Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Aug 01, 2020
Trust deficit could halt Centre’s peace talks with Naga militants

Is trust deficit hurting the Naga peace process? A series of developments in the past few days gives a clear indication that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led central government’s attempt to bring a permanent solution to India’s oldest insurgency is likely to face more hurdles in the days to come. For instance, the Centre on 30 June extended the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 or AFSPA, in Nagaland for six more months. The Ministry of Home Affairs was of the view that the “area comprising the whole of State of Nagaland is in such a disturbed and dangerous condition that the use of armed forces in aid of the civil power is necessary”.

AFSPA, which guarantees maximum impunity to security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations, is considered the most draconian law in post-independent India. Currently, it is in force in four northeastern states – Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and parts of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Myanmar. The MHA move came days after Nagaland governor RN Ravi had written a scathing letter to chief minister Neiphiu Rio, claiming that “armed gangs” were brazenly running their own governments in the state challenging the legitimacy of its elected authority and creating a “crisis of confidence” in the system. While Ravi, who is also the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga peace talks, did not name any militant organisation, his letter dropped hints that militant groups were indulging in intimidation and extortion, and running, what is seen as a parallel administration, in the state.

For its part, rebel outfit National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (I-M) has raised questions on New Delhi’s seriousness about finding a permanent settlement of the Naga political issue. The NSCN (I-M) had signed a “framework agreement” with the Centre in 2015, 18 years after it inked a ceasefire pact with the government. “There is trust deficit on (Ravi’s) his role as interlocutor as he is desperately on the roll to undermine the Naga issue. The biggest question pricking the mind of the Nagas is if Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi has planted a wrong person to help him solve the longstanding Indo-Naga political issue,” the rebel outfit said in an editorial in its mouthpiece ‘Nagalim Voice’.

Hope and despair

After years of negotiations with successive governments, the NSCN (I-M) had on 3 August 2015 signed a framework agreement with Narendra Modi government. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which had stormed to power winning 336 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats a year ago, did not miss any opportunity to celebrate what it called a “historic accord”. Even the Nagas were made to believe that they were inching closer to a deal that would more or less match their demands.

The “agreement” that was reached in 2015 was based on the idea of “shared sovereignty” for the Nagas, a community comprising more than 60 tribes (the exact number is unclear) spread across India’s Northeast and parts of neighbouring Myanmar. Shared sovereignty denotes sharing of administrative and legislative power between India and Nagalim. Under this arrangement, the Naga Hoho, the apex body of all Naga tribes, would look after the welfare of all Naga inhabited areas, irrespective of their integration with the proposed Nagalim.

This is a significant departure from NSCN (I-M)’s original demand for a sovereign Nagalim, which would have required physical integration of Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and even parts of Myanmar with Nagaland. Issues such as “symbols of sovereignty” – a separate flag and a Constitution, AFSPA, and demographic changes as a result of cross-border migrations were also discussed in subsequent meetings. It is believed that the Centre rejected the demand for a separate flag and Constitution during negotiations in October last year, a move that obviously did not go down well with the Naga militants.

Besides, the NSCN (I-M) became suspicious about government’s intention when the latter initiated talks with six more militants groups, together called Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) in the aftermath of the 2015 agreement. According to some experts, the BJP government may have tried to avoid a repeat of 1975 Shillong Accord-like situation when a faction of the Naga National Council (NNC) walked out of talks and formed NSCN, which subsequently split into two groups – NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (Khaplang). SS Khaplang, a Naga from the Myanmarese side, died in 2017, and Isak Swu of the I-M faction passed away in a Delhi hospital in 2016 after a prolonged illness.

What led to the current impasse 

The Centre’s dialogue with the NNPG gave rise to the suspicion that the former may go ahead with the Naga peace pact even without NSCN (I-M), the largest insurgent outfit in the Northeast with a cadre strength of over 3,500. They also started casting aspersions on interlocutor’s Ravi’s motive, and asked him to prove his commitment by focusing on the settlement of vexed “Naga issue” and not resort to “mischief”, The New Indian Express recently reported.

“Ravi’s bombshell (Governor’s letter to Nagaland CM) is a reflection of his mishandling of the Naga political issue. It speaks of his frustration and arrogance. It speaks of his insincerity and deceitfulness. It also speaks of his inclination to turn the clock back by terming the very groups he has been talking across the negotiating table as armed gangs,” the NSCN (I-M) said in its mouthpiece ‘Nagalim Voice’. In addition, the continuation of the AFSPA in Nagaland and Indian Army’s crackdown on NSCN (I-M) militants, especially in three eastern Arunachal Pradesh districts bordering Myanmar, could further complicate the already-fragile Naga process.

On 11 July, six NSCN (I-M) militants were killed in a gun battle with the Army, Assam Rifles and police in Arunachal’s Longding district. One of the slain militants was allegedly involved in the killing of an Arunachal legislator and 10 others last year, The Indian Express reported quoting a state police official. It is not clear whether the ceasefire agreement between the NSCN (I-M) and the Central government is applicable in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur as well, where the militant outfit has its presence in addition to Nagaland.

At a time, when the Naga peace parleys are going through a rough phase, the Centre’s strong-arm tactics against the NSCN (I-M) could end up upsetting the entire Naga community. The BJP-led government should not lose sight of the fact that the Northeast is not Kashmir although both are militancy-hit regions. The Kashmir model, like perceived curtailment of civil liberties, and the alleged use of brutal force to suppress the voice of the youth in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370, is unlikely to work in Nagaland, which is ethnically and culturally a different state. Any attempt to expedite the peace process without understanding the Naga sentiments could backfire, and lead to a dangerous situation.

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