External stakeholders in Naga peace talks replete with ethnic politics
The Naga peace talks moving past October 31, 2019 to settle for a solution buried anticipations and the notification of Union ministry of home affairs signalled that Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh will be consulted before the final agreement is sealed. It was reported that the deadlock was over demands for separate Naga Constitution and Naga Flag.
In the summer of 2020, a disquiet set in between RN Ravi, interlocutor of Naga peace talks, and the NSCN-IM, where the latter in their statement said that the Naga issue is a political one in contrast to how the former tried to reduce it into a law and order problem.
NSCN-IM demanded a replacement for the interlocutor to proceed the Naga peace talks which have been touted to finalise soon.
The search for Naga political solution culminates from historical events and struggles since the British contacted the Nagas in 1832. The Battle of Khonoma 1879-1880 is regarded as the last resistance from Naga against the expanding colonial rule of the British.
However, almost five decades later, the region witnessed another resistance, the Zeliangrong movement under Jadonang and later Rani Gaidinliu, against the British in the late 1920s. It is recorded in archives that the Zeliangrong movement was stirred by the mass killings of Zeliangrong people during the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919.
Then in early 1929, the Naga Club which was formed in 1918, submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission expressing its desire to remain as an independent nation for they were never ruled by any kingdom in the past excepting the British.
The Naga movement gained traction after Naga National Council came into being in 1946 and the later period saw violence and repression in the region, then formation of NSCN after the fallout of the Shillong Accord in 1975.
NSCN later split into two in 1988, NSCN-IM and NSCN-K. Then the next phase of Naga movement was marked by ceasefire agreement in 1997 and the beginning of Naga peace talks spanning 23 years so far. This chronology of Naga movement is contingent with its demand for recognition of its ‘unique identity’ and long-cherished dream to unite all the lands of Nagas living in India and Myanmar.
Since the news of Naga peace talks began amid pandemic, the question of stakeholders arises again concerning apprehensions of three neighbouring states of Nagaland. At Imphal and adjoining areas, the notion that the hills (tribal dominant) and valley are one living together in unity, harmony, and peace, have been repeatedly conveyed in various statements.
On September 22, 2020, the Coordination Committee on Manipur Integrity submitted a memorandum to Union home minister Amit Shah apprising that the boundary of Manipur should not be compromised in the Naga peace talks and no arrangement, be it territorial or administrative, should cover Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. The United Committee Manipur echoes similar views in their recent statement on Naga peace talks by drawing on the integrity and identity of Manipur.
The claim for stakes from communities falling outside the fold of Naga tribes needs to be examined into claims, contestation, and configuration from the past. The question of stakeholder pertaining to Manipur is anchored firmly in ethnic contestation, competing claims among ethnic communities, and unequal power relation and its dynamics, operating between tribes in the hills, and Meitei from the valley.
The middle path in treating every entity equally will favour historically dominant community over the others. These factors should be taken into consideration thus locating what one rightfully claims and contests and move towards finding an amicable solution.
The history of boundary making before the formation of states, sheds light on how Naga tribes were not consulted thus finding themselves to be living in four different states in India and in Myanmar. One of the earliest records of violating the consent of the hills in the history of Manipur is the way the British post 1891 included the hills under the administration of valley through the British colonisation of Manipur. The Naga National League’s No Tax Campaign of 1948 with its demand to merge Naga areas of Manipur with the then Naga Hills District is an historical event about their interest and aspiration.
The recent past can offer a glimpse of where decisions were taken by the state bypassing the interests of hills people like the carving of seven new districts in 2016, the three contentious bills to facilitate the passage of Inner Line Permit in 2015, the Third Amendment of Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous Council Act, 2008, etc.
All of these were not placed before the representatives of hills people, Hills Area Committee (HAC), thus bypassing its mandated role in protecting the interests of hill people. The way how tribes are treated in these forms reveal the systemic marginalisation towards them in Manipur. It is on this distrust that on common issues affecting every communities of Manipur like Citizenship Amendment Bill, racism, AFSPA etc, hardly evoke all the communities to come together for a unified protest in Manipur.
The relationship between Naga and Kuki has been tense since the time of the British colonial rule. Ethnic tension and conflicts have continued to frame Naga and Kuki equation from the past, especially over lands and politics. Both ethnic communities had suffered altogether in cycle of violence, to name a few, events like the Khonoma battle, the Kuki Rebellion, the Naga Kuki conflict of 1990s. Nagas living in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and in Myanmar are under the shadow of dominant communities where their interests, language, culture, and identity are being overwhelmed regularly.
To really move ahead in finding long-lasting peace in the state, must come about by the dominant community in acknowledging unequal power relations. The positioning of hills and the valley on an equal footing is overlooking the long history of tribes who are at the receiving end of dominant community’s politics and discrimination. It is on this line that if any stakeholder -- Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur -- must be accommodated in the Naga peace talks, it must be in accordance with prevailing equations and configuration from the past. This shall give a fair, compelling, and lasting solution to the Naga peace talks, and peace for the region.
(Richard Kamei is a PhD candidate at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views expressed are his own)