Every Christmas, the people of Nagaland ask for a gift: a solution to the seven decade-old Naga political problem. Santa Claus hasn't obliged so far. Last year, many of them had expected that the Modi government, which signed a framework agreement with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) in August 2015, would play Santa.
Two initiatives of the government seem to have fueled optimism. In September 2017, two decades after the signing of the ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-IM, which is dominated by the Tangkhuls of Manipur, the government held the first official dialogue with six Nagaland-based factions. The NSCN-Khaplang, the second largest faction, has not yet joined the dialogue. A month later, the official dialogue was held inside Nagaland itself - again, a first.
Given the complexity of the problem, it was clear that expectations of an early solution were misplaced. However, unlike in the past, expectations refuse to die down this year. Legislators and civil society organisations are appealing to the Centre to conclude the two decade-old peace process before conducting elections. The legislators have also expressed willingness to step down in favour of an interim government if and when a solution is arrived at. While the self-serving nature of the legislators' appeal is obvious, Nagaland has been through such uncertainty at least thrice in the past.
In the 1964 Assembly elections, the first polls held after the formation of Nagaland, the Democratic Party won 12 out of 40 seats. Its MLAs resigned after the signing of the ceasefire agreement. They had participated in elections only to facilitate a solution and argued that their role ended after the government and the partisans of independence established a direct contact. At that time, the Naga National Council (NNC) alone dominated the non-state space.
The Naga Hoho called for a boycott of the 1998 assembly elections, the first polls held after the 1997 ceasefire agreement between the NSCN-IM and the government. All other parties, except the Congress, heeded the Hoho's slogan, "Solution not Election". The Congress won 53 out of 60 seats. The Hoho did not interfere in the 1999 elections. Those who had boycotted the 1998 elections participated in the 1999 elections under the slogan "Election for Solution." In the late 1990s, there were barely half-a-dozen insurgent factions and the Hoho was the only pan-Naga civil society organisation. Now, there are about a dozen factions and multiple pan-Naga organisations.
More recently, in 2017, anti-women's reservation protests forced the cancellation of the urban local body elections for which several candidates had filed nominations. Last year's upheaval is being invoked to force an indefinite postponement of the 2018 assembly elections. "Solution before Election," the third iteration of the 1998 slogan, is the rallying cry this time.The usefulness of postponing the elections is moot, though.
First of all, the terms of the expansion of the peace process to include Nagaland-based factions are unclear. If it is just an attempt to superficially address the trust deficit engendered by an exclusive dialogue with the NSCN-IM, which is increasingly unpopular in Nagaland, we are no closer to a solution. On the other hand, a substantive dialogue with Nagaland-based factions, linking it up with the older ongoing dialogue with the NSCN-IM, and convincing the NSCN-Khaplang to join the emerging consensus require more than a short postponement of elections.
Even if the factions can overcome their organisational differences, agreement over what constitutes an honourable and acceptable solution is not guaranteed. A vocal section believes that the demand for sovereignty can only be given up in exchange for something substantial, such as the integration of Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam. Such integration is seen as the second-best solution. However, integration is deeply divisive because the Nagas of Nagaland do not want to share their scarce resources and political power with other Nagas.
Even if the Nagas can arrive at a consensus, Nagaland's neighbours will not cede territory. In 2001, violent protests claimed many lives when the Centre merely tried to extend the ceasefire with the NSCN-IM to Manipur. Both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have also seen growing opposition to border realignment.
No quick fix
Moreover, Nagaland sends one MP each to the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, compared to nine and 18 MPs, respectively, sent by its neighbouring states. Also, since 1995, the ruling party in New Delhi has not been in power in Nagaland. The BJP is presently a minor coalition partner in Nagaland, though. In contrast, one of the national parties has been in power in all of Nagaland's neighbours throughout this period.
At present, the BJP rules all the neighbouring states of Nagaland and has no incentive to cede their territory to Nagaland. It knows that the Congress, which is in the opposition in all these states, will mobilise people against any territorial realignment. In short, national parties do not have any incentive to support a constitutional amendment to redraw borders.
Alternatives to full integration - restricting territorial demands to one of the neighbours and/or non-territorial integration under a pan-Naga body governing the socio-cultural lives of the Nagas of the entire North East - are even more problematic. The former will divide the Nagas as different tribes claim the territories of different neighbouring states. Non-territorial integration will create more constitutional problems than it will solve, and many in Nagaland see it as a ploy of the Tangkhuls of Manipur to establish their hegemony over the entire Naga community.
To conclude, the call for according priority to the peace process over the electoral process is understandable given the long wait for the solution, but the Naga political problem is not amenable to any quick fix.
(The writer teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)