Convening of the Emergency National Assembly on 31 May 2022 marks the apogee of the most torrid fortnight of the talks. Apparently, the fraught issue of Naga flag and constitution is at the root of the current instability. That trust has been a casualty is borne out in the statements of those involved in peace negotiations. Acknowledging that something’s amiss with the official channel of communication, the core committee of the parliamentary committee on Naga political issue (CCoNPI), on 28 May 2022 sought the support of Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to continue the negotiation process. NSCN-IM chairperson Q Tuccu, on 31 May 2022, expressed his distrust thus, “The past record of political agreements with India has given us bitter lessons and we have to stand guard against any Naga accord that betrayed our rights and national identity.”
Mixed messaging on Naga flag and constitution has further confounded the situation. In his week-long visit to Dimapur, from 19 April 2022, Mr. A K Mishra had, on 23 April 2022, reportedly assured NSCN (IM) leadership of his commitment to the Framework Agreement. However, upon his return to Delhi on 26 April 2022, sources in the Home Ministry informed the media that the interlocutor had informed the NSCN (IM) of government’s opposition to the demand of Naga flag and constitution. Centre’s confabulations with the Naga political leadership in the second half of May 2022, subsequent to the failed attempt to bring NSCN (IM) back on the negotiating table, added to the confusion. While Mr. S C Jamir and Mr. Y Patton claimed centre’s steadfast rejection of the demand of Naga flag and constitution; Mr. K Nienu asserted the contrary. The circle was nicely squared when Mr. Hemanta Biswa Sharma after publicly disavowing to intercede in the Naga talks on 1st May 2022 not only met the CCoPNI on 2nd May but also declared that there are ample possibilities of further negotiations.
The discord over Naga flag and constitution though intractable can be traced back to August 2019. So is the offer of use of Naga flag on ceremonial occasions; in April 2021 Mr. Amit Shah reportedly informed Mr. N Rio that the flag could be used during Naga community events and functions throughout pan Naga Hoho areas. The attempted retraction on the already agreed upon issue of Regional Autonomous Territorial Council (RATC) by the interlocutor poses a new challenge as it is akin to turning the wheels of negotiations backward. Sensing the fallout of this reversal Mr. T R Zeliang issued a recorded appeal on 5th May, urging the negotiating parties – GoI and NSCN(IM) — not to revert on issues already agreed upon during the tenure, as interlocutor, of Mr. R N Ravi and Mr. A K Mishra.
Attempting to analyse the crisis of Naga talks in terms of obduracy of the negotiating parties on the issues of the Framework Agreement, Naga flag and constitution, misses that the introduction of Doval doctrine, premised on principle of uber etatism, has profoundly altered Indian statecraft. Akin to the absolutist philosophers of late medieval Europe Doval projects State as a sovereign; a territory, a constitution, a flag and an army are the markers of its sovereign will. A sovereign state does not recognize any limits or divisions to its will within its territorial jurisdiction. Undercutting the liberal definition of democracy expounded by Mill, for Doval a sovereign state imposes a value system of service above self and, hence, is much superior to individual morality. Such a turgid definition of state as a sovereign, compromises its ability to accommodate the varieties of pre-existing and currently demanded special administrative/political arrangements.
Adopted as the principle of Indian statecraft in Doval’s second tenure as National Security Adviser (NSA), its impact is evident in the dismantling of the existing special arrangement in Kashmir and in stymieing the demanded unique settlement of the Naga political issue. Abrogation of articles 370 and 35A on 5th August 2019 has been justified as governments desire to uphold the constitutional principles like the right to equality before the law (Article 14), right against discrimination (Article 15), and the right to settle anywhere in India (Article 19). That upholding the constitutional principles may not be the primary motive behind the repeal is borne by the inclusion of the UT of Ladakh under the sixth schedule which imposes restrictions on permanent residence, purchase of property etc., of outsiders, similar to that of article 35A. Article 35A was abrogated as it drew its authority from the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution adopted on 17 November 1956, while in sixth schedule the Governor is vested with powers regarding the councils. Ergo, the abrogation of the said articles was aimed at untrammelled extension of the sovereignty of the state.
Prior to the implementation of the Doval doctrine development of the peace initiative, though glacial, produced a series of joint statements/communiques – of 14 June 2001, 11 July 2002, and 31 January 2006 between the interlocutor Mr. K Padmanabhaia and Th. Muivah, General Secretary, NSCN (IM). On 18 July 2011 a further joint statement was signed between Mr. R S Pandey (interlocutor) and Th. Muivah. These statements testify to the increasing convergence where both negotiating parties accepted the uniqueness of Naga history and situation, with a desire to achieve a lasting political solution between India and NSCN as two entities without territorial limits. The Framework Agreement signed on 3 August 2015 is a logical culmination of this process of convergence and trust.
Rigidities imposed by the Doval doctrine ensured that Framework Agreement, based on the principle of shared sovereignty, could not be a suitable foundation of future relationship between Centre and the Nagas. Thus, the attempts to bring it into controversy and to question its efficacy. In an interview in December 2019 Mr. G K Pillai questioned the efficacy of the Framework Agreement since, according to him, GoI could not offer anything beyond statehood and Article 371A. In August 2020, an unsigned and edited text of the Framework Agreement was circulated to the 14 tribe leaders, NNPGs, NTC and Nagaland GB Federation. Since the text was not a public document and was in the custody of the GoI and NSCN (IM), the latter blamed Mr. R N Ravi for the circulation of the edited document. Irrespective of the veracity of the allegation the act succeeded in creating a controversy around the Framework Agreement.
Uber etatism does not continence notions of shared sovereignty, separate flag and constitution hence the obligation to whittle them in the final solution. Signing of an agreement, in November 2017, between the GoI and the Working Committee (WC) of the six Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) has been read as an aspect of divide and rule policy. However, since 2019 it has been deployed as a tactical trope to whittle down the Framework Agreement to a minimalist agreement. Under R N Ravi the agreement reached with NNPG was utilized to coax the NSCN (IM) to sign on the issues agreed upon as on 31st October 2019 and leave the issues of shared sovereignty, etc., for resolution at a later date. Etatism has ensured that the attempts at watering down the Framework Agreement have been impervious to the change of interlocutor. Under A K Mishra the insistence that inclusive settlement of the Naga political issue must include aspects of the settlement reached with the NNPGs is, indeed, a version of the tactics to make the Framework Agreement compliant to etatism.
The convening of Emergency National Assembly on 31st May 2022 may be viewed as a response to this tightening of screws around peace negotiations. By holding a meeting attended by approximately 2000 delegates from the civil, military and political wings of the NSCN (IM), it has been conveyed that the organization is united behind its leadership, and the demand of shared sovereignty, Naga flag and constitution. A clear line of demarcation is sought to be drawn between the NSCN (IM) and other organizations/leaders with Eno Q Tuccu stating, “We have come across the stand of the Government of India on the core issues of Naga flag, constitution and integration and echoed by some Naga leaders. We have also seen how some Naga political leaders have expressed their derisive attitude towards Framework Agreement…These people had stoop themselves…after they gather the subtle hints from their Delhi based political bosses.” It sought to bring back the Framework Agreement to the centre stage of the peace negotiations, “In August 3, 2015 we signed the historic Framework Agreement with deep political insight taking into consideration the Naga people’s sovereign rights and dignity…
…We cannot allow these people to defile Naga political issue by bringing another Naga political Agreement.” Finally, it asserted the significance of Naga flag and constitution for Naga identity and Naga political issue, “How can we forfeit Naga National Flag and Naga Constitution in the name of Naga political solution?”
Divergence between the understanding on final solution to the Naga political issue between the interlocutors and the leadership of NSCN (IM) is evident. The demonstration of its strength and resolve in the Emergency National assembly poses a quandary; as the largest organisation NSCN (IM) could significantly reduce the possibility of bypassing the Framework Agreement and the demands of Naga flag and constitution in the final solution. Success of NSCN (IM) seeking the removal of R N Ravi, widely understood as the patron of NNPGs and some Naga civil groups, has made it clear that the latter may not be an adequate ballast to the NSCN (IM). Perhaps this explains the incendiary public statements since late May 2022, aimed at creating a divide between the Nagaland Nagas and those residing in other states, especially the southern Nagas. A ploy similar to that adopted in the 1960s around the 16 Point Agreement resulting in bloodletting amongst Naga tribes.
Such incendiary public pronouncement while they may cause a significant social upheaval, their efficacy in compelling NSCN (IM) to accept the bypassing of the Framework agreement is doubtfully. Past experience of military movements suggests that their recruitment increases during times of civil strife. Destabilizing Naga society may also adversely impact the policy measures related to internal security and international policy. Off late, there have been reports of efforts to bring Paresh Baruah led ULFA (I) to the negotiating table. On 16th May 2022 in an hour-long freewheeling interview Paresh Baruah had stated that while the accords reached by the Bodos, etc. were conducted within the ambit of Indian constitution, he desired a negotiation outside the framework of Indian constitution as was being done in the case of Naga peace process. The interview made it abundantly clear that, if concluded satisfactorily, the Naga talks will become a template for negotiations for organizations such as ULFA (I) that seek a resolution of their political demands outside the framework of Indian constitution. More recently, in an interview on 4th June 2022 Paresh Baruah was reported to have stated, “The situation is not conducive, if the GoI misses out on a chance to sign an agreement with the Nagas…They (NSCN-IM) have descaled a step on its core demand and now are ready to sign an agreement with India on the separate set of demands that includes separate flag and constitution. It’s time that India accepts it in a effort towards taming the overall situation in the region.”
There is a very significant connection between the current Naga talks and the Look East policy, initiated by PM Narasimha Rao in 1991, to bolster India as a counterweight to the strategic influence of China in Southeast Asia. The policy aimed at developing north eastern region as a gateway to Southeast Asia by developing multilateral organisations, and trans-national infrastructural projects. India became a sectoral dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1992, in 1995 was given an advisory status, a member of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific, a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. With India’s expanding presence in the ASEAN the need to pacify the turbulent Northeast, to facilitate the economic and infrastructural projects, dawned upon the political leadership. PM Narasimha Rao deputed Mr. Rajesh Pilot to prepare the grounds for a meeting with the NSCN (IM) leadership in Paris on 12th June 1995. The initiative resulted in the Indo-Naga peace process when on 25 July 1997 during the premiership of I K Gujral ceasefire was declared with NSCN (IM).
The two and a half decades long peace process enabled India to launch of series of projects to increase Indian presence in ASEAN and to contain China influence in the region. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project was conceived in 2003 and the governments of India and Myanmar signed an Agreement for its implementation in 2008. India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway was proposed in 2002 in a trilateral meeting in Yangoon. In 2017 the India-Japan Act East Forum was created to coordinate, plan and implement projects being undertaken with Japanese assistance. On 27th May 2022 NADI3 Asian Confluence River Conclave in Guwahati, emphasised the development of northeast as the link between India and ASEAN and as bridge to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar through projects.
The US led alliance initiative to contain a strident China in the Indo-Pacific, has further enhanced the strategic significance of Northeast for containing Chinese influence in the ASEAN. India has also witnessed an escalation along the LAC in the northeast sector. In such a scenario any attempt to destabilise this crucial frontier region, either socially or politically is inadvisable. It will be sobering to remember that the activities of Burma based militia groups is one of the important reasons for the inordinate delay in the completion of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project.
Kumar Sanjay Singh, Associate Professor, Department of History, Swami Shraddhanand College, Delhi University.