Amongst all the things that have been said about the now anticipated coming to fruition of the political negotiations between the Central government and National Socialist Council of Nagalim-IM (NSCNIM) and other Naga factions — and a great deal has been said about it, in every imaginable voice — one crucial point remains silent. A political settlement does not, mechanically or magically, lead to the transformation of a conflict to postconflict society. While a political settlement is a necessary condition for peace to prevail, it is by no means a sufficient one. At the most, it will mark the beginning of a long and undoubtedly complicated, painful process of reconciliation, and the healing of the political and social dislocation, divisions and depravities produced by over seven decades of armed conflict.
It is a matter of note that a political settlement will not signal the return of Naga society to a state of previous equanimity. For several generations, political violence, volatility and precarity has been the “normal” background of everyday life in the Naga highlands and most Nagas have no historical point of political normalcy they can refer back to. One of the greatest tragedies will remain that, for all these years, the armed conflict prevented Naga society from developing and progressing organically. This brings us to a fundamental question — what sort of Naga society will emerge out of seven decades of armed conflict? Engaging with this question is critical to even beginning to imagine a new, post-conflict Naga society.
What will emerge is a society blemished by sustained suffering, sorrow and suspicion, none of which a political settlement can instantly cure or overcome. There is the embodied and emplaced collective experience of bodily violence, dense militarisation of the landscape and the countless traumas caused by the structural separation between law and justice as a result of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Not to mention the loss of many lives, both of “national workers” — as underground cadres are referred to locally — and ordinary Naga men and women.
Any political settlement cannot be based on the forgetting of all that has happened. Instead, it will have to acknowledge those past acts of violence and the unimaginable suffering they caused, if only to make individual, social and political healing and reconciliation a possibility.
To be sure, violence and bodily brutality was never the monopoly of the security forces alone. One reading of modern Naga political history is that of a suppressed people suffering collectively at the hands of an oppressive state and of the Naga Movement defying many odds to persevere their right to self-determination. But the movement also carries a dark history of multiple dissensions, rivalries, coups, acts of violent and vengeful tribalism, regimes of increasingly excessive “taxation” levied by underground groups on the Naga populace, and blood-soaked factional feuds, often fomented along tribal lines. What emerged, especially after the failed 1975 Shillong Accord within the broader ambit of the Indo-Naga conflict, was an enormous struggle that was fought out between seven or eight (sometimes more) Naga underground groups over historical legitimacy, ideological and organisational differences, leadership, and territorial and tribal domination. The Indo-Naga ceasefire, in place since 1997, did not resolve those inter-factional and intertribal divisions (if anything, they allegedly multiplied and augmented after the return, by and large, of the Indian Army to its barracks) but instead found their place at the negotiation table where different Naga factions and groups took different seats with different political messages and levels of “tribal backing”.
Such intra-Naga divisions and tensions make for an unstable, volatile brew that still simmers below the apparent conviction that a political settlement will finally result in a lasting peace. For one thing, there remains the possible continuation of a hitherto intra-Naga political trend in which any attempted treaty resulted in an underground section splitting away and rekindling the armed uprising. Given the current divisions within the Naga Movement and the alleged partisan approach by the Central government towards different groups, this possibility is impossible to rule out.
In view of all the above, it must thus be recognised that Naga everyday lives have been shaped out of violence and coercion, exerted both by the post-colonial state and warring Naga factions. The consequence is deep-seated factional and tribal divides that are fuelled by lingering resentments, entrenched suspicions and intense rivalries that are unlikely to dissolve with a political settlement. Necessary reconciliation and healing, then, will have to be a multi-pronged process; not just between the Indian state and the Nagas, but also between Naga factions and between such factions and wider Naga society. A lot has happened. Many have died. Many more have suffered irreparably. This social process of reconciliation and healing will transcend the inking of a political settlement, but the long-term sustainability of this settlement will remain crucially dependent on it.
Then there is the realisation that decades of political conflict also created a sinking morass of opportunism and venality in the shadows of Naga insurgency, at times indicating a marked disconnect between the Naga cause and what actually unfolded in the name of Naga self-determination. This came to include shadowy networks between politicians, state functionaries and “national workers” who variously connected, connived and competed in elaborate ecologies of corruption, patronage, power and racketeering. The disentangling of these networks will be an enormous and difficult task, but again one that will be crucial to secure the sustainability of the political accord.
The conditions for these regimes of connivance, corruption and greed were undoubtedly put in place by a longstanding Indian government policy of trying to “buy out” Naga insurgency and co-opt many Nagas by offering politically-motivated statelargesse. The “immense funds” and “temptations” sent to Nagaland to “pacify” its society, Naga writer Visier Sanyu observes, made for “frequently floating easy money” as there was “no accountability for these funds”.
This had “grave repercussions” as Naga politicians and bureaucrats handling these monies “became corrupt as they succumbed to the temptation of quick wealth”. The social consequences included the emergence of a Naga tribal elite who acquired vast material riches out of the protracted political disorder, and the relations between them and those whose experiences of the conflict is characterised by personal sacrifice, suffering and intense loss, is one that will be equally challenging to reconcile.
What will remain too, at another scale, after the political settlement is the issue of Nagas’ national integration, which is presently hampered by the ways in which Nagas are perceived and treated in other parts of India. Because of their looks and cultural expressions, they are regularly nonrecognised and misrecognised, mirrored back by the wider society as non-Indians, who hail from Nepal, Thailand, China or elsewhere. This discriminates and hurts the sentiments of many Nagas.
While, over the last decade or two, many Naga youngsters have migrated to Indian cosmopolitan cities where they have seemingly grown closer to the idea of India compared to the generations that preceded them, it is paradoxical that many Indian citizens appear not ready to recognise and accept Nagas as fully-fledged Indian nationals yet. The closing of this cognitive gap will also transcend the signing of the Indo-Naga political settlement, but will be essential also in rendering it both meaningful and lasting.
The writer is a social anthropologist and teaches in the department of social sciences at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan