For too long now, the Northeast of India is known and talked about in other parts of India not because of its turquoise blue skies or the wild orchids that graze your path as you venture into its lush forests or the hornbill that flies into the distant horizon with a song, but because of its multiple ethnic conflicts. Most national dailies report about the violence: the several state closures on a daily basis, the inter-ethnic violence that plagues day to day lives; so much so, that the space for discourse has little that broadcasts the potential of the region: its tourism potential, its talented musical people and their sense of pride and self-worth, and the energy and resourcefulness of its youth. In response to the conflicts, the Indian state has taken pride in "the effective management of conflicts in the Northeast", as one former National Security Adviser put it, in a recent op-ed in The Hindu.
"While conflict management maintains the status quo, conflict resolution changes it for the better in the long run."
I would like to argue that this pride is rather misplaced if one analyses the situation from 1955 to date as it has unfolded in the Northeast. In 1955, the Naga Hills came alive with Naga National Council (NNC) violence led by A Z Phizo. In response, the Assam Rifles were sent in and the Assam Disturbed Areas Act was imposed that same year on the Naga Hills, later replaced by the Armed Forces (Special) Powers Act, 1958. Slowly, this Act was imposed and extended to other states and Union Territories of the Northeast over the years, including Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and some parts of Arunachal Pradesh. If indeed, the management of conflicts was so effective, then the question that begs a rather serious answer is: why is it then that instead of staying limited to the Naga Hills and being eventually lifted, the Act was actually extended and imposed on all the seven states of the Northeast, and continues to be levied in some parts of Assam, Nagaland and Manipur (leading to a so far 15-year-long "fast unto death" by Irom Sharmila in Manipur). So, while this framework of conflict management has effectively frozen conflict zones, maintaining status quos of violence, despair, hurt, and a life without dignity for the common people, it has served vested interests who benefit from continuing the present state of violence, illiberal governance mechanisms and corruption.
And this is the reason why we need to give up this so-called effective conflict-management framework as a justification to continue the present state of ethnic unrest in the Northeast. While conflict management maintains the status quo, conflict resolution changes it for the better in the long run. Hence, the goal behind conflict resolution is long-term health of a society. And it is in this light that the recent attempt to resolve the Naga conflict assumes significance. For long, we have gotten used to complaints about how the Naga peace negotiations between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah (NSCN-IM) have been continuing for years since 1997 without any positive movement. Most writings have emphatically criticised how the Government is not serious about resolving the issue.
Now, suddenly, when we are confronted with some movement, where a framework agreement has been endorsed by both Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India that aims to establish long-term peace in Naga areas, we are confronted with a barrage of articles on how this is all wrong. Ironically, most of these articles are now highlighting Naga differences, the inability to get all different ethnic communities together, and the impact it will have on other states which have a sizeable Naga population.
"Now [that] a framework agreement... aims to establish long-term peace in Naga areas, we are confronted with a barrage of articles on how this is all wrong."
Poignantly, those in Nagaland who have committed their lives to Naga peace like Niketu Iralu, while conscious of the importance of bridging differences, are more hopeful, While it is true that the absence of clarity on what the final framework agreement will result in has created anxieties in states affected by the Naga territorial unification demand, yet the unusual spread of misinformation that the NSCN (IM) is a dying organisation, or that it does not have the sanction of the Naga Hoho (the apex Naga organization) is leaning on the side of falsehood. If indeed Muivah did not enjoy the sanction of the Naga Hoho, why then did Naga Hoho General Secretary (Administration), Chitho Nyusou, warmly receive Muivah when he arrived in Dimapur airport on 13 August and stated that NSCN (IM)-India framework agreement has indicated to them a positive movement on the Naga solution, that "Naga nationalism had started with the NNC and Muivah's appreciation of its pioneers was a welcome step towards unity among the Naga groups".
So, the question is not whether Muivah has sanction or not; the facts show that he and the NSCN (IM) do have that, as the strongest armed group to represent the Nagas in talks with the Government of India. The question that actually needs more emphasis is how to get on board the other armed factions like the NSCN (Khole-Kitovi), the NSCN (Reformation), and the NNC. These groups have their own representative base and it is critical that they believe the peace process is inclusive. All three factions have deep societal connections to the Naga Hoho and are in turn able to present their views to that body. One has to wait and see how the Naga Hoho succeeds in getting their support for the framework agreement to which it has given its support. Finally, while the Government of India banned the NSCN (Khaplang) on 16 September due to its continued attacks on Indian security forces, the group is not without support from some sections of eastern Nagaland. So, it has to be made clear to its supporters that they will not be left in the lurch just because the armed group they owe allegiance to is banned but will be reached out to by the peace process so that their issues -- mainly of being neglected by western Nagaland -- are resolved.
The signing of the Naga framework agreement has raised hopes amongst people living in these conflict zones and India cannot disappoint them once again. Failure is not an option.
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