The ambush on soldiers of the 40th battalion of the Assam Rifles by Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) militants in Nagaland’s Mon district on Sunday has raised fresh questions about the Naga peace process. In the wake of the attack, several civil society groups in Nagaland, including the state’s powerful tribal councils, affirmed that the Union government should extend an olive branch to the NSCN (K) to make the peace process more inclusive and comprehensive.

Currently, the Indian government is in talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) – the largest of all Naga nationalist outfits – and six other groups: NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), Naga Nationalist Council, Federal Government of Nagaland, NSCN (Reformation), National Peoples Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord) and Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland (Non-Accord). A “framework agreement” to pave the way for a final settlement was signed by the Union government and the Isak-Muivah faction in 2015.

The NSCN (IM) signed a ceasefire in 1997 and has subsequently been engaged in talks with the Centre. After more than 20 years, a breakthrough is widely speculated to be around the corner. The Khaplang faction had signed a ceasefire in 2001 but stormed out of the agreement in April 2015. If successful, a final settlement will end one of the most long-running armed movements in India.

‘Remove terrorist outfit tag’

Yet, many in Nagaland fear that the likely absence of the NSCN (K) from the final pact may dent the prospects of long-term peace in the state. Prior to the incident on Sunday, the 41st battalion of the Assam Rifles came under attack in Mon on June 5. The attack was also suspected to be the work of the NSCN (K).

Mon is one of the four districts – the others include Tuensang, Longleng and Kiphire – of Eastern Nagaland, close to the Myanmar border. This region is believed to be a stronghold of the Khalplang faction, given its geographical proximity to the neighbouring country.

The Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, the most influential civil society group in the region, condemned Sunday’s attack, but said it was important that Indian authorities revoked the “terrorist outfit” tag from the group and initiated talks.

The Indian government designated the NSCN (K) as a “terrorist outfit” in 2015, soon after the group killed 18 soldiers in an ambush in Manipur.

“I have been trying to persuade them to come and initiate talks,” said S Khoiwang Wangsha of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, the apex body of the state’s Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Phom tribes. “But they say why should we talk if they think we are terrorists? I have requested several times to the Indian government to not declare them as terrorists, but the government has not withdrawn the tag.”

P Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Hoho, the top group of tribal organisations in Nagaland, echoed Wangsha. While pointing out that the Union government needed to “sort out a mechanism to bring back NSCN (K) to the fold of the talks”, he said he did not see that happening “when there is a bounty on their heads”. “Unless the government of India removes the tag, I don’t think the NSCN (K) would come out,” he said. Ozukum added that the Naga Hoho, on its part, had been “making appeals to both parties from time to time to get into a ceasefire.”

The Naga Mothers’ Association, which has repeatedly reached out to the NSCN (K) to join the peace process, said that Sunday’s “incident was unfortunate”, but “both sides need to discuss the issue in depth”. “As mothers, we are against all kinds of killing on both sides, but we have also stressed that the talks should be inclusive,” said Abeiu Meru, president of the Naga Mothers Association. “We feel that we should have everyone on board.”

(Photo credit: Reuters).

NSCN (IM) blames Centre

The National Socialist Council of Nagalim was formed in 1980 but soon began to disintegrate into factions because of infighting. The process started in 1988, when the original outfit split into two factions, one headed by SS Khaplang and the other by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah.

Now, the Isak-Muivah faction accuses the Khaplang faction of trying to intentionally disturb the ongoing peace talks. However, it also blames the Union government for “not being serious enough and “dragging the talks on and on”. “This incident should make the Indian government realise that it is no longer in anyone’s interest to draw out the process any longer,” said VS Atem, formerly chief of the group’s armed wing and now a key member of its collective leadership. “Naga people are starting to doubt the integrity of the Indian government.”

Atem said he was “110% certain” that if an agreement was signed soon, “all Naga people will stand by it”. “That will seal the activities of all other groups,” he claimed. How can the NSCN (K) then survive without the support of the people.”