Sinlung /
10 August 2015

Discord Over Naga Accord

The Naga Hills
The Naga Hills
PM Modi called it a historic accord, but doubts and political points have been raised over the peace initiative that aims to end India’s oldest insurgency

Khonoma village is barely 20 kilometres from the Nagaland state capital, Kohima, but the drive takes a good hour. The metalled road turns into a bumpy highway before becoming a mud track clinging on hillsides. On the side of the road, standing out amid the lush green, are occasional patches of grey: Memorials to leaders of a parallel government, of a country that struggled for decades to be born. “Nagas are not Indians; their territory is not a part of the Indian Union. We shall defend this unique truth at all costs and always”, says a plaque quoting Khrisanisa Seyie, “first president of the Federal Government of Nagaland”. The memorial was unveiled in 2007. By then, the guns had largely fallen silent in the Naga hills, but the sentiment for freedom from India was still not quite dead.

The announcement of a framework Naga Accord on Aug 3 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) Thuingaleng Muivah is a long, long way from that memorial on the road to Khonoma. A statement signed by Mr Muivah said that, “Better understanding has been arrived at and a framework agreement has been concluded based on the unique history and position of the Nagas and recognising the universal principle that in a democracy, sovereignty lies with the people.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the occasion as “historic”.

The NSCN (I-M) has been the biggest and most powerful insurgent group in the Northeast for most of the last three decades. It was formed in reaction to another accord. In 1975, some underground leaders of the Naga National Council (NNC) signed a peace deal in Shillong. The Shillong Accord had three simple points: The signatories would accept the Constitution of India, lay down arms, and be given “reasonable time to formulate other issues for discussion of a final settlement.” Angami Zapu Phizo, the man from Khonoma who is regarded as the father of the Naga insurgency, was then in exile in London. He was not among the signatories; his brother Kevi Yalley was. Mr Phizo kept a stoic silence on the deal. Mr Muivah and Mr Isak Chishi Swu, the leaders of the NSCN, were then in the NNC at senior ranks. They had gone to China for training and weapons. They saw it as betrayal.

Instead of bringing peace, the Shillong Accord therefore sparked off the next 20 years of conflict.

Not Shillong Accord
This accord is very different from the Shillong Accord. It is not a product of the Emergency, and has the clear support of the most powerful group in the Naga insurgency, a large chunk of Naga civil society, and politicians of all hues. “It is an opportunity for Nagaland and the Northeast to come together and resolve this longest running insurgency,” former Nagaland chief minister and current MP Neiphiu Rio of the Naga People's Front said in a telephonic interview. Mr Rio added that he feels the accord should be given a chance since the problem it aims to solve is not a problem of the Nagas alone, but a national problem. “Even the Nagaland chief minister was not consulted, so question of consulting other chief ministers does not arise,” he said.

A lot of work has gone into creating conditions for the agreement. There is currently no opposition party in the Nagaland Assembly since all parties, from the local unit of the Congress to the local BJP, which has four MLAs, are members of an all-party government. Three of the four BJP MLAs defected from the NCP last year to pave the way for the all-party government. This year, eight MLAs of the Congress including the Nagaland Congress Legislature Party leader Tokheho Yepthomi were suspended by the All India Congress Committee in May for joining the government. In their reply to the show cause notice from AICC, the MLAs cited resolution of the Naga issue as their reason for joining the current Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government led by Chief Minister TR Zeliang.
Mr Rio pointed out that representatives of the joint legislative forum comprising members of all parties had visited Delhi and met Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh in July to press for an early resolution of the Naga issue. The Nagaland assembly had earlier passed a unanimous resolution to form the joint forum and press for early resolution of the Naga issue.

Nagaland BJP MLA Mhonlumo Kikon, welcoming the signing of the accord, said it was long-awaited and its signing would further strengthen peace and development. “We hope and expect that every stakeholder who is interested in peace and development of the Northeast region will welcome this and not be blinded by their political colours,” he said.

During the negotiations over the last 17 years, some constitutional issues had crept in and created apprehensions among neighbouring states, Mr Kikon added. “In light of past experience, the government of India in its maturity would have factored this in,” he said.

Details of the accord are still being worked out, which is why no one has been informed of those details yet. Meetings are currently on. The chief interlocutor on the Naga side is VS Atem, who retired as general of the Naga army. Mr Atem declined comment for this article saying he was caught up in meetings. The Indian government’s interlocutor for these talks has been RN Ravi, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Mr Ravi also did not reply to emails and messages.

Sudden preamble
The accord was announced suddenly on August 3, taking even the Home Ministry by surprise. Speaking to the Nagaland Post that day, Mr Ravi had said the agreement was signed following a request made by NSCN (IM) chairman Isak Swu, who wanted an agreement signed in his lifetime. Mr Swu, 85, was in the ICU in Delhi’s Fortis hospital and said to be critically ill. Mr Atem, on that day, had described the accord as a “framework” and a “preamble”.

This preamble is significant because it clearly lays out that the solution will be achieved peacefully within the Indian constitution. This is planned through some form of shared sovereignty, whose exact terms will be worked out in the following months. It is likely that Naga traditional institutions will be empowered to achieve a form of grassroots democracy.

The matter is an extremely sensitive one and will impact peace throughout the entire Northeast. There is potential for a bloodbath in Manipur if clashes break out.

The Manipur Assembly was burnt down by protesters in 2001 after the Naga ceasefire was extended to Manipur. The Meitei groups saw it as a step towards the redrawing of the state’s borders, which they were not willing to allow.

Reacting to the latest accord, Governor of Assam and Nagaland PB Acharya said in Guwahati, “As per my understanding, as told to me by the prime minister, there will be no territorial changes.”
It is widely expected that a settlement will involve the formation of autonomous district councils or territorial councils of some sort, to create enclaves for the Nagas living in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Several such councils already exist, including in Manipur’s hill districts. The demand for extension of provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution (which gives enhanced administrative and judicial powers to autonomous local bodies) to Manipur’s hill districts goes back to 1978. This June, the Union Home Ministry wrote to the Manipur Chief Secretary asking for details of areas to be included under the Sixth Schedule. Assam already has the Bodoland Territorial Council, apart from district councils.

Party politics and perils
“Partisan political criticism does not need to be taken seriously. It is only the final step of the peace process with the NSCN(IM)”, says Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the independent think-tank Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi. “The UPA government did not take the states into confidence any more than the NDA now has,” he adds. “The UPAs problem is one of sour grapes, because they weren’t able to push the deal to a conclusion within their tenure — though there were many occasions when a settlement was believed to be tantalisingly within reach.” However, Mr Sahni added a note of caution, saying that while the deal is certainly historic, it is not the end of troubles surrounding the Naga issue. This deal is overwhelmingly in favour of the NSCN(IM) and will create a vast space for dissent which other groups, most significantly the NSCN(K) but also others, would try to occupy, he said.

There are at least 35 Naga tribes, and inter-tribal politics is a major thing. Different insurgent factions are typically associated with particular tribes and have their own areas of influence. For instance, SS Khaplang, who heads the NSCN(K), is a Burmese Naga and has influence on that side of the border and among the Konyaks in Nagaland. Mr Swu, the ailing NSCN (IM) chairman, is a member of the Sema tribe, which is one of the largest Naga tribes. If he passes away, the group would have to appoint a new chairman, most probably from the same tribe. There is a good chance that a new appointee may have taken the negotiations back several years in the absence of any agreement being signed during Mr Swu’s lifetime.

All previous governments, from AB Vajpayee’s to Manmohan Singh’s, had conducted discussions through interlocutors without formally sharing details with any chief ministers of neighbouring states. Swaraj Kaushal, husband of Sushma Swaraj, was the first interlocutor. The current interlocutor, RN Ravi, a veteran intelligence officer with vast experience in Northeast India, was appointed by the Prime Minister who overruled the Home Ministry’s candidate for the job. The talks were directly monitored by the PMO. There were little rivalries — within the Naga movement, in political parties, and also between departments — that existed before this accord was announced.

Lhouvi Tsikhano, a votary of Naga traditional institutions from Kohima, said cadres of all groups would have to be given “their due”. He added that autonomy and power would have to be extended to Naga tribal institutions.

Even a successful conclusion to this accord may not represent a change in the Northeast’s relationship with India, says Prof Sanjib Baruah, an expert on the region who teaches political studies at Bard College in New York. “There is no question that there is an agitation fatigue among many. But I see more continuities than discontinuities in the energy of the campaign for ILP in Manipur or Meghalaya, or regarding the National Register of Citizens in Assam,” he says. What has brought insurgents, the mainstream, and street politicians together in many parts of the Northeast is “the inchoate presence of constituencies that feel unrepresented, or feel their voices are not heard. I don’t see a change in that condition,” says Prof Baruah.

As a member of Naga civil society who did not wish to be identified said ruefully, “To have a permanent peace, we have to go through a lot of problems. Peace cannot be achieved peacefully.”

This is the sad situation in that troubled region.


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