Clutter & chaos surrounding Naga political issue need to be sorted in a pragmatic manner, without manipulations, keeping in mind the complex tribal dynamics
When it comes to pulling a rabbit out of the hat, the BJP government has proved to be a maestro, with a governor always in the spotlight seemingly assisting in the trick, the latest case in point being the Maharashtra midnight coup. But that magic could not be recreated on October 31, 2019, in the theatre of India’s oldest conflict in spite of a most determined governor of the state of Nagaland and GoI's interlocutor for the Indo-Naga political issue. Of course, unlike his counterparts, the actions of Nagaland governor RN Ravi appear apparently above board -- although the NSCN-IM and certain Naga civil organisations would state otherwise.
Since 2014, the resolution of the Naga issue has indeed played out like a great magic trick. Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first act -- 'The Pledge' -- Prime Minister Modi declares in December 2014 that the Naga solution would be delivered in 18 months. The second act -- 'The Turn' -- On August 3, 2015, New Delhi creates a big brouhaha over the Framework Agreement (initially trumpeted as Naga Peace Accord) creating the impression that the resolution of the protracted Naga issue was imminent. The third and final act -- 'The Prestige' -- The Centre sets a three-month deadline to solve the Naga issue, and governor RN Ravi exudes unmatched confidence about inking the final pact on October 31, 2019, come what may. The abracadabra didn't work, and the pact didn't materialise.
RN Ravi misjudged the complexities, and misread the situation, or probably he was being hurried on by New Delhi. Ironically though, the GoI and the Nagaland governor seem to have achieved the objective of The Prestige act – bringing back something that was made to disappear. Old faultlines have started reappearing, all reports indicate a widening rift between the NSCN-IM and GoI, and renewal of violence looms large.
Days ahead might reveal what led to the no-show of the much-hyped October 31 performance -- whether the props vital to the magic malfunctioned, or was it a case of too many props, or simply the lack of enthusiasm of the audience in Nagaland, major stakeholders in the Naga issue. But one thing was clear. Resolution of the protracted Naga issue cannot be conjured overnight like conjuring numbers in electoral politics despite the stages sharing a similarity in designs like defections, coercions, the lure of money (read packages) and back-channel parleys. The dynamics at play on the stage of the Indo-Naga issue are far too many and too complex. Moreover, it demands caution and prudence as the impact would be far-reaching that can't be undone after five years with EVMs.
Meanwhile, the lack of surprise on the botched October 31 delivery was not surprising given how long the vexed Naga issue has been dragged, the unfulfilled promises, the election before solution drama, et al. While Naga political solution as Christmas gift has become a standard December joke, the Naga people have grown weary of the hocus-pocus aimed at concealing truth of the actual situation, and solution packages that prove to be chimera. The people of Nagaland, in particular, have grown weary under the burden of extortion, an euphemism for taxation, and weary of surprises.
Contrary to what one would expect, the October 31 razzmatazz barely had any effect on the people of Nagaland although many including chief minister Neiphiu Rio hailed the day as historic. Amidst the fear that gripped the state apprehensive of violence, and lack of excitement, there was one question on every lip -- “Will the taxation and extortion by the underground factions stop if the Naga solution comes?”
Since the peace talks began, successive governments at the Centre have had chosen to ignore the elephant in the room - the issue of rampant taxation by the NSCNs and other factions. Taxation by the underground factions is but an euphemism for extortion, and despite claims by the NSCNs that people were paying towards the Naga cause, the general Naga public is weary and angry. Every sphere of life is taxed by the “national workers” for the Naga cause and there is no accountability for the multi-crores collected. All and sundry including even government departments and politicians have to pay taxes. But the successive state governments too have all turned a blind eye to what has become a real menace.
RN Ravi, in an interview on March 1, 2019, accepted that extortion has become an industry. “…We all know there is a thriving political economy of insurgency in Nagaland run by a network of underground and overground collaborators. Every household, rich and poor, is victim of this perverse economy…” But the issue of extortion has had barely been addressed during the endless parleys between the Government of India and the NSCNs.
The sufferings of the public due to institutionalised extortion seem to have been relegated to being collateral damage, for keeping up a facade that all is well in this part of the country. The unbridled taxation by the Naga national groups and the Centre's inaction on it has become emblematic of New Delhi's indifferent attitude. For people of Nagaland, it is a collateral for peaceful existence under the shadow of the gun.
Always in the dark
It was the NSCN-IM that has been struggling and spearheading the Naga cause for decades now, and since the ceasefire, have steadfastly carried on talks with representatives of the GoI to thrash out an “amicable solution.” But prior to October 31, the NSCN-IM found itself on shaky grounds, and at the risk of being ignored on the big day. Even the public sentiment was turning against the outfit in Nagaland.
The romance between the NSCN-IM and the GoI that started in August 2015 had come to an end with the three-month deadline announced earlier this year. Keeping the contents of the Framework Agreement secret despite repeated appeals for disclosure would come to haunt the NSCN-IM and seemingly work in favour of the GoI. A harried NSCN-IM protested that GoI was backtracking on the Framework Agreement but that failed to find sympathy in Nagaland, where the stakeholders had been conveniently kept in the dark since 2015.
Even the manner in which the so-called Framework Agreement – its signing shrouded in secrecy – was sprung on the people did more harm than good, creating mistrust among Nagas across borders. In the name of peace, the common Nagas have been kept in the dark regarding their own future. All that has contributed to widening rifts on tribal lines.
As a journalist reporting on the issue on the ground, attending NSCN and Ceasefire board press conferences, consultative meets at Hebron and events at Camp Khehoi, reporting on the all-out gun-battle between factions, and compelled to follow the the war of words on (news) paper, it had become evident to me that a lot more was happening in Delhi over cups of beverages than what was being divulged to the media, or/and to the people. There was always a sense of being kept in the dark – the assurances, accusations and assertions simply didn't add up. It all seemed a lot of hocus-pocus.
To add to this hush-hush nature of the political talks, interlocutor RN Ravi has refused multiple requests by the local media including national wire agencies and regional channels based out of Nagaland for one-on-one interviews. Neither has he conducted a single press conference in Nagaland to clear the air even as panic gripped Nagaland prior to October 31 deadline.
The vexed Naga insurgency needs to be put to bed once and for all keeping the future of the Naga people, and their neighbours in mind. For that it is imperative that New Delhi and its representatives desist from machinations and gimmicks that would create further fissures within the Naga society. A divided Naga society would be ill receptive to any solution. The state government needs to put the house in order and stand with its people to combat illegal taxation and corruption transcending tribal allegiances. The Naga people have to realise that tribalism is rendering them vulnerable.
Over and above all that, the Naga national workers or the various factions need to stop the mafia-style of functioning and waving of guns, rein in their rogue cadres and win over the people with humility.
Had the NSCN-IM, undoubtedly the biggest player in the Indo-Naga political issue, focused more on integration than taxation, the atmosphere could have been way more conducive, allowing Nagas to thwart the divisive ploys.
The clutter and chaos surrounding the Naga political issue needs to be sorted in a pragmatic manner, without manipulations, keeping in mind the complex tribal dynamics. People are tired of the highhanded attitude of New Delhi and the Naga political groups (factions). Voices of the people need to be heard and respected, wounds need to be healed before the Naga society implodes. And there's no magic wand that can do the job.
(The writer is a Nagaland-based journalist with more than 17 years of experience reporting from the ground for national media as well as Nagaland-based newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)