Peace accords in Northeast require more decoding than we have been inclined to do

Sanjib Baruah
By any measure, Nagaland Governor R N Ravi’s letter to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio dated June 16 is a significant episode in the political history of the state. “Rampant extortion and violence by armed gangs”, says the leaked letter, have made the lives of law-abiding citizens in the state miserable. More than a half-dozen “organised armed gangs”, according to the governor, brazenly run their own self-styled governments. Their depredations that include the capture of development funds, face little resistance from state institutions. There has been a collapse of law and order in the state.
It is hard to quarrel with the official facts and statistics that a governor can marshal. Though many may roll their eyes at the scathing tone and language of the letter, it is a dramatic departure from past gubernatorial practice, which was to look the other way.
Ordinarily, such an assessment by a governor would be read as a prelude to bringing a state under President’s Rule. But Nagaland’s unique political history does not warrant such speculation based on a false analogy with states in the rest of India. Nobody expects such a turn of events in Nagaland. After all, the BJP — the ruling party in India — is a partner in the state’s coalition government.
No dictionary definition of words like “organised armed gangs” or “extortion” used in the governor’s letter, would help in making sense of the political drama unfolding in Nagaland. There is always a conflict over meaning when issues are essentially political.
Ravi is, of course, no ordinary governor. He is also the Union government’s interlocutor to the Naga talks; he has served in that position for much longer than as governor. By now he was expected to deliver on the promise of a final peace agreement with all Naga factions on board. It turns out that the “organised armed gangs” that the governor’s letter alludes to are none other than the Naga rebel factions with whom he, wearing his other hat, has been negotiating for peace — at least till recently.
Not surprisingly, all his negotiating partners — current and erstwhile — have sharply criticised the governor’s letter, taking particular exception to the words “extortion” and “organised armed gangs”. The NSCN-IM, by far the strongest Naga rebel organisation, and till recently, the main party representing the Nagas at the talks, has said that “taxes have been the source of sustenance that has brought the Naga political movement this far”, and that the legitimacy of the practice has been acknowledged by Ravi’s predecessor interlocutors and “Indian authorities”. If Ravi now suddenly chooses to view “the Naga issue as a ‘law and order’ problem”, he may be the wrong person to resolve the conflict.
Even the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), the coalition of seven Naga factions that seems prepared to sign a peace agreement even without the NSCN-IM, rejects the governor’s language. Ever since “the inception of our struggle”, says the NNPG, “Naga national workers” have been collecting “nominal” but mandatory “contributions” to the cause.
Whether they are contributions, taxes, or extortion is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. To be sure, their prevalence does not fit the textbook definition of an ideal-typical state with a monopoly over legitimate taxation powers. But the phenomenon is hardly unfamiliar to analysts investigating the actually existing nature of post-colonial sovereignty in various parts of the world. Rather than choosing between Ravi’s vocabulary and that preferred by the armed groups, the empirically oriented political analyst will perhaps be better served by an analytical phrase like “informal taxation by non-state actors”.
Of course, no tax collection regime — formal or informal — can be free of coercion. Many ordinary citizens of Nagaland and certain adjacent areas seek the end of the Naga conflict because they earnestly hope that it would end the relentless demands of the long-standing informal taxation regime. But that should not lead one to underestimate the substantial influence and legitimacy of the Naga militant organisations, including the NSCN-IM, among the Naga public.
Nagaland’s elected state legislature, for instance, has repeatedly endorsed the NSCN-IM’s key demand for the “integration of all Naga-inhabited contiguous areas under one administrative umbrella”. Former Chief Minister T R Zeliang even provided a rationale for the prevailing informal taxation regime. Unlike many other armed groups in the region, he said in response to a journalist’s question, the Naga armed groups do not receive government subsidies. That, he implied, is a matter of national honour. Thus, they are “bound to collect tax from the people for their survival”.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that informal taxation is built into the very structure and history of Nagaland. Consider General S K Sinha’s account of how the state was created. During his long army career, Sinha had significant counterinsurgency experience in Nagaland. After his retirement, he had served as governor of both Jammu and Kashmir and Assam during particularly troubled times. “There were many efforts to pacify the Nagas,” said the General, speaking at the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi in 2001, “and through concessions in 1963, the State of Nagaland was created”.
“This State was for a population of barely 5,00,000 — less than the population of many of the colonies of New Delhi — and yet all the trappings that go with full statehood, a legislature, cabinet, chief minister and later, even governor, went with this new status. But this failed to satisfy the Nagas, and they continued with their operations”.
A former Naga civil servant, Alemtemshi Jamir, once reflected far more sympathetically on Nagaland’s peculiar fiscal predicament. Drawing on his long administrative experience in the state in various capacities, including in the position of development commissioner, he said that because the state of Nagaland was “created out of a political necessity”, it was not expected to be “economically viable for a long time”. It has a “huge overloaded governmental structure, the sustenance of which, occupies almost all the energies and resources of the government”, which leaves “very little resource for other activities including development”.
Since most armed conflicts in the world do not end in victory or defeat or peace but in a draw, it is not unusual for state authorities to be in some form of de facto partnership with armed groups. In the context of Northeast India, we may be indulging in wishful thinking by uncritically labelling all documents signed by rebel factions and the government — marking some sort of a suspension of active hostilities — as peace accords. Perhaps the use of the word “peace” in this context may require a great deal more decoding than we have been inclined to do.
Armed groups in Northeast India have a long track record of successfully claiming a share of development funds — with the complicity of elected and appointed public officials — both before and after signing “peace accords”. Nagaland may be the leader in this regard, but not an exception.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 24 under the title “Peace and its disorders.” Baruah is the author most recently of In the Name of the Nation: India and its Northeast.
Courtesy: The Indian Express