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Appoint a political negotiator for Naga peace talks

If the PM is serious about a peace settlement, he must remove Governor Ravi from negotiations and appoint a new political representative
Last Updated : 05 August 2021, 12:18 IST

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Six years ago this week, the nation was aflutter with excitement when Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to make a mid-afternoon announcement of a transitional peace agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) or NSCN (IM). Dubbed the “framework agreement”, it was expected to lead to a permanent settlement of the Naga insurgency, the largest and the oldest in India’s northeast. However, true to a reputation of being high on publicity and low on delivery, the Modi government has not moved an inch forward since then.

The incompetence of the government and its negotiators is rarely made public. The intransigence of the NSCN (IM) and disunity among the Nagas themselves are usually blamed for the peace process being stalled.

The government, however, has thwarted the Naga peace process by the following mistakes: the appointment of its Chief Interlocutor for the Naga talks, RN Ravi, as Governor of Nagaland in July 2019; revocation of the separate flag and Constitution of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019; and Ravi countering the NSCN (IM)’s demand for Constitutional guarantees by promoting a rival body, the Naga National Political Groups who accept the Indian Constitution in its present form.

The NSCN (IM) had objected to dealing with Ravi in a dual role as both Governor and Chief Interlocutor. It downgraded the talks, they said, from a political settlement to the level of a law and order problem. The NSCN (IM) reiterated this in a letter to the prime minister in June, asking him to appoint a new representative for the peace talks. They have refused formal discussions with Governor Ravi after January 2020. There have since been only informal discussions through Intelligence Bureau officials, and even these ceased after February 2021.

It would be wrong to blame the Modi government’s J&K policy for delaying a Naga settlement. Specifically, the demand for a separate Naga flag and Constitution have been non-negotiable sticking points after similar symbols of political identity were struck down for J&K. This analysis does not recognise the huge movement forward achieved in the rest of the agreement with the Nagas over the sharing of competencies in the Union, State and Concurrent Lists.

Moreover, the NSCN (IM) does not think that developments in J&K have any bearing on the Naga issue. The NSCN (IM)’s position is that the Kashmir and Naga issues are historically different, and the government of India admitted as much in 2002. J&K became a part of India through the Instrument of Accession. On the other hand, the Nagas, led by Angami Zapu Phizo and his Naga National Council, declared Independence on August 14, 1947, a day earlier than India. By the early 1950s, the Nagas had launched an armed insurgency for independence. None of the peace accords signed between the Nagas and the Government of India (GoI) in 1947, 1960 and 1975 accepted the special position of the Nagas.

However, the present negotiations beginning with a ceasefire in 1997 did. A qualitatively new approach to negotiations by the GOI was reflected in a joint statement signed on July 11, 2002, that recognised the “unique history and position of the Nagas”. It enabled the NSCN (IM) to move from a position of “total independence and complete sovereignty” to negotiations for a close relationship binding the Nagas with India. The Framework Agreement of August 3, 2015, formalised it. If the history and position of the Nagas are accepted as “unique”, then the J&K developments should not impinge on the settlement with them, the Nagas argue.

Indeed, the Framework Agreement went even further. It talks of “sharing” of sovereign power with the Nagas through a “new relationship of peaceful co-existence of the two entities”. Thus it says: “Both sides have understood each other’s respective positions and are cognizant of the universal principle that in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people. Accordingly, the GoI and NSCN, respecting the peoples’ wishes for sharing the sovereign power as defined in the competencies, reached an agreement on August 3 2015, as an honourable solution.…it will provide for an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of two entities.”

Solutions around the flag and constitution issues may be found if there is a strong political will to do so. A Naga flag flown along with the Indian tricolour will not weaken India. As for a “separate” Constitution, the NSCN (IM) negotiators have proposed that the peace agreement signed with India incorporated into the Indian Constitution could be adopted as the Naga Constitution.

So if the prime minister is serious about a peace settlement, he must remove Governor Ravi from negotiations and appoint a new political representative. The government’s penchant for relying on retired policemen and bureaucrats will not lead to peace in Naga areas. That needs a political negotiator with the self-confidence to think innovatively to secure India’s periphery in the northeast.

(The writer is a journalist based in Delhi)

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the authors’ own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH)

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Published 05 August 2021, 12:18 IST

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