Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (seated center) at the signing of the Nagaland peace accord in 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Naga insurgency is sometimes described as the longest-running in India. It has defied solution since 1947, despite two peace accords. Now the principal insurgent group, with which the government of India has been engaged in talks since 1997, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim’s Isak-Muivah NSCN(IM) faction, seems to be running out of patience.

It has demanded the postponement of elections to the Nagaland State Assembly, scheduled for February 27, until there is a final conclusion to the talks – a demand that has been ignored not only by the central government in New Delhi, but also by politicians in Nagaland.

There are fundamental differences in the way successive Indian governments and generations of Naga insurgents and political activists view the struggle. For the Indian government, it is a matter of consolidation of the country that emerged from independence. That process, marred by the horrors of Partition, was nonetheless achieved in substantial measure through the remarkable efforts of India’s first home minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who managed to thread together 562 separate princely kingdoms into the new country that was the successor of the British Indian Empire.

For the Naga insurgents, it is a matter of retaining sovereign control over their lands, which they believe they never lost until the British achieved control of the Naga Hills in the latter half of the 19th century. They implicitly do not see the present Indian state as the successor to the British Indian state. In their view, they are simply asking for what was always theirs.

This point was reiterated by Rh Raising, the convener of the NSCN(IM)’s steering committee, in a speech on the occasion of the outfit’s joint council meeting on January 25.

For the Naga insurgents, it is a matter of retaining sovereign control over their lands, which they believe they never lost until the British achieved control of the Naga Hills in the latter half of the 19th century. They implicitly do not see the present Indian state as the successor to the British Indian state

“The issue should be viewed from the right perspective. The Nagas are not asking for a piece of land from India or others, they have been living in their own land from time immemorial. The Nagas simply say they will decide their future by themselves,” he said.

In his interpretation, the Framework Accord signed in 2015 is an agreement that India and the Nagas will co-exist as two entities and share sovereign power.

“Now the question arises, what is to be done if and when [the government of India] does not respect the agreement and goes back upon its word? Our past leaders said most of the Indian leaders have names in insincerity and trickery. If the big and strong animal cannot be killed with one bullet, the hunter uses double bullets or more. If it cannot be killed with a small gun, he uses a bigger gun,” he said.

Despite the group’s evident unhappiness, and the support from a conglomerate of Naga civil-society organizations and traditional institutions called the Core Committee of Nagaland Tribal Hohos and Civil Organizations (CCNTHCO), the inability of the NSCN(IM) to carry all sections of Naga society with it was exposed in the reactions to the group’s demand for postponement of state elections.

A strike called by these two groups with the slogan of “solution not election” did not receive support from the Angami and Chakesang Public Organizations, the Lotha Hoho (apex traditional institution of the tribe) or the Eastern Naga People’s Organization.

The NSCN(IM) subsequently issued a statement reiterating its stand that “imposed election is not acceptable to the Naga people” and supporting the Hohos and civil organizations that were in favor of postponement of elections. It also warned any “national worker,” meaning NSCN cadre, found defying the decision of the Naga people of serious consequences.

The mainstream political parties meanwhile began announcing lists of candidates, though not a single nomination was filed until February 5, with only two days left before the deadline for filing. On the penultimate day, 24 nominations came in. On the last day the number hit 257.

The umbrella grouping of civil-society bodies that had called for an election boycott, the CCNTHCO, dissolved itself on February 6, acknowledging its failure. A day later, the NSCN(IM) issued a statement that it would not use force or coercion to enforce a boycott of elections.

This was a remarkable turn of events. Barely two weeks earlier, representatives of major political parties including the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress had signed a petition in favor of postponement of the assembly election. That unity unraveled as the BJP fired its representative, Kheto Sema, who had signed the plea, and declared that it would contest the polls.

Fears of giving the nationalist Hindu BJP a walkover in the devoutly Christian state of Nagaland subsequently led its principal rivals in the state’s electoral politics, the NPF and the Congress, also to enter the fray. The BJP has announced an electoral alliance with a new party, the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP), formed by former chief minister and current member of Parliament Neiphiu Rio.

State Assembly elections are popular with the masses in Nagaland for a very simple reason: Votes are bought at high prices. Every voter gets paid thousands of rupees per vote. Community leaders demand and get cars. Muscle power is hired at a premium, with insurgent cadres making a metaphorical killing.

The church, otherwise a mainstay of Naga life, has been carrying out a campaign for clean elections, but this is one of its least successful endeavors. As matters stand, elections in the traditional style of money and muscle power are set to follow.

A new government including the BJP – despite reservations about its “communal agenda” from the powerful Nagaland Baptist Church Council – is a distinct possibility. The main electoral contest in Nagaland this time is between the NPF  and the NDPP-BJP alliance. The Congress and the National People’s Party may have a role in the case of a split verdict.

Where will that leave the votaries of “solution not election,” and the solution itself?

It is widely believed that the “solution” revolves around the constitution of a new institution modeled on the Naga Hoho, a super-Hoho of sorts, with extensive powers, that would have equal representation from all Naga tribes. This neatly bypasses the issue of redrawing state boundaries, which is unacceptable to the governments and peoples of the neighboring states, namely Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. However, it includes authority over autonomous councils of various tribes, which are already in existence, and this is likely to prove controversial.

There has already been a strong reaction in Dima Hasao district in Assam to reports, since denied, that the area would be included under the proposed Naga administration. Protests took place and two young men died in police fire.

The fact of the matter is that while there is undoubtedly a widespread desire for an honorable conclusion to the prolonged peace process, tribalism remains a significant factor in Naga life, with influential sections of different Naga tribes pulling in different directions. A new generation has emerged in the 20 years of peace that is keen to get on with life. Their ambitions and world views are not tied so strongly to the soil; the nature of the global economy, now making its way into northeastern India, ensures this.

Naga insurgency is no longer up against the Indian state. It is up against neoliberal capitalism. The insurgents have no weapons against money, and the goodies it can buy.


The writer, an author and journalist, is a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, India.

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