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A non-territorial resolution to the Naga ethnic conflict

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 15, 2011

    The resolution of the Naga ethnic conflict could well be in sight. For the first time ever, after nearly 14 years of negotiations between the Union Government and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah---NSCN (IM), there appears to be a concrete proposal from the Union government to work out a non-territorial Naga council as a resolution mechanism. This structure, envisioned as a pan-Naga supra-state body, will enjoy legal authority over cultural, developmental and social rights of the Nagas living across several states in the Northeast. However, security matters pertaining to law and order will rest with the respective states where the Nagas live.

    This is a significant development in the Naga peace process and, if it becomes a reality, will amount to a “Special Federal Relationship” between the Union government and the Naga inhabited areas. It will also recognize the distinct identity of the Nagas by guaranteeing them that their lifestyle will not be interfered with. The recognition of Nagas as being unique in their culture, history and tradition has been a recurring core demand of the Naga ethnic movement since 1918. As far back as 1929, in its memorandum to the Simon Commission, the Naga Club had written about the uniqueness of the Nagas and the need to preserve it. In June 1947, the Hydari Agreement signed between Sir Akbar Hydari, then Governor of Assam, and the Naga National Council (NNC) agreed to preserve the unique rights and customary laws of the Nagas. The Shillong Accord of 1975 between the Union Government and the NNC had also made an attempt to work out a mechanism to guarantee the Naga way of life. However, due to factionalism within the Naga armed movement, the Shillong Accord failed to deliver on this aspect.

    The present “supra-state” or non-territorial unification proposition is indeed a meaningful way to overcome the anxieties of other ethnic communities with regard to the NSCN (IM)’s demand for territorial unification of Naga inhabited areas in the northeast. The idea of Nagalim—territorial unification of all Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh into a common politico-administrative unit—has been a highly emotive issue in Manipur and Assam. Take the instance of extension of the cease-fire between the Union government and the NSCN (IM) in 2001 to Manipur. In theory, a ceasefire automatically means the giving up of violence in favour of peaceful negotiations to a conflict. In this case, the extension of the Naga ceasefire to Manipur and Assam would have theoretically meant the end of violent resistance by the NSCN (IM) in these areas. However, a larger more ‘diabolic’ fear pervaded the minds of the population in the neighbouring states, especially in Manipur. Any extension of the ceasefire to Manipur, with its large Naga population, was perceived as a springboard for the Naga territorial unification process leading to the bifurcation of Manipur. When the Union government extended the Naga cease-fire to Manipur on June 14, 2001, violent protests erupted in Manipur, with the state assembly building being burnt down and 13 protestors being killed within a span of four days. Meitei, Kuki and Muslim civil society organizations in Manipur were united in a mass movement against the decision to extend the Naga ceasefire to the Naga-dominated hill districts of Manipur—Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong. As a result, New Delhi was forced to reconsider its decision. It revoked the ceasefire arrangements on July 27, 2001 and restored the status quo of a territorially restricted ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) in Nagaland.

    Given this deep-seated resistance to further territorial demarcation in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and especially Manipur, the only viable solution for the Naga ethnic conflict is perhaps a non-territorial Naga council. As a participant in the Naga Peoples’ Consultative Meetings, the author had discussed the possibility of a non-territorial Naga unification body with the Naga Hoho (Apex Naga social council).The representatives of the Hoho were open to the idea so long as the Naga right to their unique way of life is preserved. Now that such a proposition is in the offing, it is best to seriously consider it. The best way forward to achieve this is for the Union government to work in consultation with the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur so that problem areas are identified on the path to a non-territorial Naga council. The NSCN (IM) on its part has to also realistically assess the resolution package and, in consultation with Naga society, work towards the peaceful resolution of a conflict it has actively participated in for so long.

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