So Near, Yet So Far

A shootout in December risks upending the best chance of peace Nagaland has had in many decades

Smruti D

On 4 December 2021, soldiers from the 21 Para Special Forces army unit shot and killed six coal miners, who were returning home, in an area between Tiru and Oting village in Nagaland’s Mon district. The army later termed it as an incident of ‘mistaken identity,’ as the soldiers mistook the miners for militants. The miners were returning home in a vehicle on December 4.

Prime Minister Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh during their first in Nagaland to meet Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) in 2017

The incident triggered violence in the area, in which eight more civilians were killed after security forces allegedly opened fire. A soldier succumbed to injuries in the violence, The killing of civilians has been condemned by local civil society organisations, Naga outfits, national political parties and the state government.

The Naga insurgency has been the oldest ongoing insurgency in India. The incident has cast a dark shadow over a peace deal which was in the making since 1997 and finally came to be signed on 3 August 2015.

The Nagaland Peace Accord was signed between the government of India and the Isak-Muivah faction of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim also known as the NSCN (I-M) to put an end to insurgency in the region while accepting certain demands put forward by the NSCN faction for Nagaland. The signing was done between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and general secretary of the NSCN-IM Thuingaleng Muivah. The then interlocutor, N. Ravi was present at the event. After the signing of the Framework Agreement (FA), both sides maintained secrecy about its contents. The NSCN-IM had entered a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 1997 and the two sides had held over 100 rounds of talks within and outside the country. Eventually, when the FA was made public, it had two versions. One, which was released on behalf of the Centre by then interlocutor N. Ravi and another by the NSCN.

In November 2017, the Centre also began talks with a working committee, named the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) comprising the political groups GPRN/NSCN, Federal Government of Nagaland, Naga National Council (parent body), National People’s Government of Nagaland of the NNC (Non Accordist), NSCN (reformation) and Naga National Council / Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland. The working committee was formed in 2016 when the six groups signed a statement declaring that they had come together to ‘chalk out the roadmap towards fulfilment of Naga political aspiration.’

The member organisations within the NNPGs are smaller, breakaway factions of the original NSCN or the Naga National Council (NNC), the oldest insurgent group in the state. The committee briefly suspended talks with the Centre in 2018, following a raid by Assam Rifles and police personnel at the residence of NNPGs general secretary and co-convenor V Nagi on 2 June 2018, when he was on a visit to New Delhi. However, following appeals from Naga tribal bodies and civil society groups, the NNPGs decided to resume peace negotiations with the Centre and held talks on 12 June. Under the 1975 Shillong Accord, the NNC had agreed to ‘unconditionally accept the supremacy of the Constitution of India, surrender their arms and renounce their demand for the secession of Nagaland from India while also putting forth other issues for the final settlement of the conflict.’

The hardliners were however opposed to this and broke off from the organisation to continue to fight for the ‘complete sovereignty of the Nagas and the establishment of Greater Nagalim, which includes parts of Assam, Manipur, Arunachal and Nagaland state; and also parts of Myanmar’. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was created under the leadership of Isak Chishi Swu, S. Khaplang, and Thuingaleng Muivah. But the grouping split further.

In the case of NSCN-K, the Centre in September 2021 entered into a ceasefire agreement for one year, with the NSCN-K Niki Group. More than 200 cadres of the outfit, with 83 weapons, have joined the peace process. This came after December 2020, when the government accepted the offer of Niki Sumi to revive the ceasefire agreement after he floated a new faction of NSCN-Khaplang. He was removed from the Myanmar-based camp of the Khaplang faction in July 2020. The Niki Sumi faction was formed after Sumi, the NSCN(K)’s military commander, had been expelled in 2019 from the NSCN(K) over differences with the leadership. In 2015, Sumi was the prime accused in the killing of 18 Indian Army soldiers in Chandel district, Manipur.

The Centre had already signed a framework agreement with NSCN-IM and ceasefire agreements with other Naga groups namely, NSCN-NK, NSCN-R and NSCN-K-Khango. The three outfits are breakaway factions of dominant groups NSCN-IM and NSCN-K.

In July 2020, Nagaland Governor R.N. Ravi, without naming any group, in a letter to Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio on June 16, said the legitimacy of the constitutionally established state government was being challenged on a daily basis by more than half a dozen ‘armed gangs that question the sovereignty and integrity of the nation’. Ravi pointed out instances of ‘gunpoint extortions’ for siphoning off a large chunk of government funds meant for development.

Owing to tensions, the NSCN (IM) leadership had refused to resume talks if N. Ravi, who took charge in 2019, remained the interlocutor. Finally, in September, Ravi resigned as the Centre’s interlocutor for Naga peace talks. Ravi also held the position of the Governor of Nagaland. After his resignation as interlocutor days later, he was made the Governor of Tamil Nadu. The development had come amid strong opposition to Ravi from the NSCN(IM). The group demanded removal of Ravi both as Governor and peace talks interlocutor. The demands came after reported verbal spats between Ravi and NSCN(I-M) in 2020. Reports say after the fallout between NSCN-IM and Ravi, for nearly a year, it was Mishra who had been interacting with Naga groups. Reportedly, the Naga groups as well as the Centre were pleased at the appointment of Mishra as interlocutor. Currently, Assam Governor Prof. Jagdish Mukhi holds the additional charge of Governor of Nagaland.

The peace deal, despite all the signing of agreements and repeated negotiations, currently remains stranded. The talks were halted in October 2019 over issues pertaining to the agreement. Two years later, the NSCN-IM slammed the Centre for offering the use of the Naga flag only as a cultural symbol and not as a separate flag for the Nagas. The group announced that a ‘stalemate’ had been created in the peace talks. It said, ‘Significantly, the NSCN’s pressing concern involves the two core issues of Naga flag and the Yehzabo (Constitution). The talks failed to live up to all the hype as the Centre continues to indulge in political escapism on both the issues that are blocking the road to the Naga solution.’

It added that after a gap of two years, when the formal Indo-Naga talk was resumed with the new interlocutor, much hype was generated that the final Naga solution was imminent and may come as a Christmas gift to the Nagas. The group accused the Centre of ‘acting stubborn as the crucial rounds of talks, which focused on the Naga flag and the Constitution, have been driven to hang in balance.’ It further said that the Centre was talking in different languages to different negotiating groups regarding the flag.

Only a month earlier, in September, the NSCN (IM) had agreed to resume peace talks with the Centre’s new interlocutor, former Intelligence Bureau (IB) special director AK Mishra, after a meeting between Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma and the group’s negotiator, Th Muivah at Dimapur, Assam.

In December 2021, Nagaland chief minister Neiphiu Rio asserted that peace talks between the Centre and Naga insurgent groups had reached a stage where he is hopeful of an early resolution to the decades-old issue. He added that the Nagas continue to earnestly wait for a solution and that the state’s elected leaders had come together to form an Opposition-less government (United Democratic Alliance) to facilitate an early settlement of the problem. The talks are said to resume in early 2022.


Armed Forces Special Powers Act

After the December 4 incident, the call to repeal the draconian AFSPA gained a renewed vigour in the state. The latest development in regard with the same from the home ministry came on December 27, when it decided to set up a five-member committee ‘to look into withdrawal of the AFSPA in Nagaland’, which was set to lapse on December 31. The committee extended AFSPA by another six months. It will now be in force until June 2022.

The AFSPA was imposed on Naga Hills, then part of Assam, on 11 September 1958. Nagaland acquired statehood in 1963. After the December 4 incident, there has been immense public outrage and the Chief Ministers of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio and Meghalaya, Conrad Sangma have called for the repeal of AFSPA. After the bloody incident, the NSCN-IM said that, ‘under the shadow’ of the AFSPA no peace talks were possible. It demanded withdrawal of the Act.

Apart from Nagaland, the AFSPA currently applies to three other north-eastern states, Assam, Manipur (except seven assembly constituencies of Imphal) and Arunachal Pradesh’s three districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding and the area falling within the jurisdiction of four police stations—two in Namsai district and one each in Lower Dibang and Lohit districts of bordering state Assam—as ‘disturbed area. The home ministry renews the AFSPA Act in these regions, dubbed ‘disturbed areas’ every six months. Most of the times, the ministry does not present concrete reasons for the extension of the act. Under AFSPA, the armed forces have been given authority to open fire, enter and search without warrant, and arrest any person who has committed a cognisable offence, all while saving them from being prosecuted. This has caused several human rights violations. Rape, fake encounters, disappearance in custody and usage of human shields on top of Army vehicles are some serious violations that the Army has been blamed for carrying out.

The AFSPA is generally repealed where the government feels that the insurgencies have come down. In case of the northeast, in Tripura and Meghalaya, the Act was withdrawn in 2015 and 2018, respectively. In Arunachal Pradesh, it came to be restricted. Recently, in October 2021, a notification that extended AFSPA in Arunachal Pradesh for another six months, lifted restrictions from Roing Police Station in Lower Dibang Valley district and Sunpura Police Station in Lohit district.

Apart from the North-eastern states, the AFSPA has been in force in Jammu and Kashmir too since 1990. Punjab had AFSPA imposed for 14 years but became the first state in India to see a complete repeal of the law.




Call us