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#4869, 7 May 2015

Looking East

Naga Peace Process: Gone Off Track
Wasbir Hussain
Executive Director, CDPS, Guwahati, and Visiting Fellow, IPCS

That New Delhi’s Naga peace policy has flopped has become evident with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) calling off the 14-year ceasefire on 27 March and immediately targeting security forces, killing eight soldiers of the Assam Rifles on 3 May. There have been two other recent attacks on the Assam Rifles in Nagaland, with one in the heart of capital Kohima, where an on-duty soldier was shot dead. Earlier, on March 26, four Assam Rifles troopers were injured as armed gunmen attacked the Company Operating Base and outpost in the outskirts of Kohima. The NSCN-K is suspected to have carried out these attacks.

These incidents have broken the rather long lull in Nagaland, Northeast India’s hottest insurgency theatre until the Government of India managed to strike a ceasefire deal with the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN (NSCN-IM) in 1997 and began peace talks. Within four years of the truce with the NSCN-IM, New Delhi succeeded in having a similar ceasefire agreement with the rival NSCN-K. But unlike the movement on the peace efforts with the NSCN-IM, the NSCN-K was not invited for formal negotiations, making the Myanmar-headquartered outfit led by SS Khaplang restive.

In fact, New Delhi began watching the NSCN-K rather closely after it signed a ceasefire deal with Naypyidaw in April 2012. Apart from India, which was uneasy with this move, both the NSCN-IM and the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi) opposed this truce with Myanmar. They felt the NSCN-K cannot behave or consider itself as a group that has relevance in both India and Myanmar.

What eventually might have firmed Khaplang’s resolve to call off the truce with New Delhi could be the actions of two of its senior leaders who have been accused of compromising the NSCN-K’s and the Naga cause. While Khaplang wanted to abrogate the truce, the two leaders, Wangtin Konyak and T Tithak, wanted the ceasefire to be extended beyond 28 April – the day the term was to end. The picture is still hazy, but the haste with which Wangtin Konyak and T Tithak, were expelled from the NSCN-K, and the duo formed a new rebel group, the NSCN-R (Reformation), indicates that they had already arrived at some sort of an understanding with the Government of India.

New Delhi appeared working to a plan because it did nothing to either save the truce or prevent a split in the NSCN-K. Take a look at the swift turn of events: on 17 April, the new-born NSCN-R signed an initial one year ceasefire agreement with New Delhi. The latter followed this up by cancelling the ceasefire agreement that it had with the NSCN-K, making the ground clear for a direct confrontation with the now belligerent insurgent faction. The whole thing looked like part of a plan to sideline the NSCN-K and paint it as an outfit with no relevance to Nagas in India.

Recently, there are have been several other significant developments that indicate that New Delhi is treading a slippery path. First, although the truce with the NSCN-R, like that with the NSCN-IM, is confined to the state of Nagaland, leaders of the new faction claimed that the government ‘verbally assured’ them that the ceasefire is being extended up to Arunachal Pradesh. These leaders have also claimed that New Delhi has agreed to let the NSCN-R set up a camp in Arunachal Pradesh.

If true, this will have serious ramifications because the NSCN factions are having a free run in several parts of Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, the route the rebels take to Myanmar is via Arunachal Pradesh and any extension of the truce to Arunachal Pradesh will prevent the army and other security forces to engage with these rebels. Moreover, in a jungle warfare scenario, it is next to impossible to ascertain which group or faction a rebel contingent might belong to unless there is a liaison with the security forces.

In the wake of the NSCN-R leaders’ claims, the Centre must clarify the exact facts. If the ceasefire with the NSCN-R is extended beyond Nagaland, the same must apply to the NSCN-IM as well, with whom New Delhi is engaged in peace talks without a breakthrough for the past 18 years. There cannot be different yardsticks for different factions of a same militant group, but unfortunately that is happening and derailing peace processes.

Despite eighteen years of dialogue with the NSCN-IM, desired results have not been achieved. Both New Delhi and the NSCN-IM leadership are either ambiguous or have kept the people in the dark about the progress or otherwise of these deliberations. Additionally, while grappling with the NSCN-IM, New Delhi has not bothered to engage with other Naga rebel groups and factions, particularly the NSCN-K. This gave an impression that New Delhi regarded the NSCN-IM as the sole or principal rebel group representing the Nagas. However, the NSCN-K too has considerable influence in several Naga areas, particularly those bordering Myanmar. If New Delhi has decided to ignore the NSCN-K because it had entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Naypyidaw, then it would only expose the Government’s lack of foresight.

These are certainly not welcome developments insofar as the Naga insurgent politics is concerned as it will make things more difficult for New Delhi in its bid to resolve the Naga issue.

The questions for New Delhi are: after not formally speaking with the NSCN-K all these years, would you start formal talks with the brand new NSCN-R now? If not, is this the Centre’s old and unproductive strategy of postponing peace yet again? Is the NSCN-R, unlike the NSCN-K, willing to accept the NSCN-IM as the big brother and accept a possible agreement with them? Have you encouraged the formation of the NSCN-R to side-line the NSCN-K?

If the recent attacks are any indication, the NSCN-K will try to keep demonstrating its strike potential in the coming days with security forces being the main target. The group wants to include parts of Myanmar’s Sagaing Division, where it is based, in its scheme of a united Nagaland. With an estimated at 1500 fighters, its cadres are mostly based in Sagaing’s northern Lahe and Nanyun townships and thrive on funds collected via kidnapping, extortion and other anti-social activities.

At the end of the day, the Naga peace process shows clear signs of having gone off track.

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