Sustain the Naga peace talks | HT Editorial
The Indian State has a novel way of dealing with what seem to be intractable armed conflicts. Engage (with stakeholders, including rebels); assert (the State’s authority) and coerce; divide (especially rebel groups which are often prone to fragmentation); concede (but only partially, without compromising on core principles); and repeat the cycle. The template has been applied, with varying degrees of success, in different contexts. But broadly, it helps ensure peace without concessions, maintains the centrality of the State, and either weakens rebel groups or creates incentives for them to stay within the framework of a peace agreement.
The Naga peace talks between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M), which started in 1997, have followed a similar trajectory. Asia’s oldest insurgency, when talks began, appeared intractable — Naga groups were insistent on their distinct identity; they wanted a Greater Nagaland, which included Naga-speaking parts of other Indian states and Myanmar; they saw Nagaland as sovereign, with its own symbols. New Delhi was clear that neither would a Greater Nagaland be possible, nor would these groups be allowed to claim absolute sovereignty. But to keep the peace, the State often, rhetorically, accepted the distinct identity of Nagas; it informally allowed NSCN (I-M) to operate (including allowing it to function as a de facto parallel regime which had its own armed militia and collected tax); it also bridged differences and accepted the idea of “shared sovereignty”, a form of asymmetric federalism.
But there was no pact, and the perils of prolonged talks are now visible. RN Ravi, the key interlocutor for the Naga talks and now Nagaland’s governor, expressed the State’s exasperation at the operation of a parallel regime when he criticised “armed gangs”. NSCN(I-M), exasperated by the lack of a tangible solution despite a framework agreement signed in 2015, and annoyed at what it perceives as lack of respect, wants a new interlocutor and structure for talks. The geopolitical churn makes the situation more challenging — remember China has historically encouraged many armed insurgents in the Northeast, and given the current state of India-China ties, renewed Chinese support for those against the Indian State is quite possible. The Naga peace process is an achievement. It has kept the peace in a region troubled almost since Independence. New Delhi must sustain it and break the stalemate, by reviving talks and institutionalising an agreement. The old template must be tweaked to accommodate new realities.