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Naga unity beckons

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

The Naga Hoho launches a reconciliation campaign to forge unity among the 52 Naga tribes as well as the underground outfits.

SHORTLY after Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had a meeting with two top underground Naga leaders in exile, Isaac Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, in Osaka, Japan, on December 8, the Naga Hoho, an apex body of all Naga tribal councils, launched a "reconciliation campaign" in Nagaland's capital Kohima to resolve the decades-long insurgency issue. At a rally in Kohima on December 20, kicking off the campaign, it was declared that efforts would be made to bring together all sections of Nagas, particularly the underground groups, for "the greater cause of rebuilding the Naga family and ending years of blood-letting".

The Naga Hoho believes that the problem cannot be solved without unity among the 52 Naga tribes. The Church in Nagaland, too, has for the last several years made efforts in this direction. But the situation only worsened, with almost irreconcilable differences emerging among the extremist underground organisations. Perhaps more number of militant Nagas have died fighting among themselves than at the hands of the security forces.

The Hoho claims that its effort, as different from that of the church, constitutes a people's initiative. However, the outlawed National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) led by K.K. Khaplang stayed away from the Kohima rally, while one of the two Naga National Council (NNC) factions sent a message supporting the Hoho's move. The campaign continued though, with the NSCN (Isaac-Muivah), the dominant group among the underground organisations, sending its representatives to the rally.

Naga civil society has forever remained divided on tribal lines. Even today, a section of the Nagas in Nagaland do not consider the Tangkhul Nagas - Muivah belongs to the Tangkhul tribe - of Manipur as Nagas. The Naga movement suffered a setback in 1980 when the NNC, which was leading the movement, split over the 1975 Shillong Accord. Leaders like Muivah, Isaac Swu and Khaplang opposed the accord and wanted the then NNC president Z.A. Phizo to abrogate it. When he did not agree, the trio formed the NSCN. Soon, differences cropped up between Khaplang and the two others over what Khaplang perceived as attempts to strike a deal with the Indian government behind his back. A series of meetings did not help to check the growing mistrust and, eventually, fighting broke out between the followers of Khaplang and those of Isaac Swu and Muivah. Khaplang's men even captured the two leaders but they managed to escape. However, many of their followers were killed by Khaplang's men who had the advantage of fighting on their home turf of eastern Nagaland, which by the NSCN's version of geography included the Naga-inhabited areas of western Myanmar. Khaplang is a Hemi Naga from western Myanmar. In 1988 the NSCN split.

Encouraged by the talks between Vajpayee and two NSCN (I-M) leaders in Osaka, about 40 representatives of various Naga non-governmental organisations, tribes, student organisations and church groups from Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh went to Bangkok in the first week of January to persuade Isaac and Muivah, now in exile there, to see reason and forge unity among various tribes and warring Naga outfits. They also held a five-day convention in Bangkok from January 7 seeking unity ahead of the ongoing Centre-NSCN(I-M) talks aimed at ending the 54-year-old secessionist struggle.

Naga Hoho president M. Vero told Frontline that the Bangkok convention had no fixed agenda. Reconciliation among Naga tribes and underground factions held the key to peace, he said. The Naga representatives reportedly held talks in Bangkok with the NSCN(I-M)'s two top leaders who then set the agenda for the next round of dialogue with the Centre's interlocutor K. Padmanabhaiah in February.

In Osaka, Vajpayee is reported to have invited Muivah and Isaac Swu to India. The two leaders had come to Nagaland in May 1999 and stayed for a month at a peace camp at Chedema near Dimapur, which still exists. Naga representatives feel that the leaders' presence in Nagaland will help hasten the peace process. Unity among the three different warring groups must precede the peace talks and the first step towards unity would be to bring about a truce between the two NSCN factions.

Representatives of the Naga Hoho and other organisations who were at the Bangkok convention said that the meeting between Vajpayee and the NSCN(I-M) leaders became necessary after the June 14, 2001, agreement in Bangkok between Muivah and Padmanabhaiah ran into rough weather. The June 14 agreement extended the ceasefire in Nagaland "without territorial limits", which meant a ceasefire in all Naga-inhabited areas beyond Nagaland. It had set the northeastern region, particularly Manipur, on fire. To Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, the extension of the ceasefire to Naga-inhabited areas meant the Centre's acceptance of the NSCN(I-M)'s long-standing demand for a "Greater Nagaland" covering areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Large-scale disturbances in the northeastern region, particularly Manipur, however, prompted the Centre to drop the words "ceasefire without territorial limits" from the June 14 agreement. The Nagas did not appreciate the move.

The Osaka meeting calmed the Naga leaders who were enthused by Vajpayee's "maturity and statesmanship". He is reported to have told them: "The peace process must go on and we have to sit for a peaceful solution." This was the second meeting between Vajpayee and the NSCN (I-M) leaders; the first was held in Paris in November 1998.

The NSCN (I-M) was the first to respond to the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's proposal for peace talks. Several rounds of talks were held between its leaders and representatives of the Government of India during the regime of Rao's successors. Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda met Isaac and Muivah in Zurich in February 1997, during I.K. Gujral's reign as Prime Minister. The first ceasefire agreement was signed in August 1997 between the Government of India and the NSCN(I-M). Since then the ceasefire has been extended a number of times. However, peace has remained elusive because the other underground groups have been active and also because of frequent violation of the truce.