January Edition, Special Story, NET Bureau, Nayanjyoti Medhi
A non political look at the Naga Framework Agreement amidst renewed turmoil and unrest in the Naga Hills
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One believes himself the master of others, and yet he is a greater slave than they. How has this change come about? I do not know.”
Rousseau’s The Social Contract talks about political legitimacy and the rights of the people. The Nagas, in constant conflict with the government of India for more than seven decades now, dreams of a time in the near future when their aspirations and dreams are met and an environment of peace and progess propagates among one of the ancient people of the world.
With long periods of ongoing militancy and an armed struggle for recognisation of their rights, the Nagas or rather the political and non-political groups among them have thawed out a “Framework Agreement” with the Narendra Modi led BJP government at the Centre. Considered as a step towards a final settlement with the Indian government, the Framework Agreement may yet mend fractures created by the struggle.
The Naga conflict, or more popularly, the Naga struggle for independence has defined the socio-political scenario of the Northeast. As Rousseau puts it, the idea of being governed has always met with opposition and is the reason why most modern monarchies have fallen to the rule of the people. An imposition of ‘foreign’ governance in a tribal society, run on age old traditions and norms, would lead to a breakdown of civil society leading to revolution. Social theorists have provided countless examples.
Democracy or any of its form, forcefully implemented in a community by any authority, even for a greater good, turns not into a governance model by the people but rather a subjugation of thought and free will of some of the oldest social organisations. The Naga conflict, hence is not only confined to the present day state defined by the boundaries of Nagaland, but is an integral part of the entire region, including Myanmar.
Even as this is being written, the ancient homeland of the Nagas is in a state of turmoil. Manipur, whose Hill areas are dominated by Naga tribes have broken out in protests. Stemming from the creation and recreation of districts, the Nagas claim that there is a political conspiracy to deprive them of their rights.
In October 2016, Chief Minister of Manipur, Okram Ibobi Singh, decided to make the sub-divisions of Sadar Hills and Jiribam to full-fledged districts. The United Naga Council (UNC), the apex civil organisation of the Nagas in Manipur, objected to the move, saying that it should be done only after consulting with all the tribal organisations. In protest, theUNC called for an indefinite economic blockade along two national highways, 2 and 53 – lifelines of Manipur. Transport of goods from the hills to the valley was blocked. The price of essential goods shot up and normal life of the people in the valley was severely affected. Security personnel tried to escort vehicles carrying goods to the valley but that didn’t help much.
On November 25, two top leaders of the UNC, president Gaidon Kamei and publicity secretary Stephen Lamkang were arrested and put behind bars. To further add to the confusion and turmoil, Okram Ibobi Singh announced the creation of five new districts – Tengnoupal, Pherzawl, Noney, Kamjong and Kakching on December 9, citing administrative conveniences.
This was a flashpoint. Tensions flared up as trucks were set on fire and government offices burned down. As is the norm, retaliatory protests broke out in Imphal valley dominated by the Meities. A counter-blockade was imposed, preventing vehicles carrying essential goods from moving to the four Naga-dominated hill districts from Imphal valley. The situation worsened as four policemen were killed and eight others were injured in riot like clashes in Chandel, Tengnoupal and Noney districts of the state. Three blasts were also reported in Imphal, which the Manipur Naga Revolutionary Force (MNRF) took responsibility. Meanwhile, miscreants vandalized the Manipur Baptist Convention Centre Church and attacked some army outposts. Vehicles carrying Nagas, who were on their way to their respective villages to celebrate Christmas were then targeted, with hundreds stranded after the vehicles on which they were travelling were burnt, looted or pushed into the river. The aftermath saw curfew being imposed in various places and internet services blocked in Manipur to avoid spreading of communal tensions.
Companies of paratroopers were brought in to control the situation with prominent national leaders urging all to stop the blockades. The Naga Student’s Federation, the largest student body of Nagaland also imposed a total block to all vehicles passing through the state to Manipur which was eventually lifted after assurances from the government.
A way to end conflict
The Framework Agreement is seen as a measure, when implemented will put an end to the age old conflict of the Nagas with different states and the Indian army. The process though is long drawn and will take some time before it reaches Parliament. The interlocutor to the talks will prepare a draft note for the home ministry. The views of relevant Central government ministries and state governments will be elicited. Following that exercise, a draft bill will be presented to the Central cabinet. Once the cabinet approves it, the bill will be submitted to Parliament.
The NSCN-IM had put forward certain demands for this purpose. Among them are the creation of a separate constitution incorporating clearly defined co-federal relationship with the government of India, a “no-war” policy in the designated Naga territory, joint responsibility over foreign relations through participation of Nagas in meetings and decision making, creation of local police and judicial system, repeal of regulation of entry, right to use Naga currency, right to resources, separate flag and a permanent representative to the United Nations.
It is the conviction of the Naga people that only few parts of Naga Hills were conquered by the British, who set up arbitrary boundaries without the knowledge and consent of the Naga people and placed them under different administrative units within India and Myanmar. The NSCN recognised the primacy of Indian constitution, upon which a shared sovereignty model would be built which recognises the Nagas as a separate nation. A Pan Naga Hoho is mulled which will be a statutory body with special and separate budget to cover all Naga inhabitated areas. The model is based on protected reserves or states in the United Kingdom and parts of Europe.
On December 23, retired NSCN-IM leader VS Atem, who is also a member of collective leadership, said that the time has come for the Nagas to rejoice and live as one because the Indo-Naga peace dialogue is at the final stage of being resolved honourably. Atem said this while speaking as the chief guest at a function commemorating 50 years of torching of Ngainga village in Ukhrul, Manipur by Indian security forces in 1966. An audio message from Muivah was also played at the function. Prominent Naga social bodies including the Naga Hoho, Naga Student Federation, Naga Mothers Association, Naga Peoples’ Movement for Human Rights and United Naga Council have given their consent to the process.
Hopes and Aspirations
Amidst the talk of politics and settlement, the Naga people dream of an end to this conflict and lead a life free of the burden of living in a militarised environment. Talking of the present scenario and the aspirations of the people, Delhi based lawyer and rights activist, Shira Kharay say that the Nagas are hopeful of a positive outcome from the ongoing talks on finalising the Framework Agreement.
“All we want is an acceptance of the unique history and identity of the people by the Indian government. We have been suffering for more than seven decades now and seek an end to it all,” Kharay says and adds, “The idea of a Naga nation is not the demand of a separate country per se. All agrees to collective co-existence. The thought is entrenched in the Naga way of life, building harmony and peace. The Naga movement cannot be ended by any appeasement measure by the government, declaring economic packages or other freebies. The State has played with the sentiments of the people for a long time and it should now move towards a final and comprehensive solution towards peace.”
Stating that the present turmoil in the Hill areas of Manipur is the result of communal politics played by Okram Ibobi Singh, Kharay adds that the “economic blockade” is a term popularised by valley based media outlets in Imphal patronised by the ruling Congress government in the state. To drive his point further, he says that the creation of seven new districts in Manipur is a political ploy to divide the Nagas in Manipur using loopholes in the Constitution.
The problem does not affect Nagas alone. If it is a war, then there is collateral damage. Describing the present situation in Manipur, Ronaldo Laishram, an engineering student wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi –
“Sir, I am hoping that you are aware of what is happening in Manipur through the daily intelligence reports placed on your table. Does it not touch your heart seeing the vulnerability and plight of the people of this easternmost state of Manipur having a population much less than the population of your own town of Vadodara in your westernmost state of Gujarat? The sad part is that we do not have a leader like you here in Manipur. We do not have the bold leader who can stand up and speak out about such grievances that are continually faced by the people. I would like to request you kindly find a permanent cure to this problem in Manipur. Among all the problems of Manipur, the constitutional amendment to bring about communal harmony, unity, equality and solidarity among all ethnic groups of Manipur is the number one priority. Sir, we are expecting a lot from your new government but now we are starting worried that our hope will be in vain.”
This excerpt shows that people are frustrated over repeated violent interventions in their daily lives and just want to live in peace.
Samujjal Bhattacharya,veteran student leader and advisor to the North East Student Organisation, a conglomerate of student bodies across the region says that the long standing demands of the Nagas should be addressed by the Framework Agreement. He puts the onus on the government to solve all problems and create an atmosphere free of violence and militancy. He adds, “A continous political will, which has been absent should be built up by the concerned governments, both state and Centre. Also transparency must be maintained to thaw out the details of ending the conflict.”
The conflict, which directly affects all states of Northeast has seen much blood flow over the Hills. The Narendra Modi led BJP government at the Centre is leaving no stone unturned to reach a settlement with the Nagas, the success of which could well mean a Nobel peace prize for the charismatic Prime Minister. It is no surprise then that Modi himself came to inaugurate the Hornbill Festival, one of the largest cultural event in the region which draws thousands of tourists, both local and foreigners. In a state which strictly governs the entry and exit of persons, and where development is still a faraway dream, the final solution to the conflict bodes well not only for Nagaland but Northeast and India as a whole.
Photo Courtesy: Caisii Mao