On August 3, the Government of India signed a ‘‘historic peace accord” with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN-IM) in New Delhi, which promises to “end the oldest insurgency in the country… restore peace and pave the way for prosperity in the North East.”

The peace with Nagaland insurgents rests on a breakthrough formula which does not involve redrawing the state’s borders
The peace deal the Modi government recently signed with Nagaland insurgents rests on a plan which does not involve redrawing the state’s borders

The response to the announcement while generally positive has been cautious especially in the conflict-ridden Northeast, which will be directly impacted by the agreement’s success or otherwise. Here fingers are crossed. Many are skeptical that as with dozens of other ‘peace agreements’ that India’s federal government signed with insurgent groups in the region over the decades, this too will be still-born and fail to usher in meaningful peace.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has claimed the accord as its “big achievement.”  However, the government’s crowing seems premature. The ‘accord,’ it turns out, is only a framework agreement, a “formula” for a final solution.  Its details need to be worked out still.

As the Indian Express observed in an editorial, the framework agreement only provides a glimpse of “light at the end of the tunnel.” Much work is needed before “a new dawn” can be welcomed.

The Naga insurgency is India’s oldest; its leadership declared Nagaland an independent state on Aug 14, 1947, the eve of India’s freedom from British colonial rule. A few years later, the Nagas launched a powerful armed rebellion against India. Several accords were signed with Delhi over the decades but none brought peace. In fact, each accord was followed by splits in the insurgent movement, an outbreak of internecine fighting and a surge in violence against the state.

In 1997, the Indian government entered into a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-IM. A ceasefire with the rival NSCN-Khaplang (NSCN-K) followed in 2001. Since then, the ceasefire has been extended to more groups but it is only with the NSCN-IM that the government conducted negotiations. In March this year, the NSCN-K withdrew unilaterally from the ceasefire and the government reciprocated by not extending the truce. Attacks on the Indian security forces have surged since then.

There is concern in the Northeast over the kind of peace the agreement will put in place. Will it last? For a durable peace, talks leading to the agreement must be inclusive.  Unfortunately, India’s approach to conflict management involves negotiating with one insurgent group while marginalizing its rivals. In the Naga peace process, for instance, while talking only to the NSCN-IM, it has kept out rivals like the NSCN-K and other militant groups as well as major stakeholders, including civil society, and governments of neighboring states.

The furtive manner in which negotiations were carried out too does not bode well.

Secret talks may help the parties to the talks reach an agreement by shutting out media scrutiny or objections from other actors during the negotiation process. However, it does not contribute to a lasting peace. Contentious provisions in the agreement that are kept under wraps often erupt to the fore sooner than later and trigger tensions and even violence.  Clandestine talks only postpone the return to violent conflict.

And this is what Northeasterners fear.

Whose interests would be sacrificed to ensure an agreement agreeable to the NSCN-IM? The ‘Greater Nagalim’ that the NSCN-K originally sought comprised “integration of all contiguous Naga-inhabited areas,” which means not only the area of Nagaland but also several districts of neighboring Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur, as well as a large tract in Myanmar. Would the deal Delhi makes with the NSCN-IM require Manipur, for instance, to give up land to ‘Greater Nagalim’? Should the deal involve redrawing of boundaries in the Northeast, the region would explode in violence.

If it doesn’t involve creation of a ‘Greater Nagalim’ Naga hardliners are likely to question whether the deal is worth the sacrifice made by thousands of Naga youth who died for ‘the cause.’

All kinds of theories are circulating over why the government rushed to announce an ‘accord’ that is only in the making. It is widely believed that it may have to do with the poor health of NSCN-IM’s co-founder/lleader Isak Chisi Swu. He is believed to be critically ill and an ‘accord’ that has his signature is more likely to hold than one that doesn’t; hence, the premature announcement.

The big question is whether history will repeat itself. In 1975, when the ‘historic’ Shillong Accord was signed between the Government of India and the Naga National Council (NNC), Isak Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and Khaplang were among the younger dissenters who stormed out of the NNC to form the NSCN five years later.

Will the NSCN-IM’s agreement with the Indian government be challenged by younger activists now?

 Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India, who writes on South Asian political and security issues

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