Four signs greet the visitor to Hebron Peace Camp. “Welcome”, “Please identify yourself”, “Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim, Council Headquarters, Hebron”, and if the visitor happens to look behind before entering the steepled gates, “Freedom is the birthright of all nations.”
Hebron is 35 kilometres from Dimapur, the commercial hub of Nagaland. A cratered, bone-rattling 35 kilometres that takes two hours to cover by car. Halfway to the peace camp, the road branches off into Rangapahar Military Station. Villages line the highway until one reaches the lush green sweep of Hebron, just beyond the Dhansiri river, bordered by the Intanki Wildlife Sanctuary on one side. The Manipur hills slope away in the distance. Elephants invade Hebron from time to time.
In 1997, when the members of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) came out of the jungles to sign a ceasefire agreement, the government set up the rebel leaders in some old offices of the forest department. The NSCN(IM) added its own buildings and now runs a parallel government from the offices at Hebron, about 100 kilometres from the state capital of Kohima.
Inside the camp, neat cottages house the various departments of this government – the ministry of agriculture, the ministry of environment, the finance ministry, which operates a parallel taxation network, the home ministry, which is currently engaged in talks with the Indian government, and the ministry of information and publicity, whose personnel steer visitors around the camp. Hebron is equipped with all the paraphernalia of government, paperwork, bureaucracy, protocol. Drive deeper inside the camp and you reach the general headquarters of the Naga Army, where new recruits are still trained and armed.
These days, there is a new buzz inside the camp. People are friendly but guarded, eager to chat but unwilling to go on record. Nearly two decades of talks have reached a critical point and Hebron is taking no chances.
On August 3, the Centre signed a framework agreement with the NSCN(IM). It is to be the basis for a peace accord that promises to settle the Naga question. An ambitious project. Like Partition, the question of Naga sovereignty has been a source of conflict since the birth of the Indian union, one of the many loose ends of the vast, messy compact of independence.
Naga nationalism first found a political voice when tribal soldiers who had fought together in the First World War decided to form the Naga Club in 1918. By 1929, the Club had already articulated a demand for self-determination, in a memorandum sent to the Simon Commission. On August 14, 1947, a section of the newly formed Naga National Council declared independence.
It was not recognised. Naga areas were carved up and absorbed into the nascent nation states of India and Burma. In India, they were further divided among the various states of the North East. The NNC launched a political struggle for independence. In 1951, it conducted a plebiscite which yielded an almost unanimous mandate for independence. When the Indian government tried to put down the movement by force, it grew militarised and went underground.
It crystallised around the demand for the creation of Nagalim, a Naga homeland with roots in a primordial history which does not recognise modern state borders. This imagined geography spans across Nagaland as well as the Naga inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring Myanmar. Over the years, the movement has gone through several mutations and rounds of negotiation with the Indian government, including the disastrous Shillong Accord of 1975.
The terms of the framework agreement now being worked out are secret, so secret that even the Nagaland state government claims to be in the dark. DG Robert, cabinet secretary in the Hebron government, said even the NSCN(IM) is not permitted to disclose the precise contents of the agreement. He quoted the official line:
“The Indian government has recognised the unique history of the Nagas. This agreement is only a preamble to the actual solution. As revealed in public speeches, there will be shared sovereignty [between the Indian government and the Nagas]. A pan-Naga body will be created.”
This body is to have jurisdiction over all the Naga inhabited areas in India, including those in surrounding states. There will be an interim agreement and then a final settlement. A roadmap for peace may be tabled as early as the winter session of Parliament later this month.
Yes, the interim agreement would address the question of removing the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act from the state and of releasing political prisoners. Yes, it would entail the rearrangement of state borders within India. No, the framework agreement does not mean the NSCN(IM) has accepted the framework of the Indian Constitution.
According to whom?
Neighbouring state governments are naturally uneasy. But three months down the line, anxieties over this secret pact have also built up within Nagaland. How representative is an accord signed between the government and one Naga group? Will all components of public opinion be accommodated in the peace that is taking shape?
For 18 years, ever since the ceasefire was put in place, it is the Hebron leadership that the Indian government has chosen to engage with. The NSCN(IM) has emerged as the power centre of the Naga nationalist movement, having made the transition from guerrilla army to political negotiator. Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the NSCN(IM), now spends most of his time at his Lodhi Road address in Delhi. Senior leaders zip in and out of the capital.
The NSCN(IM) is quite confident about being the conduit of a comprehensive political settlement for the Nagas. “Our organisation is a government mandated by the Naga public,” said Roberts. “We have held eight consultative meetings with the Naga people since the ceasefire.” The last of these meetings were held at Hebron in August, when Manipur’s Nagas were also in attendance.
It is certainly regarded as the largest of the Naga insurgent groups, with bases in the Naga areas of surrounding states as well. “If any one group is to get a political settlement for us, the NSCN(IM) has the edge,” said Khekugha Muru, co-chairman of Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation, a civil society group in Nagaland. But the endorsement is not without caution.
Government and civil society
The Nagas are a diverse, complex group, often divided along tribal lines and clan loyalties. A very vocal and highly organised civil society plays a crucial role in mobilising public opinion and representing various interests – collective tribal councils like the Naga Hoho, which draws its members from a large section of the Naga tribes, student groups like the Naga Students Federation, social organisations like the Naga Mothers Association and protest groups like ACAUT, which launched a powerful civil agitation in 2013.
When the framework agreement was signed, RN Ravi, the Central interlocutor, had promised the government would consult all “stakeholders” before coming to a final settlement. This presumably includes the Nagaland government. Though left out of the negotiations between Centre and separatist group, Kohima has been affable. The official line is that a state government cannot be part of a political settlement that may or may not recognise the Indian Constitution.
“Modiji spoke of about the Naga state government being part of the process but we refused since we have taken an oath under the Indian Constitution,” said Levi Rengma, a member of the legislative assembly. “We would be going against our own oath. We can only be facilitators and we are ready to vacate our posts in favour of a political settlement. Both sides in the negotiation are working for the benefit of the Nagas as a whole, we believe that.”
But the current state government will still want to play a part in the new dispensation that takes shape. “We have told the underground groups, and they have agreed, that they shouldn’t directly become ministers and secretaries,” said Rengma. “They don’t have the experience. There should be an interim period during which a governing council must be set up.”
So far so good. Both Centre and separatist group seem keen to build a consensus among Naga civil society, and the state government is willing to cooperate. But the real anxiety lies elsewhere. What the Centre has been reticent about is the possibility of consultation with other Naga insurgent groups operating in the region.
One government, one accord?
The Naga nationalist movement fragmented after the Shillong Accord, a 16-point agreement which stipulated that all underground groups give up arms and “formulate other issues for discussion for final settlement”. It divided the leadership of the Naga National Council and changed the character of the movement. Forty years after the accord, the bitterness remains and each group points to its fractious legacy.
Even the NNC, which split into the Accordist and Non-Accordist factions, is anxious to distance itself from the pact. “The Shillong Accord is invalid because the word Naga or Nagaland is not mentioned even once,” raged Kaka Iralu, a member of the NNC (Accordist) and grandnephew of Phizo. “It was signed by ‘underground representatives’, which is a meaningless term. In any case, it was a process, not a final settlement.”
In his account of 1975, the representatives of a weakened, militarily defeated NNC were sent to Shillong. There, they were made to sign the pact under duress, even though they had asked the Indian government to let them discuss the contents of the agreement with the party leadership first. The NNC leadership never accepted the accord.
Today, Kaka Iralu strains against the label “accordist”. “After the accord, they settled the national workers in peace camps and offered rehabilitation money. Some of the national workers accepted this money. Suddenly LP Singh, then governor of Nagaland, said those who had accepted the money had to leave the camps. Those who were allowed to stay behind were called accordist. Now that is dirty politics. But Muivah was waiting for a chance to take over.”
In 1980, younger leaders such as Isak Chisi Swu, Muivah and SS Khaplang walked out of the NNC to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, introducing a new strain to the insurgency. A generation of Naga fighters had trained in China in the 1960s and ’70s, and the old ethnic nationalism was now inflected with socialist ideology. It formed an unlikely cocktail with a strong sense of religious identity. The original manifesto of the NSCN speaks of a “dictatorship of the people”, “Nagaland for Christ”, economic equality through socialism and armed struggle to win freedom.
Since then, the NSCN has been troubled by tribal and clan rivalries. It disintegrated into ever newer factions. In 1988, the original organisation split into the NSCN (Khaplang) and the NSCN(IM) factions. The NSCN(K) has since budded new groups. In 2011, the NSCN (Khole-Konyak) was formed under the leadership of “General” Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zimoni. This year, when ceasefire talks between NSCN(K) and the Indian government reached a dead end, another section of the leadership broke away to form the NSCN (Reformation).
To the NSCN(KK), the Muivah’s rejection of the Shillong Accord makes his position untenable now. “In 1975, Muivah gave a statement condemning the accord as a sell-out, a betrayal. So many leaders have been killed over it. It’s so funny that a leader who condemned the accord now wants an accord,” said Alezu Venuh, who represents the collective leadership of the NSCN(KK).
According to the NSCN(IM), this framework agreement has a legitimacy that Shillong never had. “The Shillong Accord was a sell-out because a few members of the NNC surrendered of their own volition and accepted the Indian Constitution,” said Robert. “But this is a follow-up of the pact of 1997, when it was agreed that talks would be held with no preconditions and they could take place outside India. Moreover, the talks are being held at the prime ministerial level.”
The governments of Nagaland
Apart from the Khaplang faction, all the groups are under ceasefire. Most of them run parallel governments in Nagaland, impose their own systems of taxation, have varying spheres of influence and degrees of warmth towards the idea of an agreement.
The NSCN(KK) is eager to negotiate but claims the Indian government has not formally approached it for talks. “The ceasefire was not a solution, it was a mechanism to create an atmosphere for talks. Is the Indian government serious or not, that is the question,” said Venuh. “We have a strategy [for peace], looking at the present situation and based on what is practical. It won’t take much time. We are open to consultation.”
“The government should not look at the situation based on the strength of a particular group. It is not about who is stronger and who is weaker. It is about a solution. The Naga people will never accept an agreement made with one group,” added his colleague, C Singson.
But Kaka Iralu is categorical that the NNC (Accordist) will stay out of talks. “The NNC will not join, because how can we solve the problem if we don’t address the central issue, the question of Naga independence?”
The most intractable opposition comes from the NSCN(K). The group signed a ceasefire with Delhi in 2001, is currently based out of Myanmar and has signed a separate pact with that country’s government. The ceasefire came to a violent end in April. After the NSCN(K) launched an ambush on soldiers in Manipur in June, the Indian government imposed a five-year ban on the organisation and went in, all guns blazing, to the jungles of Myanmar. After months of chasing the group for a renewal of the ceasefire, it has declared the NSCN(K) a terrorist organisation under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1957. The NSCN(K), for its part, has shown no inclination for participating in the peace accord, which it describes as “the demise of the Naga struggle”.
Khaplang could pull other factions along with him. In October, the NSCN(R), which had been supporting the truce, threatened to return to the NSCN(K), claiming the government was “playing dirty politics”. Even the NSCN(KK) has equivocated about the resistance put up by Khaplang. “We don’t have anything to say on their behalf, but the government of India has not been sincere,” said Venuh. “It compelled Khaplang to take drastic steps. The government is responsible for this situation to a certain extent.”
Now that the battle lines have been drawn between NSCN(K) and the Centre, the possibility of the outlawed group joining the peace process seems more bleak than ever.
Processes of reconciliation among the different factions have led nowhere. Yet among civil society groups, the political unification of Naga groups seems to be an idea whose time has come. It gained ground in 2013, when ACAUT pointed out the economic costs of fragmentation. It took to the streets chanting the slogan “one government, one tax”. By one government, ACAUT meant one rebel government. It urged the factions to come together so that people could pay taxes to a single entity. But the political costs of factionalism seem far more pressing in this present moment. Unless a peace accord includes all factions, civil society groups across the board fear there will be no peace.
“We have been telling the government of India and the NSCN(IM) that the final agreement has to be inclusive of all the political groups. When we met the interlocutor, he told us he had sent an invitation to all the groups. The NSCN(IM) has also appealed to them to join negotiations,” said Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Hoho.
As of now, the factions appear to have reached a stalemate. An implacable rivalry endures between the NSCN(IM) and the NSCN(K). The Khaplang faction has issued a threat against “certain senior lawmakers” who are allegedly “pursuing a subversive course to force NSCN to capitulate and toe the line of a particular political group which propped them and vice versa.” In other words, the NSCN(IM).
There is no love loss between the NNC (Accordist) and the NSCN(IM) either. Kaka Iralu speaks darkly of the attempt of the NSCN(IM) to “impose a Marxist, socialist ideology” on the nationalist movement and claims he was targeted personally by the group.
The NSCN(KK) and the NSCN(IM) seem to be engaged in an aggressive game of “you first”. The NSCN(KK) says a common political platform for all Naga groups is possible. “We can come to a certain understanding but it is always Mr Muivah who has been the stumbling block. The NSCN(IM) thinks it is better than others,” said Venuh.
“The door is open,” shrugged a senior government functionary at Hebron. Then he put it more bluntly, “They must give up their posts. If they are not willing to come and join us, I think there is no space where we can accommodate them as outsiders. Otherwise, it is for the Indian government to invite them to the talks table.”
Meanwhile, Niketu Iralu, social worker and senior advisor to ACAUT, is eloquent about the dangers of factionalism and the need to build a consensus among Naga political groups before inviting public opinion on the peace accord. “I told the NSCN(IM) that you are not talking to national workers, you are only talking to the general public, which is very dangerous,” he said. “Call the representatives of the various factions and tell them about the terms of engagement. It will be a gesture that will produce unexpected good for the process. Building a consensus among the general public may work for a while. But in a divided society like ours, they will call this group a sell out, especially if it is not negotiating for complete sovereignty. Other factions will say you betrayed us so we will start an armed struggle again.”
This is especially true because political and civil society groups are certain that Muivah is not negotiating for full sovereignty.
Complete political and territorial sovereignty once lay at the heart of the Naga demand. It flowed from the sense of a unique past. Its wellsprings lay in simple, communitarian forms of government that long predated democracy and the formal freedoms that it grants. “Under the British, we were the excluded areas, the unadministered areas,” said Ozukum. “We were free. Every village was a sovereign democratic republic.”
It was also fused with the idea of racial and cultural difference. With Kaka Iralu, you still hear the old brand of Naga ethnic nationalism. “Nationality is a matter of being, not decision,” he declared. To him, it is a biological fact, rooted in genetical identity. “There cannot be shared nationhood,” he said. “Naga nationalism is based on the idea of ‘urra uvie’. It’s an Angami Naga word. It means our land belongs to us. To the rest of the world we say, leave us alone.”
Yet the pact of August 3 speaks of a “shared sovereignty” and a new pragmatism has crept in among most stakeholders. Whether it is NSCN(KK), the Naga state government or the Naga Hoho, they all speak of the fading irrelevance of territorial sovereignty in a globalised world, the practical difficulties of being a small nation state without India’s protection and with China uncomfortably nearby. The notion of sovereignty has shifted shape, occupied new spaces.
For many, it has found a new emphasis in economic autonomy, the power to decided how the region’s land and natural resources are to be used, the exercise of financial powers. “At the end of the day, problems will always be economic,” said Singson.
Some degree of sovereignty could also be found if the new pan-Naga body enjoyed greater administrative and judicial powers, a say in formulating defence strategies. It could be in charge of implementing customary laws in Naga areas, suggests Rengma. Ozukum does not rule out the possibility of a state within the Indian Union. Naga cultural identity could be articulated in various ways – permission to send separate teams to international sports tournaments, maybe even separate passports and a different currency. Though that is optimistic, admits Ozukum.
But the idea of complete sovereignty still has an emotional hold over many Nagas. “After so many lives have been lost,” mused Muru, his voice trailing away. Some hope the chance of territorial sovereignty is merely postponed, not lost. “If Modiji says you are asking me for Rs 100 but I can only give you Rs 80 now, it doesn’t mean I cannot give you the remaining Rs 20 at a later date,” said Rengma.
For Niketu Iralu, the hope of a final settlement lies beyond negotiations with the Indian government. “We must go to the Indian people and explain our case to them. We are not secessionists. Our movement started long before the British left. It is different from other liberation movements. We are not against India. We are merely your little neighbour.”
Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty