The signing of the historic framework agreement between the Union government and the Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim, the most prominent of the armed Naga groups, owed a lot to the worsening health of Isak Chisi Swu. The 85-year-old chairman of NSCN(I-M), along with his general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah, was holding talks with R.N. Ravi, chairman of the joint intelligence committee and the Centre’s interlocutor, at a Border Security Force guest house near Nizamuddin in Delhi, when he complained of fatigue and uneasiness. He was soon hospitalised, diagnosed with lung infection and renal disorder, and put on ventilator.
By then, the peace negotiations were at the crossroads. It was the 80th round of talks between the two sides since 1997, when the NSCN(I-M) signed a ceasefire agreement with the Deve Gowda government. In 2011, the government and the NSCN(I-M) issued a joint statement, which talked of “an honourable political settlement”. And in 2012, the NSCN(I-M), for the first time in its history, accepted the Constitution, raising hopes that end was near for one of the longest and bloodiest insurgencies in India’s history.
While he was being treated, Swu informed the government that he “desired to have the peace accord in his lifetime”. It set the ball rolling for the hurried inking and announcement of the agreement, the finer details of which will be worked out in four to six months.
“The ventilator has been removed and his renal functions have improved, but our leader is still in the ICU,” said a commander of the NSCN(I-M). “He wanted to attend the function, but doctors advised him against it. When we went to hospital to get his signature for the accord, he smiled and signed.”
Nagaland had been on the boil ever since the British annexed the region in 1881. The roots of the insurgency can be traced to the formation of the Naga Club in 1918, which told the British in 1929 “to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times”. The Naga National Council, established in 1946 by A.Z. Phizo, declared Nagaland independent on August 14, 1947. The NNC then conducted a ‘referendum’ in 1951, in which “99 per cent supported an independent Nagaland”.
Armed struggle began in 1952, when Phizo formed the underground Naga Federal Government (NFG) and the Naga Federal Army. The Union government responded by sending the Army and, in 1958, imposed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Simultaneously, it initiated a peace process, with Assam governor Akbar Hyderi signing a nine-point agreement with moderates. Phizo, however, rejected it.
The sixties saw the peace mission being abandoned and the relaunching of counterinsurgency operations. In 1975, a section of NNC and NFG leaders signed the Shillong accord and gave up arms. But, about 140 NNC members, led by Muivah, Isak and S.S. Khaplang, refused to accept the accord and formed the NSCN in 1980. Eight years later, the outfit split into NSCN(I-M) and NSCN(K), after clashes between the Isak-Muivah and Kaplang factions.
With Phizo's death in London in 1991, the NSCN(I-M) became the leading insurgent group in the region. It had been demanding a ‘Greater Nagalim’ encompassing Nagaland and parts of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. The territorial claims have kept Nagaland’s neighbours wary of a peace accord.
Narasimha Rao, who met Muiwah and Isak in Paris in 1995, was the first prime minister to reach out to the NSCN(I-M). Gowda met them in Zurich in 1997 and signed a ceasefire agreement the same year. The NSCN(K), too, agreed to a ceasefire in 2001, but the group later abrogated it. Khaplang has since moved to Myanmar.
The negotiations at Nizamuddin were top secret. On the government side, only four persons were in the loop: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Ravi, the interlocutor. Doval and Ravi participated in the negotiations. P.B. Acharya, the northeast hand in the RSS and governor of Nagaland, laid the groundwork for the talks.
Home ministry officials were kept in the dark about the proceedings. Interestingly, Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju, who comes from Arunachal Pradesh, was to address a prescheduled press conference on August 4, a day after the agreement was announced. Knowing that journalists would ask him about it, Rijiju reportedly asked ministry officials to brief him about the accord. When he was informed that the ministry had no details about the accord, he hurriedly cancelled the press conference.
Apparently, the deal was clinched after the NSCN(I-M) agreed to give up claims to territories in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. “This was a major climbdown by insurgent leaders,” said a source. As the finer points of the accord are worked out, said the source, the NSCN(I-M) “will be offered some kind of autonomous councils for Naga majority regions in the adjoining states”.
Modi has clearly sprung a surprise with the deal. The Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, the ruling coalition led by the Naga People’s Front, has welcomed the news. “I am happy about it,” NPF president Shurhozelie Liezietsu told THE WEEK. “The talks are heading in the right direction.” But the agreement, he said, was far from a solution to the problem. “It is just a beginning, not the final solution,” said Liezietsu.
The Congress, too, gave the thumbs up, even as it questioned the decision to allow Ravi to sign the agreement. State Congress leader Medokul Sophie said the interlocutor was just a facilitator, and not a government representative who could have lawfully signed the agreement. “How could the government allow the interlocutor to sign the deal, while secretaries and joint secretaries in the home department sat idle? The NSCN(I-M) could break the accord, saying the agreement was not with the government, but with the interlocutor,” he said.
All eyes are now on the content of the agreement, which the government has promised to release soon. Five years ago, the NSCN(I-M) had presented the government with a 35-point list of demands, which included complete autonomy for Nagaland and a separate external affairs department. Ravi has already talked about ‘shared sovereignty’. “Let’s see how much of their demands have been accepted,” said Sophie.
There are fears that insurgent groups that are not party to the deal would brew fresh trouble. The focus is on Khaplang’s outfit, which recently carried out deadly attacks on Army personnel in Manipur and Nagaland. “Groups like the NSCN(K), NSCN-Khole Kitovi, NSCN-Reformation and the Naga National Council may not be happy with this accord with the NSCN(I-M),” said R.S. Pande, a former interlocutor. “We now need to be more cautious in dealing with other groups.”
WITH RABI BANERJEE