As the October 31 deadline for a final settlement to the Naga dispute approaches, a cross section of people in Nagaland say they are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst – and praying.

On October 24, a meeting in New Delhi – widely touted as a make or break occasion – failed to resolve the long-standing deadlock between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) and the Indian government. The sticking points were a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas. “Everybody is really really anxious,” said Vitono Gugu Haralu, a child rights activist from Dimapur, the state’s commercial hub. “Even at work, the conversation is all about what will happen after October 31.”

Monalisa ‎Changkija, the editor of the tabloid, Nagaland Page, also spoke of a “a sense of unease” in the state. “There is patrolling everywhere in Dimapur, people are being frisked,” said Changkija. “Dimapur has practically emptied out in the last couple of days, there are none of the usual traffic jams.”

Peace prospects

Naga demands for sovereignty gave rise to the oldest armed struggle against the Indian state. Since the 1950s, Naga armed groups battled the state 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.

The NSCN (IM), currently the most influential Naga group on the Indian side of the border, signed a peace treaty with the Indian government in 1997 and started a political dialogue. But there was little headway until 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government signed a “framework agreement” with the group. The agreement is supposed to have given the talks a fillip, but the initial euphoria had waned by mid-2017. Things turned bitter again over the issues of a separate flag and Constitution.

Even as its relationship with the NSCN (IM) grew strained, the Centre brought seven more Naga armed groups to the negotiating table. These groups, called the Naga National Political Groups, have expressed their willingness to sign an agreement with the Indian government which does not provide for a flag and constitution.

Meanwhile, the Indian government has set a deadline. In August, RN Ravi the former Intelligence Bureau officer who became the Centre’s interlocutor for Naga talks and was recently appointed governor of Nagaland, announced that agreement would be signed within three months, with or without the NSCN(IM). That deadline ends on October 31.

Preparing for conflict

The impasse with the Centre and the split within Naga ranks has led to fears of a fresh conflict breaking out. In Nagaland, many people are even stocking up on rations and other essential goods. “We have to be prepared, we live in a conflict zone,” said Haralu.

These apprehensions are rooted in bitter historical memory: a similar peace treaty signed in 1976 with one section of the Naga National Council, the only armed group at the time, had split the Naga armed struggle. In 1980, a section of the leadership broke away to form the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, which later split into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions, which in turn gave rise to more factions. It resulted in years of violent internecine conflict.

In a move that has further set the alarm bells ringing among people, the state government recently ordered police and administrative personnel on leave to return to station immediately.

It has not helped that rumours on social media have flown thick and fast in the absence of any formal communication on the part of the government. “Everybody has questions, but they have no idea whom to turn to for answers,” said Rozelle Mero, a social entrepreneur based in Dimapur.

Businesses have also been hit in the city, with several shops and businesses shutting earlier than usual or not opening at all. “If talks do not work out, my business will be finished,” said a Dimapur-based businessman. “I have been wondering if I should just deposit all my money in the bank now.”

Amid all of this, devout Nagas are seeking divine intervention. Several churches across the state are organising prayer meetings and asking followers to observe a day of fasting to help break the current deadlock.

Meanwhile, the NSCN (IM) stood defiant. “This is a bilateral talk,” said VS Horam, an executive member of group’s steering committee. “Indian cannot impose a deadline on us. Talks will continue till something is worked out.”

The outfit and the Centre are likely to meet at least once more before the October 31 deadline.

‘No more bloodshed’

The Naga people, for their part, seem to be divided about the importance of a separate flag and Constitution. This is borne out by discussions on Facebook groups, which have emerged as a space for young Nagas to hold virtual conversations on socio-political issues.

As Mero, the administrator of a Facebook page called The Naga Blog, explained, “Among us Nagas, there are two groups: one which wants to race with the rest of the world and another which knows we have to catch up with the rest of the world but does not want to compromise their Naga identity.”

Haralu agreed. “Different people have different opinions,” she said. “For many of us, though, we want to see our flags out in the open, because it is our identity and we do not want to hide it anymore.”

But, she added, “what we really want is no more bloodshed.”