As 2022 enters its last stretch, the security scenario in Manipur and Nagaland, two states torn by insurgency for decades, seems somewhat stable. However, scratch the surface and the picture is different. A major factor for the calm is that most Naga and Kuki insurgents are in a ceasefire agreement with the Government of India, holding talks to negotiate settlements.
There are nonetheless troubling signs in the case of the Nagas, with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, NSCN(IM), arguably the most powerful, seemingly forced into a corner.
This became open on September 28, when it wrote a letter to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), claiming that the Indian government has backtracked on a “Framework Agreement” signed on August 3, 2015, which agreed the two negotiating entities would continue to work towards a comprehensive peace settlement. The letter also indirectly urged the CCP to intervene and make the negotiations go forward besides thanking the Chinese government for its support to the Nagas from the 1950s onwards.
While it is unlikely that China will respond favourably, if at all, given the fact the country is not what it was in the mid-20th century—an underdeveloped country steeped in the Communist ideology, aligned with the Communist bloc in a Cold War with the Capitalist West. China, though still Communist in form, has embraced the Capitalist ethos of free market though under supervision of the State. It also sees itself not as a regional player anymore but a frontrunner in global politics and economy.
Once upon a time, China did openly support Northeast insurgents who claimed to have socialist leanings. The fact that even NSCN(IM), with its stated motto of “Nagaland for Christ”, chose to call itself a socialist council when it came into being in 1980 after rejecting the Shillong Accord of 1975 signed between the Government of India and the original Naga nationalist group, Naga National Council (NNC), was also probably with an intention to gain China’s patronage.
So, is NSCN(IM)’s appeal in the genuine hope that China would respond favourably, or is it a sign of desperation? From all indications, the latter seems closer to reality.
Today, the Naga armed movement is badly fragmented. There are several factions now, and very broadly, they are divided into two camps. On one side is NSCN(IM) and on the other, there are seven factions, most of them splinters of the NSCN faction led by the late S S Khapang, but have now come under one umbrella called Naga National Political Group (NNPG). While NSCN(IM) draws its leadership and cadre overwhelmingly from amongst Manipur Nagas, the factions in the NNPG are almost exclusively Nagaland-based. NNPG has shown willingness to settle the Naga problem in line with the Constitutional framework of India. There are also strong indications that they prefer a separate settlement for the Nagas of Nagaland and Nagas from outside Nagaland, isolating NSCN(IM).
The latter, on its part, has refused to have any settlement within the Constitutional framework and is insisting on a separate Constitution and flag for the Nagas, and this is where the matter is stuck. With the Nagaland Assembly elections due in February-March 2023, this matter is getting urgent. NNPG has reiterated that they want a peace deal before the election, failing which they would boycott the elections. Another group called Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO), which has long been demanding a separate “Frontier Nagaland” state, is also demanding a Naga settlement before the elections, or else, they too would join the NNPG in boycotting the election.
Eastern Nagaland comprises six districts—Mon, Tuensang, Kiphire, Longleng, Noklak and Shamator—which are inhabited by seven tribes: Chang, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Tikhir and Yimkhiung. The six districts were once parts of the Tuensang Frontier Division of the North Eastern Frontier Agency (NEFA) (today’s Arunachal Pradesh) but in 1957, it merged with the then Naga Hills of Assam as per an agreement between a pro-establishment Naga Peoples’ Convention (NPC) and the Government of India to constitute the state of Nagaland in 1963. This was meant to neutralise the insurgents, but this did not happen.
The eastern Nagas consider themselves more backward than the older tribes of Nagaland. To address this problem, in the 1970s, a local layer was added to the reservation for Scheduled Tribes, and Nagaland reclassified its tribes into ‘Forward’ and ‘Backward’, setting aside 25% government jobs and education seats for the ‘Backward Tribes’. Discontent remained and Nagaland later increased this quota to 37%.
When even this was not enough to pacify ENPO, in 2003, Nagaland tried to address this tension by establishing the Department for Underdeveloped Areas (DUDA). The ENPO rejected this too. Problems resulting from the split in the Naga armed organisations are further complicated by this division. In this multi-layered fissure, the ENPO is by and large on the side of NNPG, again leaving the NSCN(IM) isolated.
There are civil society organisations in Nagaland working for reconciliation. The most notable among these is the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), an initiative headed by Rev. Dr Wati Aier, a Naga theologian. As the convenor of FNR, Dr Aier has been organising and moderating several meetings between the NNPG and NSCN(IM) leaders to get them to agree to be on one platform. What ultimately comes out of this noble initiative remains uncertain but there is little optimism amongst ordinary Nagas regarding any substantial shifts in the stances of the rival groups.
It also remains to be seen what decision the Government of India takes on the matter of a peace deal before the election, and whether it would go ahead and have separate settlements for Nagas of Nagaland and Nagas of Manipur. There are also indications that NSCN(IM) has been reaching out to several Meitei insurgents in Manipur to sink their past differences and form a common front.
All these considered, it would be hasty for anybody to claim that peace has returned to Manipur or Nagaland. The calm surface can be deceptive, for as the saying goes, still waters run deep.
Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics