The appointment of the Centre’s Naga peace talks interlocutor R N Ravi as the Nagaland governor on August 1 took the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) by complete surprise.
The rebel outfit, the largest and the most powerful among all other Naga insurgent groups, also went out of its way to describe Ravi’s style of functioning, at least in the last couple of meetings that he has had with the NSCN (IM), as “capricious and bossy”, indicating a certain degree of displeasure.
While the rebel outfit, which has been negotiating a peace deal with the central government since 1999 and in August 2015 inked the crucial Framework Agreement soon after the Narendra Modi government assumed power in Delhi, has not been overly critical of the inordinate delay in heralding a final peace accord that would be lasting and acceptable to all parties and stakeholders, a couple of lieutenants of NSCN(IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah view Ravi’s appointment as governor as, prima facie, a “conflict of interest”, if not a “nepotism” issue.
Neither the Nagaland unit of the Congress nor other social-political outfits in the state have raised concerns over this perceived “conflict of interest”, though some officials in India’s security establishment admitted that entrusting Ravi with “dual” functions smacked of “impropriety”, a “break in convention” and a case of “functional incompatibility”.
The two hats that “one individual will wear” may or may not jeopardise the process leading to a final agreement, whenever that might materialise, but this is certainly a first insofar as the history of the tripartite peace talks is concerned.
All past interlocutors, since the time of former Mizoram governor Swaraj Kaushal and ex-home secretary K Padmanabhaiah, held no constitutional post other than that of the Centre’s facilitator.
In fact, speaking to Northeast Now, a former Naga peace talks interlocutor, who served in that position for a considerable period of time, expressed “surprise” and said that he found the government’s decision on Ravi as “baffling and puzzling”.
Ravi is said to have been hand-picked by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval when he was appointed as the interlocutor after the Modi government assumed power.
While an unbroken stint of five years, reflecting continuity and trust, could be considered positive, the former interlocutor, who did not wish to be identified, said: “The NSCN (IM) leadership has certainly taken exception to the dual role” conferred on Ravi.
Ravi is certainly familiar with the minutae of the 2015 Framework Agreement whose details the Centre has sought to keep under wraps, though the media has from time-to-time bring out in the public realm.
The government could use this plea to defend Ravi’s dual position, but sooner rather than later this could potentially be a point of friction between the parties and give rise to allegations of opacity on the part of the Centre, especially in the event of further delay in inking a final deal.
Even before Ravi was given the dual responsibility, unconfirmed reports originating from India’s northeast suggested that the negotiations beyond the Framework Agreement had worked to settle the NSCN (IM)’s eight-point charter of demands, including a separate flag and passport for Nagaland.
Ravi, in his wisdom, did not dispute these reports (previously, however, minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju had clarified that the government was not even contemplating granting a separate flag and constitution to Nagaland), but what muddied the negotiation waters further was the claim by NSCN(IM) kilo kilonser (home minister) R H Raising that the government of India had accepted the “new political concept of Nagas” to resolve the “Indo-Naga issue at the earliest, thereby paving the way for building a separate entity for the Nagas”.
The NSCN (IM)’s eight-point demands included a separate constitution for Nagaland, permanent representative to the UN, joint foreign affairs right to use a Naga currency and a pan-Naga government to cover all Naga-inhabited areas in the region.
Since there is a veil of secrecy, it is not clear — and there is little to confirm that even some of these demands will be met — how far the Centre and the NSCN (IM) will be able to agree on these prickly issues.
The government is on record that the NSCN (IM) has considerably softened its stand on the controversial issue of sovereignty. This could mean that any future agreement might involve bringing most, if not all, contiguous Naga-inhabited areas within a single territorial unit or work out some formula that would ensure devolution of powers greater than that instituted anywhere else in the northeast.
But this too could be an arduous, if not impossible task, given the potentially negative fallout in the region. Granting a separate constitution would likewise inflame passions in Jammu and Kashmir in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35A.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Centre and Ravi would be to bring other Naga outfits — and there are several — to agree to a common, uniform deal.
Most rebel outfits have evolved and are shaped along tribal lines, so it is only natural that none of the groups would wish to see their respective positions diluted, which in turn could raise issues of their legitimacy within their respective tribal folds.
On its part, the government, which holds a brute majority in parliament, could stand its ground and find nothing wrong in allowing Ravi to work two offices. It could yet signal that continuing with Ravi, both as governor of Nagaland and the interlocutor, indicates that a final settlement is close at hand.
But in the event the NSCN (IM) makes it an issue, the Centre may have to reconsider and then look for a fresh interlocutor who in turn will certainly need time to familiarise himself with the vexed and intricate details that go beyond the Framework Agreement.