Is there a Chinese hand behind stalling of Naga peace accord?

It remains to be seen when the final Naga Peace Accord will be signed, whether the contents will be made public, and whether all Naga factions, particularly the NSCN (IM), abide by it, writes Lt Gen PC Katoch (retd) for South Asia Monitor

 By Lt Gen PC Katoch (retd) NOV 4, 2019

The “historic moment” of the signing of the “landmark peace accord” in August 2015 between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), in the presence of the prime minister, home minister and national security adviser, received extensive media coverage. Isak Chishi Swu, chairman, and Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary, signed on behalf of the NSCN. The full text of the peace accord was never made public, but jubilation over it was short-lived when Muivah gave a statement that NSCN (IM) was not prepared to compromise on the issues of Nagalim (Greater Nagaland), a separate flag for Nagaland and a separate Constitution.

On July 16, 2019, Union Minister of State (Home) G Kishan Reddy stated that any disclosure of details of the framework agreement signed on August 21, 2015 would be premature and prejudicial to the final settlement. But, if the government had not acceded to NSCN demands of a separate flag, Constitution and Nagalim, disclosing details of the 2015 framework agreement would show the NSCN (IM) leadership in poor light, of having reneged on their promise. Recall when Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the swearing-in of the PDP-BJP government in Jammu & Kashmir, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed thanked Pakistan, while the table in front displayed the tricolour and the J&K State flag. J&K then had a separate constitution.

Subsequently, Nagaland Governor R N Ravi, who is also the government’s chief interlocutor with the Nagas, ruled out a separate flag and Constitution for the Nagas, denounced endless negotiations with NSCN (IM) under the shadow of guns and said that a “mutually agreed” draft comprehensive settlement is ready for signing. October 31, 2019 was the deadline given by the government for the signing of a final settlement to the Naga dispute. Talks with the NSCN (IM), steered by Ravi, had remained inconclusive and there was even speculation that New Delhi may push for an accord with Naga Political Groups ‘without’ the NSCN (IM), which would have left the peace accord ineffective. However, there is news of a breakthrough now, with the NSCN (IM) agreeing to a peace accord, ‘without’ a separate Naga constitution but with a ‘conditional’ flag.

The ‘conditional’ flag part is not clear, though it is assumed that the Naga flag will not be permitted during official functions and on official buildings. When exactly the accord will be signed is also not known, with the NSCN (IM) stating, “We have agreed to finalize the agreement….The flag and the Constitution will be pursued later. We have to go over all the agreed competencies before signing. It may take some time.” This indicates that the demand for separate constitution is not dead yet. After the death of Isak Chisi Swu in 2016, NSCN (IM) continued to envisage a ‘Greater Nagalim,’ comprising contiguous Naga-inhabited areas of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland and also tracts of Myanmar. The organization had said it is ready to “co-exist with India’, which has a duplicitous meaning.

Naga National Political Groups include NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), Naga Nationalist Council, Federal Government of Nagaland, NSCN (Reformation), National Peoples Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord), Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland (Non-Accord) and Khango Konyak-led faction of the NSCN (Khaplang). NSCN (IM) is the largest armed militant organization which has continued with  extortions and violent acts despite the 2015 agreement. It has added another 5000 cadres since 2015. Most important is Beijing’s support to the NSCN (IM) over the past several decades, including providing arms, equipment and training. Recall media reports a decade ago of Chinese nationals apprehended in India with fake Indian documents in a bid to contact Northeastern insurgents.

Concurrent to Modi announcing the Act East Policy (AEP) in 2015, Chinese intelligence orchestrated the establishment of the umbrella organization of United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULF WSEA), bringing together nine insurgent groups of the Northeast, two major ones being NSCN and ULFA. Though Khaplang, chairman of NSCN was to be nominal head of the new group, a key role was that of ULFA’s Paresh Baruah, who has always opposed peace with India.

Beijing will try its utmost to derail the NSCN, particularly NSCN (IM), signing a final peace agreement with India. Egged on by China, whether the NSCN (IM) will renege after signing the fresh accord, on the pretext of the constitution, Nagalim or another issue, would also remain a possibility. Indian operations in concert with Myanmar against insurgent groups are not enough to tame the NSCN (IM). India has not yet demarcated its border with Myanmar, permitting crossings ‘only’ through manned avenues.

China, which illegally claims Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet,’ will want India’s Northeast to remain destabilized. It is in the same context that the People’s Democratic Council of Karbi Longri (PDCK), which is also part of ULF WSEA, has threatened to declare independence by 2022 and has asked the Indian Army to leave the area. Concurrently, two Manipur separatists have declared a government in exile in the UK, though the royals of Manipur have distanced themselves from this. By virtue of its pro-active sub-conventional activities, China has the upper hand in India’s turbulent Northeast. Within Myanmar, China has its deadly proxy in the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and is also linked to the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), headed by a Pakistani national through Pakistan’s ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). Paresh Barua, militant leader of ULFA too is based at Ruli in China. Ironically, India has made little effort to bridge the adverse asymmetry vis-à-vis China and Pakistan at the sub-conventional level.

In view of these cross-currents, it remains to be seen when the final Naga Peace Accord will be signed, whether the contents will be made public, and whether all Naga factions, particularly the NSCN (IM), abide by it. By the looks of it, China certainly would not want India’s Northeast to finally be rid of violence.

(The author is Distinguished Fellow, United Service Institution of India)

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