The more we drag on the Naga solution, the more problems we invite: NNPGs convenor Kitomi Zhimomi

sagar for the caravan
17 September, 2021

On 3 August 2015, the government of India signed a written agreement, called the framework agreement, after two decades of political negotiation with one of the largest Naga insurgent groups—the Isak and Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland. The agreement discussed the sharing of sovereign power between India and the Nagas. This agreement did not consult several other armed Naga nationalist groups, and left them wary.

N Kitovi Zhimomi heads six armed Naga-nationalist organisations—not including the NSCN (IM)—that came together under a single umbrella group, the “Naga National Political Groups,” in early 2017 to negotiate with the India government. The organisations of the NNPGs, although smaller, are breakaway factions of the original NSCN—similar to the NSCN (IM)—or breakaways of the Naga National Council, the oldest insurgent group in the state. Groups within the NNPGs and the NSCN have intermittently fought against each other for territorial control and legitimacy within the Naga nationalist movement.

In November 2017, the Indian government also signed a written agreement, called the “agreed positions,” with the NNPGs about the devolution of power to Nagaland. But the next year, the Indian government’s interlocutor, RN Ravi, informed a parliamentary committee that the “NSCN (IM) had threatened to pull out from the talks if any other group was engaged by the government of India.” Ravi justified the need for the agreed positions. “Integration of these smaller groups was important as they were getting desperate. The government was successful in achieving this and during the last one year, six Nagaland-based groups had come together and were engaged formally with the peace process,” he told the committee. The agreed positions mentioned, “The government of India recognizes the historical and political rights of the Nagas to self determine their future in consonance with their distinct identity … The two entities”—the NNPGs and the government of India—“have agreed to work out the details of a relationship that is honorable, enduring and inclusive peaceful co-existence with due regard to contemporary political realities.”

Zhimomi, born in 1958, led a Naga nationalist outfit for over two decades before coming to the negotiating table as the convenor of the NNPGs, in 2017. He is also the Ato Kilonser, or prime minister, of the civilian wing of his organisation. He blamed the Indian government in early 1960s for sowing the seeds of perennial mistrust among Naga nationalist groups. Zhimomi, however, believed that Naga organisations should accept the political reality of the day and be “pragmatic” in their demands, instead of asking for an “elusive dreamland.” In a two-hour long conversation at his residence in Dimapur on 15 August, he spoke to Sagar, a staff writer at The Caravan, about his thoughts on the demand for regional governments within Nagaland, the agreed positions and the framework agreement. Zhimomi’s phone was also likely targeted for surveillance with the Pegasus software, but he refused to answer questions about it.   


Sagar: How did you bring the six armed groups on board for the negotiation?
Kitomi Zhimomi: It was initiated by Nagaland Tribe Council [a civil-society body that claims to represent all the indigenous tribes of Nagaland] and the Nagaland Gaon Bura Federation [a civil-society body of village heads]. We are from different parties, [but] we are maintaining our identity. In the event of a solution, we have to come under a single umbrella.

Sagar: How did the political will to organise under one umbrella and start a political dialogue with the government arise?
Zhimomi: The world is coming closer. In our meetings, we discussed what would be practical for [the] government of India to give us, and how what they can give us would be good for the Naga people. And how, if we [are] blindly demanding something which is not practical, that will only accelerate the situation from bad to worse. As of now, we have a ceasefire with the government of India, and we have the ceasefire with a certain purpose. That purpose is to seek a solution together, a reason to live together, and sort out our differences.

Sagar: When did the negotiation start? Who did you meet first and how did the conversation go?
Zhimomi: [The] negotiation started with the government of India in September 2017. We met the interlocutor, RN Ravi, in Delhi. Initially we had very heated arguments also. In fact, we didn’t want to compromise [on] integration [of Naga majority territories outside of the state of Nagaland. Both the NSCN (IM) and the NNPGs advocate the integration of these territories, but Zhimomi accuses the NSCN (IM) of tacitly accepting the Indian government’s division of state boundaries.]. We didn’t want to compromise [on] sovereignty. But, prior to our invitation for negotiation, the whole thing had been damaged by NSCN (IM). When they signed the extension to their ceasefire [with the Indian government] in 2001 in Bangkok, they did so “without any territorial limit,” [not limited to Nagaland alone, but with a proviso that] the ceasefire, “should not be adverse to any north east states.” This means they compromised integration.

On 3 August 2015, they [the NSCN (IM) faction] signed the framework agreement. In that agreement, they clearly stated that they “appreciated the intricacies of the Indian system.” If they appreciate the intricacies of Indian system, the constitution of the Indian system, the governing and electioneering system of India, then the question of Naga sovereignty doesn’t arise. Prior to our negotiation, maximum damage had already been done, which we couldn’t repair.

Sagar: Can you tell us about the terms of your negotiation with the government of India?
Zhimomi: The policy of the NNPGs policy was very clear: let’s be practical. And let’s make sure that any agreement that we sign today will ultimately benefit both the Naga people and the government of India. We also decided that [since] the government of India will take up a new project of the Act East policy, Nagaland should be a co-leader in it. [The Act East policy is a diplomatic initiative by the Indian government to promote relations with the Asia Pacific region.] And that can’t be implemented unless there is maximum peace and tranquillity.

We also understood the constitutional difficulties of the government of India, so we have not demanded a separate constitution or a separate flag [both of which are key demands of the NSCN (IM)]. Of course, Naga political groups have the Naga flag here. This is cultural, this is our sentiment. The government allowed [us to keep the flag] with no objection. But it should not fly along with the national flag. We understood the problem, the sentiments of government of India. They also acknowledged our sentiments. There is no reason why we should continue fighting.

Sagar: What are the competencies, or constitutional subjects whose jurisdictions are to be decided in the negotiations, that you have agreed to with the government of India?
Zhimomi: We have decided to have a bicameral assembly in Nagaland. An upper house shall be represented by tribal voices and there will be selection, not election. Every tribe should select a leader to send to the upper house to represent their people. This upper house shall be called the Nagaland Tatar Hoho. The Tatar Hoho should legislate on the matters under 371A [an Indian constitutional special status given to the state].

Section 371A is also something like a contradicting provision as of now [because it is not well implemented]. The government of India has no right to involve itself in Naga customary issue [laws and procedures that are native to Nagaland]. It [371A] said that parliamentary acts on natural resource shall not be enforced in Nagaland. But the Nagaland state assembly was not empowered to legislate [on] how to make use of natural resources. So, this thing has to be clearly defined. Nagaland’s federal laws should be [made] absolute, to legislate over 371A.

Sagar: What about the lower house?
Zhimomi: The Nagaland Leacy Hoho, the [proposed] legislative body, shall be elected through the democratic process. We have demanded for the enhancement of 20 more constituencies, making 80 from 60. We are demanding four constituencies for members of the Indian Parliament. [Presently, Nagaland is represented by one seat each in both the houses of Parliament.]

But, the government of India must, at least, give us three MPs. We have Eastern Nagaland [four districts bordering Myanmar], Mokokchung and Kohima. Even the British bifurcated Nagaland into three administrative areas for convenience: Kohima, Mokokchung and NEFA [North East Frontier Agency]. They [should] give us three MPs and allow us to participate in the Indian parliament. But [the government of India] should not treat us as an adopted son or daughter. If they cannot allow Nagas to self determine, that is, they cannot allow Nagas to be a separate nation, then why not allow Nagas to be bonafide citizens of India and give us space to actively participate in Indian policymaking and the economy.

Sagar: Did you also negotiate on absorption of your cadres into the Indian security forces?
Zhimomi: We shall negotiate that as per our proposal. We shall have a separate parley to safeguard Nagaland.

Sagar: The NSCN (IM) has said that any solution must come through the framework agreement. They argue that what they negotiated with the Indian government is better than what you did. 
Zhimomi: What guarantee is there? The NSCN (IM) may say that, but when there is no transparency in their negotiation. How can we trust them?

Sagar: They never showed you the competencies they worked out with the government?
Zhimomi: No. They have not shown it even to their subordinates. Only Muivah and Atem know about it. [Thuingaleng Muivah and VS Atem are the two senior-most leaders of the NSCN (IM).] Even the framework agreement was declared to the public by the interlocutor [Ravi], not by IM. Now they say that the solution should be on [the basis of] the framework agreement. But in the framework agreement, there is nothing, no political agenda. They simply say that they agree to share the power, share sovereignty.

Sagar: What is your reading of “sharing sovereign power” that is mentioned in the framework agreement?
Zhimomi: See, Indians [have a] federal structure. [The] sovereign power of Indians [is] bifurcated into two by the central union list, the concurrent list and the state list [which determine which legislative body has the right to legislate on which topics]. So, whether they demand shared sovereignty or not, it already exists. It will not be a problem for the government of India to say yes.

Sagar: Did you show your proposal to the NSCN (IM) before signing the agreement with the Indian government?
Zhimomi: We didn’t show it to the NCSN (IM). But we have shown it to civil society organisations and sought their opinions. Our competencies were prepared by taking the opinion from civil society groups like the Nagaland Gaon Bura Federation.

Sagar: Why do you not discuss both the competencies with each other and maybe merge them for a solution to the negotiations with the Indian government?
Zhimomi: We have demanded [a discussion]. But they [the NSCN (IM)] are not at all prepared to put [their demands] in the public domain. If they show that they are demanding something for the good of the Naga people, why would they have a problem with showing [the competencies in their demands] to the people? [The NSCN (IM) had said in a press releases issued in September 2020 that the competencies will be known to the Naga people “in due course of time.”]

Sagar: Hypothetically, if the NSCN (IM) agreed to show you the proposal that they negotiated with the government, would you be open to discuss yours with them over a roundtable and come up with a single draft?
Zhimomi: We have discussed every issue threadbare with the government of India. We even had some very heated arguments, but at the end we have come to certain understanding and the talks have been closed. They were concluded on 31 October 2019. Now, we shall not present a new agenda to be discussed. You need [to consider] our credibility also. We [already] said the talks have been concluded.

The government of India should not backtrack from the agreed positions either. No Indians will backtrack from this agreed positions. What has been discussed, that will be signed. And, at some point [it shall be] incorporated into the constitution of India and it will be implemented. Now it makes no sense to sit with NSCN (IM).

They [the NSCN (IM)] have also concluded [talks] in their framework agreement, on 3 August 2015. So now, the only option remaining is that the government of India invite both the NSCN (IM) and the NNPGs to the table to sign the solution. But, while signing the agreement, they [the government of India should] demand that the competencies of the NSCN (IM) should be made known to us. Without seeing their charter of demands, the NNPGs will not blindly sign the agreement.

Sagar: The state assembly appealed during the monsoon session that the NNPGs and the NSCN (IM) must come together.
Zhimomi: It is sweet to hear, but it has to translate into a workable [solution], it has to be realistic.

Sagar: How do you propose to make such cooperation workable? Should the government take the initiative and call both the groups for a roundtable? Or should the two of you reconcile on your own?
Zhimomi: There is no reason to reconcile. We have already reconciled. [For instance] an opposition-less government has been formed in Nagaland [by the] BJP, NDPP and NPF. [On 13 August 2021, the ruling party of the state, Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, and its ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, invited the opposition Naga People’s Front to form a united government to expedite the Naga peace process.] But none of the BJP members have affiliation to the NPF. Likewise, NDPP members are not making affiliation with the BJP. Likewise, we are six groups, we have come together, though we are maintaining our separate identities.

What they [the union government] should do [is] sign an agreement with us and dissolve the present assembly, [as] they [state legislators] have declared of their own volition that they are ready to resign anytime to pave the way for a solution. [The Caravan could not independently verify this claim.] So, everything is now prepared. Why should the government of India or Nagas of Nagaland allow themselves to be dictated terms by some group of people from Manipur? [The NNPGs claim that much of the NSCN (IM)’s leadership are Tangkhul Nagas, or ethnic Nagas, who are from the state of Manipur, and represent interests that are divergent from those of the Nagas of Nagaland.]

Sagar: One of your press releases earlier mentioned that the NSCN (IM) didn’t want to show their agreement and competencies to the public because they had something to hide regarding the negotiation on the Ngtangki national park. [The Ngatangki national park, in southern Nagaland’s Peren district, is where most of the NSCN (IM)’s camps are. The NNPGs fear that if the NSCN (IM) negotiate to keep control of the national park it would mean that Nagas from Nagaland have less control over the region.]
Zhimomi: We, the Nagas of Nagaland, have been fighting for many decades to get something from government of India, not to give away [something of] ours. Most of them, the [NSCN (IM) faction’s] leaders, happen to be from Manipur. And until and unless integration takes place, the Nagas of Nagaland cannot compromise [on] the Ngtangki forest.

Sagar: You suspect that NSCN (IM) will keep control of the forest after the solution?
Zhimomi: Otherwise there is no other reason why they are keeping their demand separate from ours. If they expose it now, it will be like another bombshell. They may not be able to stay in Nagaland.

Sagar: The NSCN (IM) believes that it is the sole representative of the Nagas in its negotiation with the government.
Zhimomi: Who gave them that mandate, particularly when they have compromised on the integration [of Naga majority areas in Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam, into a unified territorial entity. The NNPGs believe that the proviso in the NSCN (IM)’s ceasefire is a tacit acceptance of the Indian demarcation of states and that these territories will not be integrated.] Historically, no doubt, they are Nagas, when we go by history. But politically they are Manipuris. And Muivah [who is a Tangkhul Naga leader, born and brought up in a village that is now in the state of Manipur] has no moral right to get involved in Nagaland’s issues. Likewise, I’m a Naga. I never poke my nose in Manipur’s internal affairs. How can they decide themselves that they fight for Nagaland? They are outsiders until integration takes place.

Sagar: Do you think that if the government of India ignores the NSCN (IM) and signs the solution with the NNPGs based only on the agreed positions, a permanent peace can be achieved?
Zhimomi: There is a misunderstanding among people. The NSCN (IM) has negotiated with government of India for 18 years, only after that did they sign the framework agreement. There is no reason to say the government of India has ignored the NSCN (IM). With the NNPGs, we sent the preamble [to the agreed positions] and based on that, we negotiated. It took us only two years. Even that was too long for us.

In the framework agreement, there is nothing mentioned about a flag or constitution [for Nagaland]. Now, on the verge of a solution, the NSCN (IM) are suddenly coming out with a new agenda. There is no reason to blame the government of India. The people of Nagaland will tell you the sixteen-point agreement [a 1963 settlement between Naga nationalist groups and the government of India that granted Nagaland statehood] couldn’t be implemented amicably, [because] the main player [the Federal Government of Nagaland, the political arm of Naga National Council] was not taken on board. But today, the fourteen tribes of Nagaland, supported by the Nagaland GB Federation; the NTC [National Tribal Council, a non-government apex body of the tribes of Nagaland]; the CNTC [Central National Tribal Council, a non-government body of tribes from central Nagaland]; and the Nagaland Jain and Christian forum—they all want an early solution. Our status paper [the terms of negotiation] is in all their hands.

Now, even if the government of India sign an agreement with the NNPGs and leave the NSCN (IM) alone, the Naga people will stand by the NNPGs. They [NSCN (IM)] will be left alone. They are people from outside, let them go to their respective place and create problem outside [Nagaland].

Sagar: You are saying that senior NSCN-IM leaders are holding up on reaching a solution for their personal vested interest?
Zhimomi: Exactly. If solution comes, they will be compelled to leave Nagaland. They will have to go back to their so-called ancestral land. 

Sagar: Why do you think the government of India is still holding up negotiations with NSCN (IM)?
Zhimomi: They maybe [are] apprehensive. They may think that if the NSCN (IM) is left out, there may be another problem.

Sagar: What, in your view, is the NSCN (IM)’s real intention behind not signing a solution?
Zhimomi: How to prolong or derail a solution. In fact, they don’t want a solution.

Sagar: How will not wanting a solution benefit the NSCN (IM)?
Zhimomi: They want one thing, [to] negotiate with the government of India without a solution. They will make themselves rich [through the collection of what Naga nationalist organisations call taxes, but the Indian government refers to as extortion. Such taxes are collected by nearly all the armed Naga nationalist organisations which are active in Nagaland]. They will be trying to control people as long as possible.

Sagar: Do you think if the NSCN (IM) is left out from the solution, Narendra Modi would suffer political damage since he participated in the signing ceremony of the framework agreement and took credit for resolving the issue?
Zhimomi: Automatically, he is going to suffer. People will only blame him.

Sagar: Did you assure the Indian government that if they went with the NNPGs, you will take care of any future trouble arising from any groups that are left out, such as the NSCN (IM)?
Zhimomi: The people of Nagaland, led by tribal leaders, are in support of NNPGs. They are insisting that the government of India sign the final agreement without any further delay. So, people will take care [of the NSCN (IM)].

Today, even the state government says there is no opposition [in the legislative assembly]. Every faction is ready. Only the IM people, who are from Manipur [do not want a solution]. Nagaland should not be made a scapegoat.

Sagar: What would be your message to NSCN (IM)?
Zhimomi: I don’t have to tell them anything. They should be practical and be pragmatic. Let us not live in an elusive dreamland. We have to come back to reality.

Sagar: Where do you stand on the demand from within Nagaland for a separate state for backward tribes from the four districts in the east?   
Zhimomi: See, of course, there are certain reasons for why we have to consider their case on priority, for example, in terms of infrastructure. This has been neglected because of the insurgency. But, the moment an agreement takes place, their [development] should be taken up as a top priority.

Sagar:  What would be the future for Eastern Nagas, who reside in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the state, be like, if there will be a solution?
Zhimomi: There will be equal opportunity if a solution comes. There won’t be discrimination.

Sagar: Would you favor reservation for backward tribes in jobs and education?
Zhimomi: Today most of high school toppers are from eastern area. So, we can’t brand them as people from dark zones or dark districts. But, analysts have been calling them backward. They are not backward, only infrastructure-wise are they backward.

Sagar: When was your last meeting with the government of India?
Zhimomi: We had the last meeting with them on 10 March 2020. And we decided to have another meeting next month, meaning April, but suddenly on 24 March the [Coronavirus-induced] lockdown was declared.

Sagar: Do you think now is the time for the government to invite the NNPGs for a solution?
Zhimomi: It’s the right time, before third wave [of COVID-19] strikes.

Sagar: What’s your reading of RN Ravi?
Zhimomi: I cannot comment on his affairs as governor, but as an interlocutor, as a human being, he wants to resolve [the Naga political problem] and claim [to be] a champion. There is no reason to doubt RN Ravi.

Sagar: Do you share NSCN(IM)’s view that the government was wrong in appointing Ravi as governor?
Zhimomi: I cannot comment about the government of India’s policy. On the other hand, it is good that the interlocutor had become governor. In a post-solution [scenario], there will be some interim arrangement, there will be some new dispensation with a new arrangement, so it is better that [the] same governor continue to have smooth landing. [On 9 September 2021, after this interview was taken, Ravi was removed as governor of Nagaland.]

Sagar: You are saying having a new governor can be…
Zhimomi: … Another problem. He [Ravi] has been negotiating with Naga political groups, he is the head of the state. So, after a solution, [if] he will continue, it will not be new for him.

Sagar: Do you expect any call from the government anytime soon?
Zhimomi: We are just keeping our fingers crossed and waiting for a call from the prime minister. In fact, we were expecting [the call] this February or March. But, on the national republic day and the farmer agitation created a problem. And when the situation reached some level of control, the election was being announced in six states. The prime minister and his cabinet colleagues were busy, they couldn’t give us time. And, after that, the Kumbh Mela was celebrated, the second wave spread all over India. We have to understand that kind of natural calamity. So, as of now, we cannot blame the government of India.

Sagar: How much time do you want to give yourself for the solution to happen?
Zhimomi: The more we drag, the more problem we invite.

Sagar: It must also be hard for you to keep every faction together in NNPGs?
Zhimomi: The NNPGs are intact. But again, who knows, there are thousands [of] educated unemployed youth, they may create a problem [if no solution is reached].

Sagar: Have you conveyed to the government your apprehensions about a delayed solution?
Zhimomi: We have not officially written. The 14 [officially recognised] tribes of Nagaland and the Nagaland GB Federation have written to the prime minister, asking him to sign the agreement without any further delay.

Sagar: Armed groups in Nagaland are often accused of taking, what they call taxes, money from the people in Nagaland. The government of India calls this extortion. Do you not think this issue deserves an early solution?
Zhimomi: This will continue and it will multiply beyond control if the solution is delayed.

Sagar: Can armed groups stop taking money from people? What do you say about your own group?
Zhimomi: See, in the Naga perspective, people have taken a pledge in 1951 [after a] plebiscite. [In 1951, Naga nationalist groups conducted a referendum in the state and claim that 99.9 percent of voters favored an independent Nagaland]. [The pledge said that] till sovereignty is attained, some will join the movement physically, some will contribute so that the spirit of patriotism stays alive. People are willingly paying.

Sagar: If a solution to the peace process is arrived at, will the collection of these “taxes” continue?
Zhimomi: No, no. There will be no more problem. If a political solution happens, there will be no more political groups.

This interview has been edited and condensed.