The Naga Framework Agreement is back in the news after the Centre’s main interlocutor in Nagaland, R.N. Ravi, visited the State to tie up loose ends before a final deal is sealed.
A young Naga leader with political acumen recently told me that if anyone could solve the Naga crisis, it is the National Democratic Alliance government because it is perceived as a strong entity, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a no-nonsense leader. This is true to a large extent. A vacillating leadership in Delhi will have neither the bandwidth nor the determination to go ahead with a considered decision, irrespective of the consequences. And consequences there will be, whichever way we look at the Naga conundrum.
Spread across States
Nagas don’t live in a single territory. They are spread across Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The Nagas of Manipur, particularly those in Ukhrul, home of the Tangkhuls, are the most vocal because that is also the home of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isac-Muivah) general secretary, Th. Muivah. A large chunk of the youth who have joined the outfit are also from there. They dream of ‘Nagalim’, a unique homeland where all Nagas can live with dignity. This is of course a utopian idea considering that there really is no basis for that unity. Nagas have always been driven by clan and tribe loyalty. These divisive tendencies cannot be brushed under the carpet to be resolved after the deal with the government is signed. The utopian idea is one that a pragmatic, modern, progressive Naga will not entertain. This mindset is held by those of the former generation who experienced the Naga struggle for sovereignty and lost their family members to the cause.
Today, the struggle, or what’s left of it, has morphed into something that leaves even Nagas resentful. There is extortion galore by the so-called Naga national workers, a euphemism for the NSCN(IM) cadres and the other subgroups that have emerged over the years. There is not a single item entering Nagaland that is not taxed by these armed groups. The idea of a Nagaland that would be free from this perverse and arbitrary taxation is what young Naga entrepreneurs are expecting. Is that a possibility?
It is interesting that the formation of the Naga Club in 1918 was the first collective expression by different tribes inhabiting Nagaland and the hills of Manipur to come under a common umbrella. The Naga men who were drafted by British rulers in the Labour Corps as soldiers, porters, builders, etc. felt the need for a united front after they returned from battle in the First World War. The word Naga itself is shrouded in multiple interpretations. Consciousness about borders and boundaries came with the arrival of the British who practised statecraft in the way they knew best — through a policy of divide and rule. Unable to win over the tribes who raided them time and again, the British designed an instrument called the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act (1873) to keep them at bay. The tribes were not allowed to venture beyond this line. That was their first idea of borders.
The labourers and porters enlisted by the British during World War 1 and sent to France felt lost and alone and longed for a fraternal bond. They agreed that after returning to their homeland, they would work towards solidarity among the different Naga tribes. The British were convinced that the Nagas needed a common identity, especially after Christianity came to the Naga hills. In the Naga Club’s centenary year, ironically, differences have emerged between its members and the Naga Students’ Federation.
The politics of Nagaland is complex. Tribal loyalties have not vanished because of a unifying religion, Christianity. Corruption is widespread, as is evident in the absence of motorable roads. There is not much visible by way of ‘development’ either.
Against the backdrop of this complexity, where identities are contested, and ghosts of unresolved tribal differences lurk, the Naga Framework Agreement was signed in August 2015. It was a bold and ambitious step for the then one-year-old Modi government. Since 2015, Mr. Ravi has held consultations with every known Naga political group, first to try and understand their genuine concerns and later to seek their wise counsel on the best possible solution to the long-standing conflict. We wait and watch for the final outcome now that Mr. Ravi says substantive issues have all been ironed out.
Patricia Mukhim is Editor, The Shillong Times