When hard metal ego gives way to the softer sheaths beneath, the hugs are warmer. It brings peace and tranquillity. At this crucial point in history, nothing can be more true for the ethnically diverse Northeast where the Naga political problem has an end in sight: bound to affect diverse communities proud of their own legacies. But here is also a huge opportunity for each stakeholder community in the region to give to the other, for the sake of future generations.
The question is: will different peoples reconcile and be benevolent to one another?
The Rebel Groups
The Government of India and Naga rebel groups will most likely finally sign a pact four years after the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) signed a framework agreement in August 2015. The NSCN (IM) formed in 1988, inked a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1997 and has been negotiating since. So have been other rebel groups since 2017. There is not just the NSCN but also others like the NNC, NSCN (R) and NSCN (U), jointly termed Naga Nationalist Political Groups (NNPGs) who will sign the settlement, hopefully making it into a settlement of the Naga problem, not just of the NSCN (IM).
There are still outfits like Naga National Council (NNC) led by daughter of AZ Phizo – one of the founding members of NNC, NNC Thinoselie Keyho), NNC (V Nagi), and the Myanmar-based NSCN (Khaplang) which are not part of the current peace process. By and large though, it may be seen as a broad-based solution as separatist groups may follow suit and abjure violence, as desired by people. The rebel groups taken care of, however, the foremost responsibility of civil society organisations and state governments will be damage control. For lasting peace, different groups in the region who are at loggerheads with one another on issues ranging from land disputes to ethnic disparity need to be reconciled.
Nagas and Nagas
Nagas are spread over Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur in India besides in parts of Myanmar. Ethnicity and tribal politics are deeply rooted in the region which have in some ways complicated the political and social life of people at large. The NSCN (IM) is perceived to be led by the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Manipur, NSCN (U) by the Sumi Naga tribe, NNC is by Angami Nagas and so on. Over a period of time since the rebellion was sparked by AZ Phizo in the 1940s, but particularly since the 1960s, Naga rebels fought wars on two fronts: with the government and among themselves. They were propelled by the pride of Naga identity on one hand and by their own clan and tribal identity affiliations on the other.
Nagaland state was formed in 1963 after signing of the 16-Point Memorandum between GoI and the Naga People’s Convention (NPC) in 1960. NPC was supposed to be the peace-broker between the insurgents and the government. This did not satisfy rebel groups or the aspirations of Nagas, as their demand was then sovereignty and not a state within the Union of India. The government was supposed to have signed the agreement with the wrong group.
Over the years, the rift among people divided by political boundaries has been buttressed bringing in tension and uncertainty. Each tribe, wherever it is would, understandably, like its share of power when the settlement is reached.
It is here that Naga organisations like the Naga Hoho, Nagaland Tribes Council, Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation, United Naga Council, Naga Students Federation, Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights and Naga Mothers Association, besides individual tribal Hohos will have to play a role to make peace among Naga people. Another influential body which has strived to bring reconciliation is the powerful Church which has consistently served to reconcile rebel groups and people in general. Nagas have over 50 tribes spread across four states and all of them expect something from the settlement pie. The trouble is how to share it and, unless each one has the spirit of giving, there may be no pie left for anyone.
Nagas and Neighbours
Across the world, communities often fail to understand one another’s problems and difficulties. In India’s north-east that is compounded because of problems like in the Balkans. Overlapping territories mean overlapping aspirations which often result in prolonged conflicts.
The minute it was clear that the Naga solution was in sight, there was uncertainty and tension in neighbouring states, particularly Manipur. People took to the streets expecting an outcome that may conflict with their aspirations and interests.
Perhaps, that is why there was little celebration on either the streets of Nagaland or in the Naga hills of Manipur on the night of October 31 when interlocutor RN Ravi and NSCN (IM) leaders concluded talks on substantial issues. There are issues like a separate flag and constitution, but an understanding is said to have been reached on these, too.
Fortunately, the initial signs of restraint are seen on all sides. The Meitei and Kuki communities which are major stakeholders in Manipur, have not resorted to violence. The Nagas have restrained from chest-thumping.
The Manipur government is wary about the impact of the Naga settlement on the state’s territorial integrity, given the initial demand of the NSCN for integration of Naga areas.
Many on the Naga side argue that cultural integration, which the negotiating parties have agreed to, would in no way have a negative impact on the neighbouring states. If indeed that is the case, the Nagas will need to drive home that point convincingly and reassure the neighbours. A reconciliation bereft of trust will be unsustainable.
A Future for All
Benevolence will sustain peace and unity. To dispel misgivings, both the Centre and state governments would have to meet cross-sections of people in the neighbouring states and in Nagaland. Alongside, Naga civil organisations and the Church too have to get down to work once more to bring people closer to understanding one another. Some organisations have been reaching out to the neighbouring states in an effort to understand their problems. These organisations may have helped narrow down differences and stiffness of Nagaland’s neighbours on the Naga issue. Yet, there are apprehensions that work needs to be done with even more determination and compassion from all sides.
If granting of autonomy to Naga people living in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam is on the table, it will not affect the boundaries of those states. However, concrete assurances will be required for the long-term future.
Reconciliation has the capability to bring unprecedented economic development to the region often now referred to as “Western Southeast Asia”. Peace, dovetailed with the government’s Act East policy and a developed road network promises to change the face of the entire Northeast. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown resolve to change history for the good.
The future course of history will also squarely rest on the shoulders of Nagaland and Manipur chief ministers Neiphiu Rio and N Biren Singh. How they talk to their people will show whether they are able to inspire benevolence or belligerence. The world is waiting.
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