Prime Minister Narendra Modi has completed a year in office amid brickbats and some talk of glory. There is little by way of nuance in the public discourse on his first year in power and the strongman who could do no wrong before assuming power in New Delhi is suddenly being derided by some commentators as weak and ineffectual.
Ironically, part of the problem may lie in the extremely effective communication strategy that Modi and his team have been rolling out. Through tweets, Facebook updates, speeches, radio talks and selective briefings by senior members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi has succeeded in getting his messages across to the media.
The strategy has worked well, perhaps too well. Now a string of alleged scams involving senior figures in the BJP and government means that, quite suddenly, some searching questions are being asked of the Indian premier.
Not nearly enough questions, however, are being asked about the terms of an agreement—trumpeted as a peace accord—signed early in August by the government and rebels from the once-restive state of Nagaland. Sitting in the eastern corner of India, far from the centre, the state is home to India’s longest-running independence campaign.
Nagaland and two other states—Mizoram and Manipur—make up the eastern flank of India, bordering Myanmar and not a million miles from China. All three states have seen insurgencies by guerrilla forces and a heavy-handed response by the Indian Army. These insurgencies are not surprising—the Chinese once supported their guerrilla wars. This is now said to have ended, but there’s not much you can do about geography.
Much of the terrain is remote, hilly and covered with dense forests, which means rebels still can (and do) go about their business without detection. A recent attack by Naga rebels that led to the deaths of 18 Indian soldiers caught New Delhi unawares and has sparked off renewed murmuring about Chinese meddling.
This attack came out of the blue, in the middle of a ceasefire that has held since 1997 and signals disaffection by one of the rebel factions, led by Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, that is said to feel left out of the agreement struck with the majority Naga group led by Thuingaleng Muivah.
Photos of Khaplang, 75, show him as a bespectacled, slightly grandfatherly-looking man in fatigues. He is a Myanmarese Naga, and is said to live in a bamboo hut in a part of Myanmar bordering Nagaland. He is also described by the Indian press as the most wanted insurgent in the north-east. Journalists suggest he is unhappy because although he was a founder-member of the Muivah-led group, he hasn’t been invited to a single one of the 80 rounds of talks held so far.
The government has clearly made its choice, and it’s Muivah. However, although the government signed a ceasefire agreement with Muivah’s group in 1997, Khaplang suspended his faction’s war against the Indian state in 2001. All sides renewed the ceasefire annually and peace reigned, allowing talks aimed at a final settlement to continue.
But in March this year, perhaps sniffing an accord in the air, Khaplang announced a resumption of hostilities. And on 4 June, insurgents in neighbouring Manipur launched a murderous assault, killing 18 Indian soldiers—the first such major attack in years. Khaplang claimed responsibility (Manipur is home to a significant population of Nagas).
India replied by sending its commandos into Myanmar on 9 June in a cross-border stealth operation, killing several guerrillas—the exact number of rebel casualties is unknown (one national newspaper put it at seven and another at 83).
At this point, Modi’s communication team presumably stepped in and the Indian media began a round of chest thumping, hailing the revenge attack as bold, and even a warning signal to Pakistan.
Now, two months on, India has what in all likelihood are the building blocks of a peace agreement for Nagaland. Curiously, the public hasn’t been given any details, but it has been hailed by Modi as a “historic agreement".
In his comments, Modi blamed the British.
“Unfortunately, the Naga problem has taken so long to resolve because we did not understand each other. It is a legacy of the British rule," he said. “The colonial rulers had, by design, kept the Nagas isolated and insulated. They propagated terrible myths about Nagas in the rest of the country. They deliberately suppressed the reality that the Nagas were an extremely evolved society. They also spread negative ideas about the rest of India among Naga people. This was part of the well-known policy of divide and rule of the colonial rulers. It is one of the tragedies of Independent India that we have lived with this legacy."
He called it “historic", but the Indian media for some reason mistook the agreement for a final settlement. This it isn’t—it is a framework agreement, which in itself is an important milestone. Coming after many years of talks—a test of stamina, if ever there was one—the final agreement, if and when signed, will be truly historic.
If there is trumpeting, there is also a huge security and political challenge facing Modi. Will the maps of the north-east have to be redrawn to concede old demands for a Greater Nagaland (with bits of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh)? Will Myanmar hand over Khaplang to India? What kind of a security threat does Khaplang pose to India, with his claims of having forged alliances with other insurgent groups in the region? Can it unsettle Modi’s Act East policy on South-East Asia?
In 1986, when then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi swung an extraordinary peace accord with rebels in Mizoram, he managed to bring all sides to the table. When it was signed, the media were told of the terms of the agreement. There were no shadowy figures lurking in the background. Everyone had signed up to a democratic future.
At the time, I watched tired Mizo National Front soldiers—many no more than boys in their late teens—emerge from dense forests in a remote outpost called Parva on the trijunction of India, Myanmar and Bangladesh. They happily laid down their arms and sat back in mud huts. “It’s a deuce," the rebel army commander, a tennis-loving self-styled colonel, told me, sitting in civvies in capital Aizawl, surrounded by some tough-looking rebels still in their olive green fatigues.
It was more than a game. But the Mizo colonel, like all fighting men, knew the value of peace—no one had won the war, no one had lost it. No one wanted to look back.