Naga ‘peace accord’ and India’s strategic goals in Southeast Asia

The Naga peace accord or ‘framework agreement’ between the government of India and the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCM-IM) that concluded in New Delhi on August 3 2015 may be viewed as a prelude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  goal of improving economic, trade and other relations with Southeast Asian countries as part of his ‘Act East’ policy.

The Naga peace accord was reached hurriedly

The Naga peace deal was done in a hurry without consulting several civil society agencies

Interestingly, however, the contents of the agreement have not been revealed. A rival militant group, the NSCN (K) led by SS Khaplang, who had set up the United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFWSA) in Myanmar, had carried out a massive attack on an Indian army unit in the border district of Chandel in Manipur on June 4.

Was the hastily arrived at ‘framework agreement’ a response to Khaplang’s resolute attack on the Indian State? The non-inclusion in the dialogue of several civil society agencies concerned with peace in Nagaland sends out a wrong signal for the people and the states in the Northeast.

There is after all a legislative assembly in Nagaland which represents the Naga community. What was its role in the dialogue process? It is also inscrutable why the union home ministry, responsible for law and order in the country, was left out.

Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN leader, claimed on August 14 that while military solution to the Naga conflict has been ruled out, the demand for sovereignty and territorial integration of Naga areas in the region is very much in place.

These goals, Khaplang has declared, Muivah would never be able to achieve. Intriguingly, R.N. Ravi, the government interlocutor, has diluted the seriousness of the agreement by admitting that it was hastily put together to please the terminally ill Isak Chisi Swu, the other icon behind the NSCN (IM).

Nagaland’s neighboring state of Manipur has witnessed the serious impact of the ‘framework agreement’ between the government of India and NSCN (IM).  Manipur’s Hill districts are dominated by the Naga and other tribal communities while the Valley areas are inhabited by the majority Meitei community.

The former demand their integration with the proposed state of ‘Nagalim’ or greater Nagaland. This is opposed by the majority Meitei community in the Valley.

While Nagaland has a population of nearly 2 million, Manipur has a population of over 2.7 million people. Manipur is divided into the Valley and the Hills. The Valley has about 10% of the land area with about 60% of the population while the Hills have about 90% of the land area with 40% of the population, a gross disproportion.

The population density in the Valley is 730 but it is 61 in the Hills. Following August 3 framework agreement between the government of India and the NSCN (IM), two divergent narratives have emerged from the Valley and the Hills.

Meitei politicians see a deep conspiracy on the part of the government of India to let the Christian tribals, whether Naga, Kuki or any other, to come into their own. BJP politicians say that the national level party should support the Hindu Meiteis. The tribal people rubbish the conspiracy theory and want the government of India to do more for them.

July and August 2015 were a period of political unrest in Manipur. The government finalized and passed in the state assembly three Bills: i) the Protection of Manipur People Bill 2015; ii) the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (Seventh Amendment) Bill 2015; and iii) the Manipur Shops and Establishment (Second Amendment) Bill 2015.

The first seeks to introduce the Inner Line Permit (ILP) to regulate the inflow of population into the state and lays down the year 1951 as the cut-off point to regulate the entry of non-Manipuris into the state and bar them from acquiring assets.

Meiteis feel there has been a massive influx of outsiders into the state, which could reduce them into a minority in their own land aggravating their sense of insecurity. They feel under siege. While the Nagas of the Hills can acquire land in the Valley, the Meiteis of the Valley cannot acquire land in the Hills since the laws and autonomous institutions protect tribal rights.

The second Bill seeks to provide that land transactions are contingent on government approval.

The tribespeople see all the Bills as anti-tribal. They say that the second Bill abolishes the vital Constitutional distinction between the Hills and the Valley and opens the door for reservation of jobs for the Meiteis.

Historically, the tribal people have resented the Meitei domination of the state structure and the cornering of development resources for themselves. The ILP is seen as a precursor to the demand for tribal status to the Meiteis, attacking tribal interests.

Manipur witnessed during the months of July and August, 2015 considerable violence by the state and non-state actors centred on issues emanating from the framework agreement between the government of India and the NSCN (IM) in New Delhi on August 3.

All this adversely impacts on the government of India’s Act East policy, which seeks to promote greater cooperation and economic integration of India with Southeast Asian countries.

In order to advance the government of India’s Act East policy vis-a-vis the Southeast Asian countries, the government of India must do a lot more to present a friendly face to the people of the Northeast. It must give up the counterinsurgency mindset that dominates policy makers at the top.

The ‘lawless law’ the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958 must be repealed as advised by the Justice Jeevan Reddy Committee, 2005, which castigated it as a ‘symbol of oppression, an object of hate and an instrument of high-handedness and discrimination’.

Shamefully for the government, Irom Sharmila, a young woman has been on an uninterrupted hunger strike from November 2 2000 to the present demanding the withdrawal of the law.

The Indian army, it would appear, cannot function in the region without the impunity from prosecution provided in this law. The border dispute with China on the McMahon line issue must be settled on the basis of negotiations and compromise as advised long ago by the distinguished expert Dorothy Woodman.

The army deployment in the Northeast which today numbers 400, 000 can and should be reduced to induce a sense of security and faith on the part of the people about the government of India.

Northeast India is surrounded by China, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal.

Strategic challenges abound.  A serious review of Indian policies regarding the north-eastern insurgent groups must be undertaken avoiding the unseemly Constitutional counterinsurgency mindset.

The hasty and controversial peace accord with only one of the major Naga insurgent group, the (NSCN-IM), ignoring other major stakeholders could have been avoided as well.

The writer is the author of the forthcoming book ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge

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