It is going to be a crucial week for Nagaland. A former top level Intelligence Bureau sleuth, A.K. Mishra, has landed in Dimapur. He has not been named as peace interlocutor for Naga talks officially but for all practical purposes, he is the one. At least, he would be the go-between kind of person.
The Centre has moved Nagaland Governor R.N. Ravi to Tamil Nadu in the same gubernatorial position. Like Mishra, Ravi too is a former top ranking IB official and was handpicked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval to be peace interlocutor for Naga peace parleys since 2014. From the beginning, the NSCN(IM) has had an issue with Ravi. Prior to his appointment as interlocutor, in 2013, he had provoked anguish from the militant camp for penning a newspaper article.
He had written: “Over 1,800 Nagas have been killed in some 3,000 fratricidal clashes since the beginning of the ‘ceasefire’ (1997-2013). Contrast it with the violence during the 17 years preceding the ‘ceasefire’ (1980-96) that took a toll of some 940 Naga lives in 1,125 clashes mostly with the security forces …..The irony is underscored by the fact that while the security forces and the NSCN(IM) have been at mutual ‘peace’ during the ‘ceasefire’, twice as many Nagas have died, killing one another in some 300 per cent escalation in fratricidal violence.
“The vector of violence has turned inward with a vengeance, from between the security forces and the Naga militias to the one among the Nagas themselves. Some in New Delhi gleefully chuckle at their remarkable feat of trapping the ‘belligerent’ Nagas in this vicious cycle of fratricidal killings.”
Predictably, Ravi’s candid and ‘bitter way’ of speaking stuck even when he became Governor of Nagaland and held the post of interlocutor. Therefore, he had issues with the incumbent Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. But subsequently, Ravi did his part pretty well and ensured the Framework Agreement with NSCN(IM) in August 2015 and a similar Preamble Agreement with seven militant groups, the Naga National Political Groups or NNPGs in November 2017.
Talks progressed well and the Modi government was hopeful of a final peace pact by October 2019. The timetable was set by Delhi mandarins and it was done deliberately so that the Modi government had a major achievement to cite within weeks of their major decision to abrogate Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.
First, objections came from BJP-ruled Manipur as the apprehension was that the Centre was giving in to the bargain of the NSCN(IM) and all that would not be in the interest of Meitei Manipuris and mostly Hindus in the Imphal valley and adjoining regions. Home Minister Amit Shah vetoed the deal and said through a PIB release that three adjoining states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh would be taken on board as Nagas also reside in these states.
The real trouble is in Manipur, where the hilly region in and around Ukhrul district is actually the home district of Tangkhul Nagas. NSCN(IM) chief and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah is a Tangkhul himself. The NSCN(IM) has a significant number of Tangkhul foot soldiers and leaders and generals. The NSCN(IM) brass, V.S. Atem, Apam Muivah and Anthony Ningkhan Shimray are all Tangkhuls. In fact, the new ‘military chief’ Anthony Shimray, had also spent almost six years in Delhi’s Tihar jail on charge of gunrunning in 2010.
For a longtime, the NSCN(IM) dominated the Naga insurgency scenario and the group also committed themselves to greater Nagaland — encompassing the three neighbouring states and also parts of Myanmar. This is what they say — the Naga Contiguous areas but due to all practical purposes, the Government of India is unable to concede this demand. In Manipur, the rise and importance given to Muivah and NSCN(IM) is directly seen as a threat to territorial integration of the existing Manipur state. In the meantime, some of Muivah’s colleagues came out and said groups ‘operating in Nagaland’ would be too keen to sign a peace pact. This group is led by N Kitovi Zhimomi, a Sema Naga.
Details are not known and are not transparently declared, but the NNPG of seven Naga groups under soft spoken convener Kitovi Zhimomi had made ‘substantial progress’ in parleys with the then interlocutor and former Governor R.N. Ravi. Now the challenge before the Centre and the new negotiator — if A.K. Mishra is taken as one — is to strike the right balance. Hence, Mishra’s job in the next few days would not be easy either. The solution to the Naga political problem has a direct bearing on the corridors of power in Kohima and these obviously are linked to ‘loaves’ of profitability. Hence all eyes are on how Mishra and ultimately the Government of India takes everyone along.
On September 18, all 60 legislators under Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio decided to form the United Democratic Alliance and there would be no opposition in the state assembly. The move, they say, is to facilitate a final peace accord that is ‘inclusive’ and acceptance and honourable to all. All these ‘three words’ coming together is a tough proposition and here comes the persuasive skills of the central leadership.
Replacing Ravi, the incumbent Assam Governor Jagdish Mukhi took additional charge of Nagaland on Friday, Sep 17. In his inaugural message, Mukhi said, “….soon we will have a comprehensive and inclusive solution to the Naga political issue ensuring utmost honour and dignity to the Naga people”.
Sources in the government say by replacing Ravi, the Centre has tried to give a clear message to the NSCN(IM) to give up its twin demands of Flag and a separate Constitution. Jingoism would not work and hence it is time to be pragmatic.
In his departure message to the Naga people and especially the youth, Ravi urged them to build ‘Nagaland of your dreams’ and be ready to accept peace and truth instead of deceit and violence. All these boil down to one simple refrain that Mishra will have to do a delicate tightrope walk.
Officially, Nagaland Home Commissioner Abhijit Sinha in a notification designated A.K. Mishra as a ‘state guest’ and maintained that he would be parked in Dimapur till September 23. The first meeting is slated for September 20 with NSCN(IM). Officials say Muivah himself will lead his delegation. Half the things could be clear on that day.
The meeting with NNPGs would be more or less on expected lines and a formality as they have clarified that they do not insist on contentious demands for Flag and Constitution. Now, common citizens in Nagaland are skeptical about the whole scenario. All these talks are being carried out on the backdrop of the cease-fire between the Indian army and militants. These cease-fires are also reviewed by security agencies, forces and the leaders concerned of militant groups.
The Modi government’s handling of Kashmir is fresh in people’s minds. Such a strategy tried in August 2018 has given an impression to many that when the time comes, the dispensation in Delhi could act decisively and be tough. In 2019 in Kashmir, even the Internet was banned and some top leaders were arrested or put on under observation for months.
No parallel can be drawn between the insurgencies in two states and regions as varied as Kashmir in north India and the wilds of the Naga hills in the Northeast. But in any given case, what is important is what people want. The Nagas are certainly clamoring for peace.
And the peace parleys that commenced in 1997 have come a long way.
Going back to the jungles should not be an option in Circa 2021. That could well turn out to be similar to the Afghanistan fiasco — only the scale would be different.
(Nirendra Dev is a New Delhi-based journalist who served in Nagaland during the 1990s. He is the author of ‘The Talking Guns: North East India’)