As the government deadline of October 31, 2019 for final settlement to the Naga dispute approached, there were reports of talks with NSCN (IM) running into rough weather. But then came good news of NSCN (IM) coming on board ‘without’ a separate Naga constitution but with a ‘conditional’ flag. Latter reportedly implies that the Naga flag can be displayed at social and cultural events but will not be permitted during official functions and official buildings. However, issues like can the Naga flag be displayed at official cultural functions under aegis of state administration remain ambiguous.
NSCN (IM) has stated, “We have agreed to finalize the agreement…. The flag and the Constitution will be pursued later. We have to go over all the agreed competencies before signing. It may take some time.” This indicates their demand for separate Constitution is not dead. There are no inputs about status of NSCN demand of Nagalim – greater Nagaland. After the death of Isak Chisi Swu in 2016, NSCN (IM) continued to envisage Nagalim comprising contiguous Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and also tracts of Myanmar.
The organization had said it is ready to “co-exist with India’, which had a duplicitous meaning. On October 31, 2019 MHA issued a statement saying, “it is clarified that before any settlement is arrived at with Naga groups, all stakeholders including the States of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will be consulted.”
Earlier on October 18, RN Ravi, Nagaland Governor and government interlocutor, stated in Kohima that a mutually agreed draft comprehensive settlement has already been reached for signature with different Naga groups. As per media, one such anticipated agreement is granting of ‘autonomy’ to the Naga communities inhabiting different parts of northeast India; which may affect Arunachal Pradesh (Anjaw, Changlang, Lohit, Longding, Namsai, Tirap districts), Assam (Dima Hasao, Karbi Anglong, Dibrugarh, Golaghat, Jorhat, Sivasagar, Tinsukia districts) and Manipur (Chandel, Kamjong, Kangpokpi, Senapati, Tamenglong, Tengnoupal, Ukhrul districts). Overlapping territorial claims in hill tracts of Manipur has witnessed violent clashes between Kukis and Naga groups in the past. Loss of hill tracts to Naga autonomy is an emotional issue for Meiteis of Manipur who view this move paving the way for disintegration of Manipur.
Together with NSCN (IM), umbrella organization of Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) comprises seven other Naga groups. Of these, NSCN (Reformation), which is a breakaway faction of the NSCN (Khapalang) group or NSCN (K) has said, “The final agreement is expected to be signed in the next fortnight provided the drafting of the agreement is completed. Nagas will continue to pursue demands for a separate flag and Constitution through political and democratic means.” However, on November 2, Yung Aung, Chairman of NSCN-K gave a media interview saying, “As long as India and Myanmar continue to dominate “our country”, fighting is inevitable.. We will continue the fight till our goal is accomplished… NSCN/GPRN is silent on present GoI-NSCN (IM) negotiations … has nothing to do with Naga struggle for complete independence. Our stand is clear – full freedom… Nagas are not struggling in foreign land but in land that belongs to Nagas. NSCN/GPRN is ready for talks if it is based on full sovereignty of Nagas.”
Talking to media, Yung Aung also praised China for the support China had provided to the NSCN in the past and said there would be no hesitation in seeking Beijing’s support in the future if the need arose. Yung Aung has been traveling to China accompanied by ULFA’s Paresh Barua. The latter is based in Ruli, China after he was expelled by Bangladesh. This makes it clear that NSCN-K is not part of the proposed final settlement. Exact number of the NSCN (K) cadres is not known though estimates range from 800-1000. Their propensity to increase their cadre strength and keep the Naga insurgency going needs to be carefully examined. It is pertinent to note that after the 2015 Framework Agreement, NSCN (IM) recruited another 5000 cadres and continued with extortions and militant acts.
News reports indicate government is planning to absorb an estimated strength of 8000 plus cadres of the NSCN-NNPGs in a new force. This is akin to Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting Jammu in June 2018 and announcing raising of nine additional battalions in J&K. It is unclear what are to be the contours of the proposed new force to be created from the NSCN (IM)-NNPG cadres. Are they to be part of the expansion of the ITBP-AR merger (despite all the negatives of the proposal) under the MHA? Most importantly where will this new force be deployed? Recall when 111 Battalion of BSF was raised on September 11, 1979 after some 2,200 cadre of Revolutionary Government of Nagaland (RGN) cadres surrendered, they did reduce militancy in particular areas but were hardly used in operations. Is the new proposed force just to be paid to lie low or deployed on the Indo-Myanmar border?
If the new force is to man the Indo-Myanmar border, their effectiveness needs to be viewed in context of Nagas living both sides of the border. Also, how do we propose to tackle the internecine feud between Naga factions if these new units are to have cadres from multiple Naga groups? Weapons held by all Naga rebels are reportedly to be preserved and displayed in a newly established Naga Revolutionary Museum. This is a good idea but will the rebels surrender all their arms, especially the automatics supplied by China?
The proposal includes formation of an Autonomous Council in Naga-dominated areas in the states of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Also a bicameral Naga body to decide on local cultural issues is to be formed under the peace deal. Do we envisage a backlash, particularly in Manipur?
On November 4, 2019, Concurrently, Assam Governor AB Mathur stated that he was hopeful for the government signing a deal as early as in “next two months” with three militant groups – ULFA, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and a Karbi group in Manipur which is a Kuki Naga group. But now media reports that the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK) has threatened to declare independence by 2022, and has asked Indian Army to leave the area. What does this signify and why can’t we stop making public statements before all loose ends of proposed deals are tied up, preferably sign such deals before going public?
Publicized deadlines put interlocutors under avoidable pressure. In just four years after the 2015 Framework Agreement with NSCN (IM) which was being projected as a ‘final’ one, we are witnessing the need to go for another agreement because the first one did not serve the purpose. The 2015 agreement was hurried possibly to score political mileage over the opposition. But after the landslide electoral win in the 2019 general elections, there is no such pressure to rush into final settlements, which may not be really ‘final’. Paresh Barua transiting through India after being kicked out by Bangladesh was not apprehended/ eliminated despite our intelligence agencies monitoring his movements. He may be ignored given the fact that ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia confirming that a peace deal is in sight.
But government must tie up all loose ends of the agreement with Nagas including making serious efforts to take the NSCN (K) also on board. If NSCN (IM), which is the largest armed Naga group has been brought on board, why not NSCN (K) to ensure a comprehensive final settlement?
On sidelines of the recent ASEAN meet, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conveyed to Myanmar’s State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and sought her country’s cooperation against insurgent groups finding a space to operate across the India-Myanmar border. But considering the difficult terrain and India’s unwillingness for protracted pro-active deployments at sub-conventional level beyond direct physical raids, this will unlikely suffice. Current pace of our operations in concert with Myanmar against trans-border insurgent groups may not be enough to completely tame the NSCN (IM), as also the NSCN (K). It is also time that we move to fully demarcate the international border with Myanmar.
Since China illegally claims Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’, it will want India’s northeast to remain destabilized. Recall that concurrent to Prime Minister Modi announcing the ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) in 2015, Chinese intelligence orchestrated the umbrella organization of United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULF WSEA) bringing together nine insurgent groups of northeast, two major ones being NSCN and ULFA. Though Khaplang, Chairman NSCN was to be nominal head of the new grouping, a key role was of Paresh Baruah of ULFA, who has always opposed peace with India.
In concert with Pakistan, China Pakistan has the upper hand in India’s turbulent northeast. In Myanmar, China has its deadly proxy in the United Wa State Army (UWSA). China is also linked to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), headed by a Pakistani national through Pakistan’s ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The aces in India’s northeast therefore continue to be held by China. The counters to this don’t appear to be in focus by our policy makers. If we want lasting peace in our northeast and final settlements with insurgent groups beyond short-term political gains, all the above mentioned issues must be seriously debated.