In the urban centres of Kohima and Dimapur in Nagaland, a raft of posters have gone up over the past few weeks – “No election without solution”, “20 years negotiation is enough”, “Election create havoc negating the spirit and concerted efforts of the people”. The posters signify the growing resistance to the upcoming Assembly election, scheduled for February 27, led by civil society and tribal organisations and backed by various armed groups in the state. Nagaland, they argue, is on the cusp of historic change. After 20 years of negotiations between the central government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest armed group in Nagaland, the final peace agreement seems imminent. The election, they feel, will only delay it in a state impatient for peace.

This is the context in which a series of dramatic events unfolded on Monday. Representatives of 11 political parties, including the ruling Naga People’s Front and the Bharatiya Janata Party, signed a bond declaring they would not issue party tickets or file nominations for the election. Then, late on Monday night, the BJP issued a “clarification”: its representative’s signature to the bond had not been ratified by the party’s national leadership.

Negotiations in Kohima

“Our intention is very clear,” said Theja Therieh, convenor of the Core Committee of Nagaland Tribal Hohos and Civil Organisations, “we are not against the democratic process.”

But if a solution is around the corner, then the election should be deferred, he said. Therieh was opening a meeting at Kohima’s Japfu HoteI on Saturday.

Kohima, the political heart of Nagaland, saw furious negotiations over the weekend. The Core Committee met the Naga People’s Front, the National People’s Party and the Aam Aadmi Party on Saturday to persuade them not to file nominations. A notable absence was the Bharatiya Janata Party which had been invited but could not attend; most of the party’s state leadership was in Delhi.

On Sunday, there was a second round of meetings between the Core Committee and members of the armed groups. Monday brought the big declaration, this time with the BJP present. Besides the political parties and the Core Committee, Monday’s meeting was attended by the NSCN(IM) as well as the working group formed by the six other Naga armed groups that are also involved in the peace talks now. Behind the scenes, members of the NSCN(IM) are believed to have met leaders of various parties to persuade them not to file nominations.

Since the demand for resolving the Naga question has topped election manifestos in the state for decades, it was expected that no party would openly oppose the Core Committee’s suggestion. Indeed, the Nagaland Assembly even passed a resolution last year asking for election to be deferred.

This weekend, however, the fate of the election boiled down to a tense guessing game between the Naga People’s Front and the BJP.

“If all political parties agree not to participate, you need not have any doubt from me,” the Naga People’s Front president Shurhozelie Liezietsu declared at Saturday’s meeting. “But I will not make a gift of the government to any political party.”

Ruling party’s unease

On paper, at least, the Naga People’s Front has always said its government would step down if an alternative political arrangement is to be put in place through the peace process. “If there is a settlement, we will make way,” said the minister Imkong L Imchen. But the party is uneasy now. The roots of its unease lie in the misadventure of 1998, when a similar call to boycott the Assembly elections had been issued. That year, the NSCN(IM) signed a ceasefire agreement with the Centre and a political settlement to the Naga secessionist movement seemed imminent. “In 1998, the Naga Hoho had given a call not to participate in the election,” Liezietsu said at the meeting, referring to the apex body of several Naga Tribes. “We knew it was a genuine call, ostensibly given by the Hoho but backed by the NSCN (IM) so we decided to discuss it with them.” Liezietsu went on to detail how they met the “home minister” of the rebel government run by the NSCN(IM). “Can you deal with the parties and their high command in Delhi?” Liezietsu claimed to have asked him. “You are dealing with the Centre all the time. If one political party participated then all the labour is lost. They said we’ll handle it.”

The party that worried the Naga People’s Front then was the Congress, with its high command in Delhi. “But in the 11th hour, under heavy security cover, all of them filed their nominations,” Liezietsu said. “Forty three of them returned uncontested. The IM people failed miserably on their part.”

The Naga People’s Front was derecognised and its famous election symbol, a cockerel, was frozen. The Congress came to power and for the next five years, Liezietsu said, “my party was suppressed completely”.

This time, the national party that the Naga People’s Front fears is the BJP. Even if the election were postponed, Liezietsu said, the term of the Assembly ends on March 12. Then it would be President’s Rule, which essentially means the BJP’s rule. “So I am making a blunt proposal,” the veteran leader concluded. “Discuss with the IM to discuss with the BJP.”

Anti-election posters in Nagaland. Photo credit: Ipsita Chakravarty

BJP in two minds?

The BJP, for its part, is giving out mixed signals. The party’s national general secretary, Ram Madhav, and Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who is in charge of the Nagaland election, were in Kohima on Monday, claimed Jaanshillung Gonmei, a state BJP leader, but they were discussing seat-sharing with the Naga People’s Front at a different location. “During the meeting of the civil society leaders and representatives of political parties, we sent two members but they were under strict guidelines not to sign any documents,” said Gonmei. “One person signed it and the state president asked him to withdraw the signature. Ram Madhavji and Mr Kiren Rijiju will issue a clarification. We are a national party and the two members were not authorised to sign on behalf of a nation party. Therefore, the signatures are invalid.”

The BJP, which has rapidly scaled up its presence in the state over the past year and reportedly recruited thousands of workers, has been reluctant to abandon the election. Madhav had earlier said that it would be “elections for solution” in the state.

Moment of unity

For civil society and tribal groups, however, this is the best moment to push for a solution, which has seemed imminent since the central government signed a framework agreement with the NSCN (IM) in 2015.

First, because this is the time to break the status quo. “We were expecting the solution will come before Christmas,” Chuba Ozukum, head of the Naga Hoho, said at Saturday’s meeting. “India, at this point, what they had promised us 10 years back, they are not willing to give. Unless we Nagas come together and show our drive, it is not going to happen.”

Mar Longkumer, spokesperson of the civil society organisation called Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation, also felt this is the right moment to push for a solution. “If we miss this opportunity I don’t know when it will come again,” he said. “We have a government at the Centre, under Narendra Modi, which is pretty strong in Parliament. After Lok sabha election, we don’t know if the BJP government will have this kind of a mandate.”

Second, because this seems to be a miraculous moment of Naga unity. It has brought together almost all Naga armed groups, previously at war with each other. It has also brought together diverse civil society organisations such as the Naga Mothers’ Association and the Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation. Most remarkably, it has brought together different tribal bodies. The Naga Hoho has joined hands with the Central Nagaland Tribes Council, consisting of tribes that broke away from the original Hoho in 2016. Making common cause with them is the Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organisation, which had recently reiterated an old demand for a separate state, to be carved out of four districts in the east. “The division among civil societies was worse than among Naga national political groups,” said Ozukum, referring to the armed groups. “This is the first time they have come together.” This unity should not be lost, both tribal and civil society leaders feel.

In a statement on Monday, the Core Committee declared that if the Election Commission went ahead and notified the polls on January 31, a bandh would swing into place on February 1. Further, any candidate or political party that defies the January 29 declaration would be treated as “anti-Nagas” and tribal Hobos would monitor the districts to ensure that nominations are not filed.

Rural voters

Yet, Nagaland has already swung into election mode, with vehicles requisitioned for poll duty and parties preparing to kick off their campaigns. In some rural areas, there is a growing sense of anticipation after five years of a dysfunctional government. In Changpang on the Assam-Nagaland border, village constable Benrithung Kinghen was sceptical of an election boycott. “I don’t think it will be possible,” said Kinghen, whose father twice contested elections as a Naga People’s Front candidate. “In 1998, we faced a similar situation but some people filed nominations in spite of the NSCN’s threats.”

In the model village of Rephyim, up in the hills of Wokha district, the village council chairman, Nyambemo Patton, was non-committal. This is the ancestral village of Y Patton, former state home minister who recently left the Naga People’s Front for the BJP. The villagers want a solution, of course, and as for an election boycott is concerned, that would have to be left to the wishes of the democratic majority, shrugged Nyambemo Patton.

“People are not ideologically committed to elections,” said Joel Naga, chairperson of Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation and secretary of the Core Committee. In a state desperately starved of funds, civic amenities and employment, he claimed, it was only the promise of political largesse that is drawing voters to the polls.