This week we look at the Naga peace process, another key result area for the government that is in stall. This is partly on account of the government’s own hype since 2015 and complexity of the problem. There is also the cussedness of some key players. And now, the overall side-tracking since December on account of popular protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the National Register of Citizens, and a government engaged in belligerent fightback and focused on imminent elections to assemblies in Delhi and Bihar after losses in Maharashtra and Jharkhand.

A government-imposed deadline of 31 October 2019 for concluding talks with Naga groups passed—for reasons we shall soon address. A suggested ‘Christmas gift’ deadline passed, too, for similar reasons. It’s now about either carrying on diplomatically, attempting to bring all Naga rebels and the greater Naga society on board, or, more riskily, moving ahead without those who disagree, by jettisoning them, or neutralising, a term beloved of security-wallahs.

There is a view that, unlike the National Democratic Alliance approach of ramming through the Citizenship Bill into an Act in December 2019 and then seeking popular support, it may have been better to keep the optics of the Naga peace process low-key until it had something to show. Indeed, to sign. It would have been better to celebrate the conclusion of a process, as with the Assam Accord of 1985 and the Mizo peace deal in 1986. To have Prime Minister Narendra Modi watch over the signing of the so-called Framework Agreement with Naga rebel leader Thuingaleng Muivah was premature optics. The agreement, as this column has maintained since its signing on 3 August 2015, is essentially hollow, no more than an intent to work towards an agreement.

Equally, it is also important to acknowledge that a knotty and vexing issue such as the Naga peace process needed that bit of flash to signal the government’s seriousness about peace talks. That signal was made more meaningful with the appointment of R.N. Ravi, among the more knowledgeable and even-handed about northeast Indian matters among security veterans, as the government’s interlocutor.

However, the framework agreement was half-baked. It was signed only with Muivah’s leading faction, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), in uneasy ceasefire since 1997. The agreement excluded half a dozen more groups, besides Naga citizenry in Nagaland and contiguous Naga homelands in the neighbouring states of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam. This weakened the process.

Coincidentally, and perhaps logically, subsequent developments followed several of the must-dos repeatedly stressed in this column. The government reached out to Nagas across the board. The government reached out to other rebel factions, much to the irritation of NSCN (I-M), and began peace talks with them in end-2017. A breakaway faction of I-M’s arch enemies, NSCN’s Khaplang, joined the process in 2019. Government-led outreach attempted to bring on board non-Naga people in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam, promising much development as a trade-off for offering Naga folk in these states more legislative representation and administrative autonomy, besides reversing a narrative of their neglect.

Alongside, talks with I-M spelt out disarmament, rehabilitation and assimilation of cadres and leaders through induction in paramilitary forces and political structures such as an expanded legislature in Nagaland, and more legislative representation and relative autonomy in Naga homelands outside Nagaland, as we just discussed. However, even as other Naga rebel groups agreed, I-M remained intransigent over the dual use of a Naga flag alongside the Indian flag, and its constitution—Yezhabo. This I-M-scripted constitution is regressive, offers far less than what Nagas enjoy under Indian constitutional provisions, and effectively proposes Muivah as the over-arching figure of Naga politics, development and destiny. This is evidently unacceptable to numerous Nagas—let alone non-Nagas—for whom Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul region, remains a divisive figure.

From what I understand, Muivah, 85, has dug in his heels, insisting upon integration of Naga homelands in one form or another. An insider told me that it appears “Muivah has decided he cannot die leaving a legacy of surrender".

Meanwhile, the government will whittle away at I-M’s political, administrative and military structure, strive to reduce I-M’s heft along with Muivah’s, and stoke other lines of leadership. That’s the script, and it’s beyond messy.

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

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