NSCN(I-M) rebels untraceable amid Naga talks hiccup
Talks between the Nationalist Social Council of Nagaland (Isak Muivah), or NSCN (I-M), and RN Ravi, the interlocutor of the Government of India and governor of Nagaland, remained inconclusive on Monday, even as both sides prepared for a potential renewal of hostilities with the former moving armed cadre and weapons away from designated camps and the latter realigning the counter-insurgency grid comprising the Indian Army and Assam Rifles.
The moves came amidst speculation that the Union government will announce a deal, with or without NSCN (I-M), especially with the Naga National Political Group, a combine of seven Naga organisations that are rivals of the NSCN (I-M), indicating their willingness to do business with the state.
Both Ravi and various rebel groups in the state have referred to an October 31 deadline for announcing the deal.
To be sure, the NSCN (I-M) and Ravi are likely to meet again on Tuesday, a functionary of the rebel group said on condition of anonymity. The talks are going on in Delhi.
In Nagaland, which remains on the edge in anticipation of the outcome of talks, two top bureaucrats in the state government said there is no official word from the Centre on the ongoing talks in Delhi or if a pact is likely in the coming days.
“There is no official communication at all so far if a peace deal is going to be signed soon or what the discussions have been in New Delhi,” said one of the two officials on condition of anonymity.
But top officials in the security establishment said on condition of anonymity that both the state and the rebel group seem to be preparing for the worst-case.
The NSCN(I-M) has around 2,500 armed cadres most of who are armed with sophisticated weapons. The cadres were settled in the six camps spread across Nagaland and Manipur. Camp Hebron in Nagaland was the biggest camp and the headquarters of the NSCN (I-M). “About 90% of their fighting cadre has disappeared in anticipation of the talks failing the Government signing a peace deal without the NSCN (I-M),” one of the security officials who is posted in the state added.
Indian Army troops in Nagaland have been re-deployed to position them better in case ceasefire agreement is abrogated by the NSCN (I-M). The Indian Army has also reached out to the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar, to prevent NSCN (I-M) from using vast jungle tracts in Myanmar bordering India as a base, the official quoted above said. In June, the militaries of India and Myanmar carried out three-week-long operation along the border to destroy terrorist camps. On October 20, the state administration asked the Nagaland Police and para-military forces to stock rations and supplies for at least two months in preparation of an outbreak of violence. Earlier this month, as the talks started to stall, the Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat was briefed about a possible breach of the ceasefire agreement between the insurgent group and the government.
The NSCN (I-M) and the Union government have been in talks since the mid-1990s. In 2017, the Modi government and the NSCN (I-M) said they signed the “framework for peace” agreement. However, New Delhi has refused to accept the demand for a separate flag, integration of the Naga inhabited areas (including those in other North East states) into one administrative group and a separate constitution — key demands of the NSCN (I-M).
The security officials cited above said the government has intelligence that armed NSCN (I-M) cadre plan to use the Samdrup Jhongkhar jungles along the India- Bhutan border. Separately, around another 250 armed cadre of the NSCN (I-M) are headed for Zaw Khawthar in Mizoram to cross over into the Ri-Khawthar area of Myanmar, they add. Other reports reaching New Delhi suggest that another group led by a self-styled major general of NSCN(I-M) Absolom Tankul has moved into Myanmar after the last round of talks with Ravi failed, they said.
India is believed to have emphasised to NSCN (I-M) the importance of not breaking the ceasefire agreement signed in 1997.
The two Nagaland bureaucrats cited in the first instance said that meanwhile, precautionary measures have also been put in place in parts of the neighbouring Assam and Manipur.
Ravi indicated earlier this month, after a meeting with select civil society groups, tribal outfits and church bodies in Kohima that the talks won’t continue beyond October 31 and the final agreement could be signed even without NSCN (I-M), the largest of the Naga rebel groups.
Seven rebel groups other than the NSCN (I-M), under the working committee of the NNPG, are in talks with the Centre separately since 2017 and willing to ink a final agreement without insisting on a separate flag and constitution, issues which they claim could be settled democratically by elected Naga representatives at a later date.
The working committee of the NNPG is also likely to meet interlocutor Ravi separately on Tuesday even as it hopes that the solution will be announced within the October 31 deadline. “We are working on that. This (deadline) is what we agreed on,” said Alezo Venuh, the envoy of NNPG.
The Naga insurgency began in the 1950s with sovereignty as a key demand. Over the years, the rebel outfits have given up on that demand seeking shared sovereignty, more autonomy and integration of Naga inhabited areas.