For peace in Nagaland, dialogue among Nagas must succeed

By Sanjoy Hazarika,

For months, the fragile peace in the Naga Hills has been shattered by internecine conflict. This is ironical because the ceasefires between the government of India and its armed forces, including the paramilitary, and the two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (or Nagaland) — the group led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah and that headed by S.S. Khaplang — remain in place.

Support TwoCircles

These represent in fact among the oldest ceasefires anywhere in South Asia between armed groups, purportedly fighting for “sovereignty”, and a national government. Yet, these peace pacts with the government have not translated to a real calm in the villages and towns of Nagaland. The reasons are mired in a complex history that embraces ethnicity, demands and concepts of nationality as well as deep divisions along tribal and factional lines.

Violence is not new to Nagaland – it was here that the Japanese invasion of World War II was stalled and then turned back, on the tennis courts of the Kohima deputy commissioner, as is historically known. Those courts are one of the most frequently visited sites of the northeast with relatives of the fallen, retired soldiers and ordinary visitors coming to pay homage to those who laid down their lives, their sacrifice marked by a low tombstone with the name of the fighter; there are some who remain unknown till this day.

Violence erupted again in the 1950s with the uprising for independence led by A.Z. Phizo and his Naga National Council, which brought the full force of the Indian state against the movement. Soon after fighting erupted, parliament passed the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1958 which remains the legal sword arm and shield of the security forces in battling insurgency as well as dominating and intimidating the lives of people in many parts of the region – after all it no longer applies only to Nagaland (which was carved out of Assam in 1963) but to at least three other states of the region: Assam, Manipur and Tripura.

There were two ceasefires beyond the current one – one in the 1960s and then another which followed the Shillong Accord of 1975 which brought one group of Naga fighters into the system. But Muivah and Swu stood firm along with Khaplang, their comrade in western Burma (Myanmar), and forced a split in the NNC, one which gave birth to the NSCN. This group split again in 1988 with Swu and Muivah on one side and Khaplang on the other. Both groups have remained embittered foes for 20 years, with cadres from either hunting down members and supporters of the other.

In between, the Nagas established connections and training facilities as well as arms supplies with China and Pakistan. The relationship with China came to an end in 1976 although an informal arrangement appeared to have continued well into the 1990s.

In 1996, a fresh ceasefire came into place between New Delhi and the I-M group (Isak-Muivah) while another separate one followed with Khaplang’s organisation, much derided by the former as a cat’s paw of Indian intelligence agencies. Such was the bitterness between the two that the I-M has consistently held that it would break off negotiations with the government of India should the latter begin formal talks with the Khaplang group.

But the standstill agreement between the Indian armed forces and the two factions has not translated into peace in the field, as was widely hoped. The guns did not fall silent because Naga fighters turned on each other, seeking to establish supremacy. For several years, it appeared that the K group was getting the worst of the exchanges but from the end of last year, amid charges of central involvement, a new factor emerged: the Unification faction, which had broken away from the parent group, the I-M, and allied with the K. Pitched gun battles followed in the district headquarters and the largest urban centre of Nagaland, Dimapur, and its surrounding areas were the scene of some protracted and bitter fighting; in one incident, an outraged mob ransacked and torched an entire colony where many Tangkhuls, members of Muivah’s tribe, lived.

Till date, no fewer than 70 fighters from either side have died in the clashes. For much of the time, the central forces have been either passive onlookers, reluctant to be involved in peacekeeping between the factions, or simply have looked the other way. The head of the Ceasefire Monitoring Group (CFMG), which was to review the peace between the Indian state and the I-M, was forced to quit amid bitter charges that he was on the side of Muivah’s men. His replacement by the centre was rejected by the I-M leadership, saying they had not been consulted.

All this time, civil society groups and especially church leaders counselled not just restraint but also reconciliation between the factions and the tribes. Why the latter? Because the Naga tribes – there are 16 of them in the state alone and another 20-odd in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam not to speak of Myanmar – have been long divided along factional lines, with ethnic splits often dominating and indeed defining approaches and strategy as well as issues themselves.

As this went on, a group of well wishers from abroad, especially from the Quaker movement of the UK and the Baptist church of the US, enabled what were regarded as path breaking meetings in Chiang Mai, the hill town in Thailand, between the two major factions. A new organisation, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) under the leadership of the Rev Wati Aier, one of the state’s most respected church leaders and theologians, took the lead here. By this time, the Unification wing had morphed into the Khaplang faction although some members later returned to the I-M.

There was a Chiang Mai declaration that called for reconciliation. Yet, even as it was issued, bloody gunfights and clashes erupted between the factions, belying both hope and opportunity. The ground reality characterised by bitterness and mutual suspicion was far too deep to be resolved by idealism and even gestures of goodwill.

The struggle for power dominates. In one incident, an entire camp of the Khaplang group was stormed by I-M soldiers. The I-M even “banned” two Sumi (Sema) tribe organisations, prompting the FNR to declare that the “common cause of reconciliation” should be safeguarded and that “violence, threats, notices, bans, however justified”, needed to be stopped. But even that carries little weight with the I-M: it has declared that no civil societies should consider themselves “greater” than the “national freedom organisation, which has carried the national burden for more than 50 years”.

As the conflict continues to escalate, the principal actor, New Delhi, is sitting smugly in the wings, waiting for the next round of talks with the I-M and watching the rival factions battle it out. Yet, it is unacceptable that security forces continue to largely twiddle their thumbs in the face of a visible breakdown of law and order in the state. What is required is far more robust peacekeeping by government forces. This must not be confused with the peace seekers, the civil society groups and the church, who must continue to press for a just and durable peace. Yet violations of the law, by whichever group, should be met with the force of existing laws within the domain.

The centre’s approach underlines two grim political realities: one, that to “democratic” India, the Naga issue and much of the problems of the northeast, barring possibly that of illegal migration from Bangladesh, represent irritants at best; they may cost lives but are not threatening the stability of the state. The second is that numbers or size count. The population of the entire state of Nagaland could easily fit into a small district of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. There is just one Naga MP from the state out of 542.

Thus, the persistent pressure that Pakistan exerts on Kashmir and the LoC, the battle to win the nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group before moving it through the US Senate are, to India, far more significant issues, not to speak of winning the parliamentary confidence vote.

Frustration over the lack of progress in the talks is growing on the Naga side. However, they have probably also realised that sovereignty is not in the picture nor is the ideal of a larger Naga territory, sliced from three neighbouring states, getting any closer because of the political backlash it invites from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal.

Perhaps it is better to think of an interim settlement that allows, as India suggested to China in the case of Arunachal, existing settlements to continue undisturbed. In the meantime, an all-party committee, with representation from the Naga side (both government and the armed groups) as well as the three states to look at claims and counter-claims, headed by a jurist with knowledge of the area could be important.

However, before all this can take off, the Naga groups need to develop a working relationship that would ensure equality but also promote cooperation through transparency. For political dialogues to succeed with New Delhi, dialogue among the Nagas must first succeed.

(Sanjoy Hazarika is an author, commentator and documentary filmmaker who also works extensively on health, governance and conservation issues in the Northeast. He can be reached at [email protected])