Naga settlement: So near, and yet so far

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Bharat Bhushan

For a while a Naga settlement seemed within the grasp of the Narendra Modi government. Had New Delhi and the Nagas seized the moment, the oldest insurgency in India would have come to a peaceful end with both sides satisfied with the outcome. There are several reasons why a settlement has not taken place despite a ceasefire agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) lasting nearly 22 years.
In August 2015, the Modi government signalled the prospect of a settlement by initialling what it called a “Framework Agreement” with the Naga insurgents. An ailing NSCN (I-M) chairman, Isak Chishi Swu, pulled himself out of his hospital bed to sign the agreement.
Swu was a Sema, an important Naga tribe from Nagaland, while the general secretary of the NSCN (I-M), Thiungaleng Muivah, is a Thangkul Naga from adjoining Manipur. The framework agreement signed by both Swu and Muivah, therefore, demonstrated Naga unity across the “Naga inhabited areas”.
Three broad parameters for detailed negotiations were set by this “framework agreement” — One, that the Government of India recognises that the Naga situation and history is unique – that is, the Naga settlement would not be predicated on what was done in other states or with other demands for autonomy. Two, that sovereignty would be defined by a clear sharing of powers between the Centre and the Naga people — meaning that while the Naga people remained sovereign, the exercising of sovereignty demanded that the State, Union and Concurrent Lists of the Indian Constitution be redistributed. And three, that the two sides would seek a mutually acceptable and peacefully negotiated solution.
From all accounts, these negotiations went off quite well and at no point did the dialogue break down.
Essentially, the Naga settlement had two dimensions — geographical and political. The former relates to a long-standing demand for the unification of all contiguous Naga areas across the Northeast. And the political dimension deals with defining the nature of the relationship that the Nagas wanted with “India”.
The geographical issue seemed intractable because of its potential for upsetting the state boundaries of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. However, the negotiators came up with a non-geographical solution keeping existing state boundaries intact.
To address the Naga concern for preserving their identity and culture the final settlement is expected to propose the creation of elected Naga Autonomous Regional Territorial Councils in the states adjoining Nagaland which have a Naga population. They would have clearly defined financial powers and judicial powers over customary law.
On the political front too, there was considerable progress. The sharing of competencies and the remit of the Nagaland government seems to have been clearly defined and expanded.
These formulations included making the Nagaland Legislative Assembly bicameral and renaming it “Tatar Hoho”, delimiting the constituencies for the state and Central legislatures and enhancing the number of MPs from Nagaland and contiguous Naga areas in the Lok Sabha (seven seats) and the Rajya Sabha (five seats), creating a Naga cultural body called the Pan-Naga Hoho, setting up a high court in Nagaland and courts dealing with customary law, recognising the Naga identity in passports, and defining permanent residents of Nagaland as those resident in Nagaland on or before December 1, 1963 when the state was created and permitting only them to buy or sell property.
Other concessions could include department of posts issuing stamps on Naga heroes, enforcing inner line permits to visit the Naga areas and granting the Nagas full ownership of all minerals on the ground and below where joint exploration and exploitation would require an agreement between the state and the Centre. Roads, teaching hospitals, universities, an IIT and an IIM are other items on the agenda that would make India’s peripheries strong. There may also be a proposal to rehabilitate the armed cadre of the NSCN (I-M) in creative ways.
However, the symbolic issues remain intractable. The Nagas want to retain a separate flag and a separate Constitution. The latter would require a Constituent Assembly — that would be a formidable task. A suggestion to resolve the issue is that the final negotiated agreement be incorporated as Special Naga Law in place of the Article 371A. Thus, the “Naga Constitution” would become part of the Indian Constitution.
A positive approach on the flag question would be to allow a separate flag for the state or autonomous councils provided they flutter at a height lower or equivalent to than that of the national flag. These symbolic issues could perhaps be satisfactorily resolved in a larger meeting of all Naga groups.
The Naga leadership – the NSCN (I-M) and the Naga National Political Groups — which have also been brought into the negotiations for a final settlement — must clearly rethink politics as the art of the possible. Two decades is a long time in the life of a nation and a peaceful settlement cannot be left in a limbo for so long. They would do well to remember the Shakespearean adage: “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”
But the BJP government at the Centre must also share some of the blame for the delay in the final settlement. Precious time was lost when it had the requisite legislative strength to convince Parliament of the need for a Naga settlement. The Opposition parties might well have supported the settlement if they were taken into confidence and the issue was not treated as partisan. Nor were the political leaders of the adjoining states, even when they had BJP governments in place, made aware of the broad contours of the Naga settlement.
In the current short Budget Session of Parliament, nothing can be achieved even if the outstanding issues between the negotiators from both sides were to be sorted out. The time also does not seem propitious when the entire Northeast is on fire over the Citizenship Amendment Bill. At 84, Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the NSCN (I-M), may have neither the energy nor the patience to take yet another master-class on the Naga quest for sovereignty with yet another set of negotiators appointed by a new government in New Delhi.