Elections in Nagaland cannot be discussed without touching on the contentious Naga peace talks that began in 1997 between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah, NSCN(I-M), which was led by the late Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. The talks have taken many twists and turns over the years. Successive governments skirted the issue because the demand for state sovereignty was untenable. By the time the Narendra Modi government took over the reins in Delhi in 2014, the NSCN(I-M) had dropped its sovereignty demand but insisted on having a separate Naga flag and Constitution. The Centre agreed to accept the flag as a cultural symbol and not a constitutional one.
Nagaland’s tortuous history dates back to 1947 when the Nagas declared independence from British India on August 14, a day before India’s independence. The Nagas are the only people who did not sign the Instrument of Accession to India. The older generation and the NSCN, which later fragmented into different groups, still consider being a part of India as an act of aggression since India used its military might to quell the Naga rebellion that was led then by A.Z. Phizo of the Naga National Council and is now led by his daughter Adenuo. The NSCN’s Isak-Muivah group continues to assert its superiority over the other factions.
A pragmatic document
In 2015, the Modi government appointed R.N. Ravi, former IB Special Director and Deputy National Security Adviser, to craft a pragmatic document that would move beyond rhetoric and offer an amicable solution to the Nagas’ demands. The Framework Agreement that was inked between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M) with much fanfare amounted to just that—a framework. The blanks in the document would be filled as the two parties reached solutions on specific issues. Ravi had several sittings, more than what other governments had attempted in the past, and he expanded the terms of engagement. He included other civil society groups like the Naga national political groups. The idea was to ensure that any agreement with the NSCN(I-M) would resonate with these groups and a common resolution would follow. However, the NSCN(I-M) saw this as an affront because they had signed the Framework Agreement with the Centre. The NSCN(I-M) said the other groups that were brought into the discussions did not have the legitimacy that they had.
Ravi was appointed the Governor of Nagaland in July 2019 and the Centre’s deadline for the Naga peace talks expired in October that year. The government did not see a way forward since the NSCN(I-M) was unwilling to drop its demand for a separate Constitution.
In the upcoming Assembly election scheduled for February 27, the NSCN(IM) is expected to rake up the peace talks but it is now more of an ideological abstraction. Political parties seem to be going about their campaigns with a “business as usual” attitude. And in a State that defines itself as a “Christian State”, the BJP seems to be sitting pretty with its suave “prabhari” (election-in-charge) Nalin Kohli stationed there for the past several months. While the BJP has not managed to get a foothold in Meghalaya or Mizoram, the two tribal states, it appears to have created a niche for itself in Nagaland with one BJP candidate—Kazheto Kinimi of the Akuluto Assembly constituency in Zunhebuto District—already declared the winner since he is the only contestant from that seat.
There are 184 candidates in the fray for 59 seats. The Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) is contesting 40 seats, the BJP 20, the Congress 23, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) 22, and the Nationalist Congress Party and the National People’s Party (NPP) 12 each. Interestingly, there are others such as Chirag Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas), which is contesting 15 seats; the Republican Party of India (Athawale), which has put up candidates in nine seats; the Janata Dal (United), which is contesting seven seats; and the Rising People’s Party and the Communist Party of India, which are fighting in one seat each. Also in the fray are 19 Independent candidates. If there is a State where a hotchpotch result is likely, it could be Nagaland. Tutu Jamir, a youth leader, said she had not heard of many of these parties in the past.
Four women in the fight
There are four women candidates in the fray. They include Hekani Jakhalu (NDPP), who is contesting from the Dimapur-III seat. Hekani was a youth leader and entrepreneur for several years. The others are Rosy Thomson of the Congress in Tenning, Salhoutuonuo Kruse of the NDPP in Western Angami seat, and Er Kahuli Sema of the BJP in Atoizu. Nagaland actually has some very progressive young women in academia, business, entrepreneurship and other fields, who have taken on a number of creative ventures. So, why are there so few women candidates? That is not easy to answer; it is embedded in Nagaland’s deeply patriarchal society. Hopefully, some of these progressive women will lead the way and take Nagaland towards progress.
Of the State’s population of 22.15 lakh, a total of 13,16,064 voters are eligible to exercise their franchise in the February 27 election. Of them, 7,982 are service voters. Some polling booths have as few as 37 voters while the booth with the highest number of voters is 1,348.
Disconnect with the youth
Unlike in the past, there seems to be not much brouhaha this time about the Naga peace talks and its links to the election. Over the decades, the NSCN(I-M) has come to be seen as more of an obstruction to Naga entrepreneurship since the outfit allegedly indulges in large-scale extortion under the rationale of collecting taxes to continue the fight for its stated objectives, which has narrowed to a demand for a separate Constitution. This demand does not resonate with the younger generation, which has already adapted to the Indian Constitution and its commitments to different freedoms. Meanwhile, the NSCN(I-M) is seen as exercising a sort of stranglehold over this aspirational population. Moreover, after the death of Isak Swu, from Nagaland’s Sema tribe, the NSCN(I-M) has been directed and led largely by Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, which is resented by the Nagas in the State. They see Muivah and the NSCN(I-M) as outliers trying to decide their future for them.
And on the subject of peace talks, studies from the University of Uppsala of Sweden showed that between 1946 and 2005, only 39 of 288 conflicts, or 13.5%, ended in a peace agreement. The others ended in victory for one side, or an end to the fighting without a peace agreement.
What the Modi government has been able to do in the North-Eastern states with active militancy is to reduce the killings by astutely keeping Suspension of Operations (SoO) arrangements going with various insurgent outfits. For instance, of the 30 Kuki insurgent outfits in Manipur, 25 are under a tripartite SoO with both the State and Central governments. However, the very fact that these groups are in peace talks has drastically reduced the killings.
A pro-development agenda
Interestingly, the BJP has wider acceptance in Nagaland than it does in Meghalaya or Mizoram. One might wonder why this is so since the BJP’s agenda of one religion, one language and one culture does not appear to be a fit for the State. However, since the BJP became part of the ruling coalition five years ago, there has not been a single incident of an assault on a church and people say that some ministers from the BJP have performed well. People also say the BJP is known to be pro-development, so they see no harm in voting for its candidates.
While in Meghalaya, the BJP and its NPP coalition partner are at loggerheads, with the saffron party levelling corruption charges against the NPP-led Meghalaya Democratic Alliance government, it has been smooth sailing in Nagaland with the NDPP and BJP honouring their seat-sharing arrangement. It also seems to be an accepted fact that the NDPP’s Neiphiu Rio will not only win but also continue as chief minister. Youth leader Tutu Jamir said, “Rio has the entire economy of Nagaland in his hands.”
Meanwhile, the church has begun a “Clean Election” campaign urging believers to vote for candidates without a history of corruption. This has not gone down well with many young people, who are asking why this is happening now and why the Church ignored corruption for five years.
Young people also feel that Nagaland’s people are too unquestioning. The Naga people are dealing with a number of issues, which include broken education and healthcare systems and decrepit roads beyond the capital of Kohima. This is why the people of six districts in Nagaland’s easternmost region, under the banner of the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), have called for statehood and threatened to boycott the election. The Union Home Ministry reached out to the organisation and formed a committee to resolve their complaints. If the BJP succeeds in convincing the ENPO to take part in the election, it will likely perform well in the eastern districts.
In 2018, Neiphiu Rio’s NDPP won 18 seats while the BJP won 12 and the NPP 2. The NPF won 26 seats but failed to form the government as it lacked the political clout. The NPF subsequently joined the ruling party with a plea that this was important for the peace talks to progress.
As with all the North-Eastern States, however, elections are not fought solely on issues. In Nagaland, which has at least 16 major tribes, elections are fought on tribal lines but the funds spent ultimately play a decisive role. This time, there are quite a few new candidates and idealists hope that Nagaland will witness change if these fresh faces win. The BJP looks like it will remain in the driving seat. And as one senior journalist put it, the real fun will start once the vote-counting is over and the real marketplace of buying and selling MLAs begins in earnest.
Patricia Mukhim is currently Editor, The Shillong Times, and a political commentator and author.
- Elections in Nagaland cannot be discussed without touching on the contentious Naga peace talks that began in 1997 between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM), the National Socialist Council of Nagaland Isak-Muivah.
- In the upcoming Assembly election scheduled for February 27, the NSCN(IM) is expected to rake up the peace talks but it is now more of an ideological abstraction.
- Interestingly, the BJP has wider acceptance in Nagaland than it does in Meghalaya or Mizoram.
- It has been smooth sailing for the BJP in Nagaland with the NDPP and the saffron party honouring their seat-sharing arrangement.
- Elections are fought on tribal lines in Nagaland but the funds spent ultimately play a decisive role.