The manner in which the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) has been openly warning voters against electing an anti-Christian party – the BJP, it would have us believe that the Church has a moral hold over the Naga people. If that is so, the effects of that moral authority are neither tangible nor visible. And while corruption is rampant in the entire North Eastern region, it is the bane of Nagaland.
The national highway from Dimapur to Kohima and beyond to the state of Manipur (now known as Asian Highway-1) is the most decrepit. It is a mockery of the central funds repeatedly sanctioned over many decades. Indeed the roads of Nagaland are an indicator of a systemic governance malfunction. The mansions you see off the beaten track also tells you where public money has been invested. One is tempted to ask why the Church has failed to rein in corruption if it is such a moral force.
The Naga conflict, dating back to India’s Independence (Nagaland declared Independence from India on August 14, 1947), has gone through many contortions to arrive at the present stage. Today the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Th Muivah a Tangkhul Naga from the hills of Manipur and the late Isaac Swu from Nagaland, hence, the acronym NSCN-IM, is the prime negotiator for the peace deal in Nagaland and other Naga-inhabited territories in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam – a proposition that is as contentious and thorny as it can get and which has got successive central governments in a tailspin.
On August 3, 2015, the Modi Government which said it was serious about bringing the Naga conflict to a close, signed a Framework Agreement with the bare points listed out and which needed to be fleshed out after consultation with various stakeholders. The interlocutor, in this case, RN Ravi, a former IB Special Director has taken his task as a mission and for the first time brought in several civil society groups as stakeholders into the conversation as a consensus building exercise to ensure that the terms of engagement are acceptable to all. It is not easy to get this far.
The NSCN (IM) is the most intransigent insurgent group that has seen many governments come and go. It is well acquainted with the finer points of negotiations and the semantics of it and that often is the reason why talks don’t progress beyond a point. But over the years the word “sovereignty” has been dropped out of the talking points. However, that does not make things any simpler considering the homeland contestations of the Nagas. They believe that the hills of Manipur are the original home of the Naga people and that they were separated by the tyranny of history in 1947 and earlier. But the word ‘Naga’ itself is contested. It includes a disparate group of hill tribes in the easternmost frontier of India, who the British, for the purpose of better administration, classed as ‘Naga.’ And herein lies the rub!
Successive state governments in Nagaland, barring SC Jamir a former chief minister, have kowtowed to the NSCN (IM) on account of its firepower. Many more Nagas have been killed in internecine clashes based on ideological differences, than by the Indian army which was sent there by Nehru to put down the uprising when it first started. Jamir, a Congressman and now the Governor of Odisha had felt that the contentious Naga conflict was pulling the state backwards and suggested alternative ways forward. The NSCN (IM) contested this and the rebel group has no love lost for Jamir. They have made several attempts on his life. The NSCN (IM) in fact made sure that their man Neiphiu Rio was made the chief minister of Nagaland in 2003–08, 2008–13 and 2013–14). Rio is the only Nagaland Chief Minister to have served three consecutive terms until he contested the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and became MP.
Interestingly, Neiphiu Rio has now returned to the chaotic state politics of Nagaland which has seen three Chief Ministers since May 2014. Rio had joined national politics with the idea of getting a ministerial berth in Delhi but that did not happen. The Nagaland People’s Front (NPF) of which Rio has been a founding member is now led by the 81-year-old, Dr Shurhozelie who does not want to relinquish his post or to take cognizance of the changing realities in Nagaland vis-a-vis the peace talks. On January 18 this year Neiphiu Rio formally joined the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) which also asked him to lead the 2018 election. Rio clearly has his task marked out. Interestingly the BJP which until a month ago was an alliance partner of the NPF –led Government in Nagaland has severed ties with the Party and also is now aligned to the NDPP.
Political analysts in Nagaland allege that the reason why the NBCC is so incensed with the BJP is because it is seen as an ally of Neiphiu Rio the man who has given the NSCN(IM) a free rein of Nagaland and had in a business summit held recently in Dimapur promised to hand over part of the Intanki forest – which is very dear to the heart of the Nagas- to the NSCN (IM) as part of the settlement. The Naga people see this as a complete sell-out to the NSCN(IM). The Intanki forest, now a Wildlife Sanctuary, is a verdant forest reserve in eastern Nagaland. It is 37 km away from Dimapur and 111 km from Kohima and spread over 200 sq km. Home to the hoolock gibbons, elephants, wild buffaloes (Mithun), sambhars, barking deer and the famous hornbill amongst others, this forest is the only carbon sink left in Nagaland. It is also alleged that the NSCN (IM) cadres have been felling trees within this reserved forest for commercial purposes.
The Nagas fear that this sanctuary will go out of their hands. To say this openly would be suicidal for the Naga people. Yet they know that if the NDPP-BJP and those inclined to ally with these two parties come to power in Nagaland, the Naga people are likely to lose their grip over the Intanki Forest. Hence the NBCC was used as a public platform to caution the people not to vote for BJP or parties aligned with it (meaning the NDPP). The only alibi that the NBCC could use to defeat the NDPP-BJP coalition is to rake up the anti-Christian activities of the Sangh Parivar and groups like the Bajrang Dal which are harassing Christian missionaries in other parts of India.
It remains to be seen whether the NBCC warning has any traction among large sections of Nagas. They are known to be politically astute and money has always been a key determinant in Nagaland elections. In fact, Naga chieftains are often used by political parties to bring people to the polling booths to vote for particular candidates. In the last election when this writer visited interior Nagaland, there were polling booths where the village chieftain voted for the entire village even as Election Commission hoardings on the Dimapur-Kohima highway spoke of free and fair elections and showed individuals with their black-inked forefingers. This is the ambiguity of elections in this country of 1.3 billion people who never fail to use their enterprise when the opportunity presents itself. No wonder elections in India are termed the “dance of democracy” except that such dances can sometimes be fatal.
As the people of Nagaland ready themselves for the 13th Assembly election which is fraught with ambiguities, such as the allegedly much hated Neiphiu Rio being elected unopposed, it would be interesting to watch how things finally play out in this state of the famous Hornbill Festival. People are keeping their fingers crossed that voting will be incident free considering the call earlier given by a confederation of NGOs demanding that the Naga solution should precede elections. Apparently the Interlocutor, RN Ravi had requested this confederation named the Core Committee of Nagaland Tribal Hohos and Civil Organisations (CCNTHCO) to allow for free and fair polling as the talks are progressing on schedule.
It is in this murky scenario that the 227 candidates who have filed their nominations are heading for the polls. The NPF is contesting 58 seats, the NDPP 40 seats, the BJP 20, and Congress 18 apart from Independents. It is intuitive that the Congress which had provided three chief ministers to Nagaland is relegated to a position lower than that of the BJP. The Congress is apparently trying to work out a post-poll alignment with the NPF. This time 5 brave women are also in the fray. We can only keep our fingers crossed that democracy wins the day!
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)