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Eye on Kashmir, India’s Nagas ring an alarm

Naga independence day is not normally a big event in India. This year, however, thousands of ethnic Nagas flocked to the nation’s northeastern states of Nagaland and Manipur to commemorate the Naga nationalist movement’s declaration of independence from colonial Britain.

One of the biggest celebrations was held in Senapati in an Naga-inhabited area of Manipur, where revelers hoisted the Naga flag, a blue banner with a white star in the upper left corner and a red, yellow and green band across it. Those assembled later sang in unison the Naga national anthem.

The Naga declaration of independence was made on August 14, 1947, a day ahead of India’s, and was spearheaded by Angami Zapu Phizo, the founder of the Naga nationalist movement. But this year the Naga’s event had special meaning in view of New Delhi’s recent scrapping of the special semi-autonomous status long-given to Jammu and Kashmir, and the division of the state into two union territories.

Several states in India’s tribal northeast enjoy privileges similar to those Jammu and Kashmir had previously enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which barred other Indians from settling and buying land in the now dissolved state.

According to an August 14 report in the Indian Express, Neingulo Krome, secretary-general of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, attributed this year’s large independence day turnout to the situation in Kashmir, which he said “has triggered a sense of wariness of the government’s policy.”

Immediately after the decision to reorganize Jammu and Kashmir was announced in New Delhi on August 5, Lal Thanhawla tweeted: “RED ALERT to the people of the NE. It has become a threat to states like Mizoram, Nagaland & Arunachal which are protected by the constitution.”

Many in India’s northeast now fear they may also lose their special rights, which, in some cases, are even stricter than those prescribed by Article 370. For instance, any Indian citizen who is not from Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh require a so-called “Inner Line Permit” even to enter those states.

That rule dates back to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, which was promulgated by the British colonial power in 1873 and is still in force today. Originally meant to safeguard the commercial interests of the British by keeping Indian lowlanders out of northeastern frontier areas, it has been sustained in independent India, officially to protect local tribal cultures.

The Indian constitution includes provisions that govern settlement by outsiders, ownership and transfer of land and use of resources for those three states.

The Inner Line Permit regulation does not apply to Manipur, another of the region’s so-called “Seven Sister” states, but there too other Indians, including people from the state’s majority Meitei population, are barred from buying land in tribal districts.

R N Ravi, the newly appointed governor of Nagaland, said in an official statement on August 6: “Some people have expressed apprehension over the implications of the development in Jammu and Kashmir. I would like to categorically assure you that you do not have to worry at all.”

 

Some of them, including a young firebrand named Thuingaleng Muivah, returned to his Naga homeland with ideas inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution. This led to a split in the movement, then led by the Naga National Council (NNC), and the breakaway NSCN was formed in 1980.

Muivah managed to solicit the support of Isak Chishi Swu, an NNC veteran, and the new rebel outfit set up bases in northwestern Myanmar, beyond the reach of the Indian army. But Isak and Muivah soon fell out with their Myanmar Naga ally, Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang, and were forced out of his area in 1988. Deprived of their cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar, the NSCN(IM) entered into peace talks with the Indian government in 1997.

Since then about 100 rounds of talks have been held, resulting in an inconclusive framework agreement signed on August 3, 2015, that aims to end Nagaland’s decades-long insurgency.

The NSCN(IM) has submitted a list of eight points to India, including calls for a separate constitution for Nagaland, a separate flag, their own passport and currency, a joint defense agreement with New Delhi, a permanent representative to the United Nations and, most contentious, the creation of a larger Naga entity which the rebels call “Nagalim.”

The proposal, in effect the creation of a sovereign state in India’s northeast, would consist not only of the state of Nagaland but also areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and large tracts of northwestern Myanmar which have Naga populations.

In fact, and given what’s just happened in Jammu and Kashmir, it would be astonishing if the central government in New Delhi agreed to any, let alone all, of the rebels’ demands. There is also strong opposition to the NSCN(IM)’s demands for a greater state in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal, where local politicians do not want to see their states carved up.

As early as August 2015, Tarun Gogoi, then- chief minister of Assam, accused the center of violating the “spirit of cooperative federalism and parliamentary democracy” by not consulting himself and his Arunachal and Manipur counterparts before discussing a “greater Nagalim” with the NSCN(IM).

Considering the NSCN(IM)’s demands, that seems unrealistic, and if no final agreement is reached some fear it could result in renewed hostilities in Nagaland and adjacent areas. Mizoram also saw a tribal insurgency in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, but peace has prevailed there since an accord was reached in 1986.

Revoking any of the special rights currently granted to the northeastern states would almost inevitably provoke a backlash, and, judging from what Ravi and other observers have said, Modi’s government is acutely aware of this.

But the absence of any final peace accord with the NSCN(IM) after 22 years of talks, and with the excessive demands of the Naga rebels, the region could soon turn into a new flashpoint, not only between the center and armed groups, but also between different ethnic communities.

Read Full article in Asia Times

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