The accord which was signed on Monday between the Government of India and the NSCN(I-M), a leading Naga group, is not the first one India has signed with the Nagas to end what is definitely the country’s first ethnic insurrection. In 1975, the Indira Gandhi government signed an agreement with the Naga National Council in Shillong, which was designed to pave the way for a final settlement of the Naga problem.
But the leaders who signed the “historic accord” with the Modi government are also those who fiercely opposed the 1975 Shillong Accord.
T Muivah and IC Swu, who described the 1975 accord as a “sellout” and vowed to fight on, have now thanked the PM for “understanding the Nagas”. They seem to back Modi’s claim that Monday’s accord is “historic”. But neither the government nor the Naga rebel leaders have disclosed the details of the agreement.
This is a departure from the past.
The provisions of all accords, such as those signed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985-86, had been made public even as the agreements were signed. By keeping the lid on Monday’s accord, the Modi government has left room for speculation — both about the possible provisions of the accord and about why it has not been made public.
The accord comes within four months of the reneging of the ceasefire by the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) — the one opposed to the Muivah-Isak faction.
This faction is led by Burmese rebel Naga rebel leader SS Khaplang, who now has a fraternal alliance going with several other Northeast Indian rebel groups.
Since Khaplang broke away from the ceasefire, his fighters have been joined by United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) and some Meitei groups in attacking Indian troops.
Thirty soldiers have died in these attacks — 18 in one strike in Manipur in June. Some may argue that Khaplang’s decision to renege on the ceasefire signed with India in 2000 has prompted the Modi government to push double quick for a Naga settlement with the rival NSCN (I-M).
The NSCN (I-M) has been negotiating with the government since 1997. They had climbed down from the original Naga separatists’ demand for independence.
But they were keen to get India to accept their demand for a greater Naga state — the Nagalim — that they said should be formed by merging the Naga-dominant areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
The Modi government would find it difficult to accept this demand as it were — as former PM AB Vajpayee discovered in 2001 when he decided to extend the Naga ceasefire to the neighbouring states.
Violence erupted in Manipur, forcing Vajpayee to withdraw the ceasefire from other states and limit it to Nagaland. The majority opinion in these three states sees the greater Nagalim demand as hostile to their territorial indivisibility.
These states are also ruled by the Congress — so their chief ministers would have no great reason to implement a Naga accord if it even remotely affects the interests of their states adversely.
Modi’s interlocutor for the Naga negotiations, RN Ravi, had described the NSCN demand as “constitutionally feasible but politically unacceptable”.
So it seems a mid-way point was found for the settlement so that “Nagas understand Indian compulsions” and India understands the ‘compulsions of the Naga rebel leaders’.
The Monday accord seems to have worked on providing the Nagas greater autonomy — both for the state of Nagaland and for the Nagas areas of the three neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Alongside the autonomy provisions, the accord would provide some ways to link the Nagas of the neighbouring states with the state of Nagaland, at least culturally.
The fact that Modi has already briefed leaders of different national and regional parties about the accord indicates that he may need their support for a possible constitutional amendment that may be needed to implement the Naga accord — or just to get Parliament to approve it so that it is endorsed by all parties.Or else what was the urgency to brief Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee on a Naga accord.
The reason for not letting the details of the accord out is because the mode of implementing it is not yet finalised. A top lawyer who advised the NSCN (I-M) during the negotiations said the “real challenge begins now that the accord is done”.
Muivah thanked the PM for “understanding the problems faced by the Nagas”. Modi, on his part, said the Naga problem festered so long because India and the Nagas failed to understand each other. But the agreement has been signed with the dominant faction of the NSCN — not with all the separatist factions.
Unlike in Mizoram, where Rajiv Gandhi signed the 1986 accord with the entire MNF leadership and that is why the accord seems to have delivered, Modi’s Naga accord may focus on delivering largely for the Indian Nagas.
There is no way a government in New Delhi can deal with Khaplang, who is a Burmese national. But if the breakaway factions of the Khaplang group had been involved in the settlement, it would have been easier to implement it in Nagaland.
Also because Khaplang is seeking to break out of his isolation by forming a rebel coalition involving other active Northeast Indian separatists, Modi’s government will have to deal with some form of Naga violence exacerbated by the involvement of the likes of Ulfa.
The accord signed on Monday may be historic because it comes after the longest ever spell of negotiations — but whether it will help in bringing about durable peace in a violence-scarred part of India remains to be seen.
Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy to link up to South-east Asia through the Northeast, however, will only work if long-festering problems like the Naga imbroglio are sorted out.
Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent, and the author of Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India’s Northeast
(The views expressed by the author are personal)