Taking stock of the Naga situation
The key to a solution for the longstanding Naga problem is very simple - just broad base the negotiation and don’t limit it to an agreement with the NSCN (Issac-Muivah) faction only which is actually an organisation dominated by the Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur. This is necessary because the Naga society is not homogeneous in character as village and clan identity play a very important part.
In this context, recent statements by the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) accusing the Indian government of following a dual policy over Nagaland clearly point out that the “peace accord” initiated by the central government has nearly fallen through. The NMA has expressed its shock over the recently-imposed five-year ban on the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) faction and has demanded replacement of existing security forces by the Naga India Reserve Battalion (NIRB).
The demand is sensible and if acted upon may usher in an atmosphere conducive for peace negotiations in Nagaland. It <g data-gr-id="74">is however</g> open to doubt whether the central government will be sagacious enough to remove the Assam Rifles whose presence once led to “nude protests” by some women of the neighbouring state of Manipur. The symbolic protest was against numerous alleged molestation attempts by Assam Rifles’ troopers.
Under such a <g data-gr-id="77">circumstance</g> the man who could have given a proper direction to the peace negotiation is R.N. Ravi, the central government’s interlocutor. Ravi’s problem is that he sometimes talks and writes too much - quite unbecoming of an intelligence official. But the man is unbiased and had openly criticised the ongoing talks with only the NSCN(I-M) faction as, in his opinion, involvement of all sections of the Naga society was necessary. Ravi had become so bitter about the central government’s approach that he once called K. Padmanabhaiah, a former Union home secretary and a former interlocutor, a “successful marketing agent of the NSCN (I-M)”.
This time, Ravi has far more genuine grounds for bitterness as the Khaplang faction has been banned at a time when he was trying to open up a channel of negotiation with it. For this, he had talked to certain Naga civil society organisations whose members would have gone to the Indo-Myanmar border for talks with the Khaplang group. Even the Naga Mothers Association had talks with Ravi. But the interlocutor has been keeping a studied silence. Perhaps he had already read the government’s mind. What should, however, worry the policymakers in New Delhi is the fact that each peace initiative had given birth to new breakaway Naga insurgent groups and led to more violence.
It started with the Akbar-Hydari agreement of 1947 which brought to the fore A.Z. Phizo. The 1975 Shillong Accord led to the division of the Naga National Council (NNC) and saw the birth of the NSCN. In <g data-gr-id="70">1988</g> NSCN again split into two factions.
Frankly speaking, an agreement with the I-M faction will mean very little. Its support base consists of the Sema, Tangkhul and Zeliang tribes. The Khaplang faction draws its sustenance from the Ao and Konyak tribes while the NNC, still a force to reckon with, is the organization of the Angami and Chakesang tribes. Of all these sub-tribal groups, the Tangkhuls are the most educated and the Konyaks the least but, at the same time, the most ferocious. It is true that the Khaplang faction is numerically inferior and has experienced further splits when in 2011 Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zimomi, two front-ranking leaders, broke away and formed the NSCN (K-K) group. Additionally, another very small faction named the NSCN (Reformation) had split from Khaplang in 1999.
Subsequent events, however, proved that Khaplang had lost very little of his firepower. Moreover, the tribal base of all the breakaway groups remains the same and in the event of any war-like situation, they are likely to come close to S.S. Khaplang. Already the NSCN (K-K) group has openly come out against the ‘framework accord”.
Today the NSCN (I-M) is, no doubt, the largest group among the Naga militants with more than 6,000 armed cadres. It has also expanded its base, albeit very narrowly, in the North Cachar and Karbi Anglong districts of Assam where it is instigating the indigenous Dimasa tribe to rise in revolt as well as sneaking in Naga sub-tribes to lay claim on areas of Assam in future.
Similarly, the NSCN (Khaplang) has its influence in areas of Nagaland as well as the Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh and parts of Myanmar too. These respective areas of influence have no straight border and they often overlap into enemy territory.
Delay and procrastination often become favourite catchwords with policymakers, particularly when a formidable and intractable enemy is sought to be defeated on the negotiating table. But the Indian policymakers should have realised that with the ongoing Naga peace negotiations any go-slow approach might turn out to be counter- productive.
This is exactly what has happened with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (Khaplang) breaking out of the negotiation process in April and then leading a massive attack on Indian army personnel in Manipur, killing 18 soldiers. S.S. Khaplang, the group’s leader, is reported to have concluded that no purpose would be served by remaining in the never-ending peace talks. Of course, the Indian Army retaliated and killed even a greater number of Naga and Manipuri insurgents after attacking their bases in the jungles of Myanmar. But this has put a question mark on the ultimate fate of peace negotiations over the Naga insurgency, one of the first to erupt in India.
Banning the NSCN (Khaplang) will complicate the matter. The need of the hour is deeper involvement of the Naga civil society and chief ministers of other northeastern states in the negotiations process.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal)