So, what of peace negotiations with Naga rebels beyond its government-imposed 31 October deadline? It continues because it must. There is no agreement on paper. It’s back to talk-talk, fight-fight, the approach these past 22 years since NSCN (I-M), or National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest Naga rebel group, signed a ceasefire in 1997.

But it isn’t exactly status quo. My understanding is that several groups of Naga professionals and entrepreneurs have decided to stop paying tax—a euphemism for extortion or donation—to all Naga rebel groups. This is a writing on the rebels’ wall, a waning of their influence.

This potentially stunning development is a corollary to the main event. The government’s aim was to demonstrate that rebels have no way out except settling for a process that includes disarmament, integration of cadres and leaders into paramilitary structures and the political system that takes care of both Naga honour, and concerns of the three states contiguous to Nagaland—Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam—that their borders won’t be affected on account of a peace deal effective across Naga homelands in these states.

Moreover, the government wished to convey that I-M’s counter to seek help from China in a throwback to the 1960s to 1990s period won’t work as India wasn’t going to stand idly by. Besides, Myanmar has, on account of government level policy quid pro quo, turned from relatively safe to slippery haven not just for I-M, but elements of NSCN’s belligerent Khaplang or K faction and several rebel groups with roots in Manipur and Assam. Equally, the government is pushing to merge its parallel streams of negotiations with I-M and separately with a grouping of seven other rebel groups—including several splinters of NSCN that are inimical to I-M. There cannot be a comprehensive peace deal without every Naga faction signing on the same piece of paper.

Much work remains to be done. I-M is still holding on to its size as a matter of pre-eminence. And, even though he has been told otherwise by the government’s interlocutor, R.N. Ravi (who is also concurrently Nagaland’s governor), I-M’s general secretary and prime minister of its civilian government, Thuingaleng Muivah, hasn’t shaken off his intent to lead a pan-Naga organization. Muivah’s bid has been to head this ethno-cultural organization and, as this column indicated last week, assume an over-arching political role across Nagaland and Naga homelands in other states.

That is unlikely. Muivah, much as he would like, doesn’t possess the cross-tribe stature as, say, Angami Zapu Phizo, a key face of the original rebel leadership that took on an infant and brutal India in the 1940s and 1950s. Phizo’s grave lies by Nagaland’s assembly and secretariat complex. Even with contradictions, like his remaining silent as some Naga leaders signed a deal that led to the creation of Nagaland state in 1963, he remains a towering icon. Muivah is in comparison a limited icon, consumed by his own legacy and security. He is also seen as a divisive figure among even some smaller Naga tribes, let alone non-Nagas.

That makes reconciliation more difficult. An informal team of pro-government (and yet, pro-Naga) legislators and society leaders is reaching out to non-Naga communities in Manipur, Arunachal and Assam to explain that a Naga peace deal doesn’t just require understanding between the government and Naga rebels, alongside the acceptance of Naga citizenry, but also the understanding and acceptance of non-Naga people in these three states.

One of the proposals of accommodating rebels into the political system involves expanding the legislature in Nagaland into a bicameral one, but also a delimitation exercise to increase representation in the house. Delimitation exercises in the three other states, this outreach conveys, ought not be seen through the lens of ethnicity but legitimate representation in an arguably under-represented assembly.

So too more autonomy in so-called autonomous district councils in the hill areas of Manipur—home to Naga, Kuki and Hmar-Zomi tribes—a complex dynamic a future column will discuss. These councils are today made impotent or controlled tightly by state governments, from finance to administration. Similar accommodation, this outreach suggests, need to be made in Arunachal and Assam as well. Intact territory needs the quid pro quo of an open mind and open heart. Or else, it will be a continuation of conflict.This outreach may prove more difficult than intimidating rebels.

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

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