Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)
The tsunami of protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) has drowned the claimed resolution of the Naga political issue. Emboldened by the pyrrhic victory in Jammu and Kashmir by nullifying Article 370 on August 5 this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 17, served his chosen interlocutor — Governor of Nagaland, RN Ravi — a deadline on the Naga Framework Agreement (NFA), to complete the peace process by October 31 and clinch a final settlement with the Nagas. In turn, Ravi issued an ultimatum to the NSCN (IM) to set aside the demand for a separate Constitution and flag while stressing that the accord will be signed on October 31, with or without them. National People’s Front leader and former chief minister of Nagaland, TR Zeliang, remarked that the government cannot set a deadline on negotiations to settle differences and urged Ravi to find the formula for a flag and Constitution. Five rounds of talks were held in October, the last on October 31 with NSCN (IM), which were reportedly inconclusive, though Ravi claimed that the NSCN (IM) agreed to sign the agreement after having reached an acceptable solution for flag and Constitution with Greater Nagalim set aside.
The optimism expressed by Ravi was not matched by the NSCN (IM) leaders who were loath to accept any compromise on the flag and Constitution. Anthony Ningkhan Shimray, the military commander of NSCN (IM), noted that the last round of talks ended without accepting or rejecting the terms of settlement. Standhope Varah, representative of the NSCN (IM) on the Ceasefire Monitoring Committee, along with the Centre’s Lt Gen Shauqin Chauhan, said: “Government should not mistake us for Kashmir.”
As the threatened deadline approached with no signs of a compromise, armed rebels of the NSCN (IM), numbering around 5,000, reportedly started exiting their camps in Nagaland and Manipur for Mizoram, Bhutan and Myanmar. The Naga National Political Group (NNPG), a conglomerate of six rebel factions, with whom Ravi opened talks in 2017, has approximately a cadre of 200-300 and their whereabouts is not known. Like in Kashmir, people in Manipur and Nagaland began building their stocks of ration as 15 companies of the Central Armed Police were airlifted to Nagaland and the Assam Rifles was mobilised. But unlike in Jammu and Kashmir, no lockdown was imposed.
Ravi’s Plan B is to deny the sole representative status to NSCN (IM), a major group the Government of India has been engaging following the 1997 Ceasefire Accord. The August 2015 Naga Framework Accord was brokered by Ravi with the NSCN (IM) leadership. He started engaging with the NNPG only in 2017 to widen the dialogue and put pressure on the NSCN (IM) to be more flexible on its demands. Defections engineered from the NSCN (IM) helped to weaken its resolve and prop up the NNPG as a foil. But the August 2015 agreement was signed between the Centre and the NSCN (IM) in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It would be strange if the final settlement was done with another entity — an afterthought group of rebels when for 22 years the Government of India has been negotiating with NSCN (IM).
Since the 2015 Naga Accord has been kept under wraps, both sides have been making contradictory claims. Ravi informed a parliamentary committee on Home Affairs that the NFA was signed in 2015 after the NSCN (IM) gave up the idea of sovereignty and agreed for a settlement within the Indian federation. NSCN (IM) supremo Thuingaleng Muivah, on the other hand, has been repeatedly demanding a separate flag and Constitution. Nagas are sceptical about Ravi’s assurances on the special status conferred on Nagaland through Article 371A in 1960 after the Governor of J&K Satyapal Malik, two days before Article 370 was neutralised, assured former chief minister Omar Abdullah that no withdrawal of special status was planned. Later, Ravi added fuel to fire by saying that ‘removal of Article 370 was correction of a sin’, adding ‘there is no question of a flag, Constitution and Greater Nagaland’.
Statements attributed to Ravi cannot be confirmed since both sides have used the print media creatively. The balls in the air went like this: Article 371 could be extended to Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. An alternative to Nagalim is through the autonomous territorial councils in states where the Nagas reside, but this will have to be negotiated with them. Nagas are to decide the use of flag — on social and cultural occasions as legitimised by the Naga Peoples Council. NNPG ideas on the Naga Constitution are like there was never any written or codified system of law and order or administration of justice, except under the Indian courts. In cases involving Naga traditional and customary issues, all courts, including the Supreme Court, usually referred cases back to the customary tribal courts. The NSCN (IM) has a more detailed concept of a written Constitution which they wish to implement.
Although the NSCN (IM) did not sign the final draft agreement, which NNPG did, by the deadline of October 31, both sides agreed to continue talking. Concurrently, preparations were on for a full and final settlement of the Naga question on December 11 near Kohima during the 20th Hornbill Festival where Modi was to do the honours with both the NSCN (IM) and NNPG as signatories. It seems the ruckus caused by the CAA in the North-East stole the limelight, depriving Modi of an opportunity to sign the historic accord and end the world’s oldest insurgency.
Instead of Modi, Ravi inaugurated the Hornbill Festival and announced, “Nagaland is on the cusp of history and a new dawn”. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio, a few days earlier on the state’s 57th Statehood Day, said: “Negotiations between the Naga political groups and the Centre have concluded and the people of the state are set to witness history very soon.” Last week, Eastern Army Commander, Lt-Gen Anil Chauhan, while commenting on the situation, post-CAA in Assam and Tripura, where the Army was deployed, said, “The government is keen to conclude the Naga talks but the impact on Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh is being assessed.”
Is there something that Ravi and Rio know that we do not? That NSCN (IM) has accepted the final draft of the Naga accord, sans flag and Constitution? Or have IM been forced to pick up the crumbs? At Hebron near Dimapur — Muivah’s citadel — the emperor will be without clothes, 22 years wasted in shadowboxing. Only the final accord will reveal who has got what and whether the mother of all insurgencies will erupt again.
The author is a Military commentator