Reviving Naga peace process


During his first visit to Nagaland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with leaders of different political parties and civil society organisations, who appealed to him for an early resolution of the peace process. But, hardly any one called for expanding the reach of the peace talks hitherto restricted to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM), Nagaland’s biggest insurgent group.

Much has changed since 1997, when NSCN-IM signed the first ceasefire agreement. On the one hand, Nagaland’s neighbours have made clear the unacceptability of territorial reorganisation at their cost rendering moot NSCN-IM’s demand for “Greater” Nagaland. On the other, the NSCN-IM has begun to lose ground to other organisations within Nagaland.

Both the NSCN-IM and its archrival the NSCN-Khaplang have been weakened by division along tribal lines and birth of new factions. This has in turn led to three other developments. Firstly, it has triggered bloody turf wars across the state. Secondly, multiple extortion demands of rival groups have broken the backs of people. The Action Committee Against Unabated Taxation, later renamed as Against Corruption And Unabated Taxation (ACAUT), was launched in Dimapur last year to fight the menace of extortion. Since then, ACAUT has spread to other districts despite stiff opposition from NSCN-IM and enjoys considerable support among the youth. Thirdly, successive splits have reduced NSCN-IM to an outfit of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur.

Muivah, NSCN-IM’s powerful General Secretary, is a Tangkhul. His older colleague Isak Chishi Swu, a Sumi Naga from Nagaland who is the Chairman, is a mere figurehead. The tenuous hold of the Tangkhul-dominated outfit on Nagaland was exposed last December, when it was evicted by the Sumis of Zunheboto from Mukalimi designated camp. This was not the first showdown between the two tribes, though. In April 2007, a minor dispute precipitated an all-out war between the two tribes in Dimapur. Later that year, a Sumi-dominated faction left the NSCN-IM to form NSCN-Unification. But the full impact of NSCN-IM’sTangkhulisation can be understood only in conjunction with other developments discussed below.

In 2010, the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO), the apex body of six indigenous Naga tribes spread across four districts of Nagaland, formally demanded a separate state called Frontier Nagaland. These districts have abysmally low representation in public employment and education within Nagaland.

They were part of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) until 1957, when they were merged with the Naga Hills district that became a state in 1963. The ENPO tribes have withdrawn from pan-Naga bodies like the Naga Hoho, Naga Students’ Federation, and Naga Students’ Union Delhi, which are close to NSCN-IM, and formed parallel bodies.

Indigenous vote bank
Nagaland has three classes of residents: indigenous tribes, indigenous inhabitants, and others. Indigeneity is linked to enrolment in 1963 electoral roll. During the colonial period, a small number of Rongmeis migrated from Manipur’s Tamenglong to the Naga Hills.

Later, in the 1960s, influential Zeliang leaders encouraged Rongmei cultivators to settle in sparsely populated Peren, where they have emerged as a crucial vote bank.
The Zeliang community, which consists of the Zeme and the Liangmei tribes of Nagaland, is part of a larger tribal conglomerate called Zeliangrong that includes the Rongmeis.

When Rani Gaidinliu was alive the Zeliangrong community demanded a separate state, including parts of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland. In 2013, the Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) government recognised the Rongmeis as an indigenous tribe of Nagaland and also decided to build a museum in Kohima to honour the Rani. These decisions could be motivated by NPF’s attempts to penetrate parts of Manipur like Tamenglong, where NSCN-IM’s support is insufficient to win elections (NPF performance has been better in NSCN-IM strongholds in Manipur).

The recognition rattled the Nagas of Nagaland for another reason. It seemed to be a step toward eventual recognition of other Manipuri tribes that would encourage immigration into Nagaland and intensify competition for government jobs and contracts, the biggest sources of income. Their fears came true when the Maos and Tangkhuls of Manipur living in Nagaland also applied for indigenous tribe status. But, after ENPO walked out, the remaining eight indigenous tribes found themselves voiceless in pan-Naga bodies dominated by tribes from outside Nagaland. In late 2013, the eight tribes launched the Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC) to guard against the possibility of being marginalised within their native state by tribes from northern and western Manipur.

With the support base of NSCN-IM shrinking, the future of the peace process now depends on the Modi government’s approach to the unresolved political problem. There are three reasons why this government is likely to differ from previous governments.

First, the government appointed an interlocutor for peace talks who is not particularly fond of NSCN-IM. Second, the BJP is reworking Atal-Advani era alliances. NPF’s Neiphiu Rio, who left the chief minister’s office to contest parliament election, was not accommodated in the Union cabinet.

Moreover, despite being part of NPF-led alliance in Nagaland, BJP contested the byelection held to fill the seat vacated by Rio. Third, the government continued Odisha Governor S C Jamir, a UPA-II appointee. A founding father of Nagaland, Jamir was CM until 2003, when NSCN-IM helped NPF to come to power. Incidentally, NDA-I was not favourably disposed toward Jamir and contributed, even if unconsciously, to his defeat.

The NSCN-IM may denounce other insurgent outfits and organisations like NTC, ACAUT, and ENPO as puppets and traitors to the Naga cause. But any exclusive agreement with NSCN-IM will not be acceptable to the people. The peace process must engage a wider cross-section of the Naga society, including representatives of smaller indigenous Naga (Pochury and Zeliang) and non-Naga (Kachari and Kuki) tribes.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)

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