On one of his visits to India in the first week of August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced he’d signed a ‘historic’ accord with the Naga militant outfit, the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-IM (NSCN Isak-Muivah). Mysteriously, all details are missing.
For decades, the NSCN (I-M) has demanded sovereignty for a ‘greater’ Nagaland, what it calls Nagalim. This is supposed to encompass any area with a Naga population. If Nagalim were ever to be formed, it would eat into substantial chunks of Assam and Manipur, as well as southeastern Arunachal Pradesh. What’s more, Nagalim would also encroach on large parts of northern Burma.
Muivah Drove the Accord
After signing the mysterious accord, Thuingaleng Muivah returned to Camp Hebron, the shifting headquarters of NSCN (I-M). He explained that the deal had recognised both Naga sovereignty — that is, the creation of an independent Naga nation — as well as Nagalim. Unsurprisingly, this lit fuses across the northeast.
Folks in Arunachal, Assam and Manipur — the least most affected by the idea of Nagalim — are furious at the suggestion. Each has vowed not to give up an inch of territory. Nagaland-Manipur relations are less than cordial. They often erupt into terrifying violence. The Nagas in the north often punish Manipuris, by blocking the sole highway that connects the latter to India.
Manipuris pay back in kind. In 2010, when Muivah wanted to visit his village in Ukhrul district, on the Manipur-Nagaland border, he was threatened with death and beat a hasty retreat.
And Burma is an independent country. New Delhi cannot go over the head of Naypyidaw to give away parts of Burma to Nagas.
So, Modi has stepped into the minefield of northeastern politics from where there’s no way out. Here’s why.
The NSCN (I-M) is not the sole representative of Nagas. Isak Swu, one of its founders, has been ailing for years. Muivah became a client of the Indian state many years ago, accepting compromise after compromise. They are toothless tigers.
These are not the same youngsters who trekked through Burma to Yunnan in the 1970s, to seek weapons from China. The Chinese gave them shelter — and probably some assistance — but were baffled by revolutionaries who spoke about communism and Christ in the same breath.
If this accord is a farce, an earlier one ended in tragedy.
The ancestor of the NSCN was the Naga National Council (NNC), founded by Angami Zapu Phizo, which demanded sovereignty immediately after Independence in 1947. Over the years, the NNC became violent. New Delhi responded even more brutally, finally bringing it to its knees.
In 1975, the NNC signed the first ‘historic’ agreement with the government in Shillong. It agreed to abide by India’s Constitution. One signatory was Phizo’s brother, Kevi Yallay. Of course, the agreement didn’t hold. The militants, led by Isak and Muivah, came down from the hills and slaughtered all they considered ‘traitors’ to the cause. The entire moderate NNC leadership was wiped out, triggering internecine warfare that lasts to this day.
Fact and Faction
The Nagas are not a homogenous people. The last I counted, there were more than 50 tribes: most quiescent, many with their own agenda and weapons. Most are furious about this accord between the government and a Sema (Isak)- and a Tangkhul (Muivah)-led faction.
Other hill people like the Kukis are fuming. Traditionally, Kukis and Nagas have been at each other’s throats. Any agreement that excludes Kukis will trigger further bloodshed and misery in the hills.
Our peripatetic prime minister has committed another blunder. Modi says he’ll consider including five Assamese communities, including the Tai Ahoms, in the list of scheduled tribes (STs). This will enlarge the pool of STs, but will not make the size of benefits like sarkari jobs or school admissions any bigger.
Already, around 13% of Assam’s population is classified as ST. The new announcement is an affront to existing STs. Their slice of the pie gets smaller. I was in Assam when this intent was announced, and the tension was palpable.
Besides, how will this promise be implemented? There are rules to classify any community as ST. These include isolation from the mainstream, ‘primitive traits’ and backwardness. Most of these communities, especially the Ahoms who ruled the region for 600 years, can’t really qualify. Remember, chief minister Tarun Gogoi is Ahom.
To change the rules, the BJP government might need to amend the Constitution. You think a government that couldn’t push through the goods and services tax (GST) can handle this political dynamite?
Assam goes to polls in nine months, and the BJP desperately wants to win. But Modi and his advisers have shot themselves in both feet.