No-go land

Turmoil grips Nagaland as elections draw near and peace talks hit a dead end

18-narendra-modi Geared up for the battle: Modi at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima. He wants the party’s state unit to contest polls at any cost | PIB

Nagaland is fuming, and its anger is directed at the BJP, the Congress and the rest of India. The Core Committee of Nagaland Tribal Ho Ho and Civil Organisations—an influential conglomeration of NGOs, civil society groups and political fronts of separatist organisations—does not want assembly elections to be held as scheduled on February 27. Its call for a boycott of the polls had initially forced all political parties to declare that they would not field candidates. They had even signed a memorandum of understanding to that effect with the core committee.

But then, New Delhi cracked the whip. With the national leaderships of both the BJP and the Congress having made it clear that they were against any boycott, state leaders are caught between a rock and a hard place.

The negotiations between the Union government and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland are at the centre of the crisis. The core committee had been keenly observing the progress of the talks, which have been going on since 1998. A final agreement was said to have been within reach, but now, apparently, the talks have reached a deadlock, with the NSCN(IM) renewing its demand for absolute autonomy for Nagaland. The Narendra Modi government has reportedly called a halt to the negotiations, as yielding to the demand would harm its nationalist credentials, and provide ammunition to the opposition ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year.

The core committee learnt about the deadlock two months ago, when it held a meeting with NSCN(IM) leaders in Kohima. It soon called for stern measures to pressure the Union government, and called on all political parties to boycott the assembly polls.

The crisis will deepen if the Naga People’s Front decides to heed that call. The NPF leads the ruling coalition that includes the BJP, but without the core committee’s support, it is akin to a BJP sans the RSS. The core committee can influence most of the 16 tribes in Nagaland, which is why the NPF declared that elections cannot be held in Nagaland unless the Union government makes public the final outcome of its talks with the NSCN(IM).

This is not the first time that the core committee have called for boycotting polls. It had made a similar attempt in 1977, to force the government into starting negotiations with the NSCN(IM) and other Naga groups that had given up arms. But, as prime minister, Indira Gandhi asked the Congress’s state unit not to involve itself in any kind of boycott. That resulted in the Congress virtually getting a walkover in the polls.

Three decades later, Modi is trying to pull an Indira. He recently asked Ram Madhav, BJP leader in charge of the northeast, to see to it that the party’s state unit will contest polls at any cost. Said V. Longhu, BJP president in Nagaland: “The central leadership and our northeast in-charge Ram Madhavji asked me to reverse the earlier decision. I have therefore decided to contest the election, and [the BJP] is the first party to break the agreement [with the core committee].”

Asked why the BJP’s state leaders entered into such an agreement without informing the national leadership, Longhu said, “Yes, we are part of the BJP. But, we are also part of Nagaland, and we cannot go against the wishes of the people.”

Longhu said he did not personally attend the recent all-party meeting called by the core committee. Two other leaders participated. “We have suspended both the leaders, as advised by the central leadership,” he said.

The Congress, too, has decided to back out of the agreement. “The central leadership has asked us not to give the BJP a free run,” said state Congress president K. Therie. “If the BJP fields candidates, we, too, shall do so.”

Therie, however, admitted that the Congress would not be able to form the government, as it would not be able to field candidates in all seats. “And, for that, the AICC [All-India Congress Committee] is responsible,” he said. “They have refused to release money for the polls. Though they want us to fight the polls, they would not give us money. I must say that we are out of contention in Nagaland.”

Shurhozelie Liezietsu, NPF president and former chief minister, said there was a provision in the agreement that says that if one party decides to contest the polls, then others, too, could follow suit. “We have told [the core committee] that we will not be the first party to contest the elections,” he said. “But, if others decide to fight the elections, we would also have to fight. But, our heart says we should not contest the polls.”

According to Liezietsu, the people of Nagaland will not wait another 20 years for a peace deal. “We understand that talks and elections are two different things,” he said. “We also understand that the talks take time to get resolved. But, that does not mean that one should not have talks just for the sake of talks.”

The NPF’s pro-boycott posture has prompted the BJP to court Neiphiu Rio, former chief minister who recently floated the National Democratic People’s Party. Said T.L. Merry, a senior leader of the NDPP: “There was a strong internal clash of personalities in the NPF…. It led Rio to form his own party. Since the BJP has decided to contest the elections, we would like to form an alliance with them.”

The core committee, however, has warned political parties that are planning to take part in the elections. “The BJP is not a force to reckon with in Nagaland. It is the first party that broke the agreement, but it is regional parties here who make the BJP a success. If they do not contest polls, the BJP would not be able to do anything,” said Chuba Ozukum, president of Naga Ho Ho, the apex body of Naga tribals that forms the largest group in the core committee.

He said individuals who contest polls would be branded anti-Naga. “The people of Nagaland will be angry and the candidate’s safety would be an issue,” he told THE WEEK.

The BJP’s plan seems to be to take advantage of differences between various Naga tribes. “The BJP is already trying to woo the Angami tribes, the biggest of which Liezietsu himself represents,” said an NPF leader. “They are asking Angami tribes to ask voters to allow elections in their areas. But, the Angamis would not vote for the BJP, as it is not a pro-Christian party.”

Therie agreed. “The BJP is anti-Christian,” he said. “It has blocked foreign funding for religious and theological societies in Nagaland. Missionaries are short of money, and they could not run their medical centres. How does the BJP expect to gain in Nagaland? The [deadlocked] talks with the NSCN(IM) will damage the prospects of any party that aligns with the BJP.”

The crisis points to the fact that the NSCN(IM) still wields considerable influence in Nagaland. In the past three decades, the Khaplang faction of the NSCN, which was formed in 1988 and is based in Myanmar, has also extended its reach by carrying out attacks in the Naga-dominated border areas of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Asked about the political situation in Nagaland, a senior leader of NSCN(K) told THE WEEK: “We are keeping a close watch on it. This was long expected.”

Ozukum said he would try to meet NSCN(K) leaders in Myanmar. “In 2016, we went to Myanmar to talk to [NSCN(K) founder] S.S. Khaplang, as advised by the state government,” he told THE WEEK. “But, we could not meet him because of his failing health and came back empty-handed. This year, we will again try to go to Myanmar to talk to the new leadership. We will ask them to join the NSCN(IM) in stepping up heat on the Indian government.”