A leaked letter has stirred the political pot in Nagaland and led to a flurry of speculation.

On June 25, the four-page letter surfaced, nine days after it was sent by governor RN Ravi to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. In the letter, Ravi had mounted a scathing no-holds-barred attack on Rio’s government.

The state government, he said, had been a mute spectator as “armed gangs” ran riot in Nagaland, carrying out extortion and committing violence. “The law and order in the state has collapsed,” Ravi claimed.

With the legitimacy of the Constitutionally-elected state government’s being “challenged on a day-to-day basis by the armed gangs who question the sovereignty and integrity of the nation”, Ravi told the chief minister that he “could no longer abstain from constitutional obligations in the state under Article 371A (1) (b) of the Constitution”.

Article 371A (1) (b), which applies exclusively to Nagaland, bestows upon the governor “special responsibility with respect to law and order”. According to the provision, the governor, for all practical purposes, has the final say on all matters related to the state’s law and order and on what constitutes law and order.

Ravi then went on to “propose” that transfer and posting of officials above a certain rank involved in maintaining law and order be done only with his “approval”. He wrote, “I also propose to periodically review the law and order situation in the state and issue required lawful directions.”

Finally, he concluded by calling for a meeting with the state cabinet.

Words, not action (yet)

Till June 25, the press had no whiff of either the letter or the meeting that took place on June 20. In fact, things were so hush-hush that even the chief minister’s secretariat had no inkling, according to a person familiar with the sequence of events.

It is not clear who leaked the letter.

But this much is: Ravi has not invoked his special powers. The state government continues to be in charge of law and order, contrary to what has been reported in certain sections of the media, the state’s home minister Y Patton and chief secretary Temjen Toy confirmed to Scroll.in.

He is unlikely to do so either, said several state officials and politicians. As someone in the state cabinet put it, “It was just that: a letter. The state will plunge into a Constitutional crisis if he does that.”

Ravi did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Neiphiu Rio. Credit: PTI

Regardless, the letter has got the government acting. On June 27, the state police addressed a press conference where a spokesperson of the department said the “emerging law and order in the state” was “a matter of concern”. The problem of extortion has caught the “attention of various quarters”, the police spokesperson said, ostensibly referring to Ravi’s letter.

The police were taking action, the official added, exhorting people to register complaints.

Why now?

Yet there seems to be little clarity on what triggered such a terse letter at this juncture. Most people interviewed for this article say that there has been no extraordinary surge in extortion and violence of late. If anything, the lockdown meant things were quieter.

The letter itself offers some clues. Ravi said that he had flagged these issues on several occasions, but the state government had not paid heed to him.

A senior state police official suggested as much too. “I don’t think it was a sudden development,” said the official, on the condition of anonymity. “The issue has always been there and Ravi as the Centre’s instrument did what he ought to do about a phenomenon that challenges the Indian state’s legitimacy.”

Ravi’s letter, he said, reflected the sentiments of the state’s civil society who he had been regularly interacting with in his capacity as governor. (In his letter, Ravi speaks of civil society organisations who have been “at great personal risks…raising voices”).

Naga rebel watches the 58th anniversary of unilateral day of independence ceremony at Hebron Camp in 2005. Credit: Adnan Abidi / Reuters

A long history

Representatives of the state government, however, point out that one must remember that Ravi is no ordinary governor and the law and order problem he refers to in his letter is no ordinary law and order problem. The “armed gangs” mentioned in the letter are the various factions of the Naga armed groups most of which were in talks with the Indian government till October 31 to arrive at a solution to the Naga insurgency, the most protracted conflict in modern India. Ravi is the interlocutor for these talks.

For over six decades, Naga nationalists have fought the Indian 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. Over the decades, the Naga armed movement split into several factions.

In 1997, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest of all Naga armed groups, signed a peace treaty and started a dialogue with the Union government. Since then seven other groups have followed suit and the peace talks are said to have expedited under the Narendra Modi government with Ravi as the interlocutor.

On October 31, talks concluded as the Naga group and the Centre broadly reached common ground. However, a final agreement is yet to be signed – and the nitty-gritty remains to be worked out.

Of parallel governments and taxes

Meanwhile, most of these Naga factions continue to run their own “parallel government” from designated camps in the state and each group levies a “tax” from the state’s residents.

This taxation is contentious – and many residents view it as extortion (most communities in Nagaland are listed as Scheduled Tribes and are otherwise exempt from paying direct taxes to the Union government under Section 10(26) of the Income Tax Act).

Since the genesis of this so-called taxation regime lies in the Naga political struggle, the state government insists it is unfair on Ravi’s part to call it a law and order problem. Even more so, they say, when Ravi is the man appointed by the Indian government to resolve the Naga conundrum. “The Naga issue is not a law and order problem, it is a political conflict,” said a member of the state cabinet. “Ravi is here to solve that conflict, but here he is blaming the state government when the law and order issues pertaining to NSCN is practically in the hands of the Centre.”

The tone of the letter, seen as too harsh, has also not gone down well with the government. “As a governor, you can’t run riot over an elected government like that,” said the state politician.

‘Well within his rights’

Yet, many in the state have welcomed Ravi’s intervention considering the “rampant taxation” and general lawlessness in the state. “What is the point of having an elected government which does not pay attention to its people?” asked Khekiye K Sema, a retired bureaucrat of the Indian Administrative Service and a vocal critic of taxation by insurgent groups.

In such a situation Ravi, he said, was “well within his rights” to do what he did.

Several people in the state, particularly among the business community, seemed to endorse that viewpoint. “What the governor has done is a very good step,” said a leading Naga businessman. “It is a signal to the state government that they cannot just be a mute spectator.”

Yet, other critics of the state government took a more measured line. Former home minister Imkong L Imchen, for one. The opposition leader said the governor had done nothing wrong in shooting off a terse letter to the chief minister highlighting the crumbling law and order situation in the state. “Under the Constitution, the governor has the right to advise the government,” said the Naga People’s Front leader who was home minister in the Rio-led government from 2008-13 (Rio at the time used to head the Naga People’s Front). “I hope the CM takes it in the right spirit and remedies the situation.”

Yet, he said he hoped that the governor wouldn’t go on to invoke Article 371A (1) (b) and actually take over the state’s law and order machinery. The provision, Imchen said, was meant to be only used in the “formative stage” of the state, and over the years, governors had gradually weaned away from playing an executive role. “Law and order being a state subject, the state government should handle it,” he said.

File photo of General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), Th Muivah. Credit: Caisii Mao/AFP

Playing dual roles

But there was more than Constitutional propriety at stake, said Imchen. “Ravi has a dual role and his second role as an interlocutor is more important and bigger,” he pointed out. “On his shoulders lie the responsibility of resolving the Naga issue.”

He added, “Once Naga political issue is concluded, law and order will automatically come under control. I hope Ravi gives more weightage to his role as interlocutor.”

Imchen’s concerns may not be unfounded. Already, the NSCN (IM) has reacted to Ravi’s letter, lashing out at Ravi for calling the “Naga issue” a law and order problem. “He is not the right person to solve the long-standing Indo-Naga problem,” the group said in a statement. “Such an Indian interlocutor will rather complicate and prolong the process which is not the desire of both the Indians and the Nagas.”

Indeed, even those who are unequivocally supportive of Ravi’s intervention seemed to agree that a final agreement to the Naga political question was central to improving things in the state. “Government of India should just also sit across the table with the underground leaders and hammer out a settlement once and for all,” said a Dimapur-based businessman. “It will be good for everyone.”