The October 31 deadline set by the Union government to conclude the Naga peace talks ended on a somewhat ambiguous note. The deadlock between the government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) over a separate Naga flag and constitution – the issues holding up a final agreement – was resolved, a member of NSCN (IM)’s negotiation team told Scroll.in. But the Ministry of Home Affairs claimed in a late evening communique that no final settlement has been arrived at.
“Rumours” of a final settlement, the ministry stated, were “creating anxiety and concern in some parts of the country.” “It is clarified that before any settlement is arrived at with Naga groups, all stakeholders including States of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will be duly consulted and their concerns will be taken into consideration,” the press statement added.
Jubilation in Nagaland
Even as the home ministry sought to play down the development, Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio took to Twitter to express his “deepest appreciation to the negotiating parties of the peace talks for making the historic breakthrough”.
“It is a historic moment and an occasion of great joy for all Nagas and the nation as a whole,” wrote the chief minister.
Rio’s party, the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, holds power in Nagaland with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The two are also alliance partners in the Central government.
Rio’s deputy and BJP leader Yanthungo Patton reiterated the same sentiments in a series of tweets. “Big day for us as Nagas,” he wrote, congratulating Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah “for taking the long-standing Naga issue towards a solution”.
Yet, almost at the same time, Himanta Biswa Sarma, the Assam politician who is considered the BJP’s point-man for the North East, seemed to dismiss that anything of significance had taken place at all.
“Rumours that Naga Accord is being signed unilaterally are baseless and aimed at disturbing peace in NE,” he said in a tweet. “The Central Government will take people of Manipur, Assam & Arunachal Pradesh into full confidence before arriving at a conclusion.”
Manipur’s Chief Minister N Biren Singh also posted a video message on Facebook, asking people not to pay heed to “rumours”.
What explains these seemingly contradictory positions?
Territorial integration (or not)
To appreciate what happened on October 31, one needs to understand the evolving contours of the Naga peace talks.
For more than half a century, Naga nationalists have fought the Indian state. At the heart of the Naga struggle was the desire 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.
In 1997, the NSCN (IM), the largest and most influential of Naga armed groups on the Indian side of the border, signed a peace treaty and started a dialogue with the Union government. After almost two decades of lacklustre progress, Modi government signed a “framework agreement” with the NSCN (IM) in 2015. As talks between the Indian government and Naga nationalists progressed under this agreement, the NSCN (IM) came to be less rigid about “territorial integration” of all contiguous Naga areas and relinquished the demand for complete sovereignty.
Over the last couple of months, as more details about the negotiations started to make their way out, it became increasingly clear that territorial integration was indeed off the table. Instead, Naga areas in the adjoining states of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, it came to be understood, would be converted into satellite territorial councils – administered in some measure by a proposed bicameral Naga parliament.
Although the NSCN (IM) itself has never quite publicly admitted to it, senior leaders of the outfit justify the step-down as being in sync with modern realities.
In fact, territorial integration – once the most controversial aspect of the Naga question – had long ceased to be contentious: the Naga nationalists and the Indian government have been on the same page on the subject for quite some time now.
The new bones of contention
What had been holding up an agreement were, what many would say, two symbolic entities: a separate Naga flag and Constitution.
The NSCN (IM) had vehemently maintained that there could be no solution if the Nagas were not allowed to have their own Constitution and flag.
On October 31, it was this impasse that was broken, clearing the decks, in all likelihood, for a final settlement. In an almost dramatic turnaround, the NSCN (IM) budged, agreeing to a settlement without a Constitution and with a conditional flag that can only be used for non-governmental purposes.
Fear in Manipur
Meanwhile, as the October 31 deadline closed in, tensions started to simmer in Manipur. The state is home to the Meiteis, who form a majority in the Imphal Valley, and the Nagas and Kukis, who dominate the tribal districts of the hills. For decades, the communities have made competing demands for ethnic homelands.
Protests organised by Meitei groups echoed a long-running fear: that a solution to the Naga problem would come at the cost of Manipur’s integrity. Even the satellite territorial councils are seen as a threat. Kuki groups, also in talks with the government, fear the Naga solution would carve up their imagined homeland. At protests held in the Kuki dominated district of Kangpokpi, there were placards saying “Expedite Kuki political solution” and “Kuki want Territorial Council, We want it now”.
It did not help that the Central government has been determinedly opaque about the whole process and what shape a possible solution could take. Although in the past, Modi himself had assured Manipur civil society groups that they would be consulted, no such thing has happened so far.
As Naga leaders negotiated with the Centre in New Delhi on October 31 to break the deadlock, Manipur’s Imphal valley witnessed a shutdown in nervous anticipation – streets teeming with security forces.
As news of the breakthrough broke, many in Manipur thought their worst fears had come true: that the political character of their state had been tempered without them being even consulted.
‘We will give them a chance’
It was to allay these fears that the government seems to have played down the fairly important breakthrough of Thursday. It seems to have helped soothe some frayed nerves. “We will give them a chance,” said Khuraijam Athouba, a member of the recently-formed Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, an umbrella body of valley-based civil society groups.
But with the NSCN (IM) and the Centre having sorted out their differences on the flag and Constitution, does this “clarification” not amount to delaying the inevitable?
“The final signatures would take some more time as the two parties would have to go over the agreed competencies once again,” said a leader of the NSCN (IM)’s negotiation team.
It is perhaps also the time that the government needs to convince Nagaland’s neighbours, particularly Manipur.