Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

When the British departed in 1947 both India and the Naga people became independent. Indeed, Naga representatives stated the proposition openly and declared Naga independence a day before India regained its freedom

Good Omens for a Naga Resolution

Any agreement with the NSCN-IM is likely to exercise a profound influence on other warring groups.

By B G Verghese

Defence Security of India, 25 March, 2010

The Northeast has long been in a state of turmoil. One of the most enduring and intractable issues that have dogged the peace has been the ongoing Naga imbroglio that in a sense predates Independence. This saw a sharpening of differences with the transfer of power and finally manifested itself in insurgency in 1954. That conflict fortunately now seems poised for peaceful resolution with the talks between the Government and the Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (the NSCN-IM) having entered what is hopefully a final phase.

Though there are other Naga factions, the NSCN-Khaplang group and two splinters of the Naga National Council, originally established by the then acknowledged Naga leader, Phizo, the NSCN–IM is dominant. It is the kingpin of the turbulence in the entire region, though the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), certain armed Metei Manipuri groups and smaller ethnic formations of Bodos, Kukis, Dimasas and Tripura tribals remain in the field. While some of these armed entities are by no means inconsequential, any agreement with the NSCN-IM is likely to exercise a profound influence on other warring groups and sap their capabilities and ardour.

A major rebel group that resorted to arms but then negotiated a peaceful settlement is the Mizo National Front. It subsequently assumed the reins of power through elections thus clearly indicating that there is a viable democratic alternative to the gun.

The Nagas hold that theirs is an independence movement and not secessionist. The argument is that they lost their freedom to the British as did India and that the colonial power ruled both from Delhi as a matter of convenience, even as they fragmented the Naga peoples by placing them under different administrative jurisdictions within India and Burma, which was long administratively part of India until 1937. Hence, when the British departed in 1947 both India and the Naga people became independent. Indeed, Naga representatives stated the proposition openly and declared Naga independence a day before India regained its freedom.

Yet, when some British administrators and constitutionalists proposed that the Northeast tribal belt and adjacent tribal areas in Burma be declared a Crown Colony when India became independent, the Nagas and Mizos dissented. They opted to cast their lot with India and negotiate a settlement, no doubt aware of their landlocked situation and the obvious advantages of being with a large and powerful state that could better ensure their development and security. Thus was a nine-point agreement signed by Phizo with Akbar Hydari the Governor of Assam that provided for a review after 10 years. There were subsequent differences of interpretation, with the Nagas reading in a right to assert their independence while the Indian state saw this as no more than implying renegotiating the terms of association within India.

The NNC and other modernizing Naga elites negotiated two agreements with the Government of India. The first, in 1960 led to the formation of the State of Nagaland with special provisions for autonomy incorporated in a new Article 371-A. The Shillong Accord followed in 1975. The underground agreed “of their own volition” unconditionally to accept the Indian constitution and were given “reasonable time to formulate other issues for discussion for final settlement”. The accord, and Phizo’s leadership, were denounced by Muivah and Isak Swu while on a “goodwill visit” to China. The NSCN subsequently split into the IM and K groups and the insurgency intensified. After many vicissitudes, a ceasefire was finally brokered between the NSCN-IM and the Government in 1996, later extended to the K faction as well, and a dialogue got under way.

The many rounds of talks between the Government of India’s interlocutor, K Padmanabhiah, and the NSCN, led by Muivah and Swu, over the past 13 years patiently laid the groundwork for a better understanding of the two rival points of view. Initial talks were aimed at reviewing the observance of the ceasefire and resolving complaints of violations. With growing trust and confidence, substantive issues came to the fore leading the Government to declare that it accepted the “unique history” of the Nagas. This constituted something of an emotional breakthrough and resulted an enhanced rapport. The talks were continued through the NDA and UPA regimes with periodic breaks for reflection and review after high level meetings with leading governmental figures.

This spadework has created the ground for a final push towards a settlement, with Padmanabhiah yielding place to R.S Pandey, a senior IAS official and former Chief Secretary of Nagaland who knows the state well. Pandey is highly regarded for having implemented Nagaland’s successful communitization programme that entailed handing over responsibility for primary education and health and retail distribution of electricity in urban areas to local communities through direct budgetary funding and corresponding accountability.

Muivah was recently in Delhi and, after meeting the Prime Minister and Home Minister, had a round of talks with Pandey before proceeding to Dimapur to consult with local Naga opinion before substantive talks resume. In the run up to this round, the NSCN leaders had been invited to look at the Indian constitution and see what parts of it might be acceptable and what special provisions might be introduced either in amplification of the existing Article 372A or as a sub-text within the Indian Constitution. This now offers a starting point for the new discussions.

Two things, however, have been clearly stated by the Government. The first is that sovereignty is not negotiable and that the Nagas as proud partners in the Indian commonwealth of very diverse peoples are indeed co-sovereigns in the Republic of India. Nagaland enjoys wide federal powers reinforced by the special dispensation it enjoys under Article 371A. These can be further expanded by transferring certain heads from the concurrent list to the Nagland state list or by incorporating certain new provisions that might be mutually agreed upon in keeping with the unique identity of the Naga people.

A clarification is in order here. It is often argued that a settlement must be outside the framework of the Indian constitution. This need be no obstacle as any understanding can be incorporated therein though an appropriate amendment. Thus the 1960 Indo-Naga agreement and the subsequent Mizo accord were both “outside” the existing Indian constitution but brought within it through suitable amendments.

Those who might be alarmed by the ideas canvassed must remember that the Indian constitution is a very flexible and accommodating document providing both for territorial variations (such as under Articles 370, 371 and 371-A to I) and special dispensations for categories of people though reservations, affirmative action, linguistic and religious minority rights, gender equity and so forth. These provisions have been constructively used both by legislatures and the Courts. Devolution can be extended not only by constitutional amendment but by exercise of the powers of “entrustment” under Article 258 which empowers the Centre to “entrust” to a State “any matter to which the executive power of the Union extends”. Nor need there be undue fears of a domino effect. The case of the Nagas, like that of the people of J&K, is sui generis.

The other sticking point thus far has been the NSCN-IM demand for integration of all administrative units inhabited by Naga people across four states, namely, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal and Nagaland itself, and even Eastern Nagaland in Burma, to constitute Nagalim. The Government has stated that it is in no position to redraw state boundaries without the consent of all concerned. Manipur, in particular, is among the oldest principalities in India with an unbroken history of 2000 years and cannot be unilaterally vivisected. In fact the very idea of attaching part so the northern hills to “Nagalim” aroused a storm of protest in Manipur, as it has done in Assam and Arunachal.

The imagined boundaries of Nagalim have no clear historical basis. Dimapur, for example, Nagaland’s road and rail head, was the clearly identified capital of the Dimasa kingdom. It was ceded to the newly formed Naga Hills district by the British in 1936. The Dimasas claim Dimapur but history does not move backwards. Nagas, who are on the move, now dominate this and other areas.

Yet the emotional idea of Nagalim, as an entity embracing a Naga Peoplehood, can be articulated in non-territorial terms without doing violence to the integrity of any of the concerned states. Such non-territorial entities were established to provide cultural safeguards and ensure the economic and social advancement of small scattered plains tribes in Assam like the Rabhas, Tiwas and, Mishings by Hiteshar Saikia. These councils recieve a direct budgetary grants from Dispur and can select certain personnel to administer their special needs. Naga peopled areas adjacent to Nagaland could similarly be brought under special dispensations or sixth schedule or like regimes to enact and administer special laws that safeguard the Naga way of life, language and socio-economic interests. Thus, although under different administrative dispensations, Naga peoples could be enabled to sing from the same page.

The all-Naga Ho-Ho or assembly of Naga tribal associations across national and even international boundaries has functioned as an umbrella organization in the past and could be re-engineered to play such a role in the future. Imaginative and innovative solutions are available.

The fact that Muivah is a Thangkul Naga from Manipur and Khaplang a Hemi Naga from Burma need not be an obstacle to their full participation in all aaspects of Naga life and in steering the Naga peoples towards a new future. Indeed, they could equally play a larger role as Naga Indian leaders. But first, all major Naga groups must agree on any new concord of self-determination within India and end years of internecine strife that has played havoc with the fabric of Naga society. Many adventurous elements too will also need to be won over or isolated.

It would be premature to conclude that a Naga settlement is almost concluded. There could be tough bargaining ahead and a Naga consensus, especially among the armed Naga groups, and between Nagaland and the adjacent areas that fall within the ambit of any definition of a Naga peoplehood will, of course, be absolutely essential. Solutions are seldom reached with a single step. There could be interim stages, each paving the way for further advance. Patience and statesmanship will be necessary. The stakes are high, the prize great, the omens propitious.

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