Afer secret parleys with the government, Th Muivah will meet other rebel outfits to push for a peace deal. But will they let him dictate the agenda? Avalok Langer reports
NAGALAND IS buzzing with a sense of anticipation that a solution to the six-decade-long Indo-Naga political dispute is within reach. The sentiment was given a boost when National Socialist Council of Nagaland-IM leaders Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Swu announced in Dimapur last week that a deal could be reached as early as March next year.
However, having held talks with the Government of India (GoI) in isolation and secrecy, the biggest question is, will the solution — which will, in all probability, be only for the British-created state of Nagaland that will act as a political umbrella for all Nagas — and the leadership of Muivah, a Thankul Naga from Manipur, be accepted?
The problem stems from the fact that the NSCN(IM) has not involved the other groups in the negotiations, keeping their dialogue a secret. What compounds the secrecy is that the allegiance to the groups is along tribal lines. Some tribes support the IM, while others back the Naga National Council (NNC), Kitovi-Khole and so on; the IM alone doesn’t have the Naga mandate.
“The NSCN(IM) leaders treat Naga sovereignty as if it is their private property. They don’t want to share power and position, not realising that no single group has a monopoly over the Naga nation,” says Father Abraham Lotha, a Naga intellectual. “The IM leadership has always said, ‘We will take it to the Naga people and their decision will be ultimate.’ The problem is that the IM has not taken the proceedings of any negotiations with the GoI to the Naga people. The Naga public have not been given their due respect and place, nor have their democratic rights been respected. What will the people decide if they don’t know on what point to decide?”
While the NSCN(IM) leaders are trying to meet other groups on their present visit, a disconnect stemming from a lack of information has left the faction sequestered. “The biggest problem the GoI is facing is what to do with Muivah. He may bring a solution and from what I have gathered from my sources in Delhi, it will be for Nagaland state,” says Daniel*, a member of NSCN(Kitovi-Khole). “But given that he is from Manipur, the people will never accept his leadership. The GoI will have to create space for him in Manipur.”
Michael*, a Naga author who has travelled extensively across all Naga areas (in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal, Nagaland and Myanmar), agrees, “In my opinion, 95 percent of Nagas will not accept Muivah’s leadership. Many victims of the IM’s political anti-NNC purges are itching to get their revenge on him for killing over 3,000 Nagas in pursuit of his political ambitions.”
The leadership is holding meetings with different groups to ensure they have popular support for the solution. While absolute sovereignty seems out of the question, a political sovereignty that doesn’t interfere with India’s territorial integrity seems to be on the cards
Having opposed Nagaland’s statehood and the Shillong Accord, the NSCN(IM) and others have pushed for sovereignty, causing misery to the local populace. So, it becomes difficult for any group to go in for a settlement short of complete sovereignty without facing a backlash.
OVER THE years, sovereignty has progressively redefined itself as an alternative arrangement from a Jammu & Kashmir-like status to the one enjoyed by Bhutan. So, when The Indian Express recently announced that the NSCN(IM) had accepted the Indian Constitution, there was a wave of public criticism, with the general consensus being, “Why has the NSCN(IM) fought for 40 years only to accept what Nagaland already enjoys?” The report resulted in a quick clarification from the IM, but the truth is, no one knows what the broad outlines of the solution are.
The NSCN(IM) would not only be concerned about a public backlash, but they would also be carefully calculating the reactions of other groups who are opportunistically waiting to ridicule IM and project themselves as the real deal.
Over the past few months, different groups have been making moves to secure their future. After the June 2011 split in NSCN(K), where the chairman SS Khaplang, a Burmese Naga who had originally teamed up with Muivah and Swu when they broke away from the NNC, was ‘impeached’ by Kitovi Zhimomi and Gen Khole Konyak, Khaplang has seemingly shifted his focus solely onto Myanmar, making him “irrelevant” to the Indo-Naga talks.
It’s difficult for any group to go in for a settlement short of full sovereignty without facing a big backlash
According to sources, he recently signed a seven-point agreement with the Myanmar government, which ensures an unconditional ceasefire and the withdrawal of the army from all 11 Naga districts in Myanmar, which will now be policed and administered by Khaplang.
However, having secured his base in Myanmar, Khaplang will now play spoilsport on the Indian side of the border. “Despite having announced his support for the ongoing talks and non-interference, the NSCN(K) is continuing to push into Arunachal and eastern Nagaland. They won’t allow a final solution to materialise. They continue to provide a safe haven to Manipuri and Assamese underground groups to destabilise the region,” says a source.
Having impeached Khaplang, Kitovi and Khole have been working to establish themselves as a force to reckon with. From the start, they had broken away from the idea of integration of all Naga areas in Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Arunachal and Myanmar into ‘Nagalim’ (greater Nagaland) and spoken only of a solution for the Nagaland state.
They have endorsed Khaplang’s moves in Myanmar and are also supporting the growing demand for an alternative arrangement in Manipur. The hope is that Muivah will get his political space in Manipur, while Khaplang remains in Myanmar and the Nagas of Nagaland create their own political structure. They have already started the groundwork to get popular support before they propose an alternative solution to the GoI.
Khaplang has already established his writ in the Naga areas of Myanmar. As of now, he will wait and watch, but he is eager to hold on to Tirap and Changlang in Arunachal, something that has the Arunachal government worried
“The different factions are too full of themselves; they suffer from opportunism and one-upmanship. No results delivered, of course,” laments Father Abraham. “All the underground factions want to control Dimapur, the land of milk and honey. Meanwhile, extortion is rampant; they all take money that belongs to the people.”
Twice in the past two months, members of the Joint Legislature Forum, a collective representing all 60 MLAs of Nagaland cutting across party lines, made their way to New Delhi to assert their willingness to resign and make way for an interim government as part of the final solution. “The 2013 election will happen because both the GoI and NSCN(IM) are not ready for a solution,” says Abong*, a researcher. “The political parties are pushing for an early solution and when it falls through, they will say, ‘We did our best. We are committed but the underground isn’t ready’, and thereby derive maximum mileage from the situation.”
On the other hand, having signed a ceasefire, the GoI has been playing a waiting game. “Muivah, Swu and Khaplang are all in their late 80s. They want to secure something concrete in their lifetime so that they are immortalised and the next generation has something to build on,” says a senior intelligence officer, hinting that if they die, the movement will disintegrate.
What the GoI doesn’t realise is that the next generation of the Naga underground is much better trained and educated. The NSCN(IM) has sent many of their political wonks abroad to be trained in governance.
Given that Muivah and Swu have not been in Nagaland since the 1970s, it is the next tier of leadership that has built the organisation on the ground. Khaplang has already established a secure base in Myanmar and his next generation will be much more aggressive and violent.
‘In Nagaland, guns define power, so who will be willing to give up their arms?’ asks Father Abraham Lotha
While a solution draws closer, many questions remain unanswered, especially the one on sovereignty. While Indian sovereignty is defined in terms of Westphalian and functional sovereignty, in Nagaland, sovereignty resides in the village council. Naga democracy, similar to the Greek city states, is a direct democracy. “If India really wants a solution, they should agree to give the Nagas sovereignty. Since the GoI looks at sovereignty as functional sovereignty whereas among the Nagas, it is a way of life, both systems can coexist. It is just a question of semantics and India embracing her federal structure,” says Abong.
Whatever the solution and whoever implements it, an interim government will have to be formed first. No matter what anyone says, the NSCN(IM) cannot be discounted as they are the ones in the driver’s seat; they will be a part of the interim government. Otherwise, the solution will not hold and the state will slip into violence. But what happens when the newly created system goes in for elections?
It is working on creating a larger political base within the state. They strongly feel that Nagas from Nagaland should implement the political solution and integration will happen once the Nagas have established themselves
“With the solution, a plan for disarmament is a must,” says Father Abraham. “In Nagaland, guns define power, so who will be willing to give up their arms? But this is an issue that needs to be brought up. When the solution comes, it will be imposed as it has not been discussed with the people and the NSCN(IM) doesn’t have the complete mandate of the people. They can’t survive without arms.”
Another factor is that the groups don’t trust each other, nor do they trust the GoI. If the NSCN(IM) and NSCN(KK) disarm, the door will be open for the Khaplang faction to push in and take over. This creates a Catch-22 situation; there cannot be a lasting solution or peace without disarmament, but given the trust deficit, disarmament will lead to the loss of realistic deterrence and thereby cause more violence. A committee similar to the UN committee set up in Nepal to rehabilitate and disarm the Maoists could be an option. It is suggested that the Indian Army will absorb a few thousand cadres and a separate Naga army will stand guard, but this remains conjecture.
Over the next few months, the NSCN(IM) will have to work closely with the people of Nagaland as well as other underground groups to ensure that the solution they bring will be accepted. And the GoI will have to convince Manipur, Nagaland and Assam to create a special status for the Naga areas within their states (the chief ministers of Manipur and Arunachal have already been approached) if they want the solution to hold and allow India to develop the Northeast and actively open up the region for trade with Myanmar.
AS IT stands today, sovereignty in its historical sense and the integration of all Naga-dominated areas into one political unit is not an option. However, given the flexibility of the Indian Constitution and its Article 371 A, which gives Nagaland a special status ensuring that its land and natural resources cannot be touched by the Centre, their cultural and historical systems take precedence (many people don’t go to the police or court, rather get their justice from tribal and village councils). So, a formal recognition of Naga aspirations will go a long way without changing much on the ground.
While the Centre has reasons to be worried about the impact in J&K of giving Nagas ‘sovereignty’, in truth, each problem has to be dealt with on its own merits. After years of conflict, if New Delhi wants to develop the region and prepare them for trade as a part of the Look East policy, peace and progress are the need of the hour.
*Names changed to protect identities
Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.