By Sudeep Chakravarti
There was a buzz about Nagaland this past week, at least in regional security and political circles, and even for those who eye business in this part of India abutting Myanmar, where political temperatures appear to be cooling and India’s make-nice diplomacy to counter-balance China appears to be paying off.
Lafarge SA. Photo by BloombergA group of ambassadors from the European Union countries swung by for a three-day tour of Nagaland earlier this week. They met top officials and various power centres of Nagaland in Kohima, the capital set deep in the Naga Hills; and ended their quite unusual visit with a meeting in Dimapur—the state’s flatland commercial hub—at the local chamber of commerce. The envoys spoke of the possibility of their countries and the European Commission facilitating development, commerce and investment.Local power circles were abuzz too that Lafarge SA is in preliminary discussion with Nagaland’s leadership for establishing a limestone and shale mining facility in south-eastern Phek district of Nagaland to feed a planned cement plant in nearby contiguous Myanmar. This “bilateral” model could be a template of Lafarge Umiam Mining Pvt. Ltd, a subsidiary, with its quarrying operation in Meghalaya to feed by conveyer a Lafarge-controlled cement plant across the border in Bangladesh. Representatives of several hydrocarbon businesses, both Indian and overseas, too have been nosing around, as talk builds up about the state government considering the exploration of petroleum in three districts of Nagaland.
Loud as these buzzes were, the loudest was over implications of a major Naga rebel group, National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang), whose reclusive leader, S.S. Khaplang, an “Eastern” Naga, operates out of a base in Myanmar, signing a ceasefire deal with Myanmar’s authorities in April. The deal replicates the arrangement this faction has with the government of India within the boundaries of Nagaland. But the Myanmar deal goes farther. There is even talk of an autonomous region for Eastern Nagas.
Insiders also mention a corollary deal—unwritten—by which the Khaplang faction will cease to offer support and sanctuary in Myanmar to two key Manipuri rebel groups, the United National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army. This will directly bolster India’s security construct.
The Khaplang-led Naga rebel faction has also upped rhetoric aimed at its chief rival, National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah, or NSCN (I-M), the largest and most powerful Naga rebel group led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, which with near-impunity runs parallel governments in most Naga regions in India. The I-M grouping, sometimes called “the mother of all rebel groups” for its propensity to nurture, train and supply rebel groups in the North-East to upset India’s equilibrium as well as keep up a stream of influence and revenue, is also in ceasefire mode. But it has for long held out with its demand for a greater “Nagalim” that, besides Nagaland, would include the contiguous Naga-majority regions in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
In a distinct departure from its arch-rivals, leaders from the Khaplang group have made statements about Nagaland and Naga regions elsewhere having their unique needs and futures—a stand that pleases India and Myanmar. A third Naga rebel faction, NSCN (Unification), also in talks with India, has made similar noises this past week. The NSCN (I-M) group, sensing a flanking manoeuvre—it openly accuses India of helping things along—has hit back with strong comments, putting in doubt an already faltering reconciliation process among various Naga rebel groups. The Forum for Naga Reconciliation, a church- and civil society-led initiative, has planned a reconciliation meeting on 21 May at Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, the site of earlier reconciliation meetings—even photo-op soccer matches in 2008 and 2009 among various factions. The meeting early next week is in jeopardy, with both the I-M and Khaplang factions declining to attend.
Indeed, I heard talk among Naga security watchers in Kohima and Dimapur earlier this week that some hardliners and “next generation” leaders in NSCN (I-M) are so upset with the recent play of its rivals and Indian’s security mandarins that it has prepared Plan B: breaking away from the ceasefire and setting up safe bases along the border with China, parts of Myanmar and Bangladesh. Should this happen, conflict will be intense and severely affect civilians.
Equally, however, there is a parallel sentiment that with NSCN (I-M) relatively cornered—aided by India’s growing outreach with both Myanmar and other Naga rebel groups—Nagaland’s future will continue to be India-led, and Myanmar-blessed. Alongside, with Manipur’s rebels under pressure, it’s a major step to secure the region.
Sudeep Chakravarti writes on issues of conflict in South Asia. He is the author of Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and the just-published Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land.