The Indian government’s hawkish approach threatens Naga peace talks

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Thuingaleng Muivah, the general secretary of the NSCN (IM), at the signing ceremony of the historic framework agreement, in August 2015, as a basis for a peace accord. In the past year, the Indian government’s adoption of a hawkish approach has seriously damaged the continuation of the peace talks. PTI
03 October, 2020

On the morning of 14 August, while the final preparations for Independence Day were underway at the Red Fort in Delhi, Kohima, Nagaland’s capital city, saw a blue flag with rainbow stripes and a white star flying against a gentle wind—the Naga national flag. The Naga Students Federation, an apex body of all Naga youth and students’ organisations, had hoisted the flag to mark the seventy-fourth Naga Independence Day. “It was celebrated by all the 17 federating units”—the 17 Naga tribes—“and a few subordinate units,” Ninoto Awomi, the president of NSF, told me. The unequivocal display of Naga nationalism was not a sudden development, but it assumed relevance in the wake of deteriorating peace talks between the Naga nationalist groups and the Indian state.

The Naga Independence Day was also celebrated in Camp Hebron, the headquarters of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), the largest armed Naga nationalist group. David Mero, the kilo kilonser, or home minister, of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim—a self-declared state of the NSCN (IM)—addressed the gathering, reading out a speech by the organisation’s general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah. “The British came in the 19th century and occupied a portion of our land, administered their laws for 115 years till we declared a Sovereign Nation on 14 August 1947,” Mero said. “This prompted the era of force Dominion by India which continues till today. Our journey has been one of untold sufferings and bloodshed.” He continued, “The Naga people have neither accepted the Union of India nor her constitution at any point of time. History will ever speak of that fact. We will not accept them today and even in days to come. We have also told them that Nagas and Indians are two poles apart in terms of history, race, identity, culture, language, geography, political concept and faith.”

On 16 August, the ministry of information and publicity of the GPRN released a press statement accusing the Indian government and RN Ravi, the governor of Nagaland and interlocutor in the Naga peace process, of attempting to derail the peace talks. In August 2019, when Ravi was appointed the governor of Nagaland, the Narendra Modi-led government had reportedly given him a deadline of three months to reach a conclusive and permanent agreement with the NSCN (IM). But a year later, peace talks seem to be stalling.

The conflict in Nagaland is India’s longest lasting insurgency, which has continued in one form or another since the Naga National Council—the oldest Naga national organisation—declared an independent Naga nation in August 1947. Four years later, the NNC organised a plebiscite in which 99 percent of Nagas voted in support of an independent Naga nation. Since then, various Naga groups have waged an armed struggle against the Indian state that has continued for over seventy years. The conflict has left a permanent scar on the Naga people and 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 in the conflict in Nagaland alone, including 1,463 armed cadre and 787 civilians, since 1992.

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. But the vehement display of Naga nationalism on 14 August 2020 is indicative of the fact that these peace talks are failing. This failure can be attributed to a range of reasons, including disagreements on key aspects of how the Naga state would look after the peace. However, in recent times, a lot of damage to the continuation of talks has occurred due to the Indian government adopting a hawkish approach. Rising attacks by Indian paramilitaries like the Assam Rifles and the arrest of the NSCN cadre and leaders are a few examples of this.

Disagreement about whether the proposed Naga state would have its own flag and constitution has been a major sticking point in the negotiations. The NSCN (IM) is insistent that talks can only continue if the Indian state agrees to a separate Naga flag and constitution, which they argue was implied in a framework agreement signed by Muivah and Ravi in 2015. The framework agreement lays out the general understanding along which future peace talks will continue. The NSCN (IM) further alleged that Ravi had “manipulated” the framework agreement in his submission to a parliamentary standing committee to suggest that any solution would be within the limits of the Indian Constitution, and would only be of concern to the state of Nagaland.

Apart from disagreements about a Naga flag and constitution, several other actions by the Indian government have since stymied the process. According to the 16 August statement, Ravi had attempted to turn what both parties had admitted was a “political issue” into a “law and order issue.” The NSCN (IM) also alleged that Ravi was punitively using bodies such as the Ceasefire Monitoring Group—set up to ensure peace—to harm the NSCN (IM) instead. The Indian government set up the CFMG in 2001 to speak to Naga nationalist organisations and Indian forces to ensure that ceasefire ground rules between the two parties were not broken. The NSCN (IM) alleged that punitive actions including arrests of NSCN (IM) cadre have led to dissension in the peace process.

On 18 December 2019, the National Investigation Agency arrested Alemla Jamir, a cabinet kilonser—a minister of the GPRN—in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. She was reportedly in possession of Rs 72 lakh at the time of arrest. Jamir was arrested under several sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, including sections which pertain to raising funds for terrorist acts, conspiracy and being a member of a terrorist organisation. Jamir’s husband is Phungthing Shimrang, a former army chief of the Naga National Army—the armed forces wing of the NSCN (IM). “The case relates to terror funding of NSCN(IM), wherein funds were being taken by the cash courier Alemla Jamir from Delhi to Nagaland on the instructions of Icrak Muivah, wife of [Thuingaleng] Muivah, general secretary of the NSCN (IM),” the NIA said in a press release.

This is not the first time the NIA have arrested senior NSCN (IM) members. In September 2010, the NIA arrested Anthony Shimray in Kathmandu airport, accusing him of procuring arms for the NSCN (IM). Shimray is the NSCN (IM)’s political commissar, a political supervisory officer committed to civilian control of the military in the organisation. In an interview with The Caravan in January 2017, Shimray said that it was not an arrest but a kidnapping, given that the arresting officers were in plain clothes and did not have a warrant. He said he was tied up, held at gunpoint and taken to an undisclosed location.

In August 2016, an NIA special court released Shimray on bail after the public prosecutor pleaded that his release was in interest of the peace negotiation between the Nagas and Indian government. In his interview with The Caravan, Shimray claimed that the NIA was actively trying to sabotage the peace talks. He said that the NIA had tried to use his case “to change the political talks and our movement under the anti-terrorist acts, claiming that this organisation is a terrorist organisation.” He added that the NIA is still attempting to disrupt the peace talks as they had tried during his arrest.

The NSCN (IM)’s allegations that Ravi’s appointment has led to an increased crackdown do not appear to be unfounded. Following Jamir’s arrest, which took place just four weeks into Ravi’s term as governor, the NIA conducted several raids in Dimapur and Imphal—in Nagaland and Manipur, respectfully—on the homes of senior NSCN (IM) members in January 2020. Many of these members were Jamir’s close associates or family. The NIA seized Rs 82.6 lakh from the raids. A spokesperson of the NIA claimed these “unaccounted funds” were being used for “terror funding.” The Assam Rifles also sealed the NSCN (IM) town command office in Dimapur on the orders of the CFMG.

On 9 February, the NIA arrested Masasonsang Ao, a close associate of Jamir, from the Delhi airport. According to an NIA press release, issued on 6 June, the investigating agency filed another chargesheet against Jamir and Ao, accusing them of a “criminal conspiracy” and of having “raised, collected and layered terror funds through a maze of bank accounts, business entities on behalf of terrorist group NSCN-IM.” When asked about the money seized from Jamir and her associates, a senior NSCN (IM) official from their information and publicity department—who wished to stay anonymous—refused to comment.

The Indian government’s shift in tone, and arresting NSCN (IM) members under the UAPA, is a significant step back in the peace process. Especially, as the NSCN (IM) is treated as a representative of the Naga people in the process. On 18 November 2002, the Indian government and the NSCN (IM) signed a memorandum of understanding in Italy, under which the government officially agreed to lift the ban on NSCN (IM) under the UAPA. Since then both parties have attempted to cease hostile actions against one another in attempt to forge a lasting peace. The MoU demarcated a major shift in the 70-year conflict where the Indian government formally announced that the Naga struggle was not an “internal law and order issue” but a political issue. The 2015 framework agreement was signed and the current peace process was developed on the basis of the 2002 MoU.

The NSCN (IM) has, in several statements issued over the past two years, claimed that the NIA’s raids and UAPA cases are a reversal of a long-deliberated policy. In a statement issued on 26 January this year, the NSCN claimed NIA’s actions were seriously endangering peace in Nagaland. “This agency in particular has taken recourse to India’s Law and Order against the NSCN who is having political dialogue with the GoI,” the statement read. “The agency, while protecting criminals are implicating members of the NSCN within India’s law and Order Acts and Regulations, and the most recent case is that of Mrs. Alemla Jamir, Cabinet Kilonser, charged paradoxically of ‘terror funding’. This accusation has come as total shock and surprise considering the more than two decades of political dialogue with the NSCN.”

The statement said that the Indian government’s approach would lead to renewed conflict in the region. “This statement has been necessitated in view of the urgency to save the political dialogue instead of creating distrust at this stage and demolishing the political negotiation,” it noted. “The unrestrained excessive activities of NIA will certainly reverse the clock back towards the pre-ceasefire period which witnessed intensive militarization, violent conflict and serious violation of human rights.”

The NIA is not the only central government agency accused of carrying out arrests in violation of the peace talks. On 22 February 2019, the union home ministry passed a notification to allow the Assam Rifles, an Indian paramilitary group, to arrest anyone and search any place without a warrant in five north-eastern states, including Nagaland and Manipur. The NSCN (IM) claims that arrests by the paramilitary group have increased since then, and even further after Ravi was appointed as governor. “The Representative of the GoI after his appointment as the Governor of Nagaland is visibly dealing the Indo-Naga political talks within India’s Law and Order subject,” a statement by the NSCN on 2 March said. “The Ministry of Home affairs (MHA) and its agencies including the NIA and the Assam Rifles have become extremely active after his arrival to Nagaland as the Governor.”

The NIA and the Assam Rifles have continued their crackdown on members of the NSCN (IM). On 4 July this year, a joint team of the Assam Rifles and Nagaland Police arrested four senior members of the NSCN (IM) in Dimapur. Among them was Rayilung Nsarngbe, a colonel in the NSCN (IM) and the treasurer in the GPRN’s prime minister’s office. They were accused of running an “extortion racket,” referring to the practice of NSCN (IM) cadre taking money from Naga civilians.

The NSCN (IM) claim that such money collection is legitimate taxes owed to the GPRN, which they see as a representative government of the Naga people. “For the NIA, any money connected with NSCN is ‘extorted money,’” the senior NSCN (IM) official who requested anonymity told me. “In the running of any government, tax collection is the blood line to sustain the government. Likewise, the NSCN and GPRN sustain itself by way of tax from its people and all business establishments including contractors executing centrally sponsored projects.” However, many Naga civilians, too, are deeply critical of the increasingly large amount of taxes collected by the outfit. On 10 July, the NIA took over the case and began interrogating the four arrested leaders. Three days later, Nsarngbe’s wife was also arrested.

A week earlier, five NSCN (IM) cadre were arrested in Kohima district’s Tseminyu town on the same charges of extortion. On 11 July, a combined force of the Indian Army and Assam Rifles shot dead six people who they claim were members of the NSCN (IM), in Nginu village, in Arunachal Pradesh’s Longding district. The Indian army claimed that the six men had shot at the army first. However, the bodies of four of those shot, were taken to Dibrugarh in Assam, and had not been returned to their families for a proper burial, even as late as 15 July. “The 11 July incident at Nginu village at Longding district is unfortunate,” the senior NSCN official said. “It was deliberately plan to eliminate NSCN from Naga areas of Arunachal Pradesh.” He continued, “This is a miscalculated violation of Indo-Naga ceasefire because the ceasefire was in place in Arunachal Pradesh’s three Naga districts of Changlang, Tirap and Longding. This is not only an act of atrocity committed by local police, Assam Rifles and Indian Army, it is also violation of human rights.”

Such actions by investigation agencies and the Indian armed forces have often snow-balled into local protests and resistance. On 5 September, the Assam Rifles arrested Salew Hepuni, a resident of Songsong village in Manipur’s Senapati district who was accused of being an NSCN (IM) member and running an extortion racket. Locals held major protests that day in the village as well as outside the Assam Rifles camp in the nearby town of Maram. The protesters stopped all vehicular traffic on the National Highway 2, which is the main route into Manipur at Maram. They held up placards with slogans, such as “Assam Rifles Enemy’s of the Hill People,” and “We demand Immediate Release of the Civilian,” and accused the paramilitary force of targeting innocent Nagas.

Despite the increase in reported violence, Shokin Chauhan—the chairman of the CFMG and the Ceasefire Supervisory Board for two years after August 2018—said that during that time there had been no violence between the Indian Army and Naga armed groups. Chauhan was previously the director general of the Assam Rifles. In their 16 August press release, the NSCN (IM) accused Ravi of completely diluting the role of the CFMG and using it to take hostile actions against them. As an example, the NCSN (IM) cited the CFMG action of closing its offices in Dimapur. But when asked these allegations, Chauhan told Eastmojo, a Guwahati-based newsportal, “My job is absolutely different. It has nothing to do with the political talks. I made sure that peace is maintained while the governor and interlocutor deals with the talks.” On 31 August, Chauhan’s two-year tenure as chairman ended and he stepped down. Since his departure the home ministry has not yet chosen a new chairman. The senior official, too, did not comment on the allegations against the CFMG.

While Ravi is still the interlocutor, the NSCN (IM) suspended talks with him in late January 2020. “After Ravi has been set aside, informal discussion has been going on with a fast track channel with the IB”—Intelligence Bureau—“on day to day basis as much time was lost because of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis,” the senior NSCN (IM) official told me. “Ravi’s chapter is as good as closed. He is no longer relevant now as we have made our stand very clear that any interlocutor who represent the government of India but is not committed to solve Naga political issue with sincere approach is not acceptable to the Naga people. Instead of trying to find solution, he created more problem by instigating division among the Nagas.”

The office of RN Ravi, the governor of Nagaland and chief interlocutor for the Indian government in the peace talks refused to comment when they were contacted about the speed of the talks and the NSCN (IM)’s complaints against him.