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Way Forward to a final Naga Settlement

Gautam Sen is a retired IDAS officer who has served in senior positions at the Centre and in a north-east State Government.
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  • July 31, 2017

    The Framework Agreement for Naga settlement was initialled on 3 August 2015 by Thuingaleng Muivah, leader of the Nationalist Council of Nagalim (Issac Swu– Thuingaleng Muivah) (NSCN: IM) and R.N. Ravi, the Central government`s interlocutor on the Naga issue. Even after two years, the framework has not led to a final outcome, although Ravi and the Central government have been working off-camera, painstakingly, with the various stakeholders. In the meantime, NSCN(IM) leader Issac Swu has died and so has S. S. Khaplang, a Hemi Naga, citizen of Myanmar, and leader of the other major Naga rebel outfit, NSCN (Khaplang). Their deaths have created a void in the old guard insurgent leadership.

    Violence perpetrated by the NSCN factions has remained contained, although their collection of levies from civil society, business persons and various establishments continue. This has largely been due to the ceasefire in force in Nagaland since August 1997 with NSCN(IM) and later with the NSCN(K) from September 2001. However, after the NSCN(K)`s unilateral abrogation of the ceasefire in April 2015 and the attacks by its cadres on the Indian Army and its allied forces in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh in June 2015, the outfit has remained outside the ceasefire arrangements. But there is an undercurrent of feeling in the state among the people at large that the NSCN(K) should be eventually brought within the fold of the Agreement when its contents are finalised.

    In Naga society, in Nagaland in general, and in the contiguous areas inhabited by Nagas such as the hill districts of Manipur and the north-eastern areas of Arunachal, there is a yearning for peace and a final settlement of the issue concerning their emotional, ethnic and socio-political identity and the content of its integration with the Indian Union. It would be judicious and politically farsighted for the Central government to consummate the Agreement at the earliest, in any event before the forthcoming state assembly elections in February 2018. If the Agreement does not attain finality in the next six months, political uncertainty will set in, with multi-faceted ramifications from the internal security and geopolitical perspectives.

    A situation of political drift is already prevailing in Nagaland because of factionalism within the ruling Naga Peoples` Front (NPF). Large, violent, public demonstrations and arson were witnessed in February 2017 because of the T. R. Zeliang-led NPF government`s decision to reserve seats for women in local bodies. The public upsurge was against what was viewed as the imposition of a system that was violative of local Naga institutions, customs and traditions. The inability of the state government to deal with the situation was an ominous indicator of the failure of constitutional authority and rule of law. Such a milieu could not but have affected, even if indirectly and temporarily, the progress towards accommodation of the NSCN groups in a broad-based settlement under the Framework Agreement. The political situation has become further fluid in the wake of change in the state’s political leadership, with Zeliang re-assuming the chief ministership.

    An early final settlement of the Naga issue will stem the existing drift in governance in Nagaland. Moreover, it would signify acceptance and the assuaging of the emotional disconnect which had developed among a substantial segment of the Naga people, give them political space and lead to a strengthening of the accommodative attributes of the Indian polity. According to Ravi, the Framework Agreement respects the Naga aspirations of recognition of their uniqueness, thereby implying an acceptance of their unique history, ethnicity and culture and related socio-economic attributes. It is now a question of formalising this recognition within the Indian Constitution and institutions of governance.

    The success of the Agreement will, however, hinge on not disturbing the existing provincial territorial disposition and retaining the present inter-state boundaries in the region. Maximum autonomy may be accorded in ethnic, cultural and developmental realms to autonomous councils for all Naga areas in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even Assam, through suitable amendment to the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The extent of autonomy may be derived from constitutional provisions and not based on state legislature-enacted statutes in order to prevent subsequent tinkering by the state governments concerned as per their political compulsions. Such an arrangement will obviate situations of the nature which arose after three controversial bills on citizenship, registration of shops and establishments, etc. were passed by the Manipur legislature without consultation with the hill councils of the state in 2016, leading to a huge agitation in the Naga and Kuki dominated hill areas of the state. Adequate fiscal powers also need to be devolved to such councils as part of a final Naga settlement, with arrangements for direct transfer of funds to the autonomous councils for Naga areas. This could be a unique arrangement, distinct from the policies being followed by the present Central government since 2015-16 for maximum transfers through the state budgets as against the earlier system of devolution to organisations executing programmes. Without such direct devolution, it may be difficult for Naga autonomous councils to effectively govern their areas.

    Reckoning the unique history and legacy of the Nagas, a tribal cultural collective body in the form of a pan-Naga Hoho could be constituted under an act of parliament. This body would take care of the interests of the Nagas of Nagaland as well of Nagas living elsewhere in the country. A constitutional amendment may be necessary to empower the Central legislature to legislate such a body virtually as a Concurrent List subject. The apex Hoho may have representation of Nagas from all Naga areas, i.e., even beyond those residing in Nagaland. Logically, a Central law would be appropriate for the purpose. The jurisdiction of the Hoho will have to carefully crafted and be mutually exclusive of administrative and legislative jurisdictions of the states in which Nagas live, so as to avoid conflictual situations between the Hoho and the states concerned. The Hoho could be constitutionally empowered as the supreme advisory body on Naga cultural matters to both the Centre and the states. If such an overarching Hoho can be established with Central support, it will go a long way towards assuring Nagas of protection and sustenance to their ethnic and cultural identity. Though such an arrangement could be accommodated within the constitutional ambit, there may be repercussions if similar demands were to be raised by other tribal communities similarly spread over more than one state. However, this could be a manageable demand and may not detract from the basic features of the Constitution.

    If the basics of Naga autonomy and their unique past can be agreed upon between the Central government and the NSCN (IM), the issue of disarming the insurgents and accounting of their weaponry may not pose much of a problem. An arrangement on the pattern of the disarming of the Maoists in Nepal, with some being absorbed in the state forces after re-training, and the rest being enskilled for civil professions with state support, could be adopted with modifications as per exigencies of the local situation. Absorption of the re-trained insurgent cadres in the Assam Rifles, a Central force manned by different tribals and having a long history of internal security duties in the north-east, is a viable option.

    A sensitive issue to be resolved as part of the Agreement to be consummated will be the status and welfare of Myanmarese Nagas. The government of Aung San Su Kyi will have to be on board the Naga settlement, at least tacitly. This is because, there are nearly 120,000 Nagas in the self-administered zone in Myanmar, adjacent to Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. NSCN (K) has a substantial support base among the Nagas of these areas. For success of the Agreement, some arrangement would have to be worked out that allows trade and intercourse as well as cultural connectivity between Nagas on either side of the India-Myanmar border. Sealing or hard-fencing of the border, particularly along the Nagaland segment, will adversely affect the livelihood and welfare of Myanmarese Nagas whose socio-economic status is inferior to that of their brethren in India. As part of the final Agreement, the need for instituting a border regime in concert with Myanmar that promotes the welfare of the Nagas of the region, and particularly trade and social exchanges, may also not be lost sight of.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.