Under the leadership of Naga National Council (NNC), Nagaland declared its independence on August 14, 1947, just one day before India’s independence from British colonial administration. Then, when it went to a plebiscite on May 16, 1951, 99.9 percent of Nagas voted for independence. Nagaland adopted a constitution on January 21, 1956 and hoisted its national flag on February 2 of that year. A.Z. Phizo, then president of the NNC, made an international trip to gain diplomatic support from other countries for Nagaland’s independence. In contrast, the Indian government has perceived Naga independence as a threat to its national security and territorial integrity. As a response to the Naga insurgency, Indian leaders have adopted a military approach and former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai warned Naga leadership during his visit to Kohima, “I will exterminate all the Nagas without any compunction.” Indira Gandhi also took a similar stance, saying that she would not compromise Indian sovereignty in dealing with the Indo-Naga issue.
The seven decade-long Naga insurgency is the mother of all insurgencies in northeast India. Needless to say, a peaceful resolution of this intractable conflict is an imperative in order to address human rights violations, and establish a stable, peaceful and economically prosperous northeast India. Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio has said: “Resolution of the Indo-Naga conflict will not only bring to an end one of the longest political movements in the entire region but also defuse what has come to be known as the mother of all insurgencies.”
The first Indo-Naga peace talks lasted for eight years (1964–1972), while a second round of peace negotiations sputtered out after only a few months (1975–1976). A third round of talks was initiated in 1997 and is ongoing, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with middling dialogue between the Indian government and two Naga groups – the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) the and Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN–IM).
Although the Naga Hoho, Janata Dal (United), Public Action Committee–Naga Council Dimapur (PAVC–NCD), among many other political and civil society organizations, have appreciated the current round of peace talks, there are at least three most important questions – symbolic issues, Manipur’s concern about territorial integrity, and inclusion – exclusion dimension of the negotiation – we need to understand better to see how far the current peace initiative diverges from the reality on the ground.
First, there is serious doubt about how far both sides – the Indian government and NSCN (IM) – are willing to go in addressing two symbolic issues: a separate flag and a separate constitution for the Nagas. R.N. Ravi, the government interlocutor and governor of Nagaland, has expressed his dissatisfaction over the rigid position of NSCN (IM), remarking that the leadership of NSCN (IM) is delaying a settlement due to their procrastinating attitude. On the contrary, the NSCN (IM) leadership does not think of a peace deal as an honorable and acceptable solution if it does not address these two pertinent issues.
Second, Kukis have recently demonstrated in mass rallies and sit-in protests in Tengnoupal, Ukhrul, Moreh, Churachandpur, Sadar Hills and Kangpokpi to raise their concerns about the territorial integrity of Manipur, which might be affected by the Indo-Naga peace deal. From the slogans such as “We condemn the divisive and discriminatory policy of the Government of India,” “No solutions without consulting stakeholders,” “Justice for the innocent civilian victims in the hands of NSCN (IM)”, “Integrity of Manipur is non–negotiable,” and “Government of India should not play communal politics,” chanted in these mass protests, it is clear that a peace deal might ignite grievances and eventually another conflict if the concerns of Manipuris are left unaddressed.
Third, many important insurgent and civil society groups are excluded from the peace talks. Two rival insurgent groups – NSCN (U) and NSCN (K) – are outside the negotiations, which is a big challenge for the Indian government as it deals with the fragmented leadership of the other side. Apart from this, NSCN (IM) has already raised questions over the participation of NNPGs in the ongoing dialogue with the Indian government, claiming that the group is made up of “yes men” who are disconnected from Naga political history and who want to cut a deal as early as possible, focusing only on the economic packages that would follow. NSCN (IM) also expressed concern about the groups in a press release dated October 10, 2019: “It is surprising to see that the government of India is trying to hijack the outcome of the talks by using a section of people who are not mandated and do not represent the Naga people and the Naga national issue.”
On the other hand, the NNPGs criticized the Framework Agreement, signed between the Indian government and NSCN (IM) in 2015, as an inferior political document and a political tragedy for the Naga people. In the views of K. Hoshi and Phek Town, hatred and greed continue to dominate Naga society. As Ravi reports, fratricidal killings among Nagas have increased by 300 percent since 1997. Another aspect of exclusion is the underrepresentation of many prominent civil society organizations from the current peace talks.
In sum, the striking aspect of the third round of Indo-Naga peace talks is that both parties have expressed their goodwill, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to continue dialogue in order to find a reasonable, honorable and amicable solution to this protracted conflict. However, India had appointed three interlocutors – Swaraj Kaushal, K. Padmanabiah, R.S. Pandey – in the past to end this conflict through dialogue. Whether the newly-appointed interlocutor, Ravi, can make a difference from his three other predecessors in reaching an inclusive agreement based on the principles of equality and mutual respect remains to be seen.
The Indian government should pay attention to the following set of questions as it negotiates with the Nagas: Does the agreement cover the central issues of the conflict? Will the agreement be signed by all major stakeholders? Is there a direct involvement of women and civil society organizations? Without these bases covered, the chance of a lasting peace with the Nagas remains slim.
Anurug Chakma is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. Prior to commencing his PhD program, he was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Dhaka.