By the time you read this, a proposed meeting in New Delhi of government negotiators, and leaders and representatives of all Naga rebel groups, may well have ended. Being in the slipstream of results of the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana, expected to be announced on 24 October, will not in any way dim the significance of the meeting. A negative fallout has direct, and enormous, repercussions for Nagaland and three other frontline states of north-east India that have Naga homelands: Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.

This column has discussed in detail the mechanics, fault lines and offers-on-table of the peace process over the past weeks and will continue to track the developments. But this week, it’s not so much about the government’s interlocutor R.N. Ravi attempting to push for a solution by 31 October, or whether Naga rebel groups will agree to offers for rehabilitation and integration into a post-conflict society. It’s really about one rebel group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), going along with an accord with seven other rebel groups and factions, all militarily and logistically weaker in comparison. It’s also about Thuigaleng Muivah, the group’s general secretary, and Ato Kilonser or prime minister of its administrative arm.

How far will I-M, which has always staked its primacy and has driven all recent, and quite aggressive, rebel propaganda to counter Ravi’s public and private pronouncements, go along? And, how far will Muivah, who has no rebel contender of similar stature, with the passing of his political partner Isak Chishi Swu and former-comrade-turned-enemy S.S. Khaplang, who broke away in 1988 to form NSCN’s K faction? How much does it matter in the overall scheme of things?

The fact is that I-M’s leadership—as distinct from its cadres— is in a squeeze, much as it would like to project otherwise.

Some key members of I-M are believed to have become inaccessible—an euphemism for being away in relatively safe havens, in Myanmar, or through Myanmar to points further east—over the past fortnight. Among them is major general Absalom Tangkhul, Muivah’s trusted arm, and the person government investigators speculate as being the one behind the assassination of Arunachal Pradesh MLA Tirong Aboh on 21 May (along with nine of his entourage, including his son). The peace deal is unlikely to paper over Absalom’s alleged involvement.

A former chief of I-M’s army, Phungthing Shimrang, who has a home in a Dimapur suburb, peopled by the Naga wealthy and entitled, that is sometimes jokingly referred to as Beverly Hills, is similarly inaccessible. So is Apam Muivah, the Ato Kilonser’s nephew and contentious heir apparent and keeper of the clan’s golden keys, since the death in 2016 of Grinder, another of Muivah’s nephews. Grinder, who was once jailed and subsequently released, ran a flourishing business from the National Capital Region—no questions asked; essentially quid pro quo for remaining a key liaison between rebels and the government. (Muivah is for the time in Delhi, in his government-provided bungalow in Lodi Estate, where entry of visitors to the compound is recorded by members of the Intelligence Bureau, which formally guards and monitors the place with the help of Delhi Police.)

There’s little India’s security establishment doesn’t know of, from several overseas holdings of rebel leaders, from bank accounts to property and businesses. For instance, that families of IM’s senior leadership own businesses in South Delhi and the National Capital Region, including a bungalow-and-Airbnb in a tony neighbourhood, and a boutique in another upscale area not far from Muivah’s Lodi Estate bungalow, are open secrets in some circles. (The security and political establishment also know about several holdings by some Naga politicians and elite, but that’s for quite another kind of negotiating table.)

Camp Hebron, southwest of Dimapur, the ceasefire headquarters of I-M where Muivah has had his other travelling home since returning to India after a ceasefire in 1997, is always under watch. The nearby headquarters of Indian Army’s 3 Corp at Rangapahar just outside Dimapur was placed with China and Myanmar in mind, but operationally also maps all Nagaland and Manipur, besides having footprints in Arunachal, Assam, Tripura and Mizoram.

The point, therefore, is not so much about India’s military, but the rebels’ manoeuvring room; and perceived propriety as much as property. Compromise may after all depend upon being compromised.

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

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