Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Making a new start for peace in Nagaland

A new peace agreement is to be welcomed. But there are plenty of doubts

The signing of any agreement to end an insurgency or secessionist movement in India is always a welcome step. The signing of a framework agreement between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) on Monday belongs to this class of agreements. Much is hoped from this agreement—whose details have not been disclosed by the government so far.

The agreement was signed by veteran Naga leaders Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Swu and the representative of the government of India, R.N. Ravi. A government release said: “The entire top leadership of the NSCN (Isak-Muivah), including all members of the ‘collective leadership’, has fully endorsed the agreement and was present during the ceremony."

The agreement is a framework deal with details that are subject to further negotiation. This will take time and usually it is in such “final agreements" that disagreements crop up. But after a lifetime of struggle, it can be reasonably stated that NSCN(IM) leaders have realized the futility of armed struggle and dreams of a separate nation-state. The doubts are not about the two individual leaders or even NSCN(IM), but the political and geographic complexity of the Naga region that has made peace elusive for 60 years.

India’s experience in successfully resolving insurgencies shows there are only two paths to peace. One can sign a comprehensive deal that promises a degree of cultural and political autonomy within the constitutional framework. The exemplar being the agreement that sorted out the Mizo insurgency. The deal was successful as the Union government could agree to a package with a single leader/group that then settled and began enjoying the fruits of peace. The other option is to eliminate all insurgent groups to the bitter end. This option is not only costly, but is also impractical in most cases. The only successful example is Punjab.

This second option has been tried in Nagaland from 1956 when the army was marched into the Naga Hills. It has not worked. The trouble is that the alternative, too, is not clear notwithstanding the peace agreement. There are three clear roadblocks.

One, it is a misnomer to call any deal a “Naga" accord. Nagaland is one of the most diverse states of India, and the Nagas themselves are dozens of distinct tribes with their own culture and traditions. This diversity has led to factions and factions within factions defying any semblance of political unity. Swu and Muivah should know that. On 11 November 1975, a similar accord was signed between the Union government and a group of Naga leaders and organizations including the Naga National Council (NNC), the outfit led by the legendary Phizo, an Angami Naga. Soon after that, Swu and Muivah—Tangkhul Nagas from Ukhrul district in Manipur—formed NSCN(IM) and launched one of the most bitter and violent phases of insurgency in Nagaland. The ageing Phizo, in exile in faraway London, could not do anything to persuade his younger colleagues. Today, the tables have turned: Swu and Muivah are on the wrong side of age and a relatively younger S.S. Khaplang—a Naga of Myanmarese origin and arguably one of the strongest insurgents in the north-east—is up in arms. It was the Khaplang faction that launched the attack on Indian Army soldiers in Chandel district of Manipur last month.

Two, the geographic spread of the Naga people poses special problems. One key demand of all Naga insurgents has been the creation of a separate, and larger, political unit called “Nagalim". This includes parts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. This is unlikely to be conceded without taking into confidence the governments of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. These states are unlikely to willingly give up parts of their territory. The problem is particularly acute in the case of Manipur, a state beset with its own complex insurgency and upheaval.

Three, a further geographic complication is the large number of Nagas who live in Myanmar. Is it certain that the deal in India will ensure that these Nagas won’t create problems for India? Ethnic groups with a cross-border presence can reduce any deal to a worthless piece of paper. From South America to South-East Asia, history is full of examples where peace has been impossible because an ethnic group is settled across national boundaries.

That said, one should welcome the deal between NSCN(IM) and the Union government. Swu and Muivah are great leaders who have struggled long for peace and dignity for the Naga people. They need some respite. But so do Nagaland and all of the Naga people.

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