Quietening on the Eastern front

After thirteen years of ceasefire and and fifty six rounds of talks between the Naga insurgent group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah) or NSCN (IM) and the Union government, how close is the Naga problem to being resolved? This is a question that is being increasingly discussed and debated among those conscious and concerned of the unresolved, volatile, political challenges in India’s North East. The two core issues which hold the key to this tangled skein are the demand for Naga “sovereignty” and “integration” of all Naga people into one geopolitical entity.

The recession of secession
Throughout their existence, the various Naga tribes lived in splendid isolation in the hills running north to south from the Himalayas in a gentle arc, west of which lie the Brahmaputra basin in India’s North East and in its east, the Chindwin-Irrawaddy basins of Myanmar. This left them out of the historic processes of state formation, political integration or cultural assimilation, well into the second half of the nineteenth century. When they were finally incorporated into the British Indian empire, colonial policies ensured that there were few opportunities for them to integrate meaningfully into the emerging consciousness of a pan-Indian nationhood which eventually manifested as the Union of India.

The Nagas’ incipient political awareness, brought about by the spread of western education, made them acutely aware of their ‘different’ history and culture. By the time the British withdrawal from their colonial empire came to be discussed, the Nagas became increasingly apprehensive of their position within the future political dispensation. The new political elite of the emerging Indian nation-state failed to fathom these apprehensions and to engage the emerging Naga political elite substantively to quell their fears, instill confidence and persuade them of a shared future. Naturally, a reluctant people rebelled, but sadly, at first, even their rebellion was taken little note of. This forms the crux of the Naga question of ‘sovereignty’ which remains unresolved even after sixty three years of India’s independence.

In these six decades the proponents of Naga sovereignty and the Indian government, remained engaged in a war of attrition to wear each other down. There were several lost opportunities, either due to inept political handling on the part of the leadership in New Delhi, or the intransigence on the part of a faction of the Naga extremist leaders. When, for instance Naga Hills District was formed into a full fledged state of the Indian Union in December 1963 paving the way for successful elections to its Legislative Assembly less than a year later in 1964, the hardliners in the Angami Zapu Phizo-led Federal Government of Nagaland of the Naga National Council (NNC) opposed it tooth and nail. They sent emissaries to China—led by Thuingaleng Muivah—to seek assistance for their guerilla movement. India’s hostility with its neighbours, civil war in Myanmar, a predilection for proxy wars as legitimate means of statecraft in the Cold War era and India’s isolation in the geopolitical area it needed influence in, all ensured that the Naga insurgency not only sustained, but also inspired and assisted many others in the North East to take up arms.

Such favourable ground conditions must have been among the factors that caused a faction of the NNC to continue the war of attrition. They refused to accept the Shillong Peace Accord of 1975 and broke away to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. Differences within led to its split into the NSCN (IM) and the NSCN (K) in 1988—the former the dominant faction jointly led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, and the latter, the smaller but equally ruthless faction led by S S Khaplang. Ever since, both the groups have been engaged in a fratricidal war to ‘establish’ one’s dominance over the other.

The doyen of Naga nationalism, Phizo passed away in May 1990, in London, having lived in exile there for more than three decades. Even though he was by then reduced to a mere figurehead in the Naga struggle, the Indian government’s gesture, facilitating his body to be brought back and interred in Nagaland, honouring the wishes of a large section of the Naga populace revealed a rare sensitivity. Phizo’s funeral drew crowds from the furthest corners of Naga areas even outside Nagaland, and all of them, regardless of their tribe or clan loyalties, stood as one in their homage to the departed leader. ‘Sovereignty’ still looked uncertain, but no one could doubt anymore that the Nagas have emerged as a ‘nation’ through their struggle.

Even though the Naga struggle for sovereignty was very much alive in the early 1990s, it had become apparent to most that a ‘battle fatigue’ has set in. Large sections of Naga political elite, intelligentsia and the middle class have emerged as the beneficiaries of the Indian republic in a myriad ways. Leaders of political parties, elected members of the legislatures, senior bureaucrats to petty government officials, contractors, traders and many others, to whom substantial benefits flowed legally as well as illegally, have developed a stake in the continuation of the existent state and insidiously resisted any desire for sovereignty through secession. Powerful market forces which had entrenched themselves firmly into the Naga economy too created strong interests against secession.

Ironically, even the very militant organisations fighting the state and demanding secession became some of the state’s most rapacious beneficiaries, siphoning off development funds, extorting from salaries, influencing government policies and decisions in protection rackets, and above all in influencing electoral outcomes by extra-constitutional means. Not only the general Naga populace, but even those actively fighting for sovereignty, had lost their ‘will’ for secession. On top of this resurgence of tribalism and clan rivalries were making it virtually impossible to sustain a unified struggle.

These developments did not go unnoticed by as astute an observer as Mr Muivah, ever perceptive to winds of change blowing in the Naga homeland. Therefore, when overtures for peace were made, facilitated and supported by the church and Naga civil society organisations, after rounds of secret negotiations, NSCN (IM) finally entered into a ceasefire with the Indian government which came into effect in August 1997. It was then fifty years since the rebellion had begun. The NSCN (K) followed suit a year later.

The fact that the ceasefire agreement has endured for thirteen long years, in spite of intermittent violations and grave provocations by both the sides, does not mean that the NSCN (IM) believes that ‘sovereignty’ through secession is a possibility through peaceful negotiations. Rather, it is an indication that the NSCN (IM) no longer considers secession an option. Neither the NSCN (IM) nor Mr Muivah himself can admit it in so many words, but the remark by R S Pandey, the Union government’s negotiator, after the latest round of talks that there is already a concept of ‘shared sovereignty’ attests to this. Even though it has not been articulated what this ‘shared sovereignty’ means, to those who can perceptively read what is left unarticulated in the politics of peace processes, it is quite clear that ‘shared sovereignty’ will certainly not include secession.

Complexity of integration
The issue of Naga integration will however prove to be far more complex to resolve. NSCN (IM)’s claim of Nagalim includes the four Naga inhabited hills districts of Ukhrul, Tamenglong, Chandel and Senapati in Manipur, the two districts of Tirap and Changlang in Arunachal Pradesh, and substantial territories in the districts of Golaghat, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Karbi Anglong and North Cachar Hills in Assam. It also includes a large Naga inhabited area in Myanmar.

While there may be fervent support among the Naga inhabitants in these areas for integration, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam are vehemently opposed to ceding any territory for a new Naga state to be carved out of their territories. This conflict has reached an acute stage in Manipur, and not without reasons. The four Naga inhabited hills districts of Manipur together constitute an area of approximately 15,519 sq km out of a total of 22,327 sq km area of the Manipur state. Ceding them will leave Manipur with barely any of its historic territory. Therefore, when New Delhi extended the ceasefire with NSCN(IM) to these districts even without so much as consulting the Imphal in 2001, Manipur was engulfed in violent protests in which even the legislative assembly building was burnt down by angry mobs. There was a suspicion that the ceasefire extension would be the precursor to separation of these districts from Manipur.

This year when Mr Muivah attempted to visit his ancestral village of Somdol in the Ukhrul district, the Manipur state government thwarted it by force. This led to widespread protests by the Nagas residing in Manipur and an indefinite blockade of both the national highways connecting the state to the rest of the country. What must be understood is that arbitrary separation of the districts is not an option and will be resisted by violent protests. On the other hand, if Naga inhabitants of these districts stridently continue to demand their integration into a new Naga state, they can render Manipur virtually ungovernable, as is evident from the recent blockade. In a democracy, legitimacy to rule has to be acquired by consent—a fact well worth keeping in mind by all the stakeholders.

The issue of integration of the Naga areas matters greatly to Mr Muivah personally. After all, after having given up the demand for secession will he have any legitimacy in a Naga state if it does not include the very district he and his Tangkhul clan hails from?

It is still too early to conjecture how will the Naga integration issue unfold, but two issues are clear. First, it merely requires a simple majority in Parliament to change the boundaries of any state in India. There are no constitutional hurdles that stand in the way, only political ones. Second, as the Union government has asserted with nuance, no existent state boundaries shall be changed to accommodate Naga demands without political consensus. Mr Muivah admits that there may be difficulties, but is confident that with patience, these difficulties could be overcome. Does he mean patience to build political consensus to change boundaries?

Even the most strident critic of the peace process will have to admit that the it has been successful in substantially bringing down armed violence and casualties in all Naga inhabited areas across India’s North East. The ceasefire has also ensured that overt support and assistance of NSCN (IM) to the other insurgent groups in the region have been meaningfully reduced. For a home ministry and an army stretched thin on too many fronts, not the least being the Maoist threat, a quiet Eastern front is a much desired relief. Compulsions for both the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government have ensured that the ceasefire endured for thirteen long years. These same compulsions will ensure that the peace process succeeds. It may take its own time though.