Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Opinion | The ‘stuck’ Naga peace talks need a reimagining

Truth is Naga rebel groups have emerged as the collective wrecking ball of public trust

Today, we need to reimagine the Indo-Naga Peace Process with one that encompasses and complements the political exchanges in Delhi between the government of India and the Naga political groups by raising Naga peoples’ voices through inclusive participation and transparency," the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), a church-blessed “civil society" organization, announced on 14 January.

The statement is a slap to Naga armed groups in general and, by extension, to the politics of the peace process itself, which FNR terms “one-dimensional". FNR mentioned its “mandate from the Naga people".

Basically, FNR wishes to be counted. That may not be a bad thing. A re-imagining would certainly help, because the process, announced with fanfare by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2015, is stuck. A “framework agreement" was then announced between the government and National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group. Other rebel groups were out of the loop, so were the governments of Nagaland and Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam—these last three have contiguous Naga homelands. Naga citizenry were largely excluded.

Despite public and political outreach since by government negotiator R.N. Ravi, the process has remained hazy. A masterstroke formally brought in six smaller rebel groups onto a parallel negotiating platform in September 2017, signalling to NSCN (I-M) that they weren’t the only game in town. A major split later in the year in the still at-war NSCN (K), or Khaplang faction, has also fortuitously brought an expelled leader, Khango Konyak, to talk peace and reconciliation.

Splinters may assist India’s negotiating strength. But for my money the peace deal has always been not so much about honouring Naga history and struggles, which would be addressed with suitable words and totems such as two flags. And protecting benefits of Article 371 (A) of India’s Constitution that permits, for Nagaland, primacy of “religious or social practices of the Nagas", “Naga customary law and procedure", “administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law", and “ownership and transfer of land and its resources".

It’s always been about what will happen to leaders of the various armed groups. Cadres will be absorbed into society, police and various paramilitaries with relative ease. But will leaders, used to vast power and vast funds—donations, extortion, call it what you will—backed by weaponry, be content with being accommodated in autonomous regional councils across the four states and, possibly, a bicameral legislature in Nagaland? And so on.

Whatever the past ills and current machinations of the Indian government, or the ineptitude and corruption of local governments that has cursed much of northeastern India, the truth is that Naga rebel groups have emerged as the collective wrecking ball of public trust. “National movement" is today a misused, tired trope.

This galls the public. It certainly galls FNR—ditched by rebel groups and kept at arm’s length by the government of India.

For some years from 2008, FNR actually got rebel groups that were fighting each other for influence and territory—revenue, really—to talk. There were photo-ops in Dimapur and friendly soccer matches between rivals in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. That went nowhere.

Then, in February 2012, FNR pulled off a stunning show of popular support. A gathering in Dimapur estimated at 50,000, with rebel leaders, tribal, church and other community leaders, and general citizenry, unequivocally supported reconciliation among Naga rebel groups. While the sentiment remained—the goodwill that FNR is fond of describing as its “mandate"—the momentum collapsed. The 2015 deal-towards-a-deal seemingly made FNR irrelevant. But I have always rooted for this organization, which has been viewed by some government officials as a fifth column and by others as a necessary medium for true peace.

Last September, FNR flagged the burden of “taxation" by rebel groups, and the “alarming increase of social ills and the nexus between Naga national groups and vested individuals and parties" that were “strengthening the culture of impunity". FNR demanded accountability, transparency, trust and respect, and for the peace process to be made “less murky". And now, there’s this “re-imagining".

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

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