A Naga settlement: so near, yet so far - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 29 June 2015

A Naga settlement: so near, yet so far

The government has a settlement with NSCN-I/M at hand. It must sell it to the other Naga groups

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th June 2015

Nagaland has always been an enigma, shrouded in the cult of the warrior. The 35 Naga tribes have been fighting since pre-history. From the mid-19th century, they brought to a standstill British armies seeking to establish control over Naga areas. Since 1956, they have fought Indian security forces in the country’s longest running insurgency. And without an outsider to unite them, the Naga tribes fight amongst themselves.

An hour from the state capital, Kohima, at the gateway to Khonoma village, is a memorial slab engraved with 46 names --- residents of just one village who died fighting the Indian Army. Not far from Khonoma is Nerhema, which celebrates one of its sons, Captain N Kenguruse of the Indian Army, who won a Mahavir Chakra --- the country’s second-highest gallantry award --- for successfully assaulting a Pakistani-held peak, unmindful of his fatal injury.

Given this martial tradition, it is unsurprising that the guns have not been silent even through an 18-year ceasefire between the Government of India (GoI) and the most powerful Naga separatist group, the Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-I/M). Though Indian security forces were off limits, various Naga militant groups sporadically killed each other in an internecine contest for power and extortion rights.

The deep-rooted democracy embedded in Naga tribal culture has spawned a succession of splinter groups, usually along tribal lines. AZ Phizo initiated the fight for Naga independence, under the banner of the Naga National Council (NNC). With Phizo exiled to London, NNC leaders in India signed up for peace in the 1975 Shillong Accord. That brought hundreds of insurgents over-ground but a sizeable group, then training in China, cried sell-out. Led by Isak Swu, Muivah and a Naga from Myanmar called SS Khaplang, they renamed themselves the NSCN in 1980. Trained and armed by China and espousing a left-wing ideology, the NSCN saw no irony in its official slogan: “Nagaland for Christ”.

In 1988 the NSCN split, with Khaplang, drawing support from northern Nagas like the Konyak tribe, peeling off from the main group and heading the NSCN-K. Isak Swu and Muivah now headed the NSCN-I/M, drawing support from southern Nagas, especially the Manipur-based Tangkhul tribe.

To its credit, New Delhi has intervened pro-actively in this drama, unlike in Jammu & Kashmir where it has remained politically passive. In June 1995, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao met NSCN-I/M in Paris. HD Deve Gowda met NSCN-I/M in Zurich in February 1997, leading directly to a ceasefire agreement in May 1997. The government appointed a series of “special interlocutors”, who between them have had some 80 rounds of successful talks with the NSCN-I/M.

Whilst the NSCN-I/M negotiated as the guest of New Delhi, the NSCN-K stood marginalized, largely because Muivah made it clear that opening dialogue with Khaplang would mean the end of talks with him. So Khaplang, a longstanding handmaiden of Indian intelligence agencies, was told that he would be brought into the dialogue at the right time. He bided his time.

As a consequence of dialogue with the NSCN-I/M, New Delhi has in its hands an agreed settlement with this key group, which the government believes would unlock the door for separate agreements with other Naga groups and a final end to the problem. Sources close to the talks say Swu and Muivah have dropped their two key demands: a sovereign Nagaland with its own constitution, army and currency; and the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas, including in the neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Making concessions

The sovereignty demand was dropped when the NSCN-I/M came to the table, an acknowledgment that maximalist positions had yielded no results in four decades of fighting. The larger breakthrough was Swu’s and Muivah’s acceptance that it was impossible to reorganise states to include all Naga-inhabited areas into a “Greater Nagaland”, termed Nagalim. During negotiations and through years of strife with the states concerned, the Naga leaders came to understand that Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam would on no account accept their territory being peeled off and merged into Nagalim.

“Even if the Government of India agreed to expand the boundaries of Nagaland to include Naga-inhabited areas of neighbouring states, Articles 3 and 4 of the Constitution of India prescribe that the concerned state legislatures would have to accede to the proposal. Swu and Muivah understood that, given the neighbouring states’ opposition, the government does not have the numbers to pass the amendment through the legislatures involved,” says a source close to the negotiations.

The NSCN-I/M, therefore settled for an autonomous administrative mechanism for Naga-inhabited areas, of the kind already created for other hiill areas, such as the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Councils for Leh and Kargil.

Even so, the NSCN-I/M is clinging onto hope for a Greater Nagaland some day, perhaps through the mechanism of a States Reorganization Commission, as was done in the 1950s.

This secret agreement is reflected in a joint statement by the government and the NSCN-I/M, issued in New Delhi on July 18, 2011, announcing a breakthrough in the peace process. It stated: “Sustained negotiations over the past few months have led to a set of proposals for an honourable political settlement… By appreciating and respecting each other’s position and difficulties, both the parties are confident of working out a settlement in the shortest possible time.”

Business Standard is aware that the settlement was finalised and even checked and approved for constitutional validity by the Attorney General. Yet two governments have failed to push it through. For two years in 2012-14, the lame-duck United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government dallied; followed by a year of inactivity by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The new interlocutor, RN Ravi, who is the chairman of the joint intelligence committee, has met Swu and Muivah. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Kohima in November to inaugurate the Hornbill Festival, but no deal was announced or inked.

Winds of change

Meanwhile, New Delhi’s negotiation plan --- i.e. to negotiate a settlement with the NSCN-I/M, which would then catalyse settlements with the NSCN-K, the NNC and various splinter factions --- began to unravel, setting the stage for the bloody June 4 ambush on an army column in Manipur, in which 18 soldiers died. Khaplang ran out of patience and trust, concluding that New Delhi’s deal with Swu and Muivah would leave him out in the cold. With a limited support base in India, this Burmese Naga would have to feed off the crumbs from Muivah’s table. With time running out, Khaplang refused to renew his ceasefire in April.

The signals were clear that Khaplang would strike hard at Indian security forces to underline his relevance. Even as the NSCN-K began splintering --- a new group, NSNC-R peeled off days after the ceasefire abrogation --- Khaplang’s fighters began targeting the security forces. On April 25th, an Assam Rifles trooper was shot dead; on May 3, the NSCN-K killed eight security personnel and wounded nine in Mon district.

Yet the government in New Delhi did little. Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijuju blandly declared that the government took “serious note of the incident from the security point of view”.

“The June 4 attack was an explosion waiting to happen. We should have activated intelligence sources, tightened up security forces and issued public statements to tell Nagas that Khaplang had repudiated the ceasefire, which the government wanted to continue. Public sentiment in Nagaland overwhelmingly favours an end to violence. The government could have generated strong public pressure on Khaplang to return to the table”, says a senior Nagaland government official.

Intelligence officials admit they underestimated Khaplang, who had already joined hands with nine northeast militant groups, forming a joint front, United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFWSEA).

Even so, the Indian Army’s cross-border strike of June 9 against Khaplang’s camps in Myanmar has put the spotlight on both NSCN-K and the government. Khaplang’s fighters, accustomed to the comfort of ceasefire camps, do not relish the prospect of a return to jungle camps with the army at their heels. For the government, there is the need to sign off on an agreement that satisfies not just the NSCN-K, but also an angry and embittered Khaplang. 


  1. From what I understand about the naga issue, we(indians) have stepped into "their" internal war. My thoughts about this is that we stand back and let them play it out among themselves. Some tribes will likely snuff out some rival tribes in the process.

    Back in the 90s, they raided the kuki tribes, killed a few hundreds and chased the rest out into neighboring states which has created political trouble there(kukis trying to partition manipur). This is likely to happen again.

    IMO, the nagas movement(tribal uprising) had become a frankenstein monster long time ago. Every time we talk, they split into more factions. This is not a coincidence, they know what they are doing. A faction renders years of meetings and talks ineffective in a single move.

    The naga unrest will eventually spread to neighbouring states(like kukis in manipur) if it is not contained. The issue cannot be solved, but allowing it to spread its unrest into other states is very irresponsible.

    Our first step should be to withdraw from internal nagaland and let it play out naturally.

  2. A very interesting and educating read. Honestly, Most people (myself included) in India remain ignorant or unaware of NE India and its state of affairs. Its a shame. Of course, over a period of time im trying to grasp the various issues but its extremely complex. This article provides a good and precise insight into the Naga Insurgency.

    Its one thing that a population has a right to self determination its another when it turn violent. The birth of Telangana state was also a an issue of self determination but the violence was comparatively negligible.

    Which leads to the question, Why are weapons and small arms plenty and abundant in the NE ?
    why does the government not decide to

    1. First, eliminate the supply of firearms and ammunition in this volatile area by fully fencing and manning our borders. So as to completely stop or severely limit its flow. I dont buy the argument that the terrain will not allow for fencing. And further unlike J and K there is no hostile nation on the other side preventing fencing.

    2. When contained/fenced off, de weaponize the population, via an extensive, long and multifaceted operation, ranging from gun grabs to govt buy ups.

    3. Once the two above are in place, then open negotiations to address the demands of the population.

    It would be a massive project a costly one, but one that will reap benefits multi fold. A project like this will employ plenty of laborers who face unemployment. Poverty alleviation and security improvements, limits in immigration from a project which is clearly visible.

    India is a nation where its citizenry does not have the right to bear firearms unlicensed, but increasingly illegal firearms possession is rising in the country, leading to gun violence in the cities and in Strife torn areas in the form of insurgencies.

    A population will always have differences, however access to arms is what makes those differences deadly.


  3. @SachinWRT

    Yeah, wonderful argument; totally different context but reminds me of a comment about Baji Rao II - that he didn't understand the difference between a kingdom and a pension. By your logic, we should withdraw east of Darjeeling and let the North East play out naturally!

  4. @Anon 21:56

    Who is "we" and who are "they"??

  5. @ Anonymous 30 June 2015 at 21:56

    By "withdrawing", I meant to "withdraw from internal naga politics". The naga war is not our war. I don't understand why some people want india to mediate in a foreign war and risk being sucked inside. By playing one side against the other, we have done just that. We need to withdraw from talks with NSCN-IM and their rivals. Nagalands so called democratic govt is akin to karzai in afg - corrupt and in cahoots with their respective ethnic freedom fighting rebels.

    The basic gist of the rebel demand is to absorb as much land and resources in the region as possible - securing a naga nation. They cannot do it themselves because they lack cultural kinship and consensus with the various tribes. This is where india is intentionally brought in. ie, if india wishes to control the nagas, then they demand that india should use brute force to punch the tribes together into a sort of naga confederation/nation else they will support unrest in other NE states(by propping local rebels with arms and training).

    Both NDA and UPA understood the naga issue and were wise enough to drag the talks out for decades but not wise enough to prevent the NSCN from forming links with non-naga rebels. The NSCN needs to told explicitly clear that india will not fix any tribal confederation for them on their behalf and if they operate out of naga areas then they will be bombed.

  6. @Jean Luc Picard

    Do you ever realise how long the GoI has been trying that- 70 odd years... when the tentacle of insurgency flies thick and thin in NE on organisations based in Foreign countries... after all Fizo was always foreign based.. sheltered by friendly countries.

    Do you know what is the slogan of Nagas - "Nagalim for Christ" ... This trying hard Congi would never say that...

    And do you know what majority they do - draw salaries ( GoI money) from two jobs ...that is no issue..

    What a simpleton you all are !!

  7. Very educative and informative article to read. Political ambitions have historically miscalibrated the Tribal culture and its pulse. Be it the Afghans, Incas or Indian Tribes in NE and Central India. There is a dire need to understand a tribe before subjecting it under a political umbrella, and wrapping it in a doze of economic development. British wisely left these areas to their fate and isolated them by strong defensive segregation. The tribal areas need to be protected as sanctuaries with unforced aids for development. These should be left to evolve into contemporary civilisation through exposure rather iron hand.
    The present Accord with NSCN(I/M) supposedly having dropped two major demands imply at least weakening and fizzling out of insurgency if not totally extinguished. Khaplang, will also be round the corner with some kind of carrot Doval may have thought of it.


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