With a new Naga peace deal, questions remain concerning its legitimacy and long-term efficacy in pushing forward Prime Minister Modi’s Look East Act East policy.
On August 3rd 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a peace agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN–IM), the largest militant faction operating in the state. The pact was signed to end one of the longest standing insurgencies in India’s history.
For decades, Nagas (people from Nagaland) have been fighting for sovereignty and land rights. With very little headway, pent up emotions and limited options have paved the way for militancy to flourish in the state. Erstwhile, governments have made many attempts to bring Nagaland to the negotiating table, but along the way several deals were broken, resulting in the resumption of violence.
The new deal has been hailed within central government corridors. What has changed this time around?
Significance of the deal
The deal is important for the government’s efforts in ensuring the success of its Look East Act East policy. Prime Minster Modi wants to set up a number of roadway projects that would connect India with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Myanmar. This is all part of a plan to elevate India’s role in the global arena. Modi’s Act East policy is also another way to counterbalance China’s role as a regional powerhouse in Southeast Asia.
While the central government wants to develop the Northeast region as a commercial hub linking the country to key neighbors, security concerns will impede this process. To ensure land connectivity with Southeast Asia, stable relations within its territory are a key action item in his agenda. This will ensure the smoother flow of trade in the region.
A stable Nagaland is thus one of the prerequisites for the government’s efforts to revitalize its eastern borders and connect India with its neighbors. At present, cross border trade is hampered by insurgencies being waged in the Indian states of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Nagaland.
A history of violence and discontent
Over the years, various counterinsurgency operations within the state have created a political stalemate. Among the many efforts to resolve the issue, the government militarized Nagaland and, in 1972, passed the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act to contain the issue of growing insurgency.
While the door to broker a peace deal was always left open, at the time, the Naga National Council, a successor of the former Naga Club, agreed to come within the ambit of the Indian constitution. However, this was rejected by others within the group who broke away from the council and formed the NSCN-IM. Over the years, the NSCN-IM splintered into the NSCN-Khaplong.
The main demand of the people of Nagaland has always been sovereignty, a ‘Greater Nagalim’ i.e. the integration of greater Naga-inhabited areas in neighboring states of Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as parts of Myanmar. Although the government cannot impinge on the territorial sovereignty of Myanmar, the neighboring states have not agreed to cede any of their land.
Enraged by the recent peace deal, neighboring states have been concerned about the secrecy in brokering a deal. Furthermore, the Chief Ministers of these states are members of the Indian National Congress, the main rival party of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, and have created uproar in the media over the government’s pact with Nagaland. Without the support of these states, meeting the demands of the NSCN-IM will not be possible.
Can the new peace deal ensure lasting peace?
Is the peace deal legitimate and will it be effective? This time, the government has adopted a more accommodating approach, and has acknowledged the fact that it will respect the rights and customary systems of the Nagas across Naga-inhabited areas in northeast India.
Secondly, the government has sought a deal with NSCN-IM, the largest and most influential group in Nagaland, which covers a larger geographic base than other militant factions in the region.
Worth noting, however, is that NSCN-IM has reduced its violence over the years, and the NSCN (K) and its smaller factions in the region have filled this “gap”. It is not entirely possible for the government to broker an effective peace deal with NSCN-K, since it operates largely from Myanmar, and hence is out of India’s jurisdiction.
Ultimately, the deal could act as a triggering force for increased levels of violence in the short term, especially by embittered militant groups. Many of the groups are fighting for ‘Greater Nagalim’, which the deal cannot promise, especially as the rival INC controls neighboring states. The INC has been openly critical of the deal.
Besides the central government, the Nagas are also in conflict with the Kukis, an ethnic group housed within Nagaland that is demanding a Kuki majority district in the state. Furthermore, the deal in its present form cannot ensure the cessation of hostilities unless it includes all stakeholders, including violent factions.
While the government is sending a delegation to Myanmar to broker a deal with NSCN-K, without territorial sovereignty it is still uncertain how the government can implement its plans to create a commercial hub in the East. The group will continue to act as an impediment to long-term peace unless a deal brings to the table all those involved and manages to ensure that all of the underlying concerns of the Nagas are met.