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Thursday, Dec 01, 2022
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Naga Peace

Giving Peace A Chance

The lifting of the ban on the NSCN-IM at a time when the polls are due could well change the course of Nagaland's electoral history.

Giving Peace A Chance
| AP
Giving Peace A Chance
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The ban on the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) was finally lifted, twelve years after the organization was declared 'unlawful' as it led a separatist insurgency in the Northeast Indian State of Nagaland. On November 26, 2002, New Delhi simply allowed the ban to lapse after its current period expired. 

This means that the NSCN-IM is now a legitimate organisation, free to open offices anywhere in the country, and to contest or back candidates or political parties, as it pleases, in the forthcoming State Legislative Assembly elections in Nagaland. 

The NSCN-IM, however, continues to hold on to a substantial cache of weapons, and its armed cadres reside in 'designated camps', of which there are seven (and another seven for its rival group, the Khaplang faction, the NSCN-K). NSCN-IM cadres are not permitted to enter 'inhabited areas' with weapons, and the lifting of the ban does not alter this condition. 

The then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda's unorthodox initiative in 1996 - when he handpicked an opposition Congress leader Rajesh Pilot to make contact with the NSCN-IM leaders - is, in fact, responsible for whatever progress the Naga peace process has made today. 

For the five years since New Delhi and the NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire agreement, which came into effect from August 1, 1997, the two sides have primarily been engaged in finalising the modalities of what the rebel leaders call 'substantive talks' to work out an acceptable solution. 

First, the dispute was over the jurisdiction of the truce, whether it should be applicable only in the State of Nagaland, or should extend to all the Naga inhabited areas in other northeastern Indian States, as demanded by the NSCN-IM. Eventually, after the uprising in neighbouring Manipur in June 2001 - protesting the extension of the ceasefire to areas outside Nagaland - that saw 18 Meitei protestors die in police firing, it was 'decided' that the ceasefire would confine itself only to Nagaland.

Unlike in the mid-Sixties, when the peace talks between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the Naga rebel leaders broke down over the intransigence of the two sides on their respective positions - the Nagas insisting on nothing less than a sovereign Naga homeland and New Delhi simply rejecting the possibility - it is the general mood for peace within the Naga civil society and the general population that has made the two sides push ahead to evolve a solution. 

This will to peace has survived several hiccups, like the bitter controversy over the ceasefire jurisdiction. Like the NSCN-IM, the Vajpayee government, too, appears committed to resolving the issue and not repeating mistakes that New Delhi may have made in the past, over 55 years of the Naga insurrection. 

Consequently, when Prime Minister Vajpayee extended an invitation to the NSCM-IM leaders to come to New Delhi and continue the process of dialogue anywhere in India, the rebel leadership immediately accepted the proposal, but put up a few conditions, including the lifting of the ban on the group, withdrawal of the non-bailable arrest warrants issued by the Nagaland Police in February 2000 against NSCN-IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah and others after a failed assassination bid on Chief Minister S.C.Jamir's life, and a safe passage to return to their foreign locations should the talks break down. 

At least two major conditions have now been met by New Delhi - the ban on NSCN-IM no longer exists and the arrest warrants, too, have been withdrawn by the Nagaland Police in June this year. It can safely be assumed that, the request for safe passage will also be conceded by the government. 

The stage is finally set for NSCN-IM general secretary Muivah, its chairman Isak Chishi Swu, and others, to visit India for 'political talks' that are slated for mid-December. New Delhi's chief negotiator in the Naga talks, K. Padmanabhiah, met with the NSCN-IM leaders in Italy last week to brief them about the Indian government's decision to lift the ban and also finalised the details of the rebel leaders' travel plans. 

Before that, however, Muivah, Swu and the NSCN-IM top brass would like to have a quick interaction with Naga representatives and Church leaders from Nagaland and other Naga inhabited areas in northeastern India to exchange ideas and receive suggestions on the shape of the possible agreement that can be reached with New Delhi. This exercise is to begin soon.

A visible sincerity in approach by the two sides, and deepening trust in each other, hold the key to the future progress of this now-or-never peace process. There is still a gulf of suspicion between the parties in negotiation, and Mizoram Chief Minister Zoramthanga, a former rebel leader himself, has said that the NSCN-IM leaders were wary of New Delhi's response in the event of the talks breaking down.

Zoramthanga said that, in 1978, he was part of an eight-member Mizo National Front (MNF) team that had come to New Delhi for talks with Prime Minister Morarji Desai. "The talks failed, and we were forcibly detained for as long as nine months in New Delhi," he said. Zoramthanga, who has emerged as another key government negotiator on the Naga issue, however, ruled out the possibility of New Delhi repeating the same mistake, saying, that the present process "was too good an opportunity to be missed." 

The Nagas want peace and the NSCN-IM triumvirate of Muivah, Swu and vice-chairman Khodao Yanthan, are all in their sixties and are naturally in a hurry to assume the leadership of their people. But, New Delhi cannot afford to do things in haste. The exact contours of a settlement will only be defined during the negotiation process itself, but certain issues, like the demand for the integration of Naga-inhabited areas in States like Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh into Nagaland, cannot be decided by the two talking sides alone.

More than this, New Delhi must try to ascertain whether peace will actually return to Nagaland or the Naga areas with a deal that includes only the NSCN-IM, without the concurrence of rival Naga rebel factions such as the NSCN-K or the Naga National Council (NNC). That is a question that will eventually have to be confronted. 

As of now, however, New Delhi's biggest challenge is to keep the NSCN-IM cadres in Nagaland under check; put an end to the internecine group clashes between the NSCN-IM and the NSCN-K (between August 1, 1997 and November 26, 2002, a total of 96 NSCN-IM cadres and 246 NSCN-K men were killed in this factional feud); and see that the Congress government in Nagaland headed by S.C. Jamir does not whip up unnecessary fears. 

Jamir has already met Prime Minister Vajpayee in New Delhi (on November 27) and sought a guarantee that the NSCN-IM will not intimidate voters during the forthcoming State Assembly elections. The lifting of the ban on the NSCN-IM at a time when the polls are due could well change the course of Nagaland's electoral history, with a new force emerging on the scene. Peace, of course, must remain the priority on all sides. 


The author is Associate Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi and Consulting Editor, The Sentinel,Guwahati. Copyright: South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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