On Monday, 3 August 2015, a peace accord was signed between the Government of India and the rebel Naga group, Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland, led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, known by its acronym NSCN(IM). The accord was signed in the Prime Ministers residence by Mr RN Ravi, the Chief Indian Interlocutor on behalf of the Government of India and by Mr T Muivah representing NSCN(IM), in the presence of the Indian Premier, Shri Narendra Modi, the Home Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh and the National Security Advisor, Shri Ajit Doval. The pact should hopefully bring to an end decades of insurgency in Nagaland, though of course it is not binding on the half a dozen or so other rebel groups, chief among them being the NSCN(K), led by Mr Khaplang, which split from the NSCN in 1988.
The origin of the conflict in Nagaland can be traced to 1881 CE, when Naga hills became part of British India. In 1918, a few government officials and leading Naga chiefs, formed the Naga Club, which was simply a common platform for promoting the interests of the Nagas. However, in the absence of any other organisation, it turned into an effective political forum for the Naga tribes.Thereafter, when the Simon Commission visited Naga Hills in 1929 a strong delegation representing different tribes of Nagas submitted a memorandum demanding that their hills be excluded from the proposed reform scheme and kept under direct British rule. Consequently, under the Government of India Act, 1935 Naga Hills were excluded from the reform scheme and declared as an “Excluded Area”, though they continued to be governed by the Government of Assam. Post World War II, a greater degree of unity developed among the Nagas, and under the initiative of Mr C.R. Pawsey, the then Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills district, the Naga Hills Tribal Council was formed in 1945 to help in relief and rehabilitation work. This became the Naga Tribal Hills Council in 1945, and was converted into Naga National Council (NNC) on 14 April, 1946. The political objective of the Naga National Council was solidarity of all Nagas, including those of the unadministered areas and the inclusion of their hills within the province of Assam in a free India, with local autonomy and adequate safeguards for the interest of the Nagas. This demand of the Nagas was well received in the circle of the Indian National Congress. However, some British officers abroad suggested new plans (“Crown Colony”) for the hill areas of Northeast India, which was mischievous in intent, but this did not gain traction.
In June 1947, a 9-point accord called the ‘Hydari Accord’ was signed between the then Governor of Assam, Akbar Hydari and the representatives of the Naga National Council at Kohima after three days of deliberation. The Accord granted a certain measure of autonomy to the Nagas, but Clause IX had an element of ambiguity and was to become contentious. This stated:
“Period of Agreement—The Governor of Assam as the Agent of the Government of the Indian Union will have a special responsibility for a period of 10 years to ensure the due observance of this Agreement; at the end of this period the Naga Council will be asked whether they require the above agreement to be extended for a further period or a new agreement regarding the future of the Naga people arrived at”.
Nothing in the Hydari agreement suggested that the Naga participation in India was temporary, though the NNC insisted upon that interpretation. The government interpreted the agreement in the light that Nagas had the freedom only to suggest revision of the administrative pattern after ten years, which was unacceptable to the N.N.C. When Phizo became its president, the N.N.C. decisively rejected the government’s interpretation of the agreement and formed the Federal Government of Nagaland (NFG) in exile in 1952. With the onset of insurgency in the state, the Army was deployed to quell it, giving rise to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 as an enabling provision. After years of insurgency, some leaders of the NFG signed the Shillong Accord of 1975 wherein they agreed to abide by the Indian Constitution and abjure violence. This was unacceptable to some members of the NFG who broke away to form the NSCN in 1980. Prominent among these was Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and K Khaplang. the NSCN further split in 1988 when Khaplang broke away from the organisation to form his own group, NSCN(K). In July 1997, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM) which came into effect on 01 August. This was extended indefinitely on 31 July 2007.
Portents for the Future
The signing of the accord in the presence of the Prime Minister marks a major shift in the security situation in India’s Northeast and will give a fillip to the governments ‘Act East’ policy. The Accord opens the Northeast to development, with construction of infrastructure projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which has been held hostage to a number of violent incidents.
The details of the accord are yet not in the public domain, so it is not clear how the contentious issues have been addressed. It is apparent that the accord is within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, but there are other contentious issues which could still act as a spoiler. Chief among them is the demand of the Naga groups for a greater Nagalim, incorporating all Naga speaking areas. This specifically impacts Manipur, but also is of concern to Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Greater Nagalim lays claim to significant parts of four of seven districts of Manipur – Tamenglong, Senapati, Ukhrul and Chandel. In Arunachal Pradesh, the areas claimed include the Dibang Valley, Lohit, Tirap and Changlang districts. The areas claimed in Assam include parts of the districts of Golaghat, Sibasagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukhia and Jorhat. It is understandable that these states are looking closely at what the terms of the accord are, but any change in state boundaries, especially in Manipur, will have serious consequences. A possible way out is to maintain boundaries as existing, but give to those areas outside Nagaland which have a dominant Naga population certain levels of autonomy, especially with respect to their cultural moorings.
Another challenge is the rehabilitation of the NSCN (IM) cadre. A package could entail incorporating some of them into the security apparatus of the state to even include central police organisations such as the BSF and the CRPF. It would be a mistake to go beyond this level and induction of such personnel into the regular army or the para military force like the Assam Rifles would be counter productive. More logically, as the area is to be opened for development, a major part of this force could be used for promoting such development which could be a win win situation for all.
What of the arms held by this group? It is unlikely that they will agree to surrender their weapons, especially as the NSCN (K) is still active and a number of other armed insurgent groups have presence in the area, albeit with a smaller footprint. So it would be interesting to watch how this issue is handled. The peace pact however will serve to isolate the NSCN(K), which could be neutralised by a combination of action taken by the Indian security forces in tandem with Myanmar. Diplomatically, the countries in the region, especially China would have to be taken on board in an effort to isolate the remaining insurgents. A more robust message will also have to be sent to Pakistan, to keep the ISI influence at bay.
Mr Muivah has sagely stated that the Nagas would honour the accord but acknowledged that challenges still remain. The Prime Minister’s statement during the signing of the accord, “Today we mark not merely the end of a problem, but the beginning a new future”, was filled with a far greater deal of hope and assurance. With the governments increased focus on development of the Northeast and its push towards a more robust engagement with the countries of Southeast Asia, an opportunity beckons for peace. Time will tell whether the actors on the stage have the wisdom and maturity to usher in a new period of hope and prosperity or whether the people of the Northeast will lose yet another generation to mindless violence.