Opinion | Nagaland on edge over peace talks and special status

Govt must offer face-saving deal for Naga people, or risk having the 2015 peace agreement fail

Some panic buttons are being pressed in Nagaland over the fate of the peace deal on account of the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), and bifurcation of the erstwhile state into Union territories. If the special status of J&K has been withdrawn, then what is the guarantee that the special status of Nagaland—and other states in North-East India—won’t be revoked.

There is also some concern with the interlocutor of peace talks, R.N. Ravi, taking over as governor of Nagaland in early August. In addition, statements by Ravi that the Naga peace deal has a deadline of three months, by October-November this year, is being seen by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), and its proponents in media, as both downgrading of talks and arm-twisting.

Comments to that effect have been attributed to Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of this largest Naga rebel group. The August issue of Nagalim Voice, a mouthpiece, even described a meeting earlier this year, before Ravi’s appointment as governor: “… it became a matter of discomfort for NSCN negotiators led by chief negotiator Th. Muivah when the government of India started turning capricious and bossy as reflected by the body language of Ravi."

The complicated truth is somewhere in between.

It’s likely that public relations benefits of fulfilling its election promise of abrogating Article 370 and its companion, Article 35A—which provided special land ownership and benefits to J&K residents, similar to special provisions in several north-eastern states—will be contained by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) within what is sometimes called Mainland India.

The alternative, revoking special provisions in the North-East, will lead to massive protests across that region, irrevocably upset the Naga people, jeopardize peace talks with NSCN (I-M) and other Naga rebel groups, and destroy any trust towards the current government.

The spillover of developments in Jammu and Kashmir onto the Naga peace process, for example, is likely to be a negation of demands such as a separate flag for Nagaland—or Naga homelands—and what has sometimes been described as “shared sovereignty". Agreeing to these in Nagaland will open another Pandora’s Box in Jammu and Kashmir: If it’s okay for the Naga people, why not for Kashmir? And yet, the Union government must offer a substantial, face-saving deal in Nagaland and for the Naga people, or risk having the Framework Agreement for Peace signed on 3 August 2015 by Ravi and Muivah, in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, implode as an empty gesture.

While these are complications of the government’s own making, I-M’s position, too, is tricky.

Muivah’s reaction to Ravi being appointed governor and yet remaining interlocutor is really a perception of loss of face: Ravi downgraded from being the Prime Minister’s envoy to a figurehead, and the peace process to the beck and call of the home ministry. This is erroneous. In real terms, Ravi remains an extension of India’s national security apparatus, in which the Prime Minister, home minister and national security advisor form the trinity.

I-M’s drumbeaters have also played up I-M as the sole voice of the Naga people. They cite a meeting with former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in Paris in 1995 to stake that claim. Here it’s important to discount embellishment. I-M leaders did indeed meet Rao. But they also met former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda in Zurich in early 1997.

A ceasefire with I-M was signed in August 1997, when I.K. Gujral was premier. It took until Modi to convert that ceasefire to talks for a final settlement. It isn’t about one premier, but a process.

It’s also important to remember that NSCN’s Khaplang, or K, faction, arch-rivals of I-M, signed a ceasefire in 2001, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was premier. That alone is acknowledgement of another party also being a claimant to representing aspirations of the Naga people. That ceasefire broke in 2015, and now a major breakaway faction of K is both in ceasefire and peace talks, alongside six other Naga rebel groups—and Ravi is the interlocutor for all.

What is often ignored in this jostling for advantage is that the Naga people as a whole are the main claimants and beneficiaries of a lasting solution. Both the government and the rebels would do well to remember that political capital rests with the people.

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

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