To understand the significance of the Government of India’s deal with former insurgents of Nagaland, remember these two facts: this is Asia’s longest running conflict, but the two sides have been locked in a ceasefire for almost two decades.
The ceasefire pact may have reduced the intensity of the violence in the region since 1997 when it was signed, but its sheer duration led to skepticism about New Delhi’s faith. 80 rounds of talks seemed to have yielded little. Was India interested in a solution at all? Or was it happy since it had tackled the violence and tamed the rebels, without needing to give anything in return, without needing to address Naga political aspirations?
This was a question leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) faced repeatedly from their base, and from civil society interlocutors. It was a question that threatened to erode their base substantially.
The fine text of Monday's peace deal is not yet out. But what is clear is that there has been an innovative solution to tackle the contentious issues that had marked the conflict with the Naga group.
The sovereignty dilemma
Through the six-decade long conflict and the two-decade long negotiations, two issues dominated.
One was the historic Naga opposition to accepting Indian sovereignty. Naga groups believed that the Naga people were distinct and unique; that their inclusion in the Indian union was illegal and unjust; and that they could not accept the supremacy of the Indian constitution.
Read: Govt, NSCN (IM) sign peace treaty, Modi calls it 'new future'
This was not just an abstract political principle, but had real implications, because the Naga nation, in their imagination, included Naga people not only in India but also outside the country – in Myanmar. Indeed, a key Naga leader, SS Khaplang, was a Naga from Myanmar and today leads NSCN (K). For the Government of India, this was a non-starter for there was little space to think outside the sovereign, united framework. The border was sacrosanct.
The Naga insistence on sovereignty also had another implication. Naga groups ran a parallel state and had their own governance machinery in the region they controlled – for they did not accept the supremacy of the Indian state.
The waiting game and the innumerable round of talks served a crucial positive function from the GOI’s perspective- it exhausted the Naga rebels to broadly tone down their demand, and settle for a special federal relationship with India rather than stick to sovereignty.
Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah were no longer the young rebels who had disagreed with the Shillong accord of 1975. With that accord, Naga outfits had accepted the Indian constitution, and agreed to surrender their arms. Isak and Muivah had condemned the agreement as a betrayal and sellout and committed to fight for unquestionable sovereignty. But by the 2000s, they agreed to travel on Indian passports, and embarked on a process of getting mainstreamed into the Indian state’s architecture.
Many in Nagaland too were fatigued with the conflict. The fragmented, corrupt and often violent rebel outfits offered little hope. The Indian state had shown its capacity to wait it out, without offering concessions. A compromise appeared to be the only way out – though many within the Naga movement were emphatic this should not be on humiliating terms that derecognised the unique history of the Naga people.
Radical factions opposed any such concession. But by acknowledging the uniqueness of the Nagas and committing to address their aspirations, the Government of India provided a cover to the dominant faction of the rebels to backtrack from their stated positions.
Creating a Greater Nagaland
The second, related, and seeming intractable issue was the NSC’s core ideological goal of creating a sovereign independent Nagalim (Greater Nagaland), inclusive of all Naga areas in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Myanmar.
In real political terms, the Naga leaders on the Indian side - Isak and Muivah – were willing to drop the demand to include parts of Myanmar. But internal reconfiguration was not easy either, in the extremely complex, multi-ethnic landscape that constitutes each northeastern state. Each time there was even a remote indication that Naga areas of Manipur could be accommodated in a new Naga state structure, Manipur’s Meitei tribes rebelled and brought the state to a halt.
Read: A history of accords but peace has eluded Nagaland
This suited the hardliners in the Indian establishment who were happy to play divide and rule politics between different Naga factions, between Naga groups and Manipur’s forces, and between communities in the different states. This is the same politics that Modi blamed only the British for, conveniently omitting the less than glorious record of the Indian state in this regard.
So the peace process was locked in this particular dilemma. Status quo – dropping sovereignty and accepting the same terms that governed the Centre-Nagaland relationship – was not acceptable to the Naga rebels. Changing national borders was unacceptable to the Indian state, and even redrawing internal borders appeared impossible.
Hope and the challenge
Monday’s deal must have had to address this in some way. Delhi’s grapevine was swarming with various possibilities, from an innovative non-territorial solution to the issue being set aside for now.
Soon after the accord was signed, HT reached out to Sanjib Baruah, a political scientist at Bard College who has done pioneering work on conflicts in the north east. When asked for his reaction, Baruah called the accord ‘historic’ and a ‘new beginning for sure’. Commenting on the ceremony at 7 Race Course Road, he said, “The ceremony – the contents of the Prime Minister’s speech, his homage to the Nagas, their culture and their history, the presence of a large number of Naga leaders -- was impressive. It is not insignificant that the Prime Minister spoke in English, assuming he does not do it that often inside the country.
Read: Treaty with NSCN(IM): Nagaland's neighbours wary of contents
Baruah added that the fact that the accord was the culmination of an eighteen year long peace process where there was significant input from Naga civil society gave him the sense of something akin to a ‘constitutional moment’.
“Such moments of optimism are important in the collective life of any society: they mark the determination of political leaders to look beyond the past, and build a new future.” But he pointed to the real challenge ahead. “The details of the accord will be important. Without them we can’t say much about its significance beyond Nagaland: for peace in the region as a whole.”
A six decade long conflict generates substantial lobbies which have an interest in status quo. The NSCN (I-M) would be reluctant to let go of the parallel machinery they run in the state; the disbanding and disarmament of rebel militias will require enormous political will and technical deftness; local politicians would be reluctant to share official state power with newer entrants; the internal factionalism that has pervaded Naga insurgency will play out with other rebel factions, particularly the Khaplang group which was responsible for the recent attack in Manipur and is operating from Myanmar, calling the deal a sell-out; the reaction of states like Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, which may be affected by the terms of the deal, will be critical.
It would of course be premature to speculate on consequences when the essence of the deal itself is not known. For now, it is important to recognise the historic occasion and credit the Modi government for showing the political will to conclude a deal that had remained elusive and the (former) rebels of showing the sagacity to step back from entrenched positions. But do remember that the road ahead is long and ardous.