When push for Naga peace deal turns to shove
NSCN(IM) is the largest rebel group holding back from signing a peace deal with govt
The squeeze on the largest Naga rebel group just got a little harder. On 9 March, the apex association of gaon buras (village elders) of Nagaland led large rallies in the capital Kohima, Dimapur, which is the commercial hub, and several district headquarters across the state. They demanded the immediate and successful conclusion of peace talks between Naga rebel groups and the government of India.
As elders nominated by village councils to assist in governance and administration of customary laws, gaon buras are influential. Every statement made by federation members, from decrying forced taxation by rebels to diminishing the idea of a pan-Naga tribal organization, was aimed at the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), the largest rebel group and the only significant one holding back from signing a peace deal.
The reasons are manifold and murky. Here is a quick recap of the trajectory and inside stories of negotiations. The government signed a splashy, important but ultimately erroneous agreement with NSCN (I-M) in August 2015, the so-called Framework Agreement for Peace. Overseen by the prime minister and the top echelon of India’s security apparatus, it was signed by chief negotiator and currently governor of Nagaland R.N. Ravi.
Thuingaleng Muivah, the M in I-M and the group’s general secretary, signed for the other side. Important, because potential peace always is. Splashy, because both sides benefited from the optics. Erroneous, because it left every other group, faction, and the Naga people out of the loop. In any case this rebel group speaks for itself, not a people--as in Nagaland, where an elected assembly has been in place for several decades alongside special protection of customary laws under the Indian Constitution. The error was partly redressed in 2017 when six rebel groups and factions came on board for peace talks. However, it was a parallel stream, as the core leadership in NSCN (I-M), Muivah and his loyalists, were loath to acknowledge the equal claim of their competitors to a share in post-peace politics of Nagaland and Naga homelands in contiguous regions of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and, to a lesser extent, in south-eastern Assam. In early 2019, another Naga rebel faction joined the parallel stream for talks. Meanwhile, Naga society was finally consulted. So were the governments and other ethnic groups of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam.
All this was seen by NSCN (I-M) as a diminishing of its importance. Muivah and his core team dug in their heels. By mid-2019, aspects such as a separate flag for Nagaland and a unique constitution, the Yezhabo, came to the fore. In principle the Yezhabo gave sweeping and regressive powers to Muivah, as his colleague Isak Chishi Swu, the I in I-M, had passed on in 2016. Such talk protected NSCN (I-M)’s turf, but raised hackles among his competitors and spread disquiet among various state governments and people.
The prospect of NSCN (I-M) and Muivah’s primacy in a pan-Naga organization, billed as the Pan-Naga Hoho, which would, in theory, have over-arching say in Nagaland politics and in Naga homelands administered by other state governments, became anathematic to all besides Muivah and his core group.
Nearly all interest groups besides NSCN (I-M) had also largely bought into a peace formula that included rehabilitating rebels into civilian life or into police and paramilitary units, making Nagaland’s legislature into a bicameral one, providing greater administrative autonomy to Naga homelands in the adjacent states, among other dealmakers.
For NSCN (I-M) and Muivah, it also became a question of preserving stature and power. Besides, surrendering weapons, its primary source of power for several decades, and one that permitted NSCN (I-M), and other rebel factions to some extent, to operate a parallel administration, impose tax, and intervene in elections, was a daunting prospect.
Meanwhile, the slimmest prospect of a separate constitution evaporated after the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 along with the splitting of Jammu and Kashmir. Some among Muivah’s strong-arm generals and his contentious heir apparent, a nephew, have since escaped into Myanmar and elsewhere after transparent harrying by India’s security apparatus. The government aims to close the pincer with the help of those ranged against Muivah and his core, not necessarily all NSCN (I-M)’s leadership. The rallies by gaon buras were only the latest in a push that is a shove. It is now sign or lose it all. Peace, or war.
This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.