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Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Stalled Naga peace talks, citizenship bill row may affect Nagaland outcome

There is anger among Naga voters over being repeatedly told that solution will come after an election. The BJP rules the state in a coalition along with the regional National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP).

lok-sabha-elections Updated: Apr 11, 2019 09:18 IST

Hindustan Times, Dimapur/Kohima (Nagaland)
Polling officials collect the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and other items for use in the General Elections-2019, at the distribution centre, in Kohima on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. The lone Lok Sabha seat in the state is voting on April 11.
Polling officials collect the Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and other items for use in the General Elections-2019, at the distribution centre, in Kohima on Wednesday, April 10, 2019. The lone Lok Sabha seat in the state is voting on April 11. (ANI )
         

Will public frustration over the stalled framework agreement signed four years ago between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) I-M for a long-pending solution to India’s oldest insurgency, influence who wins the solitary Lok Sabha seat from the North-eastern state which is voting during the first phase of LS polls on Thursday?

From the level of public anger, it certainly seems as though PM Narendra Modi’s much-publicised Naga outreach may soon unravel. There is anger among Naga voters over being repeatedly told that solution will come after an election. The BJP rules the state in a coalition along with the regional National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP).

“Before the February 2018 assembly elections, we were told we should participate in polls for a solution to emerge,” said Shikuto Zalipu, General-Secretary of the Nagaland Gaon Burah Federation, the apex body of village chiefs. “Yet more than a year later, we are still waiting.”

Besides the agreement with the NSCN (I-M), the Government of India last year also signed a ‘preamble’ with six other insurgent groups broadly called the Working Committee of Naga National Political Groups. Additionally, a seventh group, the Khango Konyak faction of the NSCN (Khaplang), joined the talks more recently too.

Dimapur, a dusty city of potholes and big mansions is Nagaland’s largest and perhaps most cosmopolitan and diverse city. Being a transit hub, it’s also said to be frequented by drug smugglers and gun runners. In an otherwise dry state, crowds start swelling in its bars with no signboards, but only after 12 am.

Lok Sabha elections 2019: BJP ally NDPP holds lone Nagaland constituency

Nagaland is a Christian-majority state. Hindus make up 40% and Muslims a little over 10 % of Dimapur’s population. These are mostly migrants who came here to look for work, like driving taxis and doing odd jobs. In the absence of a political solution to their demands of ‘sovereignty,’ it is this kind of migration that feeds on Naga anxieties about foreigners settling in their state.

On the outskirts of Dimapur, VS Atem, member of the NSCN (I-M), dissected the unease that Nagas currently feel about the BJP.

The government of India recently told his group that an agreement was not possible any time soon because of ‘sensitivities’ since this is election year. Atem said. “Nagas are not happy with the BJP”.

He also pointed to the way BJP leaders talk, giving the impression that they are intolerant and not just about matters of faith.

“No Naga can be satisfied with the way talks have been dragging on,” he said.

For complete coverage of Lok Sabha Elections 2019, click here

Discussions are reportedly stuck on two questions: that of a Yehzabo, a Naga constitution and –a flag.

“The framework agreement said that shared sovereignty will be defined by division of competencies between the government of India and that of Nagaland,” Atem said.

A flag, according to him, is not just a symbol but the ‘right’ of the Naga people. “So if Nagas are to have sovereign rights, who can’t they have a national flag?” he asks.

A member of NSCN(I-M) collective leadership, Atem says that the government was asked to speak up, if it cannot accept the position taken by the group because the latter, too, is “under pressure”.

“We are under pressure for the past 15 years from different sections – students, hohos (people’s organizations) and others. “They have told us: don’t come back without a flag.”

Observers warn that asking the Nagas to repeatedly wait for the next election for a solution to the Naga insurgency to emerge is eyewash and intended only to ‘fool the public’.

“Looking at the way negotiations have gone, it is obvious that the core issue at the heart of the Naga demands cannot be resolved, since it will open up a Pandora’s box,” says a Naga entrepreneur who did not wish to be named.

Meanwhile, election season in Nagaland is in full swing and given the ruling BJP’s determination to bring in the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which foresees granting nationality to minorities from India’s neighboring countries including Bangladesh which borders India’s Northeast, the contentious issue of national identity is in the eye of a storm across the region.

Residents of the North-east fear that CAB will unleash a swarm of foreigners into the region and threaten the identities and cultures of indigenous communities.

And it is CAB and the elusive and long-promised solution to the “Naga issue” that the opposition Congress and the Naga People’s Front (NPF), the state’s main regional political outfit are exploiting to the hilt, in the run-up to the LS polls.

In a first, the NPFhas not put up a candidate for the state’s solitary LS seat and is supporting the Congress instead.

On April 4, the writing was on the wall at a rally held by Congress President Rahul Gandhi at the DDSC stadium in Dimapur. Giant banners fluttered in the wind and played up the CAB as well as the ‘Naga solution’, even as the Congress scion strode on to the stage, his customary brisk walk interrupted every now and then to greet a party member with a hearty handshake.

The photogenic Congress leader was gifted a customary dao (machete), spear, a waist-coat with the rich embroidery traditional to Nagaland and a scarf. Having turned into a ‘Naga Man’ thus , Rahul took to the podium and struck the right chord by promising an early solution to the ‘complex’ Naga issue. The crowd whooped, cheered and whistled.

“I want to make a clear commitment to you. Not empty words like our prime minister. There are multiple stakeholders involved in this issue. But I will work together with all, listen to all with love… and try to give you a resolution to the Naga issue as soon as possible,” Gandhi said.

“For the people of Nagaland, these elections are first about identity,” said president of the Nagaland Congress, K Therie, pointing to the BJP’s determination to bring in CAB. The second most important issue in Nagaland – a state with a Christian majority – is faith, followed by the political solution to the longstanding insurgency, Therie said.

Will Rahul’s Congress manage to defeat the BJP over Nagaland’s only LS seat?

An important indicator is the level of support the national Congress enjoys from the regional NPF.

Neiphiu Rio, the state’s chief minister, was once an important NPF leader who quit in early 2018 to join the NDPP, a new outfit founded with his support. Along with the BJP, the NDPP managed to win an adequate number of seats at assembly polls to form the state government.

But that development brought two foes – the NPF and the Congress – together for the first time in the state. And there is no doubt that simultaneously, Modi’s star is on the wane.

“For a while, we though that Modi had created a brand for himself by saying he will bring about a solution. But eventually, we found no political will,” says Theja Therie, spokesperson of the Naga Tribes Council (NTC) , an organization with representation from the state’s many tribes.

However, Therie said that the NSCN (I-M)leadership, too, must share the blame and be more pragmatic, given the mood on the ground in the state. “People are not angry, they are fed-up,” he says. “They are left with no choice and have stopped believing in the democratic process.”

Secretary-General of the NDPP, Abu Metha, too, concedes that people of the state are frustrated.

Meanwhile, many fear an even longer wait, if there is a new government at the Centre.

“Since two sets of parallel talks are taking place between the Centre and the Naga groups, there is no common landing ground yet,” warns a senior bureaucrat in the Nagaland government in Kohima. “The present government has shown definitive seriousness about finding a solution. If it is defeated, that momentum may be lost.”