Non-Naga communities fear the secrecy surrounding the government’s peace talks with the NSCN

On 1 February 2005, students from the Kuki Students Organisation hold a mock coffin and shout anti-government slogans during a protest rally in Delhi. The students are protesting against the forthcoming talks between the Indian government and the NSCN (IM). Many communities like the Kukis argue that they should be included in the peace talks that are bound to have long lasting repercussions on them. RAVEENDRAN/AFP / Getty Images
29 September, 2020

“I can vividly remember the horrific incidents that took place in my native village,” Samshun Changmi, an executive member of the All Changlang District Students Union, from Yanman village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang district, told me. “At that time, in 1999, I was 12 or 13 years old. It was Saturday morning; we were in the school and then suddenly we heard the sound of gunfire in broad daylight. The Indian Army troops openly fired upon the suspects.” The Indian government often uses “suspects” to refer to those it considers members of armed revolutionary groups. According to Changmi, the suspects at whom the jawans fired were Burmese civilians who had come from their village to fetch packages of salt and some groceries. “As a kid I was frightened to death and so were the rest of the villagers—that was no less than a horror film,” Changmi said.

Changmi hails from a Naga-dominated village, many of which are scattered across the districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding, in Arunachal Pradesh. In a press release dated 24 October 2017, the Tirap, Changlang and Londgding People’s Forum—an apex organisations of the Nagas of the three districts—stated that these districts “were left outside Nagaland state when the statehood for Nagas was granted in 1963.” The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), the most prominent Naga secessionist movement, has long demanded that these districts, as well as Naga dominated areas in Manipur and Assam, be integrated into a new territory called Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim. 

The conflict in Nagaland is India’s longest lasting insurgency, which has continued in one form or another since 14 August 1947 when the Naga National Council—the oldest Naga national organisation—declared an independent Naga nation. On 16 May 1951, the NNC organised a plebiscite in which 99 percent of Nagas voted in support of an independent Naga nation.  The conflict has left a permanent scar on not only the Naga people but on the various other ethnicities in neighbouring Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar. The Institute of Conflict Management, a Delhi-based non-profit society, has recorded 2,521 casualties since 1992 in the conflict in Nagaland alone, including 1,463 armed cadre and 787 civilian deaths. In 1997, the NSCN (IM) and the Indian government signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement, and the two sides have been attempting to reach a peace agreement ever since.

“Fortunately, though no villagers were injured or hurt, many lost livestock like cattle and pigs in large numbers as the bullets fired ended up on these innocent animals,” Changmi told me, speaking about the attack on his village in 1999. “And most horrors were yet to come as the troops began to search for the suspects in each and every house of the village. None of the villagers protested, instead we were made to stand outside for hours until searches of sixty houses were completed. The most horrific part was when they started to interrogate the shopkeeper and the village headman and tortured and beat them up until they were admitted to hospital.”

Despite the Indian government having signed a ceasefire with the NSCN (IM) and currently participating in peace talks with them, clashes between the two have been frequently reported, including twice in 2020 alone. On 16 May, the Indian Army attacked protesting villagers in Longding district, who they claimed were hiding NSCN (IM) armed cadre. Army firing injured several villagers and killed a 60-year-old civilian. The All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union condemned the attack saying, “When the law keepers start terrorising their own people and start taking innocent life in a democracy, it negates the very purpose for what they have been assigned in this part of the country.” Again, on 11 July, NDTV reported that security forces including the Arunachal Pradesh Police, the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles gunned down six men suspected to be a part of NSCN (IM), in Longding district. This is despite the ceasefire.

“The saddest part is these brutalities vanish without any notice or trial from any authorities,” Changmi told me. “Each time, there would be a massive hue and cry but no justice to the victims or their families could be delivered because of the Special Powers Act.” He was referring to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, or AFSPA, which grants the military extraordinary powers in “disturbed areas,” which are notified by the central government. “That’s exactly why the people of Tirap, Changlang and Longding want permanent peace, from both draconian laws like AFSPA and the grip of insurgency which, we believe would be only possible under the ambit of this Indo-Naga peace accord.”

Like Changmi, conflict has been a reality for many in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur, due to the several-decade long conflict between the Indian government and armed Naga groups fighting for a sovereign Naga state. In 2015, Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN (IM), and RN Ravi, who was then the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee—a nodal agency for Indian national security and intelligence—signed a framework agreement based on which peace talks would continue. In August 2019, when Ravi was appointed the governor of Nagaland, the Narendra Modi government at the centre had reportedly given him a deadline of three months to reach a conclusive and permanent agreement with the NSCN (IM). On 31 October that year, both parties reportedly said that some form of deal had been reached, but a final declaration would only be released to the public in December.

A year since Ravi’s appointment, no official agreement has been released to the public. However,  at multiple instances, including in an interview with The Caravan, representatives of the NSCN (IM) have suggested the proposed Naga state will include Naga-dominated regions in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur as well. This has deeply worried the various non-Naga communities from these regions who were affected by the conflict, many of whom are now unsure whether they will find themselves inside a united state of Greater Nagaland—a central demand of the NSCN (IM). Many of these communities, and organisations representing them, are opposed to the territorial integration of parts on Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh into Greater Nagaland. Nearly all of them believe that they or their state governments should be made party to the peace talks as their lives are inextricably linked to whatever solution is reached.

One community that has been left out of the peace talks but who will be seriously affected by the outcome are the Dimasas. “We do not want to be a part of Greater Nagaland,” Mairang Johori, the general secretary of the All Dimasa Students Union, told me. The Dimasas reside primarily in Assam and the low-land regions of Nagaland—territory that is claimed by the NSCN (IM) for Greater Nagaland. In January 2018, Jagadamba Mall, a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, claimed that the Naga Accord included Dima Hisao, a district of Assam with a large Dimasa population, in Greater Nagaland. When Dimasas protested this announcement in the town of Maibang in Dima Hisao, on 25 January, the Assam Police opened fire, killing two and wounding eight.

Referring to this incident, Johori said, “And you can see it from the Maibang incident, the people of our community do not care if they have to sacrifice their life, they are against the integration of Dimasa with Nagaland at any cost. We have opposed it from the beginning.” Till today, their fears have not subsided. “We want to see the actual framework and know if Dima Hisao is excluded from the agreement,” Johori told me. “We are not sure. We are doubting because there is no clear written statement from the government’s side.”

The All Assam Students Union also believes the government should be clear on its stand. “It should be clarified by the home ministry and the state government that no such type of policy is taken by the central government in Naga Framework Agreement,” Lurin Jyoti Gogoi, the general secretary of the AASU, told me. “We want an official declaration.”

Similar protests about the lack of clarity on the agreement have occurred in Manipur too. On 31 October 2019, the date on which the peace talks were expected to conclude, the Coordinating Committee on Manipur Integrity, a Manipuri civil-society organisation, organised a cease-work protest. Ukhrul and Kamjong districts in northern Manipur are home to many Tangkhul Nagas—a community that comprises a majority of the NSCN (IM)’s cadre and leadership. This has led to fears in Manipur that any agreement the NSCN (IM) signs with the Indian government will include northern districts in Greater Nagaland.

Kuraikam Athoba, the secretary general of the United Committee of Manipur, a civil-society organisation which claims to represent all people of Manipur, said, “We will stand firm against territorial integration, no matter the cost.” Athoba told me that many Manipuris were fearful that the lack of transparency in the peace process could lead to renewed unrest in the region. He said the association had been assured by Amit Shah, the union home minister, that they will be consulted before the settlement is finalised, and that the organisation is waiting for the invitation from the central government. “If they avoid that, if they try to overlook what they have told us, things will not go peacefully. Even till today, we are patiently waiting for him to keep his word,” Athoba told me.

“If they want to restore peace in the Northeast region, they cannot deal the matter with selected groups,” Athoba added. “The Northeast regions are inhabited by diverse communities and every community has its own experience and identity, so nobody is going to compromise for another community.” He continued, “If they want a long-lasting solution, they should be inclusive. Even our state government has been kept in the dark on the ongoing talks till date.” Athoba believed the ceasefire agreement has led to increased violence in the state. “Because of this ceasefire, the armed groups are violating all ground rules and operating in many areas openly. The centre is not doing enough to control them and there is a lot of law-and-order situation,” he said. “People are not safe, inter community tension is rising as we don’t know what is going on in New Delhi. If the anxiety of the people keeps increasing, things might turn ugly.”

Many residents of Tirap, Changlang and Longding told me they were frustrated by how long the negotiations were taking. “What we want is peace, and with the success of the peace talks we are hoping our demand for a council will be approved and we can finally have peace and development in our region,” a Naga businessman from Nampong village in Changlang district, who wanted his name anonymised, told me. “Ever since I can remember, the people are stuck between the insurgent groups and Indian militaries. If they listen to insurgent groups, the military tries to take out the truth from them, so there is no peace in the land.”

The businessman said he has experienced the consequences of living in a warring environment first hand and is ardently hoping that his children and grandchildren can, unlike him, grow up in a peaceful environment. He told me that the Nagas in Arunachal Pradesh have always lived in relative deprivation as an effect of the ongoing conflict between Naga armed forces and the Indian government. “Besides this, heavy extortion and taxation has been imposed by the NSCN (IM) and atrocities and killings of innocent public especially in the name of Indian political election for their selfish gain,” he said. “Since the NSCN (IM) entered into Tirap, Changlang and Longding districts in 2002, the organisation has gotten involved in every assembly election. The organisation projects their candidate against the public choice, beyond the public interest, and the nature of democracy was murdered where the local voters become powerless,” he told me.

In 2015, R Stephen Naga, a community leader from Arunachal Pradesh, founded an armed organisation called the Eastern Naga National Government. The businessman I spoke to said that the purpose of the ENNG was “to bring justice to the land which has been in the dark ages of arms struggle since 1964.” The organisation has a limited influence in the districts of Tirap, Changlang and Longding as well as in the territory they call the Eastern Naga Areas, which lie in Myanmar. All of these territories form a part of Greater Nagaland.

The businessman told me that the people of Tirap, Changlang and Longding are seeking a self-administrative autonomous council called the Patkai Autonomous District Council. They hope that a tribal council body from this region will be considered as a party in the peace talks. Supporters of the PADC met Satyendra Garg, a joint secretary of the union home ministry who is in charge of northeastern India, on 7 July 2017. The businessman said Garg assured them that the Indian government would consider the regional territorial autonomous council under the Framework Agreement signed by the government and the NSCN (IM).   

Their enthusiasm is not shared by the All Arunachal Pradesh Students Union—which largely represents non-Naga students from Arunachal Pradesh and has been sending out strong statements warning against territorial integration. “AAPSU’s stand is clear and is very consistent. We will welcome the Naga peace accord but it should not affect the territorial integrity or administrative functioning of the state,” Tobom Dai, the general secretary of AAPSU told me. “There is so much mystery and secrecy and no information outflow, we demand the central government to involve and seek each opinion from the state government.”

AAPSU’s leaders take a far more hard-line approach to dealing with armed Naga groups in the Naga-dominated districts of Arunachal Pradesh. “The Tirap, Changlang and Longding region has suffered a lot because of these groups which is a result of the central governments doing,” Dai told me. “Prior to 1997, the TLC region was one of the most prosperous regions in economy, natural and human resources. But after 1997, a lot of our people have been killed. We have demanded the government to wipe out all of these insurgent groups from Arunachal region. This is not their home ground—that’s our clear stand that the government should clean them up.”

Some communities argue that the Indian government must address justice for past violence by armed groups before reaching any peace agreement. The Kuki tribe, which predominantly resides in the Churachanpur district in Manipur, claim that the NSCN (IM) perpetrated an act of genocide between 1992 to 1997 and as such, they must be punished as per law. “The records of the people who lost their lives during this period have crossed one thousand,” Paolienlal Haokip, a spokesperson of the Kuki Inpi Manipur—an apex body of Kukis in Manipur—told me. “Sixty villages were razed to the ground and almost one lakh people were displaced. There are several prevalent laws in India and internationally, such laws should be invoked.” According to the Kuki International Forum’s website, on 13 September 1993, the NSCN (IM) massacred 88 Kuki civilians in Joupi village in Manipur’s Chandel district. The day is still memorialised by Kuki organisations including the Kuki Inpi.

The Indian government, too, has been complicit in the lack of progress in bringing justice for Kuki victims of NSCN (IM) atrocities. A September 2019 report in a Manipur-based news portal The People’s Chronicle notes that over 60 memorandums have been submitted to different prime ministers of the country on the violence. The Kuki Inpi finally got a response in June 2020, wherein a directive was sent to the chief secretary of the government of Manipur to look into the matter. “Any right-to-information claim filed by us is denied on the grounds of national security. It is only recently, about a month back, that there was a directive from the home ministry to look into the atrocities that happened between 1992 and 1997 but there is no progress from the state government,” Paolienlal told me. “The crux of the matter is genocide occurred over a period of five years—how is it that such inhuman aggression is allowed by any government for such a long period? No amount of compensation short of a proper settlement where Kukis can feel safe within their territories, with political institutions wherein they can govern themselves—anything short of that cannot compensate.”

The Indian government’s inaction in such cases has only reinforced Kuki calls for their own sovereign territory. Kuki organisations such as the Kuki Inpi are demanding autonomy on the lines of territorial council within Manipur. “We the Kuki Inpi are never against the Naga peace settlement. In fact, we want a quick settlement for the Nagas or the Kukis but it should not be one sided,” Paolienlal told me. “The Kuki Inpi wants the government of India to work out a simultaneous settlement with equitable distribution of territory. Kukis wants self-governance, autonomy on the lines of territorial council within Manipur with financial autonomy from the state government.”

Like many other communities that are parties to the conflict but have not been stakeholders in the peace talks, Kukis are deeply suspicious of the secrecy around the framework agreement. “If they want lasting peace, they should inevitably consult all stakeholders,” Paolianlal said. “They cannot deny one community just because they have a lesser bargaining advantage, because tomorrow, the issue is going to blow up. If this peace agreement is signed without taking the demands of the Kuki Inpi, it will not be a positive reaction. We want peaceful coexistence with equal rights.”

He added that the sidelining of the Kukis in peace talks is even more alarming because many Kukis continue to live in fear of the NSCN (IM) who he claimed are constantly threatening remote Kuki villages. Other Kukis share this view too. “The government’s agreement to sign the peace accord seems unjust at this very time while remaining deaf to the people of Chassad whose village was burnt down on March 23 this year,” a 28-year-old Kuki told me, referring to a Kuki village that locals claim was attacked by Tangkhul Nagas. The 28-year-old requested anonymity, fearing reprisals by the NSCM (IM). “Hundreds lost their houses and valuable properties despite that, the central government still agreed to sign the peace accord,” she told me.

Besides people of other communities, many in Naga civil society are also deeply critical of the secrecy around the agreement. The Naga Students Federation, a Naga youth group that supports the Nagalim movement, is also demanding more transparency and inclusivity in the peace talks. “Our Naga political struggle is a people’s movement,” the NSF said in a statement issued on 7 August 2020. “Therefore, it is the sentiment of the entire Naga youth and the Naga people in general to have a say by disclosing the agreed points and deliberate the points which is acceptable with the public in the present geo-political scenario, closely reviewing issues obstructing the early signing of the peace accord for permanent peace in the region.” The office of RN Ravi refused to comment when contacted about the slow progress of the talks and the various parties who were not invited to it.

While most stakeholders are deeply critical of the Indian government’s approach, the indeterminate continuation with seemingly endless talks has also frayed the NSCN (IM)’s support among Naga youth. The Naga fight for independence and now an amicable conclusion to the peace talks has been witnessed from birth for many of the young generation citizens of Manipur and Nagaland who are learning to form their judgments of the movement. “For me personally, NSCN (IM) is a grey area,” a Tangkhul Naga youth told me on the condition of anonymity. She said that many Nagas were increasingly dismayed by “taxes” collected by the NSCN (IM). The organisation claims these are legitimate taxes of the unrecogonised independent Naga government. “I think many of the youth are torn between empathising with its cause, the sacrifices the forefathers have made and the not so agreeable, destructive, things it does to the society. The tax is just the tip of the iceberg. The taxing is understandable to a point, there’s a limit to how much it can be justified when it begins to borderline daylight robbery and becomes a hurdle to businesses. They’re like a good but alcoholic father, there are both good or bad days.”

She told me that the popular understanding of the Greater Nagaland that has been an aim of many Naga youth and Naga nationalist organisations for so long is also changing. “Greater Nagaland is the light at the end of the tunnel,” she told me. “I understand there are developments happening, we’re comprising, we are giving away the ideal Greater Nagaland for a more realistic goal. And I do believe maybe a Greater Nagaland would bring a better change to Manipur’s tribals who have been getting the leftovers of the state, when it comes to development initiatives. Or maybe not. I don’t know. I want to be hopeful.”