The Naga question

‘Resolve the Naga question first’: In Nagaland, the demand to defer the Assembly polls gathers pace

The election is scheduled for February.

Weighing in on the demand by Naga civil society groups that the central government resolve the Naga question before conducting the Assembly election, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) has insisted that any attempt to ram the election through would “show the insincerity of the Centre”.

Nagaland is expected to go to polls in February. But the run-up has been dominated not by campaigning but by speculation about a “final solution” to the six-decade-old dispute – the Naga Peace Accord as it has come to be called – being around the corner. Talks to settle the dispute have been going on since 1997, primarily between the Centre and the NSCN(IM), and a breakthrough was reportedly reached in 2015 when they signed a framework agreement. The details of the agreement are yet to be made public but it is understood to acknowledge the “uniqueness of Naga history and culture” in exchange for the NSCN(IM) respecting the “primacy of the Indian Constitution”. The NSCN(IM) waged a decades-long insurgency to create a sovereign Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland, comprising Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of neighbouring states, before agreeing to a ceasefire in 1997.

“When the people of Nagaland are expecting a solution, it is not wise to talk about elections,” VS Atem, formerly the chief of the group’s armed wing and now a key member of its collective leadership, said. Atem claimed that their negotiations with the Centre’s interlocutor RN Ravi were at the “final leg”. He refused to provide a more specific time-frame.

Asked if the NSCN(IM) would call for a boycott of the election if the Centre goes ahead with it anyway, Atem said the group will decide on “any future course of action” only after the Election Commission officially notifies the election.

Broad support

The ruling Naga People’s Front has supported the demand to defer the election. “NPF has decided that the election should be deferred and a solution should be discussed first,” said Imkong Imchen, the state’s health and family welfare minister. “On December 15, we even passed a resolution in the Assembly urging the Centre to fast-track the solution.”

Imchen claimed that conducting the election without finding at a solution to the Naga question would “create great divisions in the Naga society”. “If the election happens now, the talks will be relegated to the dustbin,” he said.

The opposition Congress, meanwhile, accused the Centre of misleading the Naga people. “Ravi has been saying a final solution would come soon and even the President said the same when he was in Nagaland last month, but now they are talking of the election,” said K Therie, the party’s state president. “They are creating confusion and keeping the Naga people guessing. They should not behave this way, they should come clean when the final solution will come.”

Another reason for the political parties’ reluctance to participate in an election before a solution is worked out is their apprehension that the legislators would have to give up their seats for an “interim government” when the solution does finally arrive. “What is the point of conducting the election if the government has to be dismissed anyway?” asked Imchen.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is allied with the Naga People’s Front, took a more measured position, saying the “issue of the election is different” from the purportedly imminent final solution. “We also support a quick solution, but it is difficult to quantify the exact time it would take,” the party’s state president Visasolie Lhoungu said. “We will have to go by the directives of the Centre and the party high command.”

Both the Naga People’s Front and the Congress, however, said they would contest the election if it is held. “We will have no choice but to contest then,” said Imchen.

Therie concurred: “We will participate but we want the solution first.”

Imchen added that if the central government brushed aside the pleas to defer the election, it would send a wrong signal. “After all, actions speak louder than words,” he said. “We are the ruling party, yet we are willing to forgo power. Why can’t they do it?”

On Tuesday, the interlocutor Ravi told a Nagaland daily that the election was unlikely to be deferred unless there was “sufficient substantive change in the facts on the ground”.

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