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A new phase in Naga peace-chess game

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-09-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

A seemingly minor but entirely significant development has taken place in the Naga peace process. Representatives of six rebel groups and factions journeyed to New Delhi on 26 September, to meet R.N. Ravi, the government’s interlocutor for the Naga peace process.

Thus far, these groups have been united in little but their opposition to government of India-led talks aimed at formally bringing peace with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group, which has been in a ceasefire since 1997. A showy “Framework Agreement” was signed in August 2015 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by Ravi and the group’s general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah. The so-called Nagaland peace deal, which is really a deal to work towards a deal, excluded all other factions, even the Naga people at every level.

ALSO READ: Indian Army strikes Naga insurgents along India-Myanmar border

NSCN (I-M) have since crowed about being true representatives of Naga aspirations and its “national workers” being the true inheritors of a rebellion that began in the 1950s. But it has been clear to observers that an agreement between one rebel group of a few thousand cannot speak on behalf of nearly three million people.

Not when there exist other groups and factions also in ceasefire. Not when the second-largest Naga rebel outfit, the Khaplang or K faction of NSCN, walked out of a ceasefire with the government of India in March 2015, aware of an impending deal with its arch rivals, preferring to instead cut a deal with Myanmar, where it is headquartered. (As if to underscore this point, India’s army has claimed that on 27 September it conducted major operations against the Khaplang faction along India’s border with Myanmar.) Not when there exists an elected government of Nagaland; and elected officials in Naga homelands in contiguous areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Indeed, this column has repeatedly termed the process with NSCN (I-M) a hollow deal.

The arrival in New Delhi of representatives of the six groups, of which two are factions of NSCN, and the remaining four are vestiges of the original rebel Naga National Council, signals a new phase in this convoluted game of peace-chess. It is both official recognition that deals have to be cut with all groups to effect true peace, and an encircling manoeuvre against (I-M).

Ravi, who is also chair of the government’s joint intelligence committee, has expressed irritation over NSCN (I-M)’s stolid stand, which appears to be driven by the group’s reluctance to give up the perks of ceasefire, and reduced influence in civilian afterlife, as it were. This column has maintained it to be primarily a problem with some key leaders, not cadres who would find integration in Naga society a relatively easier prospect through rehabilitation packages or integration into paramilitary forces, among other things.

As with other Naga rebel groups in ceasefire, the terms of ceasefire permit NSCN (I-M) to retain weapons, and recruit cadres. And all groups, including Khaplang faction, jostle to run administration parallel to the government in Nagaland and all Naga homelands. They run extortion-and-donation-led revenue streams that tap into every economic and development activity, even payroll, in these areas; often the cause of faction fights.

It is of little surprise that the public mood in Nagaland, and, indeed, Naga homelands in India appears to have turned decisively against all Naga rebel factions. An increasingly popular group, ACAUT, or Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation, has directly taken on rebel groups as well as runaway corruption in government. On 27 September, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), a church- and civil society-led initiative that has since 2008 worked to bring all rebel groups to a common platform of peace and unity, issued a strong statement:

“Currently Naga institutions are collapsing even as more fragmentations are occurring and there is a growing economic inequality even as the common person is burdened by taxation. Furthermore, there is alarming increase of social ills and the nexus between Naga national groups and vested individuals and parties are strengthening the culture of impunity.”

“All these have added to a situation of confusion and anxiety among the Naga public, as well as the Naga National Groups,” FNR’s statement added. “There is now a lack of clarity and purpose on the direction Nagas are heading towards. The loss of accountability, transparency, trust and respect for each other has made the process murky.”

There is a push to conclude the peace deal by December this year, in time for elections to Nagaland’s assembly which are due by March 2018. What the government wants is clear. Will NSCN (I-M) run with reconciliation? Or will some of its leaders cut and run?

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com.

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