Twenty-year-old Rebecca Phom from Dimapur in Nagaland will vote for the first time in her life in the upcoming general elections. “For the betterment of our country,” she replied when asked what would drive her choice.

But as Nagaland elects its lone representative in the Lok Sabha on April 11, the state’s relationship with India stands at a crucial juncture.

For over half a century, Naga nationalists have fought the Indian government for a sovereign ethnic homeland that would include Nagaland as well as the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the border. By all accounts, after decades of peace talks, a “final settlement” of the vexed Naga question is closer than ever.

The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest Naga armed group, has been in talks with the Indian government since 1997. There was, however, little headway until 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government signed a “framework agreement” with the NSCN(IM). As part of the agreement, the group dropped its almost six-decade-long demand for secession and agreed to a settlement within the bounds of the Indian Constitution.

Over the past few years, the agreement has been touted as one of the achievements of the Bharatiya Janata Party government. But it has also been a contentious political issue, whose effects have rippled out from Naga-inhabited areas to surrounding districts in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal. For years, these states have feared their boundaries may be redrawn should a final settlement come to pass.

While most voters in Naga areas say they want lasting peace, many in the younger generation claim the accord is not a top priority when they make electoral choices. But the Naga peace process, who drives it, who supports it, what alliances are built around it, continues to silently shape elections in these areas.

This story has been reported from two parliamentary constituencies.

Of peace talks and elections

Ever since the framework agreement was signed, things have moved fast, according to people involved in the talks. “We have narrowed down our differences with the Indian government more than ever before,” said VS Atem, formerly chief of the group’s armed wing and now a key member of its collective leadership.

He spoke to at the NSCN(IM) headquarters in Hebron, about 35 km from Dimapur, Nagaland’s largest city.

Would a change in guard in Delhi at this stage amount to more delay? The Naga outfit was careful to sound non-aligned. “We are negotiating with the government of India,” said Atem.

There was, he insisted, “no connection” between the ongoing talks and the elections. “Talks are different, election is different,” he said. Yet it is no secret that the NSCN(IM)’s influence extends to all facets of Naga public life, including electoral politics.

Rebecca Phom.

Last mile bumps

While talks have progressed well since 2015, there are unresolved issues. The Indian government and the Naga groups – there are seven of them now apart from the NSCN(IM) – have failed to reach a consensus on several matters that Atem described as “the heart and soul of the movement even if they are symbolic to India”.

Key among them are the Naga demands for a separate Constitution and a flag, resisted by the Indian government. Then there is the question of how to choose the head of the proposed Tatar Hoho, a bicameral Assembly for Naga areas where the Indian state and the Naga leadership would have “shared sovereignty”. While Naga groups want to elect the head of the Tatar Hoho, the Indian government would rather appoint that person on its own.

These last mile bumps have reportedly started to frustrate the NSCN(IM) – and political observers say its honeymoon with the BJP may be over. Atem seemed to suggest as much. “We thought Modi was a strong leader initially, but it is wrong,” he said. “His strings seem to be pulled by someone else.”

VS Atem.

The two seats

In Naga inhabited areas, electoral outcomes are known to be shaped by a complex web of armed groups, civil society organisations, clan or tribe loyalties and political alliances.

Naga civil society organisations are open about throwing their weight behind the candidate backed by the locally influential armed group. But this year, it is a tangled web of alliances and support.

For years, the Naga People’s Front, seen to be friendly with the NSCN(IM), was in an alliance with the BJP in Nagaland. Last year, it broke ties with the BJP in the state, but it was, till recently, partners with the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.

The Naga People’s Front is also a partner in the BJP-led government in Manipur. Apart from the solitary seat in Nagaland, the Naga vote is significant in the Outer Manipur constituency, which also goes to the polls on April 11.

But the established equations seem to have been upset in these elections. In the Nagaland seat, the Naga People’s Front is going against the saffron party. Although it has not put up a candidate of its own, it is supporting the Congress, a traditional rival.

Among the contenders for the Outer Manipur seat is Lorho S Pfoze, a relative of Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN(IM)’s current chief. Pfoze is contesting on a Naga People’s Front ticket. The BJP has fielded its own candidate, a Kuki, from the seat. The BJP candidate, incidentally, is believed to be backed by Kuki armed groups in Manipur.

The Naga People’s Front’s decision to oppose the BJP in both the Naga-dominated parliamentary seats, political observers and security officials say, could be a useful barometer of the mood in Hebron.

Yanpvuo Yanfo Kiko.

‘A lot of handshakes’

In Nagaland, ordinary Naga voters seem to be divided about whether continuity in Delhi would serve the purposes of a final settlement better. Most seem to acknowledge that there has been considerable progress under the current regime.

Yanpvuo Yanfo Kikon, a young e-governance professional in Kohima, credited Modi for “giving hope and commitment”. “At least they have shown sincerity,” he said. “Never before have we received so much attention.”

But the recent stalemate has also made him a little sceptical. “In action, what have we really seen beyond signing a few documents and a lot of handshakes?” he asked.

Others, like Dimapur resident Tolo Awomi, who said that the most “important issue” for him this election was the “political solution”, back the Congress to achieve it. “They have a better understanding of the Naga issue,” he claimed.

Yet, many Nagas seem to think that their best bet still lies with the BJP.

Gugu Haralu, an activist, said it was better if “hands do not change”. But Haralu said she was conflicted because of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which the BJP has vowed to pass if elected to power.

The Bill, which seeks to ease citizenship norms for non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is hotly contested in the North East. “On one hand, if we do not vote for the BJP, our peace process is going to be derailed,” she said. “On the other hand, if we do our existence will be at threat. It is a very tricky position.”

The all-powerful Naga civil society groups also seem to be divided.

P Chuba Ozukum, president of the Naga Hoho, the apex body of several tribal groups in Nagaland, said he was disappointed with the BJP. “We were expecting BJP to be the one to give us a political solution, but our expectations, our hopes have not been fulfilled,” he said.

Theja Therie of the Naga Tribes Council, another influential tribal body in the state, was critical of the NSCN(IM). “Talks have gone on for too long now. I think the ball is the NSCN(IM)’s court now,” he said.

But in Nagaland, neither politician nor voter expects much from the Lok Sabha elections. As Neichute Doulo, a Kohima-based entrepreneur said, “We know very well that one MP can’t do much.”

Politicians are also cynical about voter choices. “No one cares for Lok Sabha elections in Nagaland, to be honest,” said one. “Usually, the party in power in the state wins because that is how people have been wired to vote. Yes, this time we think it is important to have a voice who can speak about our cause.”

Neichute Doulo.

A fierce contest in the Manipur hills

But in multi-ethnic Outer Manipur, where the Nagas have to jostle for political power with the Kukis, the elections are a much more serious affair.

The map of Kukiland, the imagined homeland of the Kukis, overlaps with the Naga areas of Manipur. “As the Naga peace process is at a crucial stage, it is important to have our Naga representative in Parliament,” said H Maratang of the Naga People’s Organisation in Senapati, the Naga heartland of Manipur.

Nagas in Manipur also claim that they do not have proportionate representation in the Manipur Assembly. “Our population is more than the Kukis, yet we have fewer seats in our area,” said Maratang. “We cannot afford not to have a Naga representative in the Parliament this time when the delimitation exercise begins.”

DH Angmei.

The Nagas of Manipur

The yearning for a solution among the Nagas of Manipur also appears to be more urgent than in Nagaland, where many, particularly the youth, seem to be ambivalent about it.

Consider 28-year-old Marikho O-Leriina from Senapati. He attended college in Delhi, but returned home for good a couple of years ago. Now a community leader, O-Leriina is fully invested in the campaign of the Naga People’s Front candidate.

“It is not an election this time, it’s a movement,” he said. O-Leriina claims to be committed towards the “cause”. “It comes naturally to us and, once you understand it, you keep going deeper and deeper into it,” he said.

Contrast his response with Dimapur’s DH Angmei, a couple of years younger than O-Leriina. Angmei has lived in Dimapur all his life but has little patience for the Naga struggle. “Why do we need a separate flag? Aren’t we Indians?” he asked.

As Daniel Karaiba, a student leader-turned-politician in Senapati explained, “We particularly need it because we are at the mercy of Manipur. All the funds that come go to the development of the [Imphal] Valley area, nothing comes to us.”

The Meitei-dominated Imphal Valley and the largely tribal hill areas of Manipur have always shared a strained relationship, with the residents of the hill areas accusing the Meiteis, Manipur’s most powerful community, of wielding disproportionate influence in the state’s affairs.

Daniel Karaiba.

‘Ultimately it is us Nagas versus them’

The peace process is an absent presence in election campaigns in Naga areas. It does not find a mention in the manifestos of either the BJP or the Congress. Apart from a footnote in Rahul Gandhi’s speech in Dimapur on April 3, it has not figured in most election rallies either.

The electorate, too, seems more concerned about infrastructure and roads. But the accord, or a solution to the long-running demand for sovereignty, is the centre of gravity for Naga public life.

“This election is more about development, although, the Naga political issue is always at the heart of Nagaland politics,” said Abu Metha, secretary general of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, the BJP’s coalition partner in Nagaland.

The fraught questions surrounding Naga identity and where it belongs in the Indian union have not gone away. “There can be no solution at this point as the government of India can’t give us what we want,” said Doulo. “Fundamentally, peace is understood differently by Naga people and India.”

In private, politicians seem to agree. “Ultimately it is us Nagas versus them,” said a senior state politician.

All photographs by Arunabh Saikia.