Dr Saroj Kumar Rath analyses the current status of the Naga peace talks, players who are trying to derail them and other challenges that would require to be met to reach a final solution.
On a hot and humid day, on 3 August 2015, Government of India, fielded R.N Ravi, one of India’s scholarly former police officers, to sign a 263-worded four paragraphs historic framework agreement with Isak Chishi Swu, Chairman of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) and Th. Muivah, General Secretary of NSCN. The agreement, intended to resolve decades old vexed Naga problem, was signed in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at New Delhi. A veteran of North East affairs, R.N. Ravi, who worked years in the region during his tenure at the Intelligence Bureau, was appointed as Centre’s interlocutor for talks with Naga groups, including the NSCN on 29 August 2014.
The peace talk continued with great caution and both sides refrained from criticizing each other in public. Not until July 2020, when suddenly everything gone haywire. Th. Muivah suddenly developed distrust with R.N. Ravi. Early in July 2020, Muivah reached New Delhi to complain against Ravi’s alleged mismanagement of peace talk. Muivah camped in New Delhi for the entire part of July-August and met the Home Minister and other officials to convey his displeasure with R.N. Ravi and sought his removal as centre’s interlocutor.
However, much water has been flown under the Brahmaputra, ever since the framework agreement signed in August 2015. During September-November 2017, Ravi held four rounds of talks with the Working Committee comprising seven Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) that led to the signing of another agreement on 17 November 2017. In August 2019, with an intension to augment the Naga peace talk and understand the concern of the state better, President of India appointed R.N. Ravi as the Governor of Nagaland. As an impeccable people friendly Governor, R.N. Ravi initiated series of meetings and contact programs with locals to get a pulse of the people. In fact, Ravi interacted with all the 14 Naga Tribal Hohos, Naga Tribal Council and Nagaland Gaon Burha Federation to proceed with a composite peace accord with the Nagas.
Reiterating his constitutional commitment, on 16 June 2020, Ravi wrote a three-and-half-page long letter to the Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio detailing his firsthand experience and information he possessed about the law and order situation in the state and expressed his passionate sympathy for the welfare of the people.
The Governor of Nagaland, in his letter, expressed his dismay in plain terms how insurgent groups running parallel government in the state, which was a veiled reference to the Naga groups, who have been competing with each other to extort money from every conceivable section of the society. As Governor of the State, Ravi has gone to the extent in saying that these groups have been levying illegal ‘Taxes’ and ‘the law and order’ of the state ‘has collapsed’. As Governor of the state, Ravi has suggested radical measures to improve the deteriorating law and order condition, which allowed armed insurgent gangs to thrive in the state.
The centre’s interlocutor in his new avatar as Governor of the state has attempted to bell the cat, which had obviously irked the ilk of NSCN. Since then, wild allegations started flying demonizing R.N. Ravi as the villain of peace talk.
In August 2020, five years after approving every word of the document and signing the framework agreement in the presence of the prime minister, the NSCN made the document public and portrayed the agreement as a manipulated, if not a coerced endeavor. Curiously, until 2017, Ravi was criticized for holding talks only with NSCN-IM, which he used to defend with the reason that other groups didn’t come for the meetings. Now he is being accused of dividing the Nagas by talking with too many groups. The NSCN is making the peace talk a matter of complicated Naga issue where the Nagas are pitted against the centre’s interlocutor, who is also the governor of the state.
Issues like separate flag and constitution (Yehzabo) were never part of the framework agreement of 2015. Suddenly, these two issues became the sticking points of peace talk. Bypassing Ravi, the NSCN leadership reached to New Delhi and managed to meet informally with the Home Minister Amit Shah. The Home Minister assigned Intelligence Bureau officials to talk informally with the NSCN leadership, which continued during 11-13 August 2020. After the meetings, while speaking to media, by their own admission, the NSCN leaders admitted the fact that out of 31 demands they sought, 29 have been resolved. This means, other than separate flag and separate constitution, which were never part of the framework agreement and about which Government of India’s position is clear, R.N. Ravi has succeeded in resolving all other demands.
The 2015 framework agreement is clear in its iteration that states ‘in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people.’ The agreement further states, ‘Accordingly, the Government of India and the NSCN, respecting people’s wishes for sharing the sovereign power as defined in the competencies, reached an agreement on the 3rd August, 2015 as an honourable solution.’ By any imagination, the phrase ‘sharing of the sovereign power’, which is proceeded by wordings like ‘as defined in the competencies’, means the sharing of sovereign power issues is to be dealt with as per the ‘competencies’ translated into ‘constitution’ of India.
The NSCN, which is worried about its parallel system of governance in Nagaland, is anxious because any settlement with the government would finish their identity and stop their illegal activities. R.N. Ravi, with a masterly stroke, exposed the illegal crime infrastructure erected by the Naga groups in the state and the continuing peace talk with government under the garb of peace emissaries are the two sides of the same coin.
Echoing on what Ravi has been methodologically exposing, the apex body of 14-Tribal Hoho, has come out in open support of the Governor. The NSCN, which is invoking the toil of 23-years that means the time period since the ceasefire was announced in 1997, is playing victim in the devastating collateral damage it has been spearheading for decades. Important fact about the NSCN include it was a militia predominantly of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur. The group was led by Thuingaleng Muivah, who was hiding in China in 1980. India, in the present time, resisting the encroachment of sovereignty by Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Laddakh. Therefore, India must not lose sight to the fact that China is also playing in the troubled water by supporting Muivah in his irredentist demands.
A political solution to the Naga problem means end of NSCN. Therefore, the best solution for NSCN is no solution. If the framework agreement finally aborted, which it seems very much likely, R.N. Ravi will not be the first interlocutor to be failed in his endeavour. His illustrious predecessors include R.S. Pandey, Ajit Lal, Swaraj Kaushal, Oscar Fernandes and K. Padmanabhaiah, who all tasted failures not because of their lack of ability, empathy or honesty of purpose but because of the adaptive caprice and determined obstruction of NSCN.
(The author is a faculty at Delhi University. The views expressed are personal)