Just as some sketchy details were emerging of the “landmark” Naga peace agreement, the metro media’s interest in it has seemingly dissipated.

This is what we know about the latest effort to end the six-decade long conflict. While the Indian government reached a deal with the armed National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah group), the talks were held with all the stakeholders. The objective was to resolve the long-standing “Naga political issue” and not, as is generally perceived, a military issue. To this end, the accord’s architects took on board all sections of the Naga society, all the various formations within Nagaland and the various Naga bodies even in Manipur. They accepted civil society’s advice that it’s best to avoid parallel negotiations with multiple factions as well as talks with merely one group.

As a result of this choice, the NSCN(IM) became the representative group for the larger Naga issue. The Khaplang faction of NSCN, which walked out of a ceasefire agreement this year, is not included in this coalition, but it has been invited to join this process. It hasn’t reacted to the offer yet.

Honourable solution

So how was the deal brokered? The Indian government says it was just “honour and dignity” that clinched the agreement. It says it was about acknowledging the “unique history of the Nagas and a relationship of equals”. In the agreement, most contentious demands have been ironed out or, in other words, left out. Or it’s possible that the Naga representatives said let’s just move on.

The most contentious of all, of course, was the demand for a Greater Nagaland or Nagalim, which the representatives on both sides now say wasn’t a demand at all – instead, they say, it was about “integration of Nagas living in various places”. This semantic twist has allowed for an “honourable solution”, letting “integration” to be defined in many ways. Two examples that were given were cultural and linguistic integration. It is clear, however, that geographical integration is not possible at this point of time and both sides have agreed upon it. This is significant and this climb-down by Thuingaleng Muivah and his colleagues signal a major shift in the “Naga political process”. I imagine that intense pressure from the Naga civil society for an early solution must have prevailed upon the leadership to concede to the understanding.

It will take another two to three weeks for the details to be worked out before the agreement is presented in the Parliament. But one critical point is clear, difficult though it may be to be believe: NSCN(IM), one of the most heavily armed and trained guerrilla forces, will give up arms. That means its cadres will have to return home now, ending one of the bloodiest insurgencies in India.

If history is any precedent, this transition may not be smooth. But why not give peace a chance? In Mizoram, after a legendary uprising and a violent response by the Indian State, peace did come. The same leaders who were underground took the reins of a democratic government.

In Assam’s Bodoland, the leaders of the violent Bodo Liberation Tigers too joined the political mainstream. However, since they were not entirely disbanded, bloodletting with other factions continued and this allowed the former militants to carry out their illegal activities despite running the government themselves.

Public anger

This Naga accord will have other upsides: it is bound to help initiate several other peace talks with groups who were keenly watching one of the longest peace negotiations the Indian government has ever engaged in. At the same time, there are serious issues requiring attention, the primary being the fact that the NSCN(IM) runs an empire of narcotics, gunrunning and extortion (illegal taxation), earning several crores every year. Will it now abandon its warlord lifestyle?

The Nagas, tired of these activities of the NSCN(IM), had formed the Action Committee against Unabated Taxation in 2013. They spoke out against the illegal taxation in desperation:
“Each faction proclaims that the public mandate is on their side and reinforces their argument with tax being paid to them by the public as an evidence to their support. What factions knowingly fail to perceive is that the public are no longer paying tax to them but to AK47.”

The condemnation of groups like NSCN(IM) was scathing. Not surprisingly then they have climbed down on many of their demands. They had lost all moral authority and the government of India must have exercised this to negotiate rational and practical agreements. Also, their leaders are ageing. The chairman of NSCN(IM), Isak Chishi Swu, is in critical care in a Delhi hospital.

Negotiating is a tightrope walk. When RN Ravi, former special director of the Intelligence Bureau and current chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, was chosen as the interlocutor under the Modi government, he wanted a free hand. With his years of dealing with this issue and the region, he not only navigated one of the most intractable processes but also crafted a fine language to arrive at a resolution that was articulated by the prime minister on Monday. Now that the deal is done, time will test its efficacy. The challenges are not over yet. But as the prime minister said, it is a new beginning.

Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a senior journalist. His book Blood on My Hands: Confessions of Staged Encounters, will published by HarperCollins India in September.