(PTI )
(PTI )

Opinion | Naga peace: Flag, Constitution and other obstacles

The real challenge is to bring together various rebel groups on one platform

Last week we discussed the content of interactions that the government’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, deputy national security adviser R.N. Ravi, had with a joint legislators’ forum of Nagaland in late February. Ravi returned on 25 March for a two-day visit to Dimapur during which he met key politicians and leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group. The meetings were held in Chumukedima, south of the state’s commercial capital.

There remains the necessary but vexed matter to get all Naga rebel groups on the same page, and to sign on it—especially as issues and rhetoric are by and large common, and the issues are mostly resolved.

The biggest question, of course, is why a final peace deal to transform ceasefire to formal peace isn’t being signed. It goes beyond the fact that the so-called framework agreement for peace in 2015 was impracticably signed only with NSCN (I-M). During my discussions with some insiders earlier this month on a visit to Nagaland, and in subsequent interactions, a few things were made clear.

Foremost of these: the government will not negotiate on the matter of sovereignty and independence. That old stance has evolved to the more nuanced position of “shared sovereignty". And it remains there.

As a state since 1963, Nagaland has its own constitutionally mandated freedoms including an independent legislature, freedom from taxation—Nagaland’s budget is massively supported by central funds: India’s taxpayers—and the freedom to practice customary laws, including the ownership of land and resources. In several ways the Naga people have moved on, within Nagaland and other contiguous Naga homelands in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

Now the question of integrating Naga homelands remains ticklish. There is agreement that integration of the Naga people is a “legitimate aspiration" but it cannot be brought about by decree or deal. The Naga political issue can’t be resolved in isolation. There are neighbouring states, all with resolute positions on territoriality, in the equation. So, any integration will need to be approached as a natural democratic process. Otherwise, as an insider put it, “it will be disastrous".

Other aspects include NSCN (I-M)’s insistence on a separate constitution and flag. As far as the constitution is concerned, for the government it’s unworkable: such acquiescence could also open a Pandora’s box in more restive parts of India. It could instead be called “Yehzabo"—what the undivided Naga National Council (NNC) adopted as a constitution in 1956, a time when India was fighting a war in Naga homelands.

As far as the Naga flag is concerned, it could be hoisted in the premises of a pan-Naga cultural body, an agency that, for all practical purposes, would be a symbol of emotional integration over the incendiary aspect of territorial integration. These remain sticking points with NSCN (I-M). Resolving these matters would serve the rebels’ face-saving need for an “honourable" solution.

The real sticking points lie elsewhere.

One, as Ravi stressed on a previous visit during a closed-door deliberations with local legislators, was the matter of bringing both NSCN (I-M) and other rebel groups, including a present-day version of NNC and a breakaway of the NSCN’s Khaplang faction, together for a meeting. There’s in-principle agreement but no firm date for such a meeting between long-time antagonists.

Such a meeting would signal agreement on the future. Relatively young cadres could be rehabilitated in police or paramilitary units or provided funds and training for employment or entrepreneurship.

Many leaders could “retire" or become leading lights in several autonomous councils in various Naga homelands, practical for a society that largely lives and votes along tribal lines. Their place in future Naga politics would depend on their own acumen and application.

What if key leaders disagree? If they press for status quo they run the risk of Naga society rejecting them. If rebel elements break away and seek refuge across the border, they will find former sanctuaries in Bangladesh and Myanmar evaporated. Fighting is no longer a viable option.

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

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