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Long Dialogue

A break with peace

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LONG DIALOGUE: (Clockwise from left) Insurgent cadres at a parade;NSCM (IM) general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah;Nagaland CM Neiphu Rio. Peace talks have been going on for the last 15 years

The chance of a lasting solution to the 60-year-old Naga insurgency seemed bright in recent months. But Nagas believe that next month's polls in the state may delay the peace process.

As the Election Commission announced the dates for assembly elections in Nagaland earlier this month, the hope of many Nagas that a solution to the 60-year-old insurgency problem was at hand received a setback. Over the past year, Nagas had come to believe that a solution to the state's insurgency problem would be reached before the next elections were held. When the Election Commission announced that polls in the state would be held on February 23, it became clear that the solution would have to wait till a new government took over in Kohima.

The chances of finding a lasting solution to the insurgency issue brightened around August last year after over 15 years of negotiations between the Centre and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah ), one of the major rebel factions in Nagaland, seemed to yield result. Union home minister Sushilkumar Shinde announced the possibility of an early solution even as the Naga Hoho, the apex tribal council of the Nagas, urged the Election Commission to withhold polls and give the peace process more time. That month, all 60 MLAs of the Nagaland assembly led by CM Neiphiu Rio even met the Prime Minister and offered to resign to pave the way for a solution.

The Election Commission's announcement of the poll dates has now changed the picture. With the announcement, the model code of conduct has kicked in, which bans the Centre from making any announcement on the outcome of the talks.

The current situation is akin to what happened in February 1998 when NSCN(IM) and Naga civil society groups launched a campaign to press for a resolution of the Naga issue before the elections. That year, all political parties but the Congress joined hands and boycotted the elections. It was a decision that proved to be a mistake. The SC Jamir-led Congress won without a contest, mopping up 43 seats in the 60-member house - a result that both Naga rebels and civil society groups resented. In the two following elections, in 2003 and 2008, the Congress lost the elections to Rio's Naga People's Front (NPF).

No one wants a repeat of 1998 this time. There is now a similar campaign to defer the polls till a solution is found. But both the major political parties, the NPF and the Congress, have announced that they will participate in the democratic process. However, in a reversal from 1998, it is the Congress, the main opposition, which has taken up the cause of the Naga solution now. Along with the BJP, JD(U), NCP, Trinamool Congress and the RJD, it has demanded that the Prime Minister defer the polls till a solution is found to the vexed issue.
"We want to postpone the elections since a solution to Naga insurgency is more important, but since the Election Commission has already announced the dates, we cannot go against it and have to participate, " says general secretary of the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee, Medakul Sophie.

The Congress's attempt to postpone the elections has raised questions on whether it was expecting a political drubbing for the third time in a row. Analysts believe the incumbent Neiphiu Rio-led NPF has an edge in the polls. He came to power in 2003 with a slogan, "Equi-closeness with all rebel groups". Even if the Congress-led Centre had announced a solution before the polls, many believed it would be Rio who would benefit the most.

The Nagaland Pradesh Congress, on its part, sent a team of senior leaders to Imphal in early January to meet Okram Ibobi Singh. The Manipur CM is seen as a major hurdle to hammering out a solution with the NSCN(IM) by the Nagas. It is believed that the Nagaland Congress leaders wanted to take Singh into confidence before taking any major step.

The Naga issue is particularly tricky because a major demand of the insurgents has been the integration of Naga-populated areas in neighbouring states like Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam into a Greater Nagaland. The background of the NSCN(IM)'s leaders itself is illustrative of this point. While the outfit's chairman, Isak Chishi Swu, is from Nagaland, its general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, is a Naga from Manipur. Muivah himself recently admitted that setting a time frame to solve the issue is not possible, but added that both the Centre and his outfit were determined to find a solution.

It is not exactly clear how New Delhi is managing to negotiate this problem because the substance of the peace talks has been kept a secret by the government. Sources however say that the Centre is planning a governing council for the Nagas based on religion and culture without touching any boundary of a neighbouring state, coupled with a separate autonomous administrative set-up for the Nagas living in Manipur within the jurisdiction of that state.

With the impending assembly elections, though, most Nagas have reconciled themselves to the fact that the peace process will have to wait. As a young Naga, T Sumi, says, "We cannot withhold an election by saying that we first want a solution to the insurgency. Everyone has had a bitter experience in 1998. It is important for us to take part in the elections and we believe a solution to the insurgency will follow. We need a government to pursue the political solution. "

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