The Naga peace process is as much a matter of face as finance and fiefdom. Here’s why:

There have been repeated overtures by both government proxies and Naga civil society groups to get the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang), or NSCN(K), on board since it broke away from a ceasefire in January 2015. While there cannot be a meaningful peace process without this second largest rebel faction, in a worst-case scenario, things could continue in the way as they have, say, in Assam.

Assam has been in a state of partial conflict since 2010, when the Bangladesh government assisted India to nab several key leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Peace talks with the group began the following year and are evidently close to competition—even as a belligerent “anti-talks" faction continues with threats, occasional attacks and a network of influence and extortion, in some parts of the state. This anti-talks faction is currently allied with NSCN(K).

In that sense Nagaland and other states with Naga homelands, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, can theoretically continue being a region of partial conflict. NSCN(K) could decide to not talk peace, despite diplomatic pressure with the help of Myanmar, where it is headquartered; continuous operations by the Indian Army; and occasional interdiction of its finances by India’s intelligence operatives.

In October 2017, a team from the National Investigation Agency (NIA) had seized nearly 28 lakh in Dimapur from the wife of Nikki Sumi, a key NSCN(K) general, who had planned attacks on Indian troops. NIA subsequently initiated a case against some Nagaland government officials channelling 20-25 crore of extorted funds to NSCN(K) between 2012 and 2016.

But that still leaves its arch rival NSCN(I-M), the largest rebel faction with which the government of India has signed a “framework agreement" in August 2015 to talk reconciliation and rehabilitation, a step up from the ceasefire it had inked with the government as far back as 1997. The I in I-M, Isak Chisi Swu, died in June 2016. Now, his colleague Thuingaleng Muivah, the M in I-M, is its chief. He and other leaders are leading face-saving negotiations with India and claim to be the exclusive voice of Naga nationalism and Naga interests. This is contested by six other Naga rebel groups, which have come on board since 2017 for parallel talks with the government, besides unsurprisingly, by NSCN(K).

Issues of sovereignty are not on the table. Nagaland has full federal powers, special concessions with taxation and land ownership, and its revenues are largely underwritten by the central government. Naga homelands in other states are in the peace mix. Strong movements for autonomous governance for Nagas have emerged in Manipur since 2014.

The non-Naga people of the state, in government and civil society alike, claim that these are at the behest of NSCN(I-M). Several of its key leaders, including Muivah, have their ancestral homes and tribal affiliations in Manipur. Talk of a pan-Naga organization that could include senior rebel leaders has been met with tremendous suspicion and resentment in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

But the issue, of course, is more than protecting pocket boroughs. Rebel groups, even through ceasefire, have maintained an influential parallel government, and lucrative revenue source— “donations" and outright levies from individuals and businesses—to arm, train and feed themselves, and pay salaries. They also offer certain perquisites, if the residences and businesses of senior members of NSCN(I-M) and its administrative leadership in Nagaland and elsewhere in India and Asia are any indication. In this, they have proved to be no different from Nagaland’s political and administrative establishments, which have for decades overseen abysmal infrastructure, and fiscal impropriety and waste, which the Comptroller and Auditor General of India routinely points to.

There is also the matter of disarming. Cadres could be integrated into paramilitaries, auxillary police and other security services, but what of the leaders? Can rebel fat cats feel secure in a post-conflict Nagaland? These questions shadow a general Naga yearning for honourable closure.

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

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