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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 15, April 8, 2023

The Convulsive Journey Of The Naga Peace Process: A Pursuit Towards Mutual Coexistence And Autonomy | Reet Balmiki

Saturday 8 April 2023


by Reet Balmiki*

The Naga insurgency finds it initial roots in issues associated with the identity and ethnicity of Nagas. Over time, the issue began to be perceived as having political overtones and is considered one of the most contested political issues which remain unresolved.

The demand for an independent and sovereign Nagaland began even well before India’s independence during British Rule. In 1947, before independence, a delegation of Naga leaders expressed their refusal to integrate with India upon independence. They also expressed their fear of being occupied by India by military force to Gandhiji. He then made a solemn commitment to stand by the Nagas and famously said,“If Nagas do not wish to join the Union of India, nobody will force them to do that. I will come to the Naga Hills; I will ask them to shoot me first before one Naga is shot.”Conveying this intention to Nehruji, he could not fulfil this solemn commitment to the issue due to his unfortunate assassination. However, this sentiment must continue to define India’s obligation to not only commit to the policy of non-violence but also recognize the distinctive Naga identity and bring about a meaningful solution honouring the uniqueness of Naga history.

Subsequent to India’s independence, the Naga Plebiscite in 1951 marked the foundation for the Naga insurgency movement and proved to be a testimony of the unity of the Nagas. The Plebiscite revealed that 99.9% of the Naga population was in favour of a free and sovereign Nagaland. This resulted in several demands for a political entity for the Naga-populated areas, a few of which turned violent. In retaliation, the military was sent to combat violence, and the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 was implemented.

The year 1963 marked the formation of the state of Nagaland, distinct from Assam. This was a result of constant pressure on the Government of India to separate the fundamentally different Naga tribes from Assam and recognize their distinct culture, religion, and ethics. Further, Nehru ji was also of the opinion that providing Nagas a distinct status with certain autonomy would conciliate the Nagas. Subsequently, the 13th Constitutional Amendment Act added Article 371A, marking a constitutional recognition of the uniqueness of Nagaland and consequently added special protections of customary laws and religious beliefs of the Nagas. The following years marked further negotiations between the GoI and underground organizations in Nagaland amidst violent acts of succession and retaliation. In 1975, the Shillong Accord, signed by the Naga National Council and GoI, where the Nagas agreed to voluntarily and unconditionally accept the Constitution of India, and give up arms and “formulate other issues for discussion for final settlement.” However, this agreement was internally criticized by the Nagas and soon became irrelevant in the negotiations. Internal disagreement marked the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

Consequently, the landmark Ceasefire Agreement was signed in 1997 by NSCN(IM) and GoI, resulting in a paradigm shift in the nature of the movement. A mutual agreement by both parties to relinquish violence and adopt a process of diplomatic negotiation instead was reached. The adoption of the Gandhian ideal of non-violence and commitment to peaceful cooperation has enabled the possibility of mutual dialogue over the issue and resulted in the 2015 Framework Agreement being formed.

The core demands of the Nagas are: (1) a Greater ‘Nagalim,’ consisting of all Naga-inhabited areas spread across Manipur hills, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and adjoining districts of Myanmar, (2) a separate flag and Constitution. Both demands have attracted severe discussions over the years and remain contentious.

The demand for a Greater ‘Nagalim’ has larger national and international implications as it necessitates the redrawing of borders not just internally (with Manipur, Assam etc.) but also with Myanmar. This makes it difficult for the GoI to accede to the demand even if sincere intentions to negotiate are assumed. Further, there has been a revolt by the governments and civil society organizations in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur as integration for Nagalim compromises their territorial integrity. Therefore, considering the cultural and territorial heterogeneity of Naga communities/tribes, a Greater Nagalim would not be a possible solution towards long-lasting peace and socio-political harmony. Rather, efforts can be made to significantly increase the autonomy of the Naga-dominated regions across all states and establish a community-driven cultural and constitutional body to look into issues related to Nagas in the whole territorial region. However, this is not to say that the demand for sovereignty and autonomy for Nagaland is to be foregone.

The demand for a separate Naga Yezabo (Constitution) and Naga national flag has been non-negotiable for the NSCN(IM) since the beginning. The GoI, having recognized the cultural distinctiveness and historical-political rights of Nagas to self-determine their future in consonance with this distinct identity, has refused to accept the demand for a separate constitution and flag. The situation has further intensified after the abrogation of Article 370, providing special status to Jammu & Kashmir. This has not only put Article 371A (the only marker of the distinctiveness of Nagas in the Indian Constitution) in a predicament but also significantly reduced the possibility of the demand for a separate Constitution to be accepted. The GoI has agreed to incorporate the Naga Constitution into the Indian constitution and allowed a separate flag for Nagas for civil and cultural usage only. The NSCN(IM) was not receptive to this and was adamant on demand for a separate constitution and flag (for political, cultural, and other purposes) while agreeing to co-exist as a part of Union of India.

Essentially, three issues can be delineated. First, negotiations by the GoI with parallel civil society organizations among the Nagas have resulted in inconclusiveness of negotiations and have raised concerns over the long-term viability of the process. The demand for a separate flag and constitution was integral to the 2015 Framework Agreement between the GoI and NSCN(IM); however, the 2017 Agreement position signed by the GoI and Naga National Political Groups (7 Naga rebel organizations) left this demand out because the NNPGs were agreeable to a solution without a separate flag and constitution. Internal differences within Nagas and the shift in position by GoI is threatening the entire process of negotiations, as acquiescence on the part of other groups is unlikely, which invokes the possibility of retaliation against such decisions. It is not in the interest of long-term peace and harmony for Nagas. Therefore,parallel Naga groups must internally cooperate to ensure that incompatible demands are not presented. The GoI must refrain from retracting from agreements in the past through surpassing negotiations with certain groups and favouring demands that align with their interests.

Second, the inconclusiveness of the demands for a separate flag and constitution for the Nagas has only delayed the negotiation and implementation of Agreements during the peace talks. The Nagas have been resilient during the negotiations post-Ceasefire agreement and have upheld their oath to non-violence. They have also been accommodative of their demands and have foregone their demand for complete independence (1951 Plebiscite) and are willing to co-exist with India provided they have complete sovereignty and autonomy. As Gandhiji said,’All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.’ Expecting Nagas to diverge any further from their demands would be an attack on their identity and historical-political rights. It is, therefore, imperative that the GoI concede to their demand for a separate flag and Constitution which recognizes them as a sovereign region within the Union of India that mutually co-exists with the rest of the country.This is in line with the Gandhian ideal of dialogue and mutual compromise.

Most importantly, it is imperative that all entities involved in the negotiations commit to the ideal of non-violence and reject any form of violence or coercion in the negotiations or otherwise. Achieving this requires a mutual effort on the part of all entities and should be unconditional to the success of the peace efforts. The GoI must strictly prevent any incidents like the killing of 14 Naga civilians by Indian security forces in the Mon district, Nagaland, in December 2021 under the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958. This marks a violation of the commitment made under the 1997 Ceasefire Agreement and dampens the trust in the authorities. The Nagas, who have largely upheld their commitment to non-violence, must not be deceived and their resilience mocked. While the lifting of the AFSPA by GoI in parts of Nagaland is a welcomed move, the draconian law needs to be entirely eradicated from the remaining regions. The Nagas should continue their commitment to non-violence and should persuade the negotiations through peaceful resistance like institutional backlash, non-cooperation, the boycott of elections, etc.

The Naga peace issue is a complex one that embodies political, cultural, and historical elements. An overall perusal of all factors and groups is peremptory for achieving an effective solution and securing the ultimate goal of enduring peace.

* (Author: Reet Balmiki is a 3rd year BA-LLB students at NALSAR, Hyderabad, India)

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