A truce in trouble

Published : Aug 18, 2001 00:00 IST

A WHOLE week after he was expected to take over as the Prime Minister's special envoy to the Naga peace talks, the popular Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Member of Parliament and former Lok Sabha Speaker Purno A. Sangma was still awaiting his official commission. Conceptually, he had worked out the broad principles that would frame his peace initiative not just for the areas of Naga insurgent activity, but for the entire troubled northeastern region. All residual doubts about his suitability for the mission had, in his view, been allayed. The Congress Chief Ministers in the region, who had reason to resent his rebellion against the leadership of party president Sonia Gandhi, had shed all such reservations in the larger cause of peace. With his special interest in the matter, Nagaland Chief Minister S.C. Jamir had apparently insisted at first that an intermediary with major stakes in the politics of the region would not be effective. But he had reportedly been mollified by the promise of equal status with Sangma in representing the official Indian view before the Naga insurgent groups.

The statements emanating from the other side of the negotiations, however, seemed to cast considerable doubt over this rather optimistic reading. A top functionary of the NSCN(I-M) in Nagaland, A.Z. Zami, was for instance quoted as saying that the talks in Amsterdam did not progress well: "The dispute over the ceasefire jurisdiction remains. But the two sides have agreed to meet again soon."

Padmanabhaiah himself was unwilling to elaborate on the current status of the talks, since much ground still remained to be covered. He continued to work on the premise that the NSCN(I-M) would not adopt a precipitate course that would jeopardise the gains of the last four years of relative peace. And in fact, the rather cautious tone of the NSCN(I-M) spokesperson and his commitment that the talks would continue indicate that there is a strong constituency for peace in the Naga areas, which the insurgents are unlikely to disregard.

If popular sentiment in the Naga areas is conducive to the sustenance of the truce, so too is the mood within the wide global network of Naga support groups. But it is not clear that the Union government, having unilaterally rescinded the single substantive gain of the peace process in order to appease the violent resentments that had been stoked in Manipur in particular, has the intellectual resources necessary to ensure progress. The reported move to bring in Sangma as a key player, with Jamir in a role of almost equal importance, does not suggest a very accommodative stance. Sangma retains a relatively benign image, but in the NSCN(I-M) assessment his credentials are flawed by his rather strident opposition to the territorial extension of the ceasefire. And the main Naga insurgent group has for long resented the virtual power of veto that Jamir has exercised over the peace talks.

The territorial application of the ceasefire has for long been a contentious issue between the Indian government and the NSCN(I-M). This was an area of ambiguity in the ceasefire agreed upon in July 1997 between the insurgents and the I.K. Gujral government, which consolidated on the substantial work done by the late Rajesh Pilot, acting as a special envoy of the Deve Gowda Ministry. The insurgents were under the obvious impression that it applied to all the areas in which they operated. The Indian government was willing to go along with this understanding without quite stating it explicitly. In a conciliatory gesture towards the restless coalitions of ethnic groups that had made their peace with the central authority in the northeastern region, the government officially would only go so far as to say that the ceasefire applied in Nagaland.

In May 1998, the Atal Behari Vajpayee government appointed Swaraj Kaushal, former Governor of Mizoram, as special envoy to the Naga peace talks. Kaushal tapped into a rich vein of goodwill that he had created in the region as counsel for Laldenga, the legendary leader of the Mizo insurgency. His views on the scope of the ceasefire were also unequivocal, as articulated in a 1998 statement: "Wherever they (the NSCN) are, we observe ceasefire, even abroad... Yes, very definitely. It covers Delhi and even Paris... After all, it is not that they will be killing each other in a particular area and discussing peace in another area. What is required is a conducive atmosphere for a discussion..."

From 1999 onwards, the peace process began to run into choppy waters. Kaushal was replaced by Padmanabhaiah, as Jamir's increasingly assertive posture began to exert its influence. With the tacit support of a group of security officials in the Union Home Ministry, Jamir began to push the argument that the attempt on his life in December 1999 constituted a unilateral abrogation of the ceasefire by the NSCN(I-M). The insurgent group, for its part, disclaimed all responsibility for the assassination attempt and hinted instead that the entire incident had been stage-managed to derail the peace process. But through a series of meetings between Padmanabhaiah and the NSCN(I-M) leadership last year, the peace process failed to make any headway. The Bangkok agreement was in that sense the first substantive suggestion that a meaningful dialogue could be initiated to resolve India's longest-running insurgency.

It is far from clear now if the Centre's move to put forward a group of established politicians from the northeastern region as dialogue partners of the NSCN(I-M) will fetch any dividends. The challenge in the region is to widen the space for the politics of reconciliation. Politicians who have made their peace with the central authority operate within the narrow democratic space that is available in the troubled region and have a vested interest in keeping other groups out. Jamir's unremitting hostility to the NSCN(I-M) shows how zealously he intends to guard the space he has won for himself as the putative leader of the Naga people. The recent upsurge of resentment among the Meiteis - the majority community in Manipur - again indicates that the democratic ethos is yet to prevail over long-running ethnic rivalries.

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