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A winter of hope

Print edition : Dec 20, 2002 T+T-

The Union government's decision not to reimpose the ban on the NSCN(I-M) and the likely arrival of Naga leaders for talks in New Delhi have brightened the prospects of peace in the northeastern State.

THE peace talks between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah),, which were initiated by Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1997 and followed up by his successors H. D. Deve Gowda, I. K. Gujral and Atal Behari Vajpayee, have now taken a positive turn. While all the previous rounds of negotiations between NSCN leaders Thuingaleng Muivah and Issac Chisi Swu, who have for long been in exile in Thailand, and the Prime Ministers were held in places such as Bangkok, Osaka, Paris, Zurich, Geneva, Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, for the first time the peace meeting will now take place in India. .

The proposed meeting, informed sources say, is scheduled for December end in New Delhi. The insurgent leaders-turned-politicians had earlier refused to enter India as they had arrest warrants pending against them in connection with a number murder cases and a ban on the organisation was in force in Nagaland and its adjoining States of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The talks since 1997 have taken place between the government's emissaries Swaraj Kaushal and K. Padmanabhaiah and also the Prime Ministers and the NSCN leaders. Things are now moving towards a solution to the 50-year-old Naga problem. With the government finally deciding to lift the ban on the NSCN (I-M) and the Nagaland and Manipur governments withdrawing the arrest warrants ensuring Issac and Muivah "safe passage" in India, the Naga leaders are reported to have accepted Padmanabhaiah's request to meet Prime Minister Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister L.K. Advani.

The government cleared the decks for the talks when it decided on November 15 not to reimpose the ban order that expired on November 26. The decision was taken at a meeting convened by the Prime Minister on November 15.

The meeting was attended by Advani, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, Padmanabhaiah, Cabinet Secretary Kamal Pandey and Home Secretary N. Gopalaswamy. The Prime Minister said that the move would help find a solution to the Naga problem.

Advani wants all future rounds of talks with the NSCN(I-M) leaders to be held in India . "Our government has held talks with the Naga leadership abroad, but I do not like the idea of holding discussions in a foreign country. They should come to India for negotiations. I hope they will agree to this," he said. On the forthcoming Assembly elections in Nagaland (due in February 2003), Advani said that he was confident that the Naga leaders' return would create a congenial atmosphere in and the process would be free and fair. The State will go to the hustings along with Tripura and Maghalaya.

Just on the eve of the government's decision to lift the ban on NSCN(I-M), Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga (himself once an underground leader of the Mizo National Front, or MNF), who has been playing the role of a mediator in the Naga peace talks and who had recently met the NSCN top leaders in Bangkok and Amsterdam, told Frontline that both Issac and Muivah expressed their willingness to come to India, provided the government assured them that they would not be arrested or detained if the talks failed. "What I could gauge from my interaction with the Deputy Prime Minister and the chief of the Intelligence Bureau is that the ban will be lifted and decks will be cleared soon for the NSCN(I-M) leaders' visit to Delhi ," Zoramthanga said.

The NSCN(I-M) leaders' fear of arrest not with reason. In 1978, eight leaders of the MNF, , including Zoramthanga, were detained in Delhi for nine months after negotiations with the Centre ended in a stalemate

The day after the government decided to lift the ban on the NSCN(I-M), Padmanabhaiah left for Bangkok for the "last round of talks" with the senior Naga leaders outside the country.. The meeting reportedly finalised the date of Issac and Muivah's visit and worked out the modalities of their "safe passage" . It is learnt that the two leaders' stay in New Delhi may be an extended one, probably for six months. Political observers believe that this will act as a morale-booster for the activists and cadre of the NSCN(I-M) . This may very well be an impediment to Chief Minister S. C. Jamir whose party has ruled the State virtually uncontested for the past 15 years.

From the outset, Jamir has opposed the Centre's policy of holding negotiations with the NSCN(I-M), ignoring the insurgent Khaplang faction of the NSCN and other groups such as the Naga National Council (NNC) and the Naga Hoho, the non-political platform of different Naga tribes. In a memorandum submitted the Deputy Prime Minister on September 10, Jamir said that the Centre should think twice before lifting the ban on the NSCN(I-M) imposed under the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

The NSCN(I-M) had fought a bush war for five decades before entering a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 1997. But the NSCN faction led by S. S. Khaplang is also a force to reckon with in the region. Since the Khaplang faction has not been brought into the peace process, Jamir fears that a permanent solution to the Naga problem cannot be found. The rivalry between the NSCN(I-M) and the NSCN(K) is fierce, and fratricidal killings have been going on for a long time.

Naga civil society has forever remained divided on tribal lines. Even today, a section of the Nagas in Nagaland does not consider Tangkhul Nagas Muivah belongs to the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur as real Nagas.

The Naga movement suffered a setback in 1980 when the Naga National Council, which was leading the movement, split over the 1975 Shillong Accord. Leaders such as Muivah, Issac 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 developed between Khaplang and the two others over what Khaplang perceived as attempts to strike a deal with the government behind his back. A series of meetings failed to stem the growing mistrust and, eventually, fighting broke out between the followers of Khaplang and those of Issac 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.

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

Jamir expressed the apprehension that a major clash might break out between the two factions of the NSCN, if a ban on only one of them was lifted.

Highly-placed government sources said that the NSCN(I-M) leaders "are today a lot more flexible than they were five years ago, when the ceasefire came into effect. They now want a political settlement within the Indian Union."'

That is one reason why the exiled Naga leaders recently invited Zoramthanga to Bangkok to attend a meeting in which a crosssection of Naga organisations was represented. As a former MNF leader, Zoramthanga is reported to have provided key inputs to Muivah and Issac on his experience with the peace accord that the MNF signed.