On August 3, 2015, the Government of India signed a Framework Accord with the NSCN (IM) to lay down guidelines for a peaceful resolution to the outstanding Naga conflict. It was termed as a path breaking agreement where Naga rebels supposedly changed their stance from “within India but not with India” to “within India and with India”. Although NSCN (I-M) has not publicly dropped its demand for independence, it has nevertheless shown willingness to soften its stand on the issue if the Naga people could be brought together under a single politico-administrative entity. The NSCN (I-M) leadership has been engaging with its supporters on this stand. However, Tangkhul Nagas feel that anything short of political unification of Naga inhabited regions outside Nagaland will be betrayal to those who have sacrificed their lives for the cause. It is however quite clear that the idea of bringing the various Naga-inhabited areas under a single politico-administrative entity is not likely to go unchallenged from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Centre’s interlocutor for Nagaland Mr RN Ravi while addressing a Parliamentary Standing Committee also confirmed that after initial reluctance, Naga rebels have arrived at a common understanding of maintaining sanctity of the state boundaries. However, NSCN (I-M) in July 2018 contradicted the Interlocutor and asserted that it had never, during negotiations with the Union government, softened its stand on the issues of Naga history, identity, rights, including integration of all Naga areas, let alone accepting the Indian constitution.
The Naga population of Manipur and other states were hopeful that there will be a lasting solution to the problem and they could now look forward to enduring peace in Naga inhabited regions of the North East India. However, even after four years there has been no forward movement on the peaceful settlement to the long enduring conflict. The biggest flaw of this initiative was that the framework Agreement was signed with NSCN (IM) where as other stakeholders — rival Naga groups and the State Governments of Assam, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh — were not on board and were not given out clear contours, provisions and conditions of negotiations and the settlement. The provisions remained confidential even to the stakeholders.
While interacting with the Tangkhul Naga elders, they revealed to the author of the article, that people of Naga origin from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, feel betrayed and they see it as an initiative to delay and divide the Naga fraternity further. They are frustrated that when BJP governments are in power in all the four states where Naga populations live, why is there a delay in ending this long standing Naga conflict with a plausible and pragmatic solution?
By leaving this issue unresolved we are sending a wrong message to even other groups those who may be willing to come on to the negotiating table, because the more we delay in finalising such accords, more disillusioned the affected population become. It puts a question mark on the sincerity of the politicians and interlocutors. It may not be a good idea to incorporate executives and sleuths to sign a framework accord. Putting sleuths in the vanguard could lead to burning all bridges that are supposed to bring rebels on to the negotiating tables. Insurgent groups such as RPF, CorCom of Manipur and conglomerate of many insurgent groups of North East under United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) are able to convince the cadres and supporters about the lack of will and sincerity of the Government apparent from the flawed process it adopted in resolution of Naga conflict. Failure of the Government to fulfil the commitment and aspirations of the people leaves them bewildered about the real political intent. There is a need to ensure credibility of intent and actions by the agencies involved in working out the conflict resolution initiatives. If the government of the day is going to handle the conflict resolution process with lack of sincerity, the danger is in revival of the insurgency in areas where conflict has been suppressed.
It needs to be highlighted that North Eastern States are critical for India for the ‘Act East’ Policy and if allowed to remain fractured or plagued by conflict, it lends itself to a more lethal and destabilising asymmetric/hybrid conflict. External agencies can destabilise even the states that are comparatively peaceful, if citizenry loses its trust on legislatures and executives for redressal of grievances.
Using conflicts and accords for political expediency is a bad idea to pursue. Such an endeavour is fraught with danger of States plunging into internal conflicts. It also creates doubt in the minds of the rebel groups that are now under cease fire or under suspension of operations.
There is a need to look at the North East from the prism of national security and regional cooperation with the neighbouring countries. Internal security dynamics of North East have ramifications on external security and economic engagement with our immediate neighbours. India has lost considerable time for development of infrastructure by more than two decades, whereas, China has already developed infrastructure to build forces in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The instability in the North East will directly impact India’s capability to defend Tawang. The primary reason for the failure of India to develop a land link with South East Asia — a corridor of cultural and economic prosperity — is due to instability in the border States especially Manipur and Nagaland. This has also allowed China to gain space in the immediate neighbourhood of India due to failure of the government to end the conflicts in the North East.
Why did we fail to finalise the Naga Peace Accord? The first reason was that such Framework Agreement should have ownership. In the instant case the agreement was signed by an interlocutor and neither the Ministry of Home Affairs nor the PMO took direct ownership. In the absence of such an arrangement the response of the other affected States was also lukewarm and so was of the MHA. The onus to make this Framework Agreement successful was on the shoulders of interlocutor with no ownership of any constitutional or executive authority. Thus the failure if any would be dumped on the shoulders of the interlocutor. The second reason was that such agreements must have the participation of all stakeholders from the inception till the finalisation. Stakeholders cannot be incorporated midway because that creates a lack of trust and make some stakeholders appear lesser important in the whole process.
In spite of the long history of internal conflicts arising out of ethno-social, socio-political and socio-economic issues, India continues to handle conflict resolution by violating the basic principles of ownership and accountability of the peace process. Sleuths may have the knowledge and access to outlaws and undergrounds to formulate a theoretical peace plan, but certainly not the deep understanding of the concept of peace building and conflict resolution which is required to implement it. The process requires incorporation of social scientists and government representatives with experience of working and living with insurgent communities. It requires people who not only take the ownership but also the responsibility to fulfil the promises made to the rebels and the people by the government. In the instant case the whole process after four and half years now appears flawed and an exercise more for the optics and less for the real cause. The Naga Framework Agreement of 2015 gave momentary political mileage and was thereafter forgotten in the rest of India, but it has left a lasting trust deficit in the North East in general and among the Nagas in particular.
Brig Narender Kumar, SM, VSM, is a Distinguished Fellow, USI of India.