When the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took power at the Centre, it fast-tracked a solution to the long-standing Nagaland issue and set a deadline of 18 months in November 2014. The renewed focus raised the stakes for the Naga people to achieve an accord. A further impetus came via the plan to transform Nagaland and Manipur into India’s trade gateway to the ASEAN countries. This made peace even more urgent.
Unfortunately, on March 27, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) headed by its Myanmar-based Chairman, S.S. Khaplang, unilaterally decided to retract from the 14-year ceasefire agreement with the Indian government, due for annual renewal on April 28. NSCN-K also expelled two senior India-based leaders, Y. Wangtin Naga and P. Tikhak. The two have subsequently formed NSCN (Reformation), a new body.
The NSCN(K)’s move might lead to renewed factional violence, which could stall the plans of connectivity via Myanmar that Narendra Modi announced in his visit to the North-East last year.
Trouble has been brewing in NSCN (K) for a while now. In April 2012, when it signed a ceasefire with Yangon, it was opposed fiercely by the two other Naga armed groups, the NSCN (Isak-Muivah)and the NSCN-Khole-Kitovi, who said that the NSCN (K) could not function like a trans-border group and be allowed to sign ceasefires with two sovereign governments. Then, when Khaplang decided to withdraw from the Indian ceasefire, he closed the Cease Fire Supervisory Board (CFSB), which includes five members each from the NSCN (K) and the Indian government (who will nominate the chairman) to monitor and enforce ground rules. Mr. Wangtin and Mr. Tikhak defied Mr. Khaplang and called a meeting of the CFSB in its office in Mon, Nagaland, where they unanimously resolved to oppose Mr. Khaplang’s ‘unilateral decision’ to annul the ceasefire. The two leaders accused Mr. Khaplang of not consulting cadres in India before taking the decision and challenged him, saying in essence that he had no right to withdraw the ceasefire from India while enjoying a ceasefire with Myanmar.
NSCN (K), meanwhile, defended its action, saying that any solution to the Naga issue without the sovereignty clause was a sham. It also accused India of using the ceasefire as a “psychological ploy” to undermine and demoralise “the patriotic spirit and fervour of the Nagas”.
Ceasefire always broken
The Indian government, for its part, also has a growing list of concerns about the NSCN (K). The latter had agreed not to assist any North-Eastern insurgent groups to set up base camps in Myanmar, but on-ground research reveals that in NSCN (K)-dominated areas of Myanmar such as Lahe, Leshi and Nanyun in Sagaing administrative region, the United Liberation Front of Asom-Paresh Barua faction and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB (Songbijit faction)) set up camps to carry out attacks in Assam. In fact, a study of the ceasefire from 2001 shows that there has been no let-up in NSCN (K)’s militant activities and active support to insurgent groups from India.
North-Eastern insurgent groups also have access to training and regrouping camps in Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone, where NSCN (K) has been granted autonomy by the Myanmar government. NSCN (K) cadres are allowed to remain fully armed in the three townships in the Zone, which is geographically contiguous to Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the aftermath of the breakdown of the ceasefire, there have been renewed attacks on security forces by suspected NSCN (K) militants in Tirap District of Arunachal Pradesh. Even more ominous, the NSCN (K) is supported by CorCom, short for Coordination Committee, an umbrella organisation of six insurgent groups in Manipur. CorCom groups regularly camp and train in NSCN (K)-controlled territory in the Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar contiguous to Nagaland. With CorCom’s support, the NSCN (K) can retain its insurgent capabilities in this corridor.
Although India has unilaterally declared that it will continue its part of the ceasefire with the NSCN (K), the major security concern in Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland now arises from another aspect. The possibility of internecine violence looms high in the aftermath of the split, if what happened four years ago is any indication.
The ethnic dimension of the latest split is an important factor. Y.Wangtin Naga is a Konyak Naga from Nagaland while P. Tikhak is a Tangsa Naga from Arunachal Pradesh. Between the two, their new outfit NSCN (R) purports to represent the Indian side of the Nagas as distinct from those living in contiguous areas of Myanmar. This is a direct challenge to the sway of the NSCN (K) over the Nagas in India. The situation is best described by Chinwang Konyak, the India-based adviser of the Eastern Naga Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO), who says, “This is a blessing in disguise as the Khaplang group will be left in Myanmar. Let them deal with the Myanmar government. It is better to part ways with them peacefully.” ENPO is a civil organisation with representatives from ethnic groups of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar. Mr. Konyak’s statement reflects an important new territorial alignment of Naga ethnic groups — along the modern international border rather than the traditional ethnic notions of territoriality.
The fact that NSCN (K) has a Myanmar-based leadership seems to have, therefore, played into and limited its role as a major stakeholder in the Naga issue. In fact, one of the reasons why it has been disgruntled seems to stem from the fact that it has been sidelined in the last 17 years during talks between the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government. It has been dismissive of any talks held with NSCN (IM) but this has not helped it gain a better footing.
But none of this seems to have deterred the active reconciliation process that is going on among the various India-based groups. On the larger front, there have been concerted efforts by Naga civil society to expand the representation of the Nagas in the peace process so that a lasting and widely acceptable resolution to the Naga issue might be found.
If the government is serious about bringing lasting peace in the North-East, the first step is to hold ceasefire signatory groups accountable to ceasefire ground rules. Therefore, it is critical at this juncture that the Centre, along with the Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland State governments, map out the areas with an NSCN (K) presence and shore up security there to limit the possible breakout of inter-factional violence.
It is better to be prepared and deter violence than be caught unawares and react.
(Namrata Goswami is with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )