Opinion: Game theory analysis of the Naga peace process
Game theory can be defined as the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation amongst intelligent and rational decision-makers. Although called a theory, it’s not an exact science, as anything to do with human decision-making can never be.
However, the theory can be safely applied to either forecast or recommend ‘rational’ actions. The central premise of the game theory is rational-decision-maker(s). In the application of game theory, three main constituents are: players (assumed to be rational decision-makers), play (options or strategies available to each player), and outcomes (based on the chosen play, each participant expects a certain outcome).
A detailed account of the Naga issue is beyond the scope of this analysis, however, a brief summary is in order.
Historically, the Naga tribes never completely agreed to rule by foreign powers. Although varying degrees of control over Naga territories had been exercised, earlier by the colonial British government, and subsequently by the Indian government, some element of resistance had always existed.
Most historical versions ascribe to Naga Club (1918), the first attempts at formal disagreement with the authority of the Indian State. In their submissions to the Simon Commission in 1929, they asked to be left alone. The Naga National Council (NNC) declared themselves independent State a day before India attained independence from Colonial rule in August 1947. Many events occurred in subsequent years, including the formation of the Naga government and Naga army. New Delhi responded to that by sending in the Indian Army and enacting AFSPA. The NNC split in 1975, and NSCN(I-M) and NSCN (K) came into being.
Several attempts were made by the Government of India and the warring Nagas for lasting peace: the Shillong Accord (1975), the Ceasefire Agreement (1964 and 1997), and most recently, the Framework Agreement in 2015. Although exact details of the framework agreement are classified, enough details are, however, available in the public domain to grasp the essential. More importantly, the agreement has helped maintain a reasonably conflict-free environment. Attempts are being made to give a final shape to these agreements and provide them constitutional validity. It is widely reported that the highest office in the country is directly involved. Unfortunately, the talks have stalled, reportedly over the issue of Greater Nagalim (sovereign statehood), separate flag, and separate constitution.
Having seen the broader outline of the conflict, let us now introduce the key players before applying game theory to garner their motivations and choice of actions: Indian State represented by a formal bureaucratic architecture; the Naga institutions represented by NSCN, NNPGs, and civil society groups with varying degree of influence; and the political party in power, that is the BJP.
The formal State, manned by career civil servants, is process-driven and not outcome-driven. The final solution must be borne out of a process that is documentable, and if feasible, repeatable. Concessions, if any, must be kept to a minimum, lest everyone else starts seeking them. The state has no moral burden to carry and can engage in any kind of illegality, subterfuge and covert activity under the garb of ‘in the interest of the state’.
The state has access to unlimited finances, manpower, and time. The state is seldom in a hurry and doesn’t find status-quo unacceptable. The state is not interested in glory or legacy; although it would gain from lasting peace, and doesn’t have to answer for failure to achieve that. To find examples, one doesn't need to look too far. Governor R N Ravi, though appointed by political authority, represents the working of the State. His dismantling of ‘town commands’ of the Naga outfit, letter to the chief minister lamenting law and order, and efforts to curb the extra-constitutional authority of the NSCN has not gone down well with the agitating Nagas. There are persistent demands from Naga outfits seeking his ouster. While he may be ‘correct’ in his approach, he may not be ‘wise’. State considers each problem as binary, solvable through the administrative process. In sum, the State is not interested in the peace (per se), but the process.
For political outfits, perception matters the most. They are outcome-driven and consider the process as a means to an end. The BJP, led by PM Narendra Modi, would like to be known as a political party that could finally resolve this long-simmering issue. Positive perception often translates to electoral gains. A lasting solution would provide political dividends everywhere in the country.
Consider this story: PM Modi, the great wise man, who calmed an insurgency raging since the birth of the nation, something his predecessors could not. Political parties are neither interested in peace nor conflict; they are interested in a perception that can be sold as a win. Time is not as important as ‘timing’. A successful agreement, during the times of raging pandemic and farmer’s protest, could be a morale booster for the cadre. However, there is no great rush to achieve this outcome.
Failure has greater consequences, therefore, a flawed status quo is preferred over a failed accord. The room for concessions is limited to only those items that cannot be exploited by political opponents as surrender. In offering almost unlimited autonomy to the Naga people, under the Indian constitution, the political party has reached the limits of its stretch.
There are multiple players with prominent ones being NSCN factions and an umbrella body of NNPG (inclusive of Naga HoHo). While at the granular level each group has its own objectives, at the macro level, the stated objective is ‘peace with honour’, with each group possessing different versions of honour. The key demand is the unification of areas populated by Naga tribes as one entity, to be governed as per the Naga value system.
When a conflict has gone on for as long as this one, almost the entire community becomes an affected party. Most families have suffered a loss of life, limb, or treasure. Varied views prevail, ranging from seeking an independent and sovereign Naga state to finding autonomous existence within the Indian constitution. The means to achieve that solution also varies from guns to dialogue.
The mass movement also suffers from tribal prejudices and doesn’t have the support from non-naga tribes. Even amongst the Naga tribes, one can already hear voices of disagreement from tribes residing in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur. The state is aware of these fault-lines and is not averse to exploiting them.
The options for armed groups are limited; they can leverage their bargaining power only as long as they can sustain insurgency. They must continue to find men, material, and money to sustain the armed struggle until they achieve what they want. Their center of gravity is not armed cadre, rather, popular support amongst Naga people.
The state would expectedly launch a counter military offensive to deal with armed militia, and at the same time state would deploy all means at its disposal to undermine their popular support. Every revolution requires blood and treasure, but these things can not be coerced out of people for too long. Efforts to forcibly collect taxes or recruit people in the ranks would invariably undermine the armed insurgency, as it erodes popular support.
On the other hand, peaceful struggle, articulated well through media, would be difficult to suppress politically or militarily. However, peaceful movements tend to run longer, and the State finds them tolerable as they incentivize the status quo. As mentioned earlier, the State has unlimited time and no motivation to solve a political problem that is otherwise administratively manageable. Here too, the room for maneuver is very little.
For the armed insurgent, or the peaceful movement, it’s a struggle about political ideology, and popular support is a critical requirement. Whereas for the State, it’s about the territory, popular support is incidental. Right now, State has more options to choose from; the status quo is one of them. One must remember that the State has might and time; insurgents just have time.
In this conflict, people are not a party but a prize. In this political conflict, a lasting solution is possible only through a political process. Most commentators contend that winner would have to win the popular support, the will of the people. However, the will of the people is not a precise formulation and it evolves over time.
A collective voice is also a misnomer, as people seldom speak collectively. The elites in the society propagate their own views as a collective voice. A long drawn insurgency saps the support for the struggle. Everyday people have everyday concerns. They want to put food on the table and provide care and comfort to the family. At a very fundamental level, the citizenry needs peace and security for their home and hearth. As long as the net security provider is not exploitative, they would make their peace, eventually. One may look at the Khalistan movement in Punjab as an example.
Based on game theory-based analysis, this author would like to predict that an agreement, if any, would be signed under the ambit of the Indian constitution. A fairly large degree of autonomy would be granted to Naga political authority that would allow them to pursue and preserve their culture, language, and history. Should the Naga representatives stick to their demands of a separate flag and constitution, the situation would remain in status quo. Attempts to change the status quo via the use of force, by either side, would worsen the conflict.
(The author, Ajay Ahlawat is a former Indian Air Force officer with extensive experience as a leader, fighter pilot, instructor and administrator with international exposure. He is keenly interested in matters concerning national security and strategic affairs.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions mentioned within do not reflect the views of EastMojo and we do not assume any responsibility for the same.