Talking points

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

Another round of talks between the Central government and the NSCN(I-M) give cause for optimism, albeit of the cautious kind.

THERE are some indications that the talks about talks between the Government of India and the top leadership of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) to resolve the insurgency in Nagaland - the oldest and the longest lasting insurgency in the country - that have been going on intermittently at several locations outside the country have moved beyond the stage of modalities. This, despite the fact that the leader of the Government of India team at the talks, former Union Home Secretary K. Padmanabhaiah, has said that the talks have made steady progress but no dramatic developments. He also denied reports that the issue of the NSCN(I-M) leaders taking part in elections had been raised during earlier rounds of talks.

However, with the decision of the Government of India and the Government of Nagaland to withdraw arrest warrants against the top NSCN(I-M) leaders, the next round of talks are likely to be held in India. A most notable feature of these exercises is that at least three different Prime Ministers of India met the NSCN(I-M) leaders on three occasions, all in locations outside the country. These meetings did not end disastrously, as was the case with the meeting that Morarji Desai as Prime Minister had with Phizo in London in June 1977.

The latest round of what the NSCN(I-M) refers to as the ongoing Indo-Naga political dialogue, the fifth in the present series with the former, was held in Chiang Mai in Thailand on May 3 and 4. In the several rounds of such talks about talks held over the last five years in locations outside India between unofficial emissaries or official representatives of the Government of India and the leadership of the NSCN (I-M) comprising the chairman Isaac Chishi Swu and the general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, the only positive sign appeared to be that the two sides continued to talk. However, the unconditional ceasefire announced by the Government of India in July 1997 has generally held. So too the unconditional ceasefire in respect of the NSCN(K), the faction of the NSCN led by S.S. Khaplang, effective from April 2000.

At the end of the latest round of talks, the NSCN(I-M) leadership held a four-day consultative conference (the approach and the nomenclature seem to have been adopted from the practice of the Communist Party of China which used the term to characterise its first Congress after liberation) in Bangkok which was attended by about 80 individuals representing various sections of Naga civil society - Churches, human rights groups, youth and women's organisations and the Tatar HoHo, the lower house of the Naga parliament.

A special invitee was Zoramthanga, the Chief Minister of Mizoram, a veteran leader of the erstwhile secessionist Mizo National Front which was engaged in a two-decade-long insurgency but which finally made peace. Zoramthanga attended an earlier consultative conference (in Bangkok) held in December 2001.

The outcome of this consultative conference provides grounds for cautious optimism. Two statements, attributed to the chairman and the general secretary, seem to move the talks forward from the level of modalities, and certainly from the known position of all or nothing that the NSCN(I-M) leadership has publicly adopted.

In his inaugural address, Isaac Swu said: "Everything is inter-related as nothing exists in isolation. We Nagas are connected to our neighbouring brothers and sisters by our common race, history, geography and culture." A statement attributed to Muivah had this interesting formulation: "If the historical facts of the Nagas are not acknowledged, there cannot be headway in the Naga talks."

This appeal for an acknowledgement of the facts of Naga history and the situation of this history in the broader context of the region, underlining the factors of a common race, history, geography and culture, is the closest that the NSCN(I-M) leadership has come to accepting that unique as the people are in their own perception and uncompromising as they may be in their quest for sovereignty, they share a past - and a future - with their neighbours.

The problem of course is that concepts such as historical acknowledgement or commonality with the people in the neighbourhood continue to be viewed differently; and these differences are still to be reconciled. For, these formulations touch the core of Naga nationalist aspirations - sovereignty, and integration of all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas into that sovereign Greater Nagalim. Both issues, in particular the latter formulation, generate apprehensions among these neighbouring brothers and sisters, and most certainly in the state structures that are in office and power in the neighbourhood - in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur.

On the face of it, the issues of sovereignty and independence of Nagaland; and the integration of the Naga inhabited areas into the envisaged greater Nagalim admit no meeting point between the two sides. Indeed, the NSCN(I-M) and the broader Naga nationalist opinion would dispute the very formulation about the Naga demand for independence. In the Naga nationalist perspective, the Naga people as a whole were never really subjugated, not even by the British despite some notable defeats in individual engagements. The colonial government acknowledged this - hence its decision to demarcate the Naga inhabited areas of British India as excluded territory and the description in old colonial maps of these areas as un-administered. On August 14, 1947, the eve of the transfer of power, the Naga people duly declared themselves independent. Thus, the issue in Nagaland is not one of insurgency or of secession but rather a liberation war to drive out alien aggressors (India and Burma/Myanmar) who have occupied territory which never belonged to them.

Thus, the rhetoric and the public posture. Nevertheless - and readily conceding the historical differences between the Naga nationalist aspirations and other separatist and secessionist insurgencies in northeastern India which have made peace - it is not inconceivable that even these all or nothing aspirations can be accommodated within the framework of the Indian Union and the Indian Constitution. The participation of Zoramthanga in the consultative conference, on the invitation of the NSCN(I-M) and with the knowledge and concurrence of the Union government, could be a pointer to the shifts, if not the shape, of an eventual settlement that may be in the offing.

From all or nothing to agreeing to something less than all has been the trajectory of earlier insurgency/secessionist movements in the northeastern region. The Government of India, too, saying that it would never consent, has consented, ensuring through legal and verbal legerdemain the acceptance of the most daunting of opponents that an eventual settlement would be within the constitutional framework.

However, far more problematic than the obviously impossible to concede issue of Naga sovereignty and independence is the issue of integration, involving as it does the territories of three other States in the region, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur (not to speak of Myanmar), all of which are opposed to any diminution of their territories and have reason to fear what they see as Naga expansionism.

The Government of India, whose previous announcement of yet another extension of ceasefire included Naga-inhabited areas outside Nagaland, had to retreat hastily from that announcement, following the opposition to the decision by violent upheavals in Manipur.

Even more than apprehensions, there are grounds, rather more complex, for resentment over the shape and direction of the ongoing Indo-Naga political dialogue in at least two of these three neighbouring States, though these are not yet openly expressed. Insurgent movements with explicit secessionist objectives, which had at one time or the other established close links with the NSCN(I-M), are active in Assam and Manipur. Indeed, security establishments glibly and routinely maintained that if the Naga insurgency were to be resolved, there would be an end to the other insurgencies in the region.

One wonders what kind of lessons and inferences these insurgent groups will draw from the progress and direction of these talks so far, and very iffy prospect of any eventual settlement.

Some of these are obvious. While the Government of India has kept on talking with the NSCN(I-M), with even the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, agreeing to meet the rebel leaders outside the country, and unilaterally, and without consulting either of the two governments in Assam and Manipur, extended the ceasefire to include these two States insofar as the activities of the NSCN were concerned, there has been no effort to talk with the leadership of the insurgencies in these States to reach a negotiated settlement. Indeed, in the case of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the dialogue that began at the highest level a decade ago simply petered out, with accusation of bad faith on all sides. The approach now is simply one of liquidation of the insurgents. News of an ULFA militant killed in an encounter now causes hardly a ripple even in rural areas where the insurgent outfit once had a free run. The situation is much the same in Manipur, where legislative politics bearing the very image of pan-Indian politics has happily coexisted with the most violent form of insurgencies for decades.

As for Assam, while the ULFA leadership itself has much to answer for these setbacks in pushing its secessionist agenda, the message seems to be that it has failed to engage the kind of attention the Government of India has been giving the NSCN(I-M). No political dialogue on this front is in the offing - as much because of the uniqueness of the Naga insurgency as for its strength, tenacity and persistency. If these lessons are properly absorbed and digested, the settlement of the mother of all insurgencies in northeastern India without corresponding efforts to secure settlements with other insurgent groups may well encourage newer, and harder, versions of other insurgencies in the region.

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