Nagaland peace talks still elusive
Syed Ali Mujtaba
The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah) has once again announced the extension of the ceasefire for one year following three days parleys with the Indian negotiators at Bangkok on July 31, 2006.
Speculation were rife that the customary extension of the ceasefire done every year since it was first signed in 1997 may not be made because the rebels in January had extended the truce only for six months, instead of a year.
The theory gained currency because a day before the talks were to commence, NSCN-IM leaders, Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, threatened not to extend the truce, accusing the Indian Army of covertly supplying weapons to a rival outfit to provoke a ‘fratricidal war.’
However, better sense prevailed in the end and the rebels agreed to continue with peace talks even tough complaining that little progress has been made on their core demands.
The main demand of NSCN-IM is to create a ‘Greater Nagaland’ by uniting 1.2 million Nagas through the unification of Naga-dominated areas in northeast of India. They also want a separate Naga Constitution, independent of the Indian constitution but are not totally opposed to incorporating some important sections of the Indian constitution.
Indian states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh that are going to be affected have already rejected the NSCN-IM demand. The Union government also has serious objections to the Naga’s rights to sovereignty and claim to redraw the boundaries of the northeast states for their territorial unification.
India and the NSCN-IM held at least 50 rounds of negotiations in the past nine years but has not made any substantial progress in a in a bid to solve this problem.
Nagaland is a mountainous state bordering Myanmar with a population of nearly two million people that are predominantly Christians. The Naga problem is one of the oldest disputers in South Asia and since the independence of India has claimed more than 25,000 lives.
The genesis of the Naga insurgency dates back a day before India's freedom. The Nagas were the first ethnic group in the northeast to revolt against New Delhi’s rule. Legendary Naga leader Angami Zapu Phizo and his Naga National Council (NNC) on August 14, 1947, had asserted that the Nagas were never a part of India.
By 1950 the NNC formally announced its desire to form a sovereign or independent Naga nation, marking the beginning of the armed struggle in Nagaland.
The NNC in May 1951 claimed that 99 percent of the Naga tribals and Christians have supported a referendum to determine their future as a free nation. This was summarily rejected by New Delhi.
By 1952, the NNC launched a guerrilla movement, attacking villages and security posts to ignite a violent chapter in the history of Nagaland.
In 1956, Phizo formed a parallel government called the Naga federal government (NFG) and its armed wing, Naga federal army (NFA). The Indian government in April 1956 launched a military crackdown in the erstwhile Naga hill districts in the undivided Assam. Phizo sneaked into then East Pakistan and then to London. Since then, until his death in 1990, he led the NNC from London.
In 1963, Nagaland attained statehood and India made efforts to broker peace with the NNC. People like Jayaprakash Narayan and Rev. Michael Scott were then involved in the Naga peace process.
On Sep 6, 1964, a ceasefire was signed between the Indian government and the NNC. Six rounds of talks were held but despite the truce, the Naga rebels continued their offensives that made the government to abrogate the truce in 1969.
By then chinks had appeared in the Naga struggle. Members of the powerful Sema tribe broke away and in 1968 formed the revolutionary government of Nagaland (RGN) led by self-styled ‘General Kaito’.
In 1971, India banned three prominent Naga groups; the NNC, NFG and NFA. Indian troops also launched a massive anti-insurgency operation in 1973 and for the first time were able to force the guerrillas to surrender. On August 14, 1973, the RGN, under the leadership of General Zuheto Swu, joined the Indian mainstream with a number of its cadres inducted into the Border Security Force.
Apart from surrender, the army operations forced the NNC to talk peace with the government. As a result, Shillong Accord was signed on November 11, 1975, with the Naga rebels led by Kevi Yally, the younger brother of Phizo, accepting the Indian constitution.
But some people within the NNC opposed the accord and prominent among them were T. Muivah, Isak Swu and S. Khaplang.
Muivah was then NNC general secretary and Swu a senior minister. Khaplang, a Burmese Naga, was president of the Eastern Nagaland Revolutionary Council, a wing of the NNC formed to protect Naga interests in Burma.
There was another twist in the Naga tale when the trio of Muivah, Swu and Khaplang decided to sever ties with their parent body and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980.
Swu was made the chairman, Khaplang the vice-chairman and Muivah the general secretary.
The NSCN emerged as the most powerful and radical rebel army in Nagaland, sidelining the NNC and NFG.
The NSCN-led insurgency became bloody over the years. But soon the NSCN was mired in internal problems, with leaders differing on major policy issues on clan and tribal lines.
The NSCN split in 1988 with Khaplang forming a parallel NSCN (Khaplang). By 1992, the two NSCN factions were engaged in a fratricidal war over territorial supremacy.
This provided New Delhi the much-needed weapon to tackle insurgency by forcing the NSCN (Isak-Muivah) to come to the negotiating table. A ceasefire accord was signed August 1, 1997.
Since then the NSCN-IM and New Delhi have held at least 50 rounds of peace talks at Switzerland, France, Italy, Netherlands, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and elsewhere.
A similar truce was also signed with the NSCN (Khaplang) faction in April 2001 but formal peace talks with that outfit are yet to begin. Now, after prolonged twists and turns in the Naga rigmarole, the mood is one of guarded optimism. The Nagas want 'honorable settlement' to end their long drawn struggle and to establish an enduring peace.
However, the slow progress of the peace talks has brought a mood of 'belligerency’ in the NSCN-IM camp. The joint statement issued by Muivah and New Delhi’s chief peace negotiator K. Padmanabhaiah has catapulted this feeling since the talks early this year. The statement says that both sides recognized that ‘there has been insufficient progress in the talks’ and to carry the political negotiations forward what is required is ‘new initiatives.’
The NSCN-IM cadre in Nagaland wants to know what are the ‘new initiatives’ New Delhi is taking to solve their problem. Some openly have expressed dissatisfaction with the commitments made by the Indian government.
Indian government says it’s aware of the 'impatient mood’ of the Naga but at the same time has little option than to adopt a cautious approach to handle this sensitive issue.
With little progress in the Naga peace talks being made and the ceasefire getting repeated extension, the signs of another chapter of internecine struggle breaking loose, looms large over the horizon of Nagaland.
However, hammering out 'honorable' settlement with the Nagas is a major challenge that’s faced by India today. At the same time, truce with the Nagas is crucial for the peace in the seven northeast states that connects India by a thin strip of land called ‘chicken’s neck.’ Added to it is the northeast region of India is home to dozens of insurgent groups.
If India really wants to address the problem of insurgency in its northeast region, it has to rework on the solutions to the Naga problem. Its casual approach may always elude any permanent tranquility in its northeast region that’s so important for its development. It may also have a telling impact on India’s look east policies.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org