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Naga peace: stalled process in a hollow deal

LiveMint logoLiveMint 07-06-2017 Sudeep Chakravarti

Stall continues to afflict the so-called Naga peace deal, but now it has a fresh twist.

A flimsy “framework agreement for peace” was signed on 3 August 2015 between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

From what I have been able to gather from those, Naga and not, who have intimate knowledge about the negotiations, is that the onus of stalling is now being placed on the wider leadership of NSCN (I-M).

This, for the most curious—and somewhat obvious—of reasons: reluctance to part with the perks of ceasefire. There is too much influence, revenue and lifestyle to lose. The stress here is on the wider leadership—not the wider cadre, several thousand strong, who would find integration with society an easier prospect.

NSCN (I-M), the largest Naga rebel group, signed a ceasefire with government of India on 1 August 1997. Through five subsequent administrations, all that has happened is the absence of war—not firm peace. NSCN (I-M) is corralled into what are called designated camps across Nagaland. (It has camps in the Naga areas of Manipur too, but as the ceasefire does not technically extend to Manipur to reduce fears of territorial split there, India’s security apparatus terms these camps TNO, or taken-note-of!)

Terms of ceasefire permit NSCN (I-M) to retain weapons, and recruit fresh cadres. Unwritten, unspoken terms permit NSCN (I-M) to run a parallel administration in Nagaland—it even maintains bureaus in several district headquarters—and in Naga homelands in contiguous areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. It intrudes into everything from a neighbourhood dispute to Parliamentary elections. It also runs an extortion-and-donation-led revenue stream that taps into every economic and development activity—even payroll—in these areas.

Similar rules applied to another powerful faction, NSCN (K), or Khaplang, which signed on for ceasefire in 2001; and apply to other, smaller Naga factions that have also opted for ceasefire. [NSCN (K) broke away in early 2015, when it jettisoned ceasefire and resumed hostilities, evidently triggered by government of India cosying up to its arch-rival NSCN (I-M). This has complicated matters.]

All rebel factions have since fattened, especially the leadership. The southern suburbs of Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub are sometimes jokingly called Beverly Hills, to reflect the large estates and homes of Naga politicians and rebel leaders. These lie to the north and northeast of NSCN (I-M)’s headquarters at Camp Hebron a short drive south of Dimapur. Relatives of some rebel leaders have business and real estate investments in Northeast India and even the National Capital Region.

Now comes the tricky part of reconciliation and integration.

Government efforts have revolved around grinding down the opposition, inducing implosions, and so on—from a traditional playbook that has Chanakyan roots.

Moreover, Thuingaleng Muivah, NSCN (I-M)’s general secretary and signatory to the 2015 deal, is 82, and ailing. Isak Chishi Swu, the former chair, the I in I-M, died last year. Phungthing Shimrang, I-M’s army chief is a contender for “next-gen” leadership, along with another power centre, V.S. Atem, a widely respected former army chief. There could be more factions after Muivah.

While such potential implosion would appear to be perfect for the government, there is now the aspect of stall from the rebel side.

“Mainstreaming” rebels by absorbing some cadres into policing functions, or paramilitary functions such as an industrial security force, in the manner, say, that Nepal achieved with its former Maoist rebels, would be relatively easier. It would prove more difficult with rebel leadership.

While Muivah could be offered a largely ceremonial post of elder statesman in the Naga construct, his senior colleagues have little or no base in the political establishment of Nagaland. Even if some were to be accommodated in newly-designed political and administrative structures in Manipur—owing to their tribal ties there—it would be a limp version of the heft they now exhibit in great influence and implicit threat provided by the weight of weaponry. Then there’s robust revenue. In a twisted way, it would amount to giving up the good life, be shadows of their current avatars.

A new stall in this convoluted game reportedly has government of India negotiators intensely irritated, besides unravelling the showy optics of the 2015 peace deal with NSCN (I-M), signed directly with that group, excluding all other factions, even the Naga people at every level. There it stands: a stalled process in a hollow deal.

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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