Concurrent with the government’s decision to expedite the peace process in Nagaland and conclude an agreement are unprecedented security measures which have taken residents of the border state by surprise.
Such drastic steps have not been witnessed in any northeastern state in the last three decades and not even in Assam, when the Army was deployed in large numbers in the early nineties to flush out rebels of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA).
The latest was a wireless message on 21 October from the chief minister’s office in Kohima to all district officials instructing them not to leave the headquarters.
On the same day, a circular from the police headquarters repeated a message sent on 4 October specifying cancellation of leaves (except those on medical grounds) and directed all units to recall their officers and personnel who were on leave “immediately.”
The Army and Assam Rifles have been put on high alert and fighter aircraft were seen hovering over Dimapur a few days ago in a “wartime preparedness drill” that covered six civilian airports in the northeast under the Eastern Air Command.
No wonder, speculation is rife over these developments in Nagaland and among Nagas residing in other states. “Is it true that an indefinite curfew will be imposed in Nagaland very soon?” a Naga student in Guwahati asked me a few days ago.
“We have also heard that Nagaland would cease to enjoy the special provisions and all the leaders who don’t accept the accord would be sent to Tihar jail. Are all these true?” he asked.
There were also rumours that people had started hoarding food grains in the remote areas of state in anticipation of hard times ahead. So, what explains all these measures ahead of the agreement?
Clearly, the government does not want to take any chances on law and order in the hill state which has been one of the most disturbed states in the country. Tripura was the first state in the region to witness insurgency, followed by Nagaland when the Naga National Council (NNC) declared independence a day ahead of India.
There have been occasions earlier when an accord with one rebel group in the state had been spurned by the others with the result that the issues have never been resolved. The infamous Shillong Accord (1975) is the best example which the government inked with a few leaders of the NNC only to pave the way for the birth of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN).
The current scenario has also left people groping for answers on the shape and fallout of the agreement if the six Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs) decide to accept the government’s offer.
Would it mean only an economic package and institutes of national importance in the state? An end forever to negotiation on Naga sovereignty?
It is true that there is yearning for peace and progress and the aspirations of younger generations have changed. More Nagas are found to work in the metropolises now than three decades ago.
At the same time, the NSCN (IM)’s demand for a separate flag and constitution which has been turned down by the government have wide support in the Naga-inhabited regions of the Northeast.
Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio’s warning that many people were “upset and not happy” has been echoed by Naga Hoho, the apex body of all Naga tribal groups, and senior citizens and members of civil society groups.
“The problem is that India gets scared when Nagas say ‘we are sovereign’. The government is not willing to discuss sovereignty and Nagas do not want to give up on this which is considered an inalienable right,” said Bano Haralu, editor of Nagaland Today.
The NSCN(IM) is the biggest rebel group in the northeast with over 4,000 cadres armed with sophisticated weapons and known as the “mother of all insurgent outfits in the region.”
Some government officials cited other reasons for the government to be suspicious of the outfit’s intentions. Since it entered into a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1997, the rebel group had allegedly gathered more weapons and increased its cadre strength.
There are reports that the outfit has shifted men and material from the designated camps, including its headquarters Camp Hebron near Dimapur, in anticipation of a raid by the security forces. The movement had been noticed since August even before the arrival of the outfit’s general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, at the camp.
There were inputs as well with the government of increased activity of NSCN(IM) cadres at the camps it maintains in Myanmar’s Somra Tracts opposite Manipur’s Ukhrul district where a large number of Tangkhul Nagas reside.
The existence of this camp was confirmed in 2015 when a senior functionary of the outfit, Hangshi Ramson, had crossed the border after being chargesheeted by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for arms smuggling and terrorist activity along with other members of the group.
This episode which was reported in The Telegraph also claimed that the outfit’s former army chief, Phunting Shimrang, had visited the camp in Myanmar.
It is not precisely known whether Ramson is still in Somra Tracts or has moved out to some other region. Security agencies are in a speculative mode since the NSCN(IM) has a network spanning several countries in the world.
(The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist)