In an interview broadcast on the BBC on 29 April 2005, Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), made a departure when he proposed a special federal relationship between India and the Nagas, under which a separate constitution would be guaranteed to the latter. He ruled out the possibility of a quick, rough-and-ready settlement of the Naga issue within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Muivah emphasised that provisions of the Indian constitution did not guarantee anything because laws could be amended later without the consent of the Nagas.
Scholars studying the Indo-Naga conflict tend to conclude that the recognition of Naga sovereignty is an impossible demand for the Indian government to concede to. Yet, an armed conflict that has spanned over half a century has been centrally concerned with the Naga nationalist demand for sovereignty. The first Indo-Naga ceasefire agreement of 1964 focused mainly on the cessation of hostilities. Beyond that, there was no attempt to address vital issues of rights, justice, sovereignty and demilitarisation.
The 1964 agreement culminated in the infamous 1975 Shillong Accord, a humilating pact signed between Governor of Nagaland L P Singh and a six-member team of the Naga National Council. The Naga representatives, politically outmanouveured, unconditionally accepted the terms of military disengagement and agreed to a solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. After 1975, however, not only were the internal political power equations re-structured through bloody battles within the Naga armed opposition, but the Indo-Naga armed conflict itself escalated.
After a prolonged period of militarisation in Nagaland and the Indian Northeast as a whole, the ceasefire of 1997 between NSCN (I-M) and the Government of India led to hopes for peace among a new generation. Since then, the two parties have been engaged in a peace process. Although the peace has been fragile, it has held and has also forced Indian authorities into a dialogue with the Naga leadership. The political astuteness of the Nagas, as reflected in Muviah’s recent interview, will test the limits of India’s willingness to engage in the peace process. The Indian government cannot expect a Shillong Accord-style resolution this time around.
Muviah’s comments, implying the need for a special relationship with the Indian state, might draw criticism from certain quarters. Article 371 (a) of the Indian Constitution already acknowledges and provides special status to social, religious and economic resources – including land – in the state of Nagaland. However, clause (b) of the provision allows the governor to use the ‘law and order problem’ to override the principles of custodianship to give the military greater say in civic matters. Hence, Muivah’s own apprehensions and mistrust must be analysed with some seriousness. The Indian state’s approach to addressing ethnic and sub-national demands has often evolved in the wake of bloody battles between security forces and the concerned communities. The suppression by the state has separated communities along ethnic, religious and territorial lines, sealed them off from each other, and forced them to create independent means to protect themselves.
A significant aspect in the post-1997 ceasefire period has been the utter lack of urgency shown by the Indian government in engaging with the political process. In contrast, the Naga leadership has initiated a process of interaction with the Naga people through consultative meetings in Naga-inhabited areas.
One of the biggest challenges to the Indo-Naga peace process is the demand for the integration of Naga-inhabited areas, which are spread out across other states of the Northeast. Indeed, the Naga people inhabit parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur besides the present-day Nagaland. Naga nationalists have reiterated that until the government of India agrees to this demand, there can be no solution. Meanwhile, the integration issue has met with opposition from the respective states in the region, and the resistance to re-mapping the existing territories is clear.
This is not to say, however, that the matter of integration of Naga inhabited areas has been outrightly rejected. It is the absence of a vibrant civic space that has furthered misconceptions about this demand. The militarisation of the public sphere in the Northeast has destroyed all existing democratic platforms where people of different backgrounds and persuasions could come together for consultations. There has been an absence of people-to-people dialogue, which could help build awareness of the aspirations of different communities, be they Dimasas, Nagas, Boros or Meities. The attitude of the Indian state and the militarisation of society has made it difficult for the communities to even come together to discuss coexistence. Without such initiatives, it is true that any attempt to re-map territories will only damage shared symbols of unity and history and invite a violent phase in the history of the region.
As repeatedly mentioned in Naga public discourse, the sole aspiration of Naga people is not a mad frenzy to break up the exisiting states but to seek just solutions to existing relations with neighbouring communities and the Indian state. Muivah’s interview to the BBC highlighted the willingness of the Naga leadership to engage India in finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict, particularly because, he said, the “uniqueness of Naga history has been recognised”. Indeed, there has been a sea change since the days when prime ministers of India would publicly berate Naga nationalists and vow to exterminate them. The flexibility of the Naga leadership is reflected in its efforts to nudge reluctant Indian policymakers to think of shared sovereignity on several issues. Such a step has been one of the positive results of ongoing consultations between civil society organisations of the Northeast and the Naga leadership and needs to be taken very seriously by opinion makers in the larger Subcontinent. It is on this concrete peg that hopes for a resolution to the Indo-Naga conflict can be hung.
Muivah on BBC
Thuingaleng Muivah was interviewed on BBC World’s HARDtalk India by Karan Thapar on 29 April. Excerpts:
On the dialogue between NSCN (I-M) and the Indian government:
We can come as close as possible but it’s not possible for the Nagas to come within the Indian Union or within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Why? Because it amounts to dismissing the whole history of the Nagas and the Nagas cannot do that.
Sovereignty of the Naga people belongs to the Naga people and to the Naga people alone. Nagas have a right to decide their future, to determine their fate also. So long as that is there, adjustments can be made. . . So long as the national identity of the Nagas is recognised and honoured (adjustment) is possible.
On a possible federation:
When we say a special federal relationship, it has to be on the terms of the agreement that can be arrived at… It should be a federation of India and Nagalim (Greater Nagaland). Within the Indian Constitution is not possible.
On the issue of defence under a federation:
When we talk about defence we have to say that Nagaland must be defended jointly in the event of external threat. Why? Because if Nagaland would be in danger, naturally the security of India would also be threatened. And we appreciate that.
Control over external affairs:
So far as our external affairs is concerned, primarily Government of India should have them. But whenever the interest of the Nagas is affected, Nagas should also be represented.
On the Indian Constitution:
When we talk or when we say within the frame of the constitution, it is always dangerous because any provision in the constitution could be easily amended whenever expediency arises. So this is the danger. So we cannot (accept it). … The agreement which is going to be arrived at should be incorporated in the Indian constitution (and) equally it should be incorporated in the Naga constitution.
About what made the present round of negotiations possible:
(For) the first time in history, the Government of India has recognised the uniqueness of Naga history. So it is a good chance for every one of us to seek a solution.