John S. Shilshi

The long history of the Naga peace talks, running to 23 years, has its share of happiness and disappointments. When the ceasefire declaration was announced on August 1, 1997, there was a massive response from the Naga public with celebrations and prayers, with hopes of seeing an end to the violent Chapter of their history. However, when nothing seemed to happen in four years, the jubilant expectations slowly turned to worried speculations. The signing of the Amsterdam Joint Communique on July 11, 2002, which officially recognized the “Unique History and Situation of the Nagas” and the decision to relocate NSCN (IM) leaders to New Delhi brought back some cheer, but just momentarily, because in the period between December 2002 and July 2015,no significant progress seemed to have been made. Therefore, the Naga Public’s mood was back to anxiety and restlessness, with some even suspecting that the engagement could well be a ploy to push the Nagas into submission.

Real hope of peace came only with signing of the Framework Agreement in August 2015. Not only was the signing ceremony held under public glare, viewed by millions across the world, but it happened in the presence of individuals who could actually make the seemingly impossible task possible. During the ceremony, the Prime Minister of India made certain remarks which were music to Naga ears. Besides appreciating the Naga leaders for upholding the ceasefire despite several ups and downs, he said the Nagas were kept isolated and insulated for far too long, putting the blame for it on the divide-and-rule policy of Colonial powers. He assured that the talks would be concluded in a spirit of equality, respect, trust and confidence in order to restore the pride and prestige of the Naga people. Thus, the signing of the Framework Agreement gave real hope of a solution.

Thereafter, the Interlocutor to the Naga peace talks was accorded unprecedented receptions wherever he went and his words were taken for granted, although the Nagas – due to their bitter past experiences – were never known for being favourably inclined towards Indian officials. On his part, the Interlocutor engaged his counterpart with urgency, and by the end of 2016, there were enough indications to suggest that the vexed Naga political problem was inching towards a conclusion. Many within the NSCN (IM) also said that in him they saw a sincere intention to clinch the deal once and for all. Such confidence exuded by members of an organisation, who otherwise were known for their criticality and seldom in the habit of taking things for granted, exemplified the big leap forward. The positivity had even encouraged some NSCN (IM) members to get their particulars corrected in the hope of early mainstreaming.

However, from August 2019, the positivity seemed to have eroded and the relationship between the Interlocutor and NSCN (IM) strained considerably. Not only was the Naga push for its own Flag and Constitution categorically rejected, but a deadline of October 31st 2019 was set by the Interlocutor to conclude the deal. This shift in position was seen by the NSCN (IM) as the Government of India trying to dictate terms by taking advantage of the numerical superiority the BJP had in Parliament. They also regretted the alleged downgrading of the talk level to that of a state Governor, though this was a misplaced understanding, since the government order reads “as Governor of Nagaland in addition to his present assignment as Interlocutor to the Naga Peace Talks”. The fact is, the Naga political issue became an immediate victim of BJP’s policy shift on Jammu & Kashmir, and subsequent announcement by the Prime Minister from the pulpit of the Red Fort on his Independence Day speech that ‘India would henceforth be a country with one flag and one constitution’.

Trust deficit suddenly loomed large, and reports of NSCN (IM) cadres going into hiding came in thick and fast, while a senior cadre was arrested with huge Indian currency by the NIA. The arrest no doubt was within the law, but the NSCN (IM) saw it as a politically motivated move because they claimed that since commencement of the talks, no agency had ever taken cognizance of such activities. On the ground, the Assam Rifles suddenly became active and started running after cadres, who in good faith have been in touch with them, therefore, their identities and whereabouts known. Sections of Indian media ran smear campaigns against the NSCN (IM), while some pseudo-intellectuals claiming to have belonged to certain North East Study Centres wrote concocted stories about organisations like the Naga Hoho and the Naga Mothers Association based on unverified facts, probably fed by certain vested interests. Overall, the situation on ground looked as if the ceasefire had been broken and the peace talks aborted. Amidst all these, Nagas have their own internal issues – the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG), another Naga group in negotiation with GoI, expresses willingness to sign the agreement and found supporters in members of the Nagaland Gaon Boro Forum (NGBF).

With such ominous signs of the community getting divided, Naga Civil Societies, Political parties and pressure groups tried to bring all Naga political workers together, though with little success. The fear of a split settlement had also given birth to ‘Global Naga Forum’, a non-partisan group of Nagas from across the world, representing every walk of life. The forum appealed to both NSCN and NNPG to uphold the non-negotiable political rights of the Nagas and work together in order to realize the common goal. They also sponsored an all-women peace delegation to New Delhi to meet Indian leaders and appeal for an inclusive settlement, with the rationale that the fractured deal has the potential to open up another Chapter of violence and bloodshed. The collective mood therefore, is against any attempt to divide Nagas by forces within or without.

In this long history of Naga peace talks, one understands that in the post Framework Agreement, several sticky issues were ironed out through mutual understanding and compromise. The contentious ones too would need the same passionate attention and mutual willingness to find space for accommodation. It would require extraordinary courage to handle them as extraordinary Issues, and the GoI being the bigger party in this talk, that extraordinary courage would be expected of them. They need to also understand and appreciate the Naga negotiators’ predicament –people cannot be told to shun a practice which was norms for several decades without objections from the Indian government.

On the Naga front, the NSCN (IM), as the bigger party, must try and gravitate others through humane and respectable approach by unconditionally extending the olive branch. They must not view the emergence of NNPG to the scene as a political game of one-upmanship, but as an opportunity for an inclusive settlement. Muivah’s critics may have multiplied in recent years, but even the most hardened among them knew that a solution without him would be a disaster to the much invested peace effort. Needless to elaborate, solution to the vexed issue would be in the interest of all – the Nagas, people of the North-East region, and the Government of India. Therefore, the temptation to opt for a fractured or piece meal solution must be zealously avoided since such a move was likely to further complicate the fragile regional security scenario. It may also adversely impact Centre’s Act East policy, and the effort to mainstream other North-East Insurgent groups.

(The Author is a retired IPS officer, and could be reached on johnshilshi@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal)

John S Shilshi

The Author is a retried IPS officer. He can be reached at johnshilshi@gmail.com