A cadre of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) holds a Naga flag while watching other performances during the 73rd Naga Independence Day celebration at Camp Hebron, Northeast India. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Caisii Mao

India’s high hopes to end one of its oldest armed insurgencies is beginning to unravel one angry press release at a time. A historic framework peace agreement signed between the government of India and the biggest Naga insurgent group on August 3, 2015 is beginning to come apart.

With 10 days to go before both sides agree on a final peace treaty, the government of India is trying its best to push back against the NSCN(IM), the largest insurgent group. For 22 years the NSCN(IM) and the Indian government have been trying to negotiate a peace deal that recognizes the Nagas as a sovereign society.

But the Indian government has fallen into a trap of its own making. On August 5 this year, it abrogated Article 370, a constitutional provision that gave the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status within the Indian union. It allowed the region to have separate laws and rights and a degree of autonomy higher than other states that are part of the Indian union.

The repercussions of the move are now being felt in the Naga peace process and threaten to destabilize the entire North East, a strategically crucial area that also borders China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Historically, the North East served as a gateway for mainland Indians to all of Southeast Asia. Invaders from China came through the North East, only to settle down and assimilate with the locals centuries ago. Post-independence, many of the insurgent groups from India’s North East sought and received arms, training and refuge from China, which built a strategic relationship with them to keep rival India in check.

Armed to the teeth

“Unlike Kashmir, which has only a few hundred armed militants, the NSCN (IM) has nearly 7000 soldiers who are armed to the teeth. If the Indian government fails to arrive at an accord with them, it will destabilize the whole region,” a long-time observer of affairs in India’s North East told Asia Times.

Many top Indian security officials familiar with the issue agree with this assessment. “The Nagas are demanding that all the areas where they have a sizable presence are integrated into one, separate state,” a senior intelligence official said. “The NSCN (IM) has refused to dilute its key demands and are ready to hold back the agreement unless these are met. This means all the other states in the region will be up in arms if the Indian government accepts the NSCN (IM)’s key demands.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government abrogated Article 370 on the claim that this was essential to integrating the disputed region with India. But the key demands of the NSCN (IM) ask for exactly those provisions that the Indian government removed from Kashmir in August.

Thuingaleng Muivah, one of the founding leaders of the NSCN (IM), pointed out that they were in no mood to dilute, let alone give up, any of their demands. The Nagas have always maintained that the years of British colonialism failed to subjugate them or make them part of British India. In fact, they declared independence on August 14, 1947, a day before India was officially granted hers.

“India has one constitution and one flag. That is very good and you can have them. So why can’t we have the sovereign authority have a separate flag and a Constitution? In a democracy the sovereignty lies with the people. So India’s sovereignty lies with the the Indians and the sovereignty of the Nagas lies with the Nagas,” he said from Camp Hebron, his headquarters in the state of Nagaland.

Muivah is also clear that he will not accept any solution that does not give the Nagas a separate state that includes areas where they exist in sizable numbers. This not only means breaking up existing states, but also provoking the other ethnic tribes in the North East who have jealously guarded their identities and culture for centuries.

Deadline to peace

But the Indian government’s interlocutor RN Ravi, a career intelligence officer who dealt with this issue for decades, is not ready to accept these demands. He has been issuing a few ultimatums of his own.

“Unfortunately, at this auspicious juncture, the NSCN (IM) has adopted a procrastinating attitude to delay the settlement, raising contentious symbolic issues of separate Naga flag and constitution on which they are fully aware of the government of India’s position. The government of India is determined to conclude the peace process without delay.”

This means that the Indian government is likely to push for an agreement by October 31. While the NSCN (IM) is refusing to play ball, the Indian government is banking on the other Naga groups who came together to form the Naga National Political Groups.

But many Nagas on the ground are deeply suspicious and unhappy. They say that none of the framework agreements signed so far, be it the one on August 5, 2015, or the one on November 17, 2017, have ever been made public. “So we have no idea what is being negotiated and there is no transparency in the process,” a prominent Naga civil society representative told Asia Times in a phone interview.

India’s negotiators are banking on the hope that the years of peace has jaded the NSCN (IM)’s cadres who will no longer be keen to go back to the jungles and renew their fight.

If the Naga peace process fails to fructify then it will be a major setback for the Modi government. It could also lead to a revival of the armed insurgency that has steadfastly held on to a ceasefire since 1998. If that happens, India will find itself dealing with an armed insurgency in Kashmir as well as in the North East. This will also have major implications for Southeast Asia that has often served as a battleground between Indian forces and the various factions of the NSCN (IM).

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