That a tentative agreement has been hammered out between the government and the NSCN(IM) is the only safe conclusion that can be drawn from the parleys held between the two sides in the capital over the past few weeks. Twenty-two years is a bit too long for the talks to reach the decisive phase but bringing the NSCN(IM) on board has been a huge success whose ramifications would be felt in the region for a long time.
Beyond the tough posturing by both the sides are compulsions that prevented a breakdown of the peace process. There are ample reasons for the government to include NSCN(IM) in the agreement and for the rebel group to wish not to be excluded. NSCN(IM) knows very well that it would be left with limited options if the government crystallises the agreement with the six other rebel outfits known as Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs). Much has changed since 1975 when the infamous Shillong Accord prompted disgruntled rebels to join hands with Myanmarese Nagas to float the NSCN. It may not be as simple now to return to the jungles and much less easy to operate out of camps in Myanmar for a longer duration. The Myanmar army can no longer be taken for granted after the series of operations executed since January at Taga in Hukwang Valley which compelled most of the outfits to dive for cover and shift to safer locations.
But NSCN(IM) still has the resources to give a harrowing time to the Indian security forces for a few years or to the civil administration through agitations and road blockades. It has a network that not only spans the entire region but across the border in many countries. And that may be enough to slow down some vital projects in the Northeast and upset the government’s projections.
The Centre has firmed up ambitious plans for the region entailing a crisscross of arteries through air, rail and water that will link the area to far off capitals in Asia. In both the schemes, called Bharatmala and Sagarmala, the Northeast has a pivotal role and is envisaged to develop as a commercial hub. It is not known whether the government has taken the environmental implications into consideration or the preparedness of the region while framing the schemes. This is a different chapter which merits greater attention and discussion.
Central to these schemes is the Act East Policy and connectivity with Myanmar which is also aimed at countering the increasing Chinese influence in the country. In his recent book, The Costliest Pearl: China’s Struggle for India's Ocean, author Bertil Lintner has detailed the rapid advances made by China to build the corridor to Kyaukpyu port and other jumbo projects in the neighbouring country with multiple objectives including gaining access to the Indian Ocean. Certainly, New Delhi wants to expedite its presence in the neighbouring country which is also the gateway to South East Asia.
But in the Northeast, there aren’t too many routes to connect with Myanmar. Some previous plans are not working out as expected by the government. The twin routes through Mizoram which are being constructed are unlikely to be completed in the next decade or so. The fate of the Kaladan Multi Modal Transit Transport Project hangs in the balance with conflict escalating in Myanmar’s Rakhine State between the military and Arakan Army. Even if it were completed soon, the highway between Lawngtlai in south Mizoram and Silchar via Aizawl is too narrow to handle a large volume of traffic. The second route in Mizoram will connect Aizawl with Zokhawthar in Champhai district and beyond to Tiddim and Mandalay in Myanmar. Again, the infrastructure would have to be upgraded on both sides of the border for seamless flow of traffic. The Indian government is engaged in road construction in Tiddim but the project may take some years to complete.
This leaves the two highways that passes through Manipur but the same story is discernible as well with the one that connects Imphal with Silchar in Assam through Jiribam. So in the current scenario, the other highway through Nagaland connecting Dimapur and Kohima to Moreh in Manipur on the border and to Assam and beyond on the other end appears to be the only feasible route that could be upgraded and operationalised within a few years. This is the historic National Highway-39, which will be part of Asian Highway-1 originating in Tokyo all the way to the border of Bulgaria.
NSCN(IM) is active in a large stretch of this circuitous highway that passes through Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. It imposes taxes on vehicles plying on the highways along with the other rebel outfits which the government wants to end after the accord is inked. This can happen only if the rebels are rehabilitated and offered alternate means of livelihood with the endorsement of the leaders. According to unconfirmed inputs, the rebel cadres would be absorbed in battalions in the police or in the Naga Regiment of the army. Some groups among the NNPGs in Nagaland have reportedly begun to draw up lists of cadres who would be able to avail the benefits of the forthcoming package.
Equally important is the message that will be delivered across the region to insurgent groups after NSCN(IM) signs the agreement. More than two dozen rebel outfits from Assam and Manipur are currently engaged in talks with the government for a negotiated settlement which include the pro-talks factions of the ULFA and NDFB in Assam and those belonging to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo ethnic groups in Manipur. Many of these groups are frustrated and reeling under the impression that New Delhi does not intend to bring the talks to a logical conclusion. Similar to the NSCN(IM)’s, many of their demands cannot be accepted by the government as it could spark further unrest in the region. But there’s enough scope to expedite the process by arriving at a middle ground and which can happen only if a deadline is set.
(The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. Views expressed are personal)