Splinter groups may instigate China
The death of Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, the 77-year-old leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) faction named after him, puts a question mark on the future of rebel movements in north-east India.
It is necessary at this stage to go back a little into history. The original rebel outfit that demanded an independent Nagaland was the Naga National Council, formed in the early 1940s by Angami Zapu Phizo. The present-day Nagaland was then a district of Assam. In 1953 Phizo raised the banner of revolt and NNC started an armed struggle. Later, Phizo moved to London where he died in 1990.
In his absence, the local leaders of the NNC decided to enter into a peace treaty with the Government. After lengthy negotiations, the 'Shillong Accord' was signed on November 11. 1975, between L P Singh, the then Governor of Assam, and four others "on behalf of the representatives of the underground organisations."
Clause 3(ii) of the Accord dealt with NNC's decision to bring out and deposit arms at 'appointed places.' The dominant leadership of the NNC was then in the hands of the Angamis – the tribe to which Phizo belonged. Other tribes disagreed with the decision to surrender arms and called it a betrayal of the Naga cause.
Those opposed to the Shillong Accord formed the National Socialist Council of Assam in January 1980. It was led by Isak Chishi Swu (chairman) and Thuingaleng Muivah (general secretary). The new outfit pledged to continue the struggle for a sovereign Nagaland.
However, the dominant leadership of NSCN soon realised the futility of carrying on an armed struggle and tried to open channels of negotiation with the Centre for a peace accord. This angered the third most influential leader of the outfit, S. S. Khaplang and his supporters turned against those who were loyal to Swu and Muivah. After a murderous attack on the rival faction in which the Khaplang faction massacred its rivals, Khaplang formed his party, the NSCN(K) on April 30, 1988. Since then the two factions have been at daggers drawn.
Much later, both factions entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Centre, and an endless round of negotiations started for an 'honourable settlement' of the Naga demand, short of sovereignty. In March 2015, Khaplang unilaterally terminated the ceasefire agreement with the Centre and on June 4, his faction raided an army camp in Manipur and killed 18 military personnel. The army soon retaliated by destroying some of Khaplang's camps situated just across the border in Myanmar.
On August 3, 2015, Prime Minister Modi signed the "Framework Agreement" with the NSCN(I-M). But the contents of the agreement have never been made public. Meanwhile, Khaplang was trying to unite different rebel groups of the north-east like the ULFA (Paresh Barua faction) under an umbrella organisation.
Khaplang's death has undoubtedly created a void, and the inevitable question is: who will lead his party now? His followers are learnt to be discussing several possibilities, one of which is to give up the path of armed struggle and return to the negotiating table. There were indications that during the last part of his life, Khaplang himself was seeking to re-open the dialogue with the Centre. This has now been confirmed by Nagaland Chief Minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu himself after Khaplang's death. If Khaplang's followers join the peace process, it will brighten the prospects of a settlement with the Nagas, even if it takes time.
Though they will never go on record, the rebels have realised that a sovereign Nagaland is not possible. Now they are insisting on a Nagalim which will bring all Naga areas including those in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal, into one administrative unit. But the concerned States are dead opposed to ceding any territory to the Nagas. The Centre has to find a way out by either persuading the NSCN(I-M) to give up the demand for Nagalim or getting the consent of the contiguous States to cede some of their lands. The ball is in the Centre's court.
A lasting solution to the insurgency problem in the north-east has assumed greater importance now with China adopting a more hostile attitude to India and firming up its logistic build-up against India in Tibet. Paresh Barua of the 'anti-talk' faction of ULFA is reportedly shuttling between his hideout in northern Myanmar and China. He cannot achieve a sovereign Assam, but he will be of nuisance value to the Chinese. The political flexibility and far sight of New Delhi are on the test.