Naga peace deal: Trouble ahead if NSCN (IM) feels govt won't keep promises

The Governor of Nagaland, R N Ravi, declared last Friday that he had been given three months to wrap up the Naga peace agreement by PM Narandra Modi. Brushing aside a disagreement on "symbolic issues" – such as the demand for a Naga flag and Constitution, Ravi said that they should not be allowed to delay the settlement.

The NSCN (IM) leaders believe they were served an "ultimatum" to sign the agreement in three months in the last round of talks held with Ravi on July 26,2019. They were told that all Nagas would have to become an integral part of the Indian Union. This was percieved by them as a unilateral move by the Indian government to limit the meaning of "special federal relationship" which is under negotiation.

The NSCN (IM) leaders cautioned Ravi to do nothing that might create an unbridgeable gap between the two sides once again. Since then the NSCN (IM) leadership has been approached informally by the government to restart the formal dialogue, however, they have refused to budge.

There are several reasons for their uneasiness. The foremost being that the governments’ former Chief Interlocutor, Ravi, has now become the Governor of Nagaland. Negotiating with him, NSCN (IM) believes, amounts to downgrading a political dialogue meant to be with the prime minister or his emissary. To negotiate with the Governor, according to them, will reduce the Naga political problem to a "law and order issue" to be settled through the Union Home Ministry.

In the last round of official talks, serious differences had also cropped up between NSCN (IM) and Ravi over the interpretation of the mutually-agreed principle that a settlement should be based on an "inclusive, peaceful coexistence between two entities".

The standing instruction of the government to its negotiators for the last 22 years was that they must not agree to a formulation which recognises Nagaland and India as two separate entities. They were instead told to concede that the Naga case was special and different from that of the other states of India. The first real fillip to the negotiations, in fact, was given by the government recognising the "unique history and situation" of the Nagas in talks held in Amsterdam on July 11, 2002.

More immediately, however, there is disagreement over interpretation of the term "inclusive". For NSCN (IM) it means that the peace agreement would apply to all the Nagas wherever they may reside. The government, on the other hand, interprets "inclusive" as allowing it to carry on simultaneous negotiations with Naga groups other than the NSCN(IM). Ravi asserted this meaning of "inclusive" in his a speech in Kohima after becoming governor. He said that the government’s new approach was to reach a peaceful solution through inclusiveness – by talking to all Naga groups, tribal organisations, civil society groups, intellectuals, senior citizens, and Naga legislators because "no organisation has exclusive franchise on it". Talks are even being held with Eastern Naga Peoples Organisation which has demanded a separate state of "Frontier Nagaland" within the present state of Nagaland.

Broadening the peace negotiations before first reaching an agreement with the main interlocutor of the Nagas for 22 years, the NSCN(IM), goes counter to the assurances given to them by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao when he met them in Paris in 1995. Rao had apparently told the NSCN(IM) that he was aware that they represented the Naga political sentiment and there was no question of negotiating a settlement with anyone else.

The government’s earlier approach at the time was to first reach a settlement with the largest Naga insurgent group, the NSCN (IM), and then encourage it to bring in other social and political groups under the umbrella. The NSCN(IM) had therefore objected to the government initiating a cease-fire with its rival groups, but did not actively oppose these initiatives as they were being carried out by a joint secretary in the Union Home Ministry, who enjoyed a lower political status than the NCSN(IM) interlocutor. Now, with the Centre’s interlocutor holding peace talks with everyone, the situation has changed. A top Naga leader commented derisively on this change of policy saying, "Will Gaon Buras (village elders/chiefs) bring about a political settlement with the Indian government?"

There is also a growing suspicion that by dealing with a plethora of groups within the state of Nagaland, the government is trying to limit any agreement on the present boundaries of the state. A new settlement could thus give powers beyond those provided in Article 371A of the Indian Constitution only to the state of Nagaland while Nagas in adjoining states would have to satisfy themselves with Naga Autonomous Regional Territorial Councils with a few financial powers and judicial powers related to customary law.

Although Governor Ravi assured the Nagas gathered in Kohima in the aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 that not only would Article 371A not be scrapped, they would get "something more than Article 371A", he did not clarify whether the additional powers would be limited only to the state of Nagaland.

As Cenre's representative, Governor Ravi can only reiterate the political views of his principals. After the Modi government’s re-election, its policy towards nation-building is more aggressively centralising. Ravi’s statements could therefore indicate a paradigm shift in the framework of Naga talks.

The ruling BJP’s strong unitary view of the Indian Union has little place for Constitutional asymmetry which had allowed different states of the Union to define Centre-State relationships differently. The new dispensation is unlikely to "waste time" discussing greater autonomy with any state or insurgent group.

The unitary doctrine of state was used to validate the government’s surprise decision in Jammu and Kashmir. It will also impact the Naga peace process. Should the NSCN (IM) feel that that the Centre is going back on its previous commitments and that it is being marginalised in the peace talks, things may turn hairy in the North East.

Twitter: @bhartitis

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