On July 11, the defence wing of the Press Information Bureau put out a statement about an armed operation in Arunachal Pradesh. Six members of the National Socialists Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction) had been “neutralised” in a joint operation conducted by the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles, it said.

Security forces were acting on specific intelligence about the presence of cadres from the “proscribed group”, the statement said. The shooting was started by the militants, it claimed, who opened fire when they saw the column of troops.

The next day, the NSCN(IM) put out its own statement, issued from its headquarters in Hebron in Nagaland. It contained a list of soldiers from the Naga Army who were killed in Longding, it accused the security forces of killing them in “cold blood” for “fabricated” reasons.

The action was a means for the army to “vent its frustration” against China, whose troops are stationed close by along the restive border, the statement claimed. It was also a violation of the Indo-Naga ceasefire of 1997, which was supposed to pave the way for “peace and political negotiation”. The ceasefire had “lost its meaning” and the Indian government had reneged on the peace accord signed in 2015, the statement concluded.

Despite the ceasefire, shootouts between security forces and NSCN (IM) cadres did not end in the states of the North East. The two parties disagree on the terms of the ceasefire itself – the government claims it applies only to Nagaland while the NSCN(IM) holds there are no territorial limits to it.

But last weekend’s shootout took an exceptionally high toll. The war of words that followed was also striking. It was fought in the language of adversaries, not two parties trying to negotiate a political settlement. Over 20 years of relative peace ensured by the ceasefire seems close to unravelling.

A hot peace

Naga nationalism, which gave rise to India’s oldest militancy, envisages an ethnic homeland spanning across Nagaland as well as Naga inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar across the border.

The militancy and the massive state crackdown led to decades of violence. Apart from fighting between security forces and militants, internecine clashes broke out as the Naga militancy split into several factions. Well into the 1990s, this took a high toll. At the peak of the militancy in 1997, according to figures compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Nagaland recorded 360 fatalities. That is not counting deaths in internecine and ethnic clashes outside Nagaland.

The graph of violence dipped after the government signed separate ceasefire agreements with the largest militant factions – the NSCN (IM) in 1997 and the NSCN (Khaplang faction) in 2001. The members of the NSCN(IM) were quartered at a camp in Hebron, from where they ran a parallel government called the “Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim”. It was with the NSCN (IM), arguably the most powerful of the factions, that it pursued peace talks – prompting the Khaplang faction to storm out of the ceasefire in 2014.

Naga militants celebrate the 58th anniversary of the unilateral day of independence at Hebron in Nagaland.

A stalemate

The Indian government’s attempts to reach an accord with Naga groups does not have a happy history. In 1975, it had signed the Shillong Accord with a few leaders of the Naga National Council, then the only secessionist Naga group. The accord, which signed away the Naga demand for a sovereign state, led to the splintering of the Naga militancy and more violence.

But in 2015, when the government signed a “framework agreement” for a final political settlement after 18 years of talks with the NSCN(IM), there was jubilation in Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared a stage with Thuingaleng Muivah, one of the leaders of the NSCN (IM), in public scenes of reconciliation.

In 2017, the Centre’s interlocutor, RN Ravi, brought six other Naga factions, now known collectively as the Naga National Political Groups, on board. In 2019, a faction of the NSCN (K), divided and weakened after the death of its leader, also joined negotiations.

At last, it seemed the government would be able to bring all factions of the Naga leadership in India to a consensus and October 31, 2019, was the deadline set for a final agreement. But October 31 came and went with no agreement signed.

By then, the demand for Naga sovereignty was off the table. It was also increasingly clear that there would be no territorial integration of Naga areas within Indian borders, as the existing state boundaries would remain intact. The government only seemed prepared to concede to the formation of a pan-Naga cultural body and Naga autonomous councils in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. There were believed to be two major sticking points: whether Nagas would have a separate flag and a constitution.

While other Naga groups appeared amenable, the NSCN (IM) was not. The jubilation of 2015 had worn away, the relationship between the government and the NSCN (IM) had grown visibly strained.

The troubled belt

It must be noted that Longding, where this week’s shooting took place, never stopped being part of a troubled belt in Arunachal Pradesh. This spans three districts – Longding, Tirap and Changlang – close to the border with Myanmar, where Naga militants have historically taken refuge.

Over the years, the NSCN(IM) has been accused of various attacks on local party leaders and security forces here. In May last year, a member of the Arunachal Pradesh legislative assembly and 10 others were gunned down in Tirap. This year, the National Investigation Agency filed a chargesheet holding members of the NSCN(IM) responsible for the attack.

Longding was the site of another conflagration in May, when the Indian Army reportedly opened fire at a “peace meeting” in a village, killing a civilian. While army personnel claimed they were searching for NSCN(IM) cadres, village residents and the deputy commissioner suggested soldiers had gone to negotiate peace after allegedly beating up a local youth.

Naga rebel watches 58th anniversary of unilateral day of independence ceremony at Hebron Camp. Credit: Adnan Abidi

Looking the other way

But over two decades of ceasefire, both government and Naga groups had grown adept at delicately side-stepping thorny issues. Talks continued alongside ambushes and operations. The Naga Army, quartered at Hebron, did not give up arms even after the ceasefire. Nagaland and Naga-inhabited districts across North Eastern states remained under the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which gave the military executive powers to open fire and conduct searches without a warrant.

But the government turned the other way as Naga groups ran parallel governments from their designated camps. While they had no administrative powers, they collected “taxes” from local businesses, trucks transporting goods and even government departments. As one Nagaland legislator suggested in 2015, when the Centre signed ceasefires with Naga groups, it indirectly gave an official imprimatur to these organisations.

What Naga groups call taxation, security agencies call “extortion”. But policing these matters has always been difficult. Police officials point to the nexus between state government officials and armed groups, to community ties between militants and ordinary residents, to the general public’s reluctance to file complaints about alleged extortion.

For years, this status quo continued. Until now.

Taking the hard line

Of late, the Centre appears to have hardened its tone, suggesting it is in no mood for compromise. This is most evident in recent statements made by Ravi, the Central interlocutor who parleyed with Naga groups for years and was popular with the public. In 2015, the NSCN(IM) spoke approvingly of the soft-spoken former Intelligence Bureau official. When he arrived in Dimapur in 2017 to get various Naga factions on board for talks, he was given a hero’s welcome.

Now governor of Nagaland as well as the Centre’s interlocutor, Ravi has changed tack. A few weeks ago, he dashed off a letter to the Nagaland chief minister, complaining about “armed gangs” engaged in unchecked extortion. He proposed to take over the supervision of law and order in the state using powers accorded to the Nagaland governor under Article 371A. This did not come to pass but, a few days later, state government officials got an unusual diktat – they had to declare relatives who were part of rebel groups. The old ambivalence, the Centre seems to signal, will no longer hold.

The NSCN(IM), for its part, deferred its last meeting with Ravi, apparently because of Muivah’s health. The Nagalim church, which backs the rebel group, has called for prayers on July 19, lamenting the “dark cloud of confusion, uncertainty and chaos” created by the Indian government’s “insincere attitude and actions”. The entire peace process and the ceasefire was at stake, it said in a statement.

For over two decades, this ceasefire had been the only guarantee of peace. It was an imperfect, unquiet peace but it created the necessary conditions for political dialogue. These were hard-won gains after decades of intense violence. The government cannot afford to squander them away. It needs to return to the language of negotiation, not antagonism.