Zunheboto is a town in the state of Nagaland, India
Zunheboto is a town in the state of Nagaland, India
Photo Credit: Twitter

The hitch in the 22-year Naga peace process should again remind a government grappling with the challenge of Kashmir (which is probably far more serious than the public has been allowed to think) that winning a battle is a far cry from winning the peace. The Indian army may have crushed the armed insurrection by the so-called Naga Federal Government and Naga Federal Army by the 1970s, but that does not mean the Indian Union is the first priority for all Nagas.

Passing a resolution, abolishing the status quo, setting a deadline or signing an accord are the means to an end, not ends in themselves. In Nagaland as in Kashmir, winning hearts and minds matters far more. Nor can external intervention be blamed as the sole cause of either problem. Chinese and Pakistani mischief did play a part in the Naga troubles to start with but both came to an end long ago. R N Ravi, the former Intelligence Bureau officer who became the Centre’s interlocutor for the Naga talks and is now governor of Nagaland, clearly played an important part in the peace process during those early stages. But Mr Ravi may not be to blame if the present task of reconciling differences over a national anthem and a flag for Nagaland calls for greater human sensitivity, political objectivity and diplomatic skill than is usually associated with the police. The Centre’s promise to sign an agreement within three months with or without the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Social Council of Nagalim formed in 1980, with which New Delhi has been negotiating, suggests that the signatory’s identity or respectability doesn’t matter so long as he, she or they sign on the dotted line.

Finding obliging signatories is not difficult when almost everyone is up for grabs. In the past, too, New Delhi has found willing partners in lieu of the legendary Angami Zapu Phizo who refused overtures long before he died in exile in London in 1990. While those partners went through the motions of collaborating, they didn’t necessarily always have either much credibility or genuine support for the Indian position. Even chief ministers sworn to upholding the Constitution have sometimes not concealed their lurking sympathy for the underground. A highly publicised agreement with the Naga National Political Groups which emerged in November 2017 (seven supposedly turncoat leaders of armed groups) would be another diversionary tactic when New Delhi fails to reach the real target.

Historically, Nagaland is far less part of India than Kashmir. Ranjit Singh’s Dogra general, Gulab Singh, ruler of Jammu, acquired Kashmir and Ladakh, and the British recognised his rule over all three segments. In return, he acknowledged British paramountcy and his status as the ruler of a princely state in a subordinate alliance with the Raj. The rights and wrongs of Hari Singh’s accession did not affect the status of Jammu and Kashmir as an Indian state that was constitutionally, culturally, ethnically and linguistically as much a part of India as, say, Gwalior. In contrast, the British annexed the Naga Hills in 1881 and kept the region separate from the rest of British India possibly because they recognised that there was nothing in common between the two entities.

The Naga Club, formed in 1918, was the first manifestation of the consciousness of the 16 Naga tribes of this separate identity. Eleven years later a Naga delegation told the Simon Commission that it should “leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times.” Phizo set up the Naga National Council in 1946, and the Naga Federal Government and Naga Federal Army six years later. These moves culminated in a declaration of independence on August 14, 1947 – the day before India gained dominion status – buttressed by the claim of 99.9 per cent support in a referendum in the Naga Hills.

Meanwhile, the Indian side wasn’t inactive. Sir Akbar Hydari, the Assam governor with jurisdiction over the Naga Hills, signed a nine-point agreement with some Naga representatives in June 1947. This was followed by the more ambitious 16-point agreement with the Naga People’s Convention in July 1960. Simultaneously, the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 permitted what Nagas and their well-wishers abroad denounced as atrocities and crimes against humanity and which were detailed in a report by Britain’s Minority Rights Group. At the same time, the official attention bestowed on an elderly Naga “holy” woman referred to as “Rani” Gaidinliu revived suspicions of the Centre trying to promote an alternative leadership.

If so, the strategy petered out. Nagaland had been created in 1963 but the insurrection continued and a Peace Mission that was appointed in 1964 was dismantled three years later after only six meetings. One of its members – the Reverend Michael Scott, a highly respected British clergyman – was deported. The other two members, B P Chaliha, chief minister of Assam, and the Oriya Gandhian Naba Krishna Chowdhury, resigned. However, more and more Nagas were by then joining the winning side (without giving up their loyalty to Phizo’s cause) and the bulk of Federal troops surrendered their arms under the Shillong Accord of November 11, 1975.

That should have been the end of the rebellion but Thuingaleng Muivah, who was then in China with 140 followers, rejected the Accord. So did his colleagues S S Khaplang and Isak Chishi Swu. Khaplang and Swu are now both dead. The NSCN split in 1988. There are Nagas in Myanmar (Khaplang was one of them) who have no direct stake in the peace process. There are also Naga tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur who are ambivalent about the whole exercise. Nevertheless, it was hailed as a great achievement for Mr Ravi when the NSCN signed a “framework agreement” on August 3, 2015 in the Prime Minister’s presence after 80 rounds of talks in many venues in many lands since the dialogue began in 1997. Now, if the issues of a separate flag and constitution prove insuperable, the Centre will probably sign the same agreement with the Naga National Political Groups whose seven constituent members have apparently promised not to be fussy about a flag and constitution.

If that happens, another splinter faction of the NSCN, probably led by V S Horam, an executive member of the group’s steering committee, is expected to refuse to endorse it. Describing the talks as “bilateral”, he says, “India cannot impose a deadline on us. Talks will continue till something is worked out.” So they will. Talks are profitable for the principals on both sides. They also enable ordinary Nagas to render their dues to both Caesar and God without publicly compromising their real loyalty.

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Free Press Journal