At a function earlier this month, Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said he would not be campaigning for the assembly elections, due to take place early next year. Instead, Rio said, he would prioritise the resolution of the “Naga political issue”.

In Nagaland, this refers to the long-running demand for a sovereign Naga homeland, which spawned India’s oldest insurgency. In 2015, the Centre signed a framework agreement that was to lay the ground for a peace accord with the largest Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction). Since then, other Naga armed groups have also joined negotiations.

The question of addressing these political demands inevitably crops up before assembly elections. Before the state polls of 2018, for instance, civil society and tribal bodies, backed by various armed groups, had agitated for an election boycott until peace talks yielded results. For a while, 11 parties signed a bond saying they would not field candidates – this plan fell apart when the Bharatiya Janata Party backtracked.

As election season begins again, the National Democratic Progressive Party dredges up the old rhetoric – they are reluctant to campaign for elections until there is a peace accord but they are prepared for polls, nevertheless.

The party was formed in 2017, just ahead of the previous assembly. Party president Chingwang Konyak recently completed a tour of five districts, speaking to party cadres and voters but said it was not an election campaign.

“We have not started an election campaign because people want the solution first, not the election,” said Konyak. “We don’t want to hurt the sentiments of the people. The Naga people are now fed up. They are trying for peace and a permanent solution. We are also watching whether anything can be worked out between the Centre and the two [Naga] factions.”

A stalemate

The Nagalim demanded by armed groups was to span Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the border, apart from the state of Nagaland.

This demand for a Naga ethnic homeland gave rise to an armed movement, led by the Naga National Council, in the 1960s. The militancy later splintered into several factions, often in conflict with one another. A turning point in the movement was a ceasefire signed between the government and the NSCN (IM) in 1997. Since then, most Naga militant factions have signed ceasefires.

The framework agreement of 2015 had been greeted with much celebration, promising an imminent peace accord. In 2017, the government signed an “Agreed Positions” document with other armed groups, now rebranded as Naga Non-Political Groups. This document reiterated the demand for self-determination but appeared to drop the demand for complete sovereignty.

But old differences surfaced again. In October 2019, the government declared the peace talks had concluded and the Naga Non-Political Groups were keen to sign a final accord. The NSCN(IM) held back, however, refusing to sign an agreement until the government agreed to a separate Naga flag and constitution.

Then in September 2021, negotiations between the government and the NSCN(IM) restarted. Then in October this year, there seemed to be a detente between the NSCN(IM) and the seven other groups. After a meeting in Kolkata, all groups resolved to form the Council of Naga Relationships and Cooperation to “chart a path forward”.

Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said he would prioritise a solution to the Naga political issue over election campaigns. Photo: PTI

Waiting for peace

Nagaland Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Yanthungo Patton seemed to suggest there would be a breakthrough in talks by the “end of November or first week of December”.

However, the Naga People’s Front, the party that ruled the state for decades, is more sceptical of an imminent agreement.

“It is very difficult to comment anything at the moment on Naga peace talks,” said Shurhozelie Liezietsu, former Nagaland chief minister and a veteran leader of the Naga People’s Front. “If you really want to bring a settlement, we have to be realistic.”

Despite the apparent detente between the NSCN(IM) and the Naga Non-Political Groups in Kolkata, Liezietsu was wary of differences between the two.

“Delhi has made two different agreements with two different groups, that’s the problem,” he said, referring to the framework agreement of 2015 and the Agreed Positions pact of 2017. “There should be only one solution. Unless we bring these two groups together there is no way to talk about settlements.”

Meanwhile, Naga tribal bodies are jaded about the government’s promises of a breakthrough. “For the past two-three terms, we have seriously been asking the government of India not to not impose elections,” said HK Zhimomi, president of the Naga Hoho, a body representing several Naga tribes. “But they kept saying – next election there will be a solution, this election will bring a solution. Despite all the commitments and assurances, nothing has happened in the past. Though talks are on track, nobody can assure or guarantee that the talks will be concluded before the election.”

To campaign or not to campaign

Nagaland has no opposition in its 60-member assembly at present. The National Democratic Progressive Party, which was formed by a breakaway faction of the Naga People’s Front, won the elections of 2018. They formed a government in alliance with the BJP. Later, the Naga People’s Front also joined the government, leaving no one in the opposition. The party ostensibly joined the government to put up a united front to find a solution to the “Naga political issue”.

A Dimapur-based journalist, who did not want to be named, maintained a robust scepticism about Rio’s declaration that he would put the “political issue” over campaigns. According to him, electioneering had started “under the table” a year ahead of the polls.

“Politicians say one thing in public and do the opposite under the table,” he said. “Solution not election is a slogan that has been heard since 1998.”

Zhimomi also felt elections would go on as usual. “Despite our protests, if the government announces the election, then we cannot stop [them],” he said. “So I think there will be elections.”

However, there is more than one political issue that could hold up polls in Nagaland, or at least in parts of the state. Six of its eastern districts demand a separate state called “Frontier Nagaland”. The Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation has resolved to boycott polls until the demand for separate statehood is met. The six districts have 20 of the 60 Assembly seats in the state.