Amid reports that a final settlement of the Naga question is round the corner, there is growing speculation about what shape this solution might take. The government’s interlocutor for the talks, retired bureaucrat RN Ravi, had earlier said that the settlement would not affect the boundaries of states surrounding Nagaland.
But the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the main Naga group in talks with government, insisted that the solution would mean territorial integration of all Naga-inhabited areas, in Nagaland as well as surrounding states.
“If territorial integration does not materialise, it will be back to square one,” said Rh Raising, the Kilo Kilonser (home minister) of the parallel government run by the NSCN(IM), adding that negotiations were “almost done”.
He said: “We are not demanding anyone else’s land. We are getting back what is rightfully ours.”
However, the secrecy surrounding the peace process has not gone down well with many people in Nagaland, especially the other rebel groups. They have criticised the Union government’s decision to negotiate only with the NSCN(IM), claiming that the organisation does not represent the aspirations of all the numerous Naga tribes.
On the morning of October 23, Ravi went to Dimapur in Nagaland to address these concerns. Peace talks were held on Naga soil for the first time 20 years. Ravi spoke to six other Naga rebel groups that have decided to join the talks and a wide range of civil society groups.
The framework agreement
The Centre has been talking to NSCN(IM), the largest Naga rebel group, since 1997. That year, the group signed a ceasefire. In 2015, the talks got a new lease of life after Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a “framework agreement” with the NSCN(IM).
For decades, Naga rebel groups have been fighting for Nagalim or Greater Nagaland. This was envisioned as sovereign territory consisting of Nagaland and engulfing “all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas”, including parts of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, across the border.
The secessionist movement started life under the Naga National Council, which signed the contentious Shillong Accord of 1975 with the Indian government. In the decades that followed, the movement was split up into several factions. Each group now runs a rebel “government” in Nagaland.
The details of the framework agreement signed in 2015 are yet to be made public but it is understood that it acknowledges the “uniqueness of Naga history and culture” in exchange for the NSCN(IM)’s respect for the “primacy of the Indian constitution”.
A senior leader of the NSCN(IM), who did not wish to be identified, said the agreement went further, ensuring territorial integration of all Naga areas. “If that doesn’t happen, many, including me, will go back to the jungles,” he said. “But that won’t happen. We accepted this framework only because Modi offered us what nobody else has in the past. A final solution could come as early as the end of this year. I admit that we are not going to be completely independent, that’s true. But we not going to be like any other state also. The only problem we are facing now in coming to a final settlement is finding an arrangement that would let us be equal partners with India, and not just another state.”
A hero’s welcome
On October 23, Nagaland’s only civilian airport, in Dimapur, wore a festive air. Hundreds of people decked in traditional Naga attire had flocked to the area outside the airport to welcome Ravi. Snatches of hymns wafted out of massive loudspeakers.
The crowd held up banners that said “GOI: Choose to be our friend or eternal foe” and “It’s now or never”, both aimed at the Indian government. They also waved miniature Nagalim flags.
Ravi was accorded a hero’s welcome. The Hohos – as the organisations representing the various Naga tribes are called – showered him with mementos, hand-woven shawls and jackets. “Long live Ravi,” the crowd roared, spurred on by their leaders.
“I am overwhelmed by the love, affection and trust you have shown in me,” the soft-spoken Ravi told to the crowd. But the adulation was not unconditional. Just before the brief ceremony ended, the crowd reminded him: “We Nagas want our share – justice delayed is justice denied”.
‘A step in the right direction’
Then the action shifted from the airport to Chumukedima, the administrative headquarters of Dimapur district. Present at the headquarters were the who’s who of Naga civil society, ranging from public intellectuals to tribal chiefs and village headmen – the official invite referred to them as “stakeholders”.
The consultation, which was a precursor to the closed-door negotiations with the six rebel outfits, was a gentle affair. Participants praised the Union government for making the process more inclusive and appeared confident that a new era was not far away.
Notes of dissent were muted. For instance, the retired bureaucrat and anti-extortion activist, Khekiye K Sema, whose disdain for the agreement is well documented, spoke in a measured tone. “While not undermining the NSCN(IM), they do not represent the Naga people,” he said.
K Seyie of the Angami Public Organisation – an organisation representing Angami Nagas – was more direct. Said Seyie: “We don’t believe in factional settlements. Any such settlement can’t be a solution.”
Both speakers, however, echoed the general consensus, that Ravi’s move to involve other rebel groups was “a step in the right direction”.
The Khaplang question
The six groups are loosely linked together in a collective platform called the Naga National Political Groups. They include the NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), the Naga Nationalist Council, the Federal Government of Nagaland, the NSCN (Reformation), the National Peoples Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord) and the Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland - Non-Accord. The working group is headed by Kitovi Zhimomi.
But the list has one crucial group missing. It was Hekishe Sishu, the president of the Sumi Hoho, who finally addressed the elephant in the room: the Khaplang faction of the NSCN, which has so far refused to join the peace process. Is a settlement to the Naga question possible without taking the NSCN(K) into confidence? Sishu asked. He also said the recent arrest of four mid-level Naga bureaucrats on charges of terror funding, for allegedly siphoning away government funds to the NSCN(K), did not send the right message.
Ravi, who said he wanted the Nagas to be direct with him even at the cost of coming across as brash. “Better be honest, don’t worry about offending me,” he said. “I will also do the same.” The bureaucrat said he’d “like NSCN(K) to be involved in the process”. He defended the recent arrests, however: “The government of India in its wisdom took some legal measures to deal with the escalating violence.”
The interlocutor added that he wanted the final settlement to have the “widest possible acceptance”. He said: “It must be an occasion of celebration for all Nagas.”
In private, many Naga leaders were sceptical about a solution that would be acceptable to all parties without the participation of NSCN(K). Shashi Naga, the vice-president of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organisation, the apex body of the Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Phom tribes, said: “We are trying to convince them, but we cannot impose on anyone,” he said. “We hope that they come.”
These sentiments were echoed by Abeiu Meru, president of the Naga Mothers Association, who said the “inclusion of the Khaplang group is very necessary”. Supo Jamir, president of the Ao Senso Telongjem Dimapur, an organisation of the Ao tribe agreed: “It will be wise to get them [the Kahaplang faction] into the fold since they are also fighting for Naga sovereignty. How many agreements will the government sign otherwise?”
‘Wolves in sheep’s clothing’
Meanwhile, the NSCN(IM) officially maintains that it has “forgiven the past mistakes” of the six groups that have come together under the banner of Naga National Political Groups because of its commitment to the larger cause. In private, the group’s leadership is less than happy.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Rh Raising, the group’s home minister, claimed that the Naga National Political Groups consisted of “people who are not with the Naga people”. “There are wolves in sheep’s clothing”, said Raising, who is also the convener of the NSCN(IM)’s steering committee – the highest decision making body of the group.
He dismissed concerns that a permanent solution was not possible without the participation of all factions of the NSCN. “We are the government, we represent the Naga people,” he contended. “We are not a faction, we are the only government of the Naga people. They [the Khaplang faction] have arrived yesterday. We are the ones who have fought this battle.”
Another senior leader of the group, who has been part of the negotiations with Ravi, accused the six Naga National Political Groups of wanting to “spoil the discussions completely through a backdoor entry”.
“We can never forget the past,” said the leader who didn’t want to be identified. “These people had connived with the Indian intelligence to crush us. The Naga public, without knowing all of this, is saying they should be part of the talks. Only because of the Naga people, we are accepting. We have to accommodate, but it is very difficult for us to forgive and forget. If Ravi forces us to conform to their ways, we will go our own way.”