to formally end conflict, overcome a history of a genocidal war India waged against them, and seek an equitable future of peace and prosperity. But there are key differences.

In 2012, the framework agreement between the government and NSCN (I-M) was still three years from being signed; a tense ceasefire held a tenuous peace. There was also a ceasefire between the government and the second largest Naga rebel group, the S.S. Khaplang-led (or K) faction of NSCN. Smaller groups, in ceasefire and not, mostly issued dramatic statements. The focus on status quo included terms of the ceasefires which extended only to the territory of Nagaland, excluding contiguous Naga homelands in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh (and, naturally, Myanmar). This was done primarily to assuage concerns of the majority Meitei people in Manipur who feared peace with Nagas could lead to Manipur losing a large chunk of its territory in the hilly areas the Nagas inhabit.

There was also a movement among Naga civil society, through platforms such as the church-led Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) and apex bodies of Naga tribes, to stop bloody feuds (over revenue, and so, territory) among Naga rebel groups. I-M and Myanmar-based K; and I-M and a breakaway faction, Unification, had a history of pitched battles. If Naga rebels can’t present a united front, asked peacemakers, what hope had collective Naga aspiration? FNR even managed to host friendly soccer matches between rival rebels in Chiang Mai, a resort town in northern Thailand.

By 2016, soccer diplomacy wasn’t the only thing that slid.

The framework agreement remains as mysterious to citizenry today as it was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and I-M’s general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah oversaw its signing in New Delhi nearly a year ago. This has led to paranoia in Manipur, particularly among the plains-dwelling Meitei. Moreover, many Meitei leaders suspect that an ongoing hills-versus-plains stand-off is the handiwork of I-M with the not so subtle blessing of the government. (This feeling is underscored by the fact that several I-M leaders, including Muivah, are of Naga tribes in Manipur, and could logically look to secure a power base here.) A spark in today’s tinderbox Manipur, shepherded among others by a conglomerate of major Meitei rebel groups—six of which have banded together as the Coordination Committee, or CorCom, even as Naga rebel groups bicker—has the power to set off violence that will affect Nagaland.

In early 2015, K ditched its ceasefire with India, pushed as much by the impending deal between arch enemy I-M and India as Khaplang’s bet that his group’s ceasefire with Myanmar was better realpolitik. K has since attacked Indian security forces in Manipur, and, ironically, teamed up with CorCom to do so. Naga civil society representatives are again involved in getting K back to reconciliation—and, possibly, ceasefire—but to no discernible effect.

Meanwhile, the people of Nagaland appear to be tiring of K, and I-M and other “national workers” who despite ceasefire are still fully armed and recruiting, enforcing parallel administrations, and insisting that a hefty percentage of salaries and development funds be paid to them. A major ‘anti-tax’ movement in Nagaland aimed at rebels has made all factions livid, but even their outright intimidation has done little to dent what is clearly a people’s movement.

This surreal scenario is dangerously real. The government of India, I-M and other Naga rebel factions could do worse than working towards the reward offered by Nagaland’s legislators.

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 that affect businesses in India and South Asia, runs on Fridays.

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