The ongoing fracas in Manipur has raised a related question. Is the Naga peace process, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi revived in mid-2015 with fanfare, dead? Or stalled?

Admitting this is tricky: there is simply too much loss of face involved, but the process has a default bug of failure. It’s just too darn complicated, this chess game of lives and futures.

The “framework agreement for peace" signed on 3 August 2015 between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), is the flimsiest of deals to boost a ceasefire signed nearly 20 years ago, in 1997. A ceasefire that permits I-M to recruit, train, and arm—and for all purposes run a parallel administration that collects tax and interferes in elections!

As I wrote last week, the agreement has no content except strengthening positions from which to negotiate.

The government and I-M have deflected calls to make the agreement public, while throwing in key words like “shared future" and “honourable". Meanwhile, Modi got to project himself as peacemaker. And this largest Naga rebel group raised its profile, claiming pre-eminence. By extension, both became deciding factors in the future of the Naga people, whose homelands extend beyond Nagaland to contiguous areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

The show had become important as the second largest Naga rebel group, the Myanmar-based Khaplang, or K faction of NSCN, which has bloodily fought I-M for influence, manpower and revenue territories since 1988, ditched a ceasefire with the government in March 2015, reading the wind, and also seeking to leverage a separate ceasefire with Myanmar. Subsequently, K attacked and killed Indian troops in Nagaland and Manipur. This was done in an alliance of convenience with several Manipuri rebel groups which represent the majority Meitei ethnicity in that state.

This is bizarre enough by itself. Both I-M and K factions, like other, smaller factions of Naga rebels, claim Greater Nagaland as their stated objective. This includes Naga homelands in Manipur, a claim resented by Meitei rebels and non-combatant citizens alike because they see in it a fracturing of Manipur. I-M, with much of its leadership and cadres of Naga tribes from Manipur, especially the Tangkhul, is seen by Meitei as the prime mover. Thuingaleng Muivah, the M in I-M and signatory to the framework agreement, is Tangkhul. So is Phungthing Shimrang, I-M’s army chief and contender for ‘next-gen’ leadership, along with another power centre, V.S. Atem, a widely respected former army chief. Muivah is 82. Isak Chishi Swu, the I in I-M—and, notably, non-Tangkhul—died earlier this year. I-M is now basically a Tangkhul project, and rigid Naga tribal equations that marry tribe to territory practically ensure that the future of the ‘de-mobbed’ Tangkhul of I-M lies in Manipur.

And so, allying with the K faction permits Meitei rebels to stick it to both I-M and the Indian government—with which they flatly refuse to negotiate: for them thus far it’s independence from India or bust.

This leads to another play. The United Naga Council (UNC), the apex body of Naga tribes in Manipur, seen by many as an I-M proxy, has escalated its demand for an “alternative arrangement" to reverse the Manipur government’s administrative and development discrimination against the tribes-dominated hills. From early November UNC triggered a blockading of highways through Naga-held hills in Manipur, to choke the largely Meitei-inhabited plains. Even ending the blockade, which has heightened ethnic tensions ahead of assembly elections in early 2017—and bought Manipur’s controversial Congress chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh a profile of a saviour of Meiteis and Manipur—will not alter this reality, as it involves the mainstreaming of rebels in a post-conflict society.

The optimist’s view, and there must be one even in the most confounding of conflicts, is that a gargantuan, convoluted play is already in progress.

Earlier in December, Ibobi revived his flagging political fortunes by playing the saviour of Meiteis of Manipur (including non-Naga tribes who are suspicious of the Nagas in general, and I-M in particular). He created seven new districts to add to Manipur’s existing nine—of which the creation of four carved away non-Naga or non I-M areas of influence. It cauterized a current and de facto Manipur from a future Manipur, even as Ibobi neutralized—and enraged—the UNC and I-M; and made them and the Bharatiya Janata Party, which wants to unseat Ibobi, appear limp.

All told, stranger things have happened in conflict resolution.

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.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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