Naga peace talks

Naga peace talks at a dead end?

Print edition : October 09, 2020

R.N. Ravi, the Government of India’s interlocutor for Naga peace talks and now also Nagaland’s Governor, arriving in Dimapur, Nagaland, for talks with the Naga National Political Groups on October 23, 2017. Photo: PTI

Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), a file picture. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

A single final accord between the government and all the Naga factions is nowhere in sight as the stakeholders disagree on interpretations of the content of the Framework Agreement signed earlier.

More than five years after the Narendra Modi government signed a Framework Agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), trust deficit and disagreement over the interpretation of its content threaten to push the ongoing peace talks to a dead end. A single, final agreement with all Naga factions is nowhere in sight. Parallel negotiations are on between New Delhi and the Naga factions—one with the NSCN (I-M) and another with the working committee of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPG).

The NSCN (I-M) has been insisting on a solution on the principle of “shared sovereignty”, which it claims was included in the Framework Agreement, while New Delhi has ruled out any solution outside the Indian Constitution. R.N. Ravi, the Government of India’s interlocutor for Naga peace talks and Nagaland’s Governor, in an exclusive interview to Tinakali Sumi of Nagaland Post on February 28, claimed that the Framework Agreement had no mention of “shared sovereignty” in it.

Said Ravi in the interview: “There is no mention of integration. There is no mention of Nagas as a separate entity. Of course, it recognises the unique history of Nagas. Framework Agreement is a commitment to settle the Naga political issue on the basis of power sharing with due regard to the contemporary realities.” He accused the NSCN (I-M) of “trying to imagine things which are not in the Framework Agreement and misleading the people” and “making new and mischievous interpretations of the already agreed positions”.

On August 16, the NSCN (I-M) made public the Framework Agreement to substantiate its claims over the content. The copy of the agreement, which the NSCN (I-M) claims is the original one, states: “Both sides have understood each other’s respective positions and are cognisant of the universal principle that in a democracy the sovereignty lies with the people. Accordingly, the Government of India and the NSCN, respecting people’s wishes for sharing the sovereign power as defined in competencies, reached an agreement on 3rd of August 2015 as honourable solution.” It also mentions that “the dialogue between the Government of India and the NSCN has successfully concluded and we are confident it will provide for an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful existence of the two entities.”

R.N. Ravi; Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN (I-M)’s interlocutor and general secretary; and Isak Chisi Swu, the then NSCN(I-M) chairman, signed the Framework Agreement in the presence of Prime Minister Modi in New Delhi on August 3, 2015. Swu breathed his last on January 28, 2016.

The NSCN (I-M) accused Ravi of sharing with other Naga groups a “manipulated” copy of the Framework Agreement which does not mention the word “new”. Neither Ravi nor the Government of India has issued any official statement on the allegations so far or denied the authenticity of the Framework Agreement copy the NSCN (I-M) has released in the public domain. New Delhi’s silence has only added to the confusion over the status of the peace negotiation and the agreed positions of both sides.

Defining ‘new relationship’

Defining the “new relationship” based on the Framework Agreement has been the most contentious part of the Naga peace process which began in 1997. It has been delaying the final agreement even though Ravi claimed in January that the negotiations between the Government of India and Naga political groups had been “successfully completed”.

On November 17, 2017, two years after the singing of the Framework Agreement with the NSCN (I-M), the Centre signed an “Agreed Position” with the NNPG to open dialogue with six other Naga factions that had come together. The NNPG declared on August 14 that based on the “Agreed Position”, “all contentious issues have been negotiated and resolved in principle” and that it was ready to sign the final agreement “any day and any time”.

The NSCN (I-M) is currently engaged in informal talks with senior officials of the Intelligence Bureau in New Delhi to discuss the pending issues following the discontinuation of its engagement with Ravi. Accusations and counter-accusations over interpretations of the Framework Agreement and the delay in a final agreement have resulted in the prevailing confusion.

Ravi, on the other hand, held a meeting with representatives of the working committee of the NNPG in Nagaland on September 10. After the meeting, the NNPG said “the official position is that the Naga issue must be settled, and the waiting period is over”. However, New Delhi, by continuing the negotiations with the NSCN (I-M), has sent a message that there is no deviation of its position that the final settlement must include all Naga factions.

In an earlier statement, issued on August 31, the NNPG, clarifying its position on the issue of shared sovereignty, stated: “India is a federal state with each State sharing sovereign powers in the form of Central List, State List and Concurrent List is amply clear. The States are given space to exercise sovereign powers sourced from the Constitution. In a nutshell this is shared sovereignty. If there is anything more the GoI [Government of India] has agreed on, NSCN(I-M) must declare to the Naga people.”

The NSCN (I-M) has also hardened its position for a separate flag and a separate Constitution for the Nagas and has ruled out accepting any solution without these two. It looks at these two issues beyond symbolism and as a means of asserting a “sovereign Naga nation”. The abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, ending the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir in the Constitution which included a separate flag, defines the Centre’s position that it cannot agree to a separate flag or Constitution for the Nagas for administrative and political purposes.

Territorial Councils

Two of the solutions hammered out after sustained negotiations are the creation of a Pan Naga Hoho (an apex pan Naga body) and Naga Regional Territorial Councils (NRTC). In his interview to Nagaland Post, Ravi said that the “Pan Naga entity was mutually agreed to be a cultural body with no political role or executive authority. However, after October 31, 2019, when the contentious issues were settled, the NSCN(I-M) is asking for the proposed Pan Naga entity to have political and executive influence over the Nagaland government. This is not acceptable to the Government of India. Reopening settled issues is the delaying tactics of NSCN (I-M).”

New Delhi also wants the NRTCs to be Sixth Schedule councils for Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. (The Sixth Schedule of the Constitution provides for the creation of autonomous District Councils in certain tribal areas of the north-eastern States.) The NSCN (I-M) insists that the present Nagaland State and the NRTC governments must have “sovereign powers as envisioned in the Framework Agreement”.

In a statement on March 2, the NSCN (I-M) claimed that it was mutually agreed that the Pan Naga Hoho shall be a “statutory body, represented by Nagas, wherever they are, from respective tribes or regions democratically” and its chairman and executive members shall have Cabinet rank. The statements issued by both sides indicate disagreements over substantive issues and continue to persist contrary to claims of successful conclusion of the negotiations.

Nagaland State has an area of 16,579 square kilometres while the NSCN (I-M)’s map of Nagalim covers 1,20,000 sq km, that is, all Naga-inhabited areas contiguous to Nagaland, spreading to Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and to the Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar, the neighbouring country.

The NSCN (I-M) says that political negotiations with New Delhi cannot cover Nagas in Myanmar and it will be taken up the issue at a later stage.

The 213th report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs presented in Parliament in 2018 states that Ravi had briefed the committee that the position of the NSCN (I-M) from the very beginning had been that “Nagas were exceptional, Nagas were not Indians, Nagas were sovereign and any settlement could be reached only on the basis of the fact that this is a settlement between two sovereigns. While the government kept them engaged, they had continued their position that they will be with India on the basis of a negotiated agreement and would not be ‘within India’.”

The report further says: “During the course of the last several years, the government started opening out and reaching out to civil society organisations, Naga tribal bodies and other stakeholders to get the views of the stakeholders other than NSCN (I-M). In 2015, the government reached an understanding with the NSCN (I-M), which agreed for a settlement within Indian federation, with a special status. The Interlocutor informed the Committee that this was a departure from their earlier position of ‘with India, not within India’ and the Government called it ‘Framework Agreement’ and signed it”.

Ravi’s briefing to the parliamentary panel outlines New Delhi’s interpretation of the Framework Agreement which the NSCN (I-M) has been rejecting outright.

NSCN (I-M) statement

On September 11, Hutovi Chisi, convener of the NSCN (I-M) steering committee, asserted in a statement that through the Framework Agreement the Government of India had recognised that the “sovereignty of India and the Nagas lies with their respective peoples.”

Chisi’s statement asserts: “The agreement says, ‘Inclusive peaceful coexistence of the two entities sharing sovereign power’. By ‘Inclusive’ it means all Nagas and their territories in different administrative units and political camps are to be included in the agreement. Coexistence of the two entities means that Nagas and Union of India will coexist. And the new relationship between the two shall be as defined in the competencies. This is the only political process to bring solution that is honourable and acceptable.”

Stating that “some of the competencies are still under hectic negotiation” and “being worked out with ‘outside the box’ solution needs caution till its completion”, the NSCN (I-M) promises to bring forth worked-out competencies before the people in due course of time “for wider consultations”.

The statement says: “The Committee observes that any final agreement will have some implications for the three States, viz. Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, where Nagas are residing in certain areas. The Committee is of the considered view that any agreement that may be finally arrived at must allay the fears of the stakeholders in these States and the State governments must be kept abreast with the emerging dynamics of the talks.”

The parliamentary panel’s report mentions that Ravi, while apprising the committee about the broad status of the negotiations, submitted that the negotiations were proceeding towards a situation where boundaries of any State would neither be changed nor be altered. The report says: “Initially the Nagas had stuck to the idea of unification of Naga-inhabited areas, resolutely maintaining their stand of ‘no integration, no solution’. However, they had now reached a common understanding with the government that boundaries of the States will not be touched. Instead, some special arrangement would be made for the Nagas, wherever they are. The negotiations were going on over some symbolic issues, which are sensitive to both the Government and the Nagas as well, and attempts are being made to reach a common understanding.”

The parliamentary panel report observes that “any final agreement will have some implications” for Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and recommended that “any agreement that may be finally arrived at must allay the fears of the stakeholders in these States and the State governments must be kept abreast with the emerging dynamics of the talks”.

On August 18, the Manipur government, in an official statement, revealed that “it has had no discussion with the Central government till date on the Naga issue”. The statement further said that the State government had earlier requested the Ministry of Home Affairs to make available a copy of the draft accord to it at least one month before the date fixed for consultations so that it may be in a position to express its views and comments.

Differences between the positions of the NSCN (I-M) and the NNPG over substantive issues have divided the opinion of Naga civil society on the contours of a final settlement. The uncertainty that has engulfed the 23-year-long peace process has only made peace more fragile in Nagaland and the neighbouring States. The conundrum of power will further delay the final Naga accord.

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