In the Kenye family in Kohima, there is a much-shared joke they often laugh over: “What goes on and on and on? A gossipmonger’s tongue and the Naga peace process.”
Unfortunately, they say, this joke will never get old or die. Recent developments in the state have once again given the Kenye family reasons to believe so. The state government, at the ‘behest’ of Governor RN Ravi, earlier this month asked all employees to furnish details of family members and relatives who are members of “underground organisations” and submit it to the home department by August 7.
The latest move, many feel, will once again add to the complexities linked to the decades-old peace process in Nagaland.
But developments during the same time last year portrayed a different picture. In his Independence Day message last year, Ravi asserted that the state was on the cusp of history with a new dawn of peace and prosperity beckoning it.
Ravi is not only the governor of the state but also the Centre’s interlocutor in the ongoing peace process with the Naga militant groups. Naturally, his lofty rhetoric generated hope of finding a solution to the complex Naga political imbroglio — the oldest insurgency in the country predating India’s independence.
By the end of the year, however, the hopes turned into despair as serious differences started to crop up between the two negotiating parties, apparently over Centre’s rejection of the NSCN (IM)’s demands for a separate flag and constitution.
The group insisted that in the framework agreement it had signed with the Centre in 2015, the “sovereign rights of the Naga people to use its national flag and the constitution have been officially acknowledged”. Since even after five years of its signing, the deal was not brought into the public domain, its contents remain in the realm of speculation.
Even the Central Information Commission (CIC) upheld the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision not to reveal the contents of the agreement as it would affect India’s strategic interest.A broad outline of the agreement was revealed in the 213th report on the security situation in the northeastern states tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs in the Rajya Sabha in 2018. According to the report, the government of India recognised the “uniqueness of the Naga history” and that “special arrangements” would have to be made for the Nagas.
However, this was essentially a reiteration of the recognition of the “unique history of the Nagas” by the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003.
Unique history, same old rhetoric
By recognising the unique history back in the day, Vajpayee had endorsed the stand of the Naga militant groups that historically Nagas were not Indians and that any future solution to the problem needed to be hammered out taking into consideration that historic fact.
While briefing the parliamentary committee, Ravi, too informed them that from the very beginning the position of “the NSCN (IM) has been that Nagas were exceptional, Nagas were not Indians, Nagas were sovereign and any settlement could be reached only on the basis of the fact that this is a settlement between two sovereigns”.
In the state’s popular imagination too the long-drawn insurgency is seen as a conflict between two sovereigns that needs to be settled peacefully through dialogue. Even the state government refers to the Naga militant groups as “Naga political organisations”.
The crux of the narrative is that the existence of these armed organisations as a part and parcel of the larger Naga society is an acceptable norm, which even the government of India agreed to recognise by endorsing the “unique Naga history”.
Given this somewhat-cosy coexistence, it’s common for one member of a family to serve the Indian state and another to take up arms to wage a war against it. For instance, BJP lawmaker and Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s power adviser Tovihoto Ayemi, is the brother of a top commander of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Unification), Samson Aye. Their brother-in-law Akheto is a senior IPS officer.
Similarly, Sword Vashum, brother of former “army chief” of the NSCN (IM) VS Atem served as the additional deputy comptroller and accountant general. After his retirement in 2009, he unsuccessfully contested elections from Chingai Assembly constituency of Ukhrul district of Manipur in 2017 as a BJP candidate. There are many such instances.
It is this cosy setup that has been stirred by the state government’s recent directive to its employees to declare details of family members and relatives who are members of “underground organisations”.
Such profiling of government employees, many fear, would create a sense of mistrust and suspicion among employees. This, they say, would eventually end up creating two kinds of employees — one with relatives in underground outfits and those without any such connections.
Such trust-deficit could lead to witch-hunting and victimisation of government employees. A few years back in neighbouring Manipur, a decorated police officer resigned citing mistrust by department colleagues because of her familial ties with a former chairman of an insurgent group. “I was always looked at with suspicion in the department since I am the daughter-in-law of RK Meghen, the former chairman of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF),” she had said at the time.
Expectedly, the latest directive created uproar, forcing the Nagaland government to issue a clarification stating that it had acted at the behest of the governor. It even went to the extent of clarifying that the term “underground organisations” used in its directive was “as conveyed by the Raj Bhavan.
”The Nagaland government got jittery as influential public organisations and tribal bodies of the state strongly opposed the move, which is perceived as an attempt to divide the Naga society by creating an “us versus them” division. Even the state’s ruling Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) is apprehensive of the long-term impact such profiling will have on Naga society.
“It will disturb the existing societal equilibrium because such overlapping is so widespread and common. Instead of focusing on these non-issues, the government should try and solve the long-pending Naga political problem,” said NDPP president Chingwang Konyak.
Konyak also questioned the timing for the raking up of the issue. “It has been there all along and has never created any administrative problem all these decades. So what suddenly prompted this?” he asked.
The common concern is that it’s an ominous signal from the Centre about a shift in its stand vis-a-vis the peace talks with the NSCN (IM), particularly since a crackdown against the militant group has already started.
Expressing concern over the development, the apex tribal body of the community, the Naga Hoho, in a letter to the United Nations (UN) sought its intervention into the current situation in the Naga-inhabited areas — Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam.
“Innocent Naga villagers are living in constant fear and trauma due to war-like situations created by joint military operations and the Covid-19 pandemic. Tension is growing due to deployment of large numbers of armed security personnel in many Naga villages in border districts of India and Myanmar,” the letter said.
Ravi, on the other hand, in a letter to the chief minister Neiphiu Rio last month flagged several concerns relating to the functioning of militant groups that he accused of running a parallel government and extorting money from the people.
“Unrestrained depredations by over half-a-dozen organised armed gangs, brazenly running their respective so-called ‘governments’ challenging the legitimacy of the state government without any resistance from the state’s law and order machinery” is how Ravi had described the state’s law-and-order scenario in a four-page letter to the CM.
Ravi’s letter and subsequent development like the attempt to profile the employees clearly indicate that the Naga peace process is not on the right track.
To deal with any transgression or wrongdoings on the part of militant groups, which are now in ceasefire, there is a set mechanism under ground rules of the truce. Attempts should be made to resolve the law-and-order issues, as had been done in the past, within the ambit of that mechanism so that the peace process is not derailed after 23 years of negotiations.
Else, it will be the uncanny repetition of the same old history of peace talks failing to hammer out a permanent and lasting solution because of reckless moves by peaceniks.