Mar 14, 2007

Nagalim: The Road to Peace

One author reflects on the past years of peace negotiations and the contributions of third party facilitators, including former UNPO General Secretary Michael C van Walt van Praag.

Below is an excerpt from an article written by Wasbir Hussain published by Himal South Asian:

The Indian government and a frontline Naga rebel group have now been engaged in peace talks for nine years, continuing an attempt to end one of Southasia’s longest-running insurgencies. Since the August 1997 ceasefire between New Delhi and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland faction headed by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (known as the NSCN-IM), the two sides have held around 50 rounds of negotiations. During talks in a plethora of European, South and Southeast Asian venues, the two sides have discussed the insurgent group’s key demand of a separate Naga homeland. While New Delhi has tried to work out a solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution, the NSCN-IM has pushed for the unification of all Naga-inhabited areas in India’s Northeast into a single politico-administrative unit.

Every time the Indian negotiators […] met, time would be spent on charges and counter-charges of truce violation before the ceasefire was finally extended. The extension would invariably be for one additional year – except for once, this past January, when the NSCN-IM agreed to only a six-month extension, seeming to indicate looming roadblocks in the peace process. Because of this history, the initial news out of Bangkok on 30 July, that New Delhi and the NSCN-IM had agreed to make the nine-year-old ceasefire irrevocable and ‘coterminous’ with the peace talks (meaning they would end at the same time), caused a stir among jaded observers. An Indian newspaper reported from Bangkok that the two sides had agreed on a “broad framework”, whereby they would jointly “analyse the Indian Constitution to decide which parts of it will apply, not apply or apply with modifications to the Nagas.”

When the Bangkok talks ended the following day, however, the truce had been extended, again, by just another year. Nonetheless, Indian leaders were pleased with the very notion of the ceasefire being made coterminous with the peace talks having been introduced. Oscar Fernandes, Manmohan Singh’s chief appointee on the negotiations, explained after the meeting that, “Such a suggestion of the truce being coterminous with the peace talks had come from the Nagas themselves. They have now withdrawn that offer, but a one-year extension is fine with us.” Some senior NSCN-IM leaders appeared to have convinced General Secretary Muivah not to go for the long ceasefire; but where the suggestion had originated in the first place, and that it found favour with both Muivah and New Delhi, was what was significant.

Kreddha connection

There is some speculation that the ‘coterminous’ formulation, along with some other apparent interventions in the past few years, has been the handiwork of a third party that is mediating or acting as a facilitator in the peace talks. It is thought that the idea actually began with one Michael C van Walt van Praag, the Dutch executive president of a Netherlands-based NGO known as Kreddha.

Kreddha is also said to be behind the ‘broad framework’ to define the relationship between the Nagas and the Indian government. This framework provides for demarcating subjects or ‘competencies’ to be managed separately by the Indian government, by either dispensation in Nagaland or jointly by both. The NSCN-IM is pushing for a separate Constitution, while New Delhi wants to work out a solution within the ambit of the existing Indian Constitution. Kreddha’s involvement in the peace process has led to speculations as to whether the Indian government has relaxed its stance against third-party or international mediation on domestic issues.

But who is Praag, and what is Kreddha? The latter describes itself as committed to the “prevention and resolution of violent conflicts between population groups and states”. The only Indian member on its council is Nirmala Deshpande, a former member of the Rajya Sabha and president of the Gandhian Harijan Sewak Sangh. Praag himself is a former general secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), a global umbrella body of groups seeking self-determination. It was during his tenure in the 1990s that the UNPO passed a resolution condemning the Indian and Burmese governments for their military action against the NSCN-IM.

Kreddha’s involvement in the Naga talks first came to light in December 2005, when Kraibo Chawang, the NSCN-IM’s deputy information minister, told journalists that his group and New Delhi had agreed on “third-party mediation”, and that Praag was going to be the “pointsman”. The NSCN-IM’s official stance was altered, however, when R H Raising, NSCN-IM’s home minister, was quick to explain: “Michael Praag has been associated with the talks since 2001, but no decision has been taken officially yet to have him as a mediator. But I must tell you that he is a well-wisher of the Nagas and a good friend of both our group and the government of India.” Chawang had, perhaps, prematurely disclosed what had been meant to remain a secret.

New Delhi denied that Praag had any role in the peace talks, although it did take a full four days for authorities to react to the media coverage. Oscar Fernandes declared that “the question of appointing a mediator does not arise”, but he did not respond to the claim by Chawang (and backed by Raising) that Praag had been mediating unofficially since 2001. Chawang has been quoted as saying that Praag’s “contribution towards salvaging the peace process has been acknowledged by both” the NSCN-IM and New Delhi.

What no one in the Indian establishment is commenting on is the relatively open admission by Kreddha about its role in the negotiations. “Kreddha is quietly and confidentially facilitating negotiations between the leaders of a major armed independence movement in a country in Asia and the government of that country,” the organisation noted on its website in January 2006. “[Kreddha] has facilitated the first and all subsequent meetings between the prime minister of the country in question and his representatives and the leaders of the self-determination movement.” It is clear which country in Asia and which self-determination movement is being referred to.

No Naga unification

The circumstances and questions of capacity aside, that Kreddha became involved in the negotiations at all was due to the fact that New Delhi and the NSCN-IM have been unable to agree on a framework for a possible solution. Then-Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda’s unorthodox initiative in 1996, when he handpicked opposition Congress leader Rajesh Pilot to cajole the NSCN-IM leaders into agreeing to a truce, is largely responsible for whatever progress the Naga peace process has made to date.

It is possible that the process that Gowda and Pilot set in place has now succeeded in convincing the NSCN-IM to reframe its demand and look for an arrangement that could bring the Naga areas in the region under a common administrative mechanism. This could also be why in recent years the NSCN-IM has pushed for the integration of the Naga-inhabited areas in India’s Northeast into the state of Nagaland, and to bring the entire stretch under a single administrative unit. At that time, New Delhi would not have known the extent to which the political forces in Manipur, Assam or Arunachal Pradesh would go to prevent parts of their respective states from being merged with a greater Nagaland.

It soon became clear, however, that altering the existing boundaries of the northeastern states was nearly impossible. The June 2001 uprising in Manipur against the extension of the Naga ceasefire to that state, for instance, ended with police killing 18 protestors. The Meiteis, Manipur’s majority community, concluded that extension of the Naga truce outside the state of Nagaland could be the first step towards loss of territory to Nagaland. On 6 August 2004, weeks after suspected NSCN-IM rebels locked into a gun-battle with police in Assam’s southern Karbi Anglong District, the state legislature adopted a resolution to block Assam’s borders from being redrawn as part of a possible deal with the insurgents. The fighting followed attempts to evict some Naga families who had settled in Assam along the Nagaland border, allegedly with the backing of the NSCN-IM.

If the possibilities of either an independent homeland or a unified Nagaland are out of consideration, though, what can be a possible solution? There are still a few possibilities available. First, dual citizenship of the kind suggested by some for Kashmiris could be established for the Nagas, as well as greater devolution of powers, although this has been rejected in the past by the NSCN-IM. Second, Nagaland’s administration could be brought under the External Affairs Ministry, something that New Delhi proposed long ago. Third, New Delhi could take a fresh look at an option that Indira Gandhi is said to have agreed to examine back in 1966 – a protectorate status for Nagaland, although the Naga National Council rejected the idea at that time. Finally, Swu, Muivah and other NSCN-IM top guns could simply be installed as government leaders to run the affairs of the Nagas in accordance with the Indian Constitution. Before this would happen, a deal would need to be struck that would give the Nagas maximum autonomy, some sort of economic independence, and provide for proper rehabilitation of NSCN cadres – essentially the model that New Delhi used to clinch the deal with the rebel Mizo National Front in Mizoram in 1986.

But the question arises as to whether any deal with the NSCN-IM is actually going to solve the Naga problem. Is the NSCN-IM, after all, the sole representative of the Nagas, reflective of Naga opinion in its totality? The other NSCN faction, the Khaplang group (NSCN-K), which entered into a truce with New Delhi in April 2001, also considers itself a major player in the Naga insurgency theatre. If the NSCN-K could have been easily ignored, as some suggest, influential groups like the Naga Hoho, the apex Naga tribal council, would not have worked so relentlessly to unify these two insurgent factions towards a permanent solution. The road to lasting peace in Naga country remains thorny, to say the least. The third-party facilitator, if in existence, would know that best.