A cautious optimism has dawned in Patkai, the rugged hills that dot the Indo-Myanmar border and inhabited by various Naga tribes on both sides of the political divide. Having had the distinction of firing the first shot of secessionism of independent India in 1947 and subsequently having acquired the tags like ‘mother of all insurgencies’ and ‘the longest-running insurgency in the country’, the Naga insurgency has defied all solutions thus far – the peace deals of 1947, 1964 and 1975 all came to nought.
Of course, the 1997 truce between National Socialist Council of Nagalim Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM), the dominant armed group, and government of India is still holding on and was followed up with a Framework Agreement signed by both the parties in August 2015. The truce with National Socialist Council of Nagaland Khaplang (NSCN-K) faltered after the group walked out of the ceasefire agreement in March 2015. Nonetheless, other splinter groups too joined the peace process subsequently, while a major faction of NSCN-K led by Khango Konyak also announced suspension of hostilities last year.
Nonetheless, the people of this beautiful lower Himalayan hill range are now finally brimming with hope and excitement as they look forward to a lasting and peaceful resolution to the decades-old bloody conflict that has exacted a heavy toll on them. They are hoping that a “final” deal that is “honourable and acceptable” to all stakeholders will now be finally reached between the warring sides.
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And the Nagas cannot be faulted for this new-found air of optimism as indications so far from the government have been quite encouraging. Unlike the false start witnessed on the eve of Assembly elections in Nagaland last year when the cry for “solution before election” reverberated across the state after Central government representatives indicated that a final accord was not too far away, this time around, however, they have reasons to believe that real peace could finally dawn in their land. And the catalyst behind this hope has been the appointment of RN Ravi, Centre’s interlocutor in Naga peace talks, as governor of Nagaland. This has been construed by many as New Delhi’s strong desire to bring the 22-year-old negotiations to a logical conclusion.
A former special director of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and former chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee, Ravi has been credited by some for breathing new life into the Naga peace process after his appointment as Centre’s interlocutor in 2014. He piloted the Framework Agreement signed in August 2015 by him and NSCN-IM’s then chairman Isak Chishi Swu and general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has since been touted as a “preamble” to a final agreement, though shrouded in mystery as it has since been cloaked in an iron veil of secrecy.
Having learnt from past experiences, the former Kerala cadre IPS officer of 1976 batch who also served as deputy national security adviser was wise enough to realise the pitfalls of reaching any definite deal with a particular group. Hence, encouraged by New Delhi, he reached out to six other rebel groups, which formed a Working Committee, and signed a ceasefire deal with them in 2017 before bringing them on to the negotiating table in September that year. And the split in the NSCN-K in the subsequent year brought the Khango-led faction to the peace process as well. The other Myanmar-based faction is actually in total disarray after coming under attacks from the army in that country, prompting some analysts to conclude that the entire plot was jointly orchestrated by New Delhi and Naypyidaw.
Then having ensured that everyone was on board the peace process, he also tried to assure the neighbouring states of Nagaland in the past five years as the Centre’s interlocutor that political boundaries would not be redrawn to accommodate the demand for a Greater Nagalim.
Known for his pacifist approach, Ravi was one of those rare senior officials in the Union ministry of home affairs who had openly spoken against the much-reviled Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and stressed on winning people’s hearts instead to stop alienation while still serving in the IB. And, much to his credit, over the past few years he has managed to win the confidence of not just the armed Naga groups, but even civil society organisations (CSOs) like the Naga Hoho, Naga Mothers’ Association, Nagaland Tribes Council, Naga Students’ Federation, etc, besides the political parties as he harped on “inclusiveness”.
No wonder then that the announcement of Ravi as the new governor of Nagaland in July this year sent the Nagas into a jubilant mood. And the grand public reception he was accorded by the CSOs in Kohima on August 16 and the massive turnout that was witnessed bore testimony to his goodwill among the Nagas.
And as if that was not enough, the new governor, who still continues to hold the position as the Centre’s interlocutor, too hasn’t disappointed as he announced at the public reception that he had been asked by the Prime Minister to hammer out a solution to the vexed Naga problem within three months. He reportedly further revealed that “substantive issues” had already been resolved among the stakeholders, barring few issues, adding there was no reason why a final peace accord could not be reached anytime soon.
In another significant statement, in what could be music to ears of the neighbouring states of Nagaland with significant Naga population aspiring for a Greater Nagalim, he is also said to have told the gathering that the rebel groups had agreed that the integration of contiguous Naga-inhabited areas should be through a “democratic process”, indicating that there would be no arbitrary redrawing of the states’ political boundaries as of now.
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No doubt Ravi’s appointment and his subsequent announcements have been received with jubilation by the government of Nagaland, political parties and CSOs alike. While chief minister Neiphiu Rio welcomed the latest developments and assured all cooperation of his government in ushering in peace in the land, the neighbouring states have so far not reacted adversely.
So, with expectations sky-rocketing, will Ravi, with all his experience gathered while handling the Northeast desk of IB, be able to walk the talk? Will it finally be curtains on the longest-running insurgency in the country? Or will it all just end up as a chimera? Well, the jury is out and the final act will be known only once a final deal is inked. For, there are several layers to the conflict, the issues of Naga sovereignty, integration of contiguous Naga-inhabited areas, bloody factional feuds and intra-tribal rivalries being not the least.
However, some observers point out that unlike in the past when a deal with one group led to emergence of another splinter group, this time around almost all the outfits have been brought to the negotiating table, while the Naga society is firmly behind the peace process evident in all prominent CSOs expressing their support. Further, there is a growing resentment in the Naga society against extortion and targeted killings by insurgent groups, manifest in popular movements like ACAUT (Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation). All these have given rise to hope that a final solution may finally be arrived at. And if Modi Inc does manage to deliver on the vexed Naga issue, it will be adding another feather to its cap.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati. Views expressed are his own)
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