The incompleteness of an Agreement and Inability to Accept the Wisdom that ‘Ripeness is All’

The deadline of September the Central government has fixed for concluding a peace accord with the Nagas is creating quite a flutter in Nagaland, and it must be added, Nagaland’s neighbours, in particular Manipur. Quite obviously, the BJP government in New Delhi is getting impatient, now that it has come under tremendous pressure on account of the mounting COVID crisis and a dangerously failing economy, prompting it to want a deal sealed on this front to show as evidence all is not going downhills. It would have been happy if a comprehensive Naga solution was forthcoming, but this at this moment seems unlikely. Among the stumbling block is the continued insistence of the NSCN(IM) for a separate Naga flag and constitution. These two demands, it goes without saying would be next to impossible for the present government to concede, especially at a time public confidence in it is low. Moreover, just a year ago, it had abrogated Kashmir’s special status – similar to what the NSCN(IM) is now demanding – on the plea that this was in interest of national integration. Having resorted to this much contested measure, it cannot now possibly be confident it can concede a similar status to another party without further discrediting its own Kashmir policy.

There are of course commentators in the Indian mainstream media who are known to be sympathetic to the NSCN(IM), suggesting their own compromise formulas on how a Naga constitution can be accommodated within the Indian constitution. One of these is to have the Nagas treat Article 371-A of the Indian constitution with a little modification here and there as the Naga constitution (or Yejabo), now being championed by the NSCN(IM). In other words, this will be a concession at the semantic level, with little or no changes to the status quo on the relationship between the Indian state and the state of Nagaland. Obviously, the Centre has not paid much heed to this suggestion, and it is also not known how acceptable this cosmetic solution would be to the NSCN(IM).

Developments in the past few weeks have also given a glimpse as to why things are not working out as per the optimism (or concerns as the case may be) generated by the August 3, 2015 signing of the “Framework Agreement” between the NSCN(IM) and the Government of India interlocutor, R.N. Ravi in the presence of the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Now that this document has been made public by the NSCN(IM), quite obviously frustrated by the turn of events it did not anticipate. It is a single page document simply agreeing to reach an agreement between the two parties on the broad terms of “shared sovereignty”. Nothing much more is explained on what “shared sovereignty” should mean. For indeed, as many are pointing out now, the Indian constitution already has a feature embedded in its Schedule 7 which can be translated as a guarantee of “shared sovereignty”. This schedule defines the power sharing relationship between the Centre and States, charting out three lists of responsibilities – Central, State and Concurrent. “Central List” names areas which are the sole prerogative of the Centre, “State List” enumerates subjects which will be for the States to handle, and “Concurrent List” are subjects which would be shouldered together by the Centre and States.

Another mention in the “Framework Agreement” is that the final solution is to be “inclusive”. Again, what precisely this term is supposed to mean is not explained. The government interlocutor has chosen it to mean inclusive of all Naga underground factions and the NSCN(IM) is interpreting it to mean something closer to their demand of integration of all Naga inhabited areas. All in all, the “Framework Agreement” is a surprisingly incomplete piece of document, leaving room for numerous and even contradictory interpretations. For the same reason, it is now proving irrelevant. Whether this incompleteness was inadvertent or a result of deliberate design is a matter of speculation. Most, if not all, would however be aware of the urgency that led to this hurried agreement. The aging Isak Chishi Swu, the Chairman and the “I” in the NSCN(IM), was on his deathbed and made a wish that he would like to depart after seeing some headway in the peace negotiations, and so this “Framework Agreement” was drafted and signed to show him things were moving forward, certainly not as a final agreement, but as a frame within which the final agreement clauses were to be fitted in.

Much water has flowed down the many streams and rivers of Nagaland and its neighbouring states, and now another picture is emerging. Nobody is in any doubt that the settlement is unlikely to be anywhere near sovereignty for the Nagas. Still, so long as the vision of a sovereign Nagaland was in the horizon, the grand project of a unified Naga homeland remained attractive and irresistible, but if the settlement is to be for a state within India, many in Nagaland seem to be saying, strengthening the present state of Nagaland is the best option for them. Indeed, as a bigger state of India, with nearly three times the number of tribes as its constituents than now, it is foreseeable how much more problems of power and resource sharing would come to compounded the new Nagaland.

Hence, while other Naga underground groups, all of whom have aligned themselves under the umbrella formation called Naga National Political Groups, NNPG, seem to have reconciled to such a predicament, only the NSCN(IM) under Th. Muivah’s stewardship, has been refusing to accept this reality and is holding on to the dream of a unified and sovereign Naga homeland or Nagalim – the most important symbols of which are a separate Naga constitution and flag. Probably there are also several other compulsions pushing the NSCN(IM) to not agree to this changed goalpost.

One, if the settlement is for the state of Nagaland, a greater majority of the NSCN(IM)’s leadership, including supremo Muivah, as well as its cadres would be left in the lurch, as most of them are drawn from tribes outside Nagaland. The fact also is, after Isak Swu’s death, the NSCN(IM)’s foothold amongst Nagaland tribes has been steadily depleting.

Two, the original undivided NSCN was formed in 1980 after rejecting the Shillong Accord of 1975 as a great betrayal of the Nagas. The Shillong Agreement had in spirit agreed for a Naga settlement within the provisions of the Indian constitution. If 45 years later, the NSCN(IM) were also to agree to unconditionally a settlement within the Indian constitution, it would amount to an admission of a 45-year mistake which has caused immense additional trauma for the ordinary Nagas.

Three, and importantly, there probably is also a steadfast loyalty to an original ideology and vision, unfortunately to a point of rigidity. Muivah and many of the older generation leadership of the NSCN(IM) are probably still wedded to the original dream of sovereign Nagaland and are unable to give it up despite the radically changed circumstances in the decades that have gone by. Nothing is constant and as the timeless saying goes, the only thing constant in life is change. No revolution therefore can continue to be fought on 70-year-old slogans. At the turn of an epoch, if people are not resilient enough to accommodate the paradigmatic changes, they are destined to end up with a feeling of being betrayed.

There is of course something romantic and heroic about not letting go of the past at all, but unfortunately these have always had the tendency to end in tragedies. Edgar’s intuitive wisdom in his casual verdict in one of William Shakespeare’s grand tragedies, King Lear says it all.  When Gloucester showed pique at the unkind fate King Lear was dealt, Edgar remarked: “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure. Their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all. Come on.”

Pradip Phanjoubam, senior journalist and author Pradip Phanjoubam. Views are personal.

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