Has the Naga peace process reached an impasse? A heated exchange over the last week suggests both Naga groups and the government have hardened their positions.

On Sunday, August 16, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction), the largest Naga armed group in talks with the government, released the contents of the framework agreement signed in 2015 and kept confidential so far. The agreement, signed by NSCN(IM) leaders and the Central interlocutor, RN Ravi, was to set the term for a final peace pact between the government and armed groups that had fought for an independent Naga state for decades.

According to the documents released by NSCN(IM), the 2015 agreement laid the ground for a settlement that involved the Indian government and the Nagas “sharing the sovereign power”. The NSCN(IM) alleged that Ravi had manipulated the document in his submission to the parliamentary standing committee to suggest that any solution would be within the limits of the Indian Constitution and concerned only the state of Nagaland. On August 14, in a speech to commemorate “Naga independence day”, NSCN(IM) chief Thuingaleng Muivah declared Nagas would “co-exist” but not “merge” with India.

The next salvo came from Ravi, now governor of Nagaland as well as Central interlocutor. In his Independence Day speech on August 15, Ravi berated Nagaland as the “worst-performing state” in the country. He referred darkly to “vested interests” creating “mass scale mayhem”, derailing peace. The speech came weeks after Ravi had denounced “armed gangs” and “extortion” in Nagaland.

Five years after the framework agreement was signed, a final settlement seems far away. But the turbulence on the surface hides a deeper stalemate that suits both the government and NSCN(IM) for now.

A fading consensus

The imagined Naga homeland that spurred decades of militancy spans across Nagaland, the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the border. Government efforts to sign a peace pact with Naga groups have not been successful, historically.

In 1975, it inked the Shillong Accord with a few leaders of the Naga National Council, which was the only secessionist group at the time. The accord, which signed away the Naga demand for sovereignty, led to a splintering of the militancy and a phase of intense violence as different groups became locked in internecine wars. The NSCN was formed in 1980. It split into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions in 1988. More splinter groups would form over the decades.

In 1997, the government signed a ceasefire with NSCN(IM) and started talks. Another ceasefire was signed with NSCN(K) in 2001 but negotiations failed to move forwards and the armed group stormed out of it in 2014. While the framework agreement was signed with the NSCN(IM) in 2015, worries remained. The Shillong Accord had shown the dangers of making peace with one faction, excluding the rest.

A Naga rebel at the Hebron camp. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Ravi appeared to solve this problem when he brought the seven other factions, now known as the Naga non-political groups, into the talks. Relations between the NSCN(IM) and the Naga non-political groups remained tense; relations between the NSCN(IM) and the government had also grown strained after the initial bout of optimism. But a deadline for a final agreement was set – October 31, 2019.

At this stage of the talks, the demand for sovereignty appeared to have been set aside, so was the possibility of redrawing state borders within India to integrate Naga areas. The government seemed prepared to concede autonomous district councils in Naga areas of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, and a pan-Naga cultural body spanning areas this side of the border.

If the Naga non-political groups were open to such a settlement, the NSCN(IM) was not. The two major sticking points were a separate Naga constitution and separate flag.

Close to the October 31 deadline, it was believed that the NSCN(IM) and the government had reached a consensus: no separate constitution and a conditional flag that could only be hoisted on “non-political” occasions. But the Centre played down these claims. The deadline came and went with no peace pact signed.

Since last year, the consensus that seemed within reach has slipped away again. The Centre has given up the conciliatory tone, launching a security crackdown on NSCN(IM) cadres and leaders.

Naga civil society and students’ organisations are split down the middle, with loyalties at least partly determined by region and tribe. While some back the NSCN(IM)’s demand that Ravi be replaced, others favour the Naga non-political groups willing to work towards a settlement with him. But an agreement without the largest Naga armed group conjures up the spectres of the Shillong Accord once again.

Shattering the calm?

The NSCN(IM) might have gleaned some bitter lessons from the 1975 accord. The Naga National Council was seen to have compromised with the government as it conceded the demand for sovereignty, leading to insurrections within and the withering of the group. What would it now mean to be the face of an agreement that gave up the decades-old demand for a Naga nation or even territorial integration of Naga areas in India?

As for the government, it has several calculations to make. An agreement with the Naga non-political groups that leaves out the NSCN(IM) may create discord among Nagas. Besides, it must mediate between several competing claims in North Eastern states. In Manipur, for instance, Kuki and Meitei demands for an ethnic homeland vie for space with Naga demands. It has left behind decades of violent rivalry. Let alone redrawing state borders, even the prospect of autonomous Naga councils in these areas have led to a backlash.

Meanwhile, the ceasefires with various groups ensured a tenuous calm in the states of the North East, a reprieve from the decades of bloodshed that went before. As it goes ahead, the Centres chief worry may be this: would a peace accord shatter this relative peace?