The Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland convenes at a place called Camp Hebron in Dimapur district. Its 200 acres are dotted with Assam-style cottages housing various ‘ministries,’ including Information and Publicity, Home Affairs, and Finance. Its religious spaces, meaning the Council Headquarters Church and the football ground, are in the centre of the campus. Camp Hebron is a four-hour drive from the seat of the Nagaland state secretariat, occupied by officials of the union of India, in Kohima.
Camp Hebron is the lair of Thuingaleng Muivah, the chief of the organisation that has, for decades, been demanding sovereignty and autonomy for the Naga people from the Indian republic. This organisation is called the NSCN (I-M), short for the National Socialist Council of Nagalim. The ‘I-M’ stands for ‘Isak-Muivah,’ named after its founding members, of whom Muivah is the only survivor. The NSCN (I-M) runs the self-appointed Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland, or GPRN.
Five years ago, the NSCN (I-M) had announced the signing of a “framework agreement” with the Government of India, but until late in 2019, very few people actually knew what the contents of that agreement were. Last September, Muivah granted an interview in the Camp Hebron conference room to discuss the matter.
The first eight rows of the room were occupied by senior officials of the GPRN. Muivah himself, aged 85, sat on a leather chair behind a teak desk, surrounded by his security detail. An aide sat on the side of his bad ear, to translate into Tangkhul any questions that may be misheard or misinterpreted. A printed sheet with questions and talking points in font size 14 was placed before him.
The Indian government had recently revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, setting off a chain reaction. Muivah, who had for a few years communicated to the media only through press releases issued by his Ministry of Information and Publicity, called it “disrespectful.” Something had changed in the Union government’s stance towards the Nagas, he felt. “Suddenly, they want the Nagas to come within the union of India. This came as a surprise to us,” he told Al Jazeera. “Sorry, but that is not possible.”
On the wall behind him were photographs of happier times. A familiar one, which had made it to newspapers all over India, featured an NSCN-IM delegation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and interlocutor RN Ravi at the glittering signing ceremony in Delhi in 2015. That occasion had raised hopes of a final resolution to “the Naga problem.” But now Muivah was accusing the government of backtracking on its assurances of “shared sovereignty,” and a separate Constitution and flag for the Nagas.
This wasn’t the first setback to the resolution of what is often referred to as India’s longest-running insurgency. Relations thawing, then freezing, is a recurrent theme in this history. It is replete with factional rivalries, political obstinacy and selective transparency. Its strands are difficult to unspool––and once laid out, indicate the end of a doomed dream: one which, for a few decades, spawned its own nationalism, its own militarism, and even its own economy, all in parallel to the nation that sought to absorb it.
he heart of the matter is T. Muivah, and his insistence on the unique identity and history of the Nagas. The “symbolic issues”  of a flag and Constitution go back a century, to a man named Jadonang from the hill tracts of what is now northern Manipur.
Jadonang banded together the Zeliangrong Naga tribes in the region to resist the combined domination of the British, the Kangleipak kingdom of the Manipuris, and the Kuki tribes.
Jadonang’s arrest by the British in December 1928 sparked a major political awakening in the Naga Hills of the old Assam. Twenty veterans, who had fought on the side of the Allies in World War I, rallied to bring together 42 tribes that had been historically distinct and fiercely independent. They came to be called the Naga Club, and their appeal was based on the common denominator across the tribes: Christianity.
“We are looked down upon by one for our ‘Beef’ and the other for our ‘Pork’ and both for our want in education.”
To the Simon Commission,  the Club submitted a memorandum urging the British government “to continue to safeguard (their rights) against all encroachments from other people who are more advanced than us.” They were referring to ‘Hindus’ and ‘Mussalmans,’ with whom they had no social affinities. They were “looked down upon by the one for beef and the other for pork and by both for want in education.”
As a result, the Naga Hills were demarcated as ‘External Areas’ under the Government of India Act of 1935. Muivah’s NSCN (I-M) points out in its manifesto that this historic acknowledgement showed that the British understood the “difference between the Nagas, and the Hindu kingdoms in Assam and Imphal valley.” The manifesto further mentions that the Nagas were “left to their own democratic structures of administration and judiciary through the Village Council.”
Each Naga tribe has their own customs, dialects and clan structures, but the Naga Club sought to stress the point of inter-tribal unity in a time of hectic political ferment. By the mid-1940s, as India’s independence came to be seen as inevitable, the Club transformed into a formal political organisation called the Naga National Council (NNC). They had begun with a demand for a separate electorate within an autonomous Assam. Now, they sought self-determination under the leadership of a dynamic Angami leader, Zapu Phizo, who would come to be known as the “father of the Naga nation.”
In July 1947, Phizo led a delegation to meet the father-delegate of the Indian nation. This meeting with MK Gandhi in the month before Indian independence has assumed almost mythic character in the Naga narrative. In Phizo’s telling, while addressing concerns of an armed annexation by India, Gandhi had said: “If they (the Nagas) did not wish to join the Union of India, nobody would force them to do that.”
In the version of the conversation recorded by Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal Nayyar,  when Phizo mentioned the Nagas’ plan to declare themselves independent on 15 August, Gandhi said: “Why not now? Why wait for August 15? I was independent when the whole of India was under the British heel. You can be independent and if you have non-violence in common with me, no one can deprive you of independence.”
But complete independence was always going to be a long shot. Prime minister-to-be Jawaharlal Nehru had already made his views known in August 1946 when he wrote that the Naga territory was “much too small to stand by itself,” lying as it did between India and China, and consisting of “rather backward people who require considerable help.”
A month before Phizo went to meet Gandhi, a nine-point agreement had already been signed between the NNC and Sir Akbar Hydari, then governor of Assam. The Union, with the governor as its representative, would be a ‘Guardian Power’ for 10 years in exchange for the recognition of the “right of the Nagas to develop themselves according to their freely expressed wishes.” After a period of 10 years, the Nagas could choose to extend the agreement or negotiate a new one.
In his first book on the Northeast,  Sanjoy Hazarika wrote that, of all the agreements that would be negotiated subsequently, the Hydari pact stood out for the specificity of its language and inclusiveness. “No such accord, embracing all the Nagas, has been negotiated,” Hazarika wrote. “Only piecemeal accords have been signed with one insurgent faction or another.”
But, back then, the drafters of India’s Constitution had a different view. They simply ignored the Hydari Agreement. On 30 July 1947, barely a month after it was signed, the politician and tribal rights campaigner Jaipal Singh told the Constituent Assembly that an offer to the Nagas to join the Union would be “unnecessary and uncalled for because the Naga Hills have always been part of India.” There was, therefore, “no question of secession.” The Nagas had been “misguided” into thinking that the Naga Hills belonged to them and would become “their exclusive property” as soon as the Dominion of India came into existence.
Any residual hope of sovereignty well and truly evaporated by the time Phizo declared Nagaland an independent Christian republic on the eve of India’s independence. But two things happened in 1952 that changed the course of the conflict. The Naga National Council organised a plebiscite, after which it claimed that 99.9 percent of Nagas had voted in favour of independence; and the Nagas completely boycotted India’s first general elections.
After that, Indian troops moved into the Naga Hills. There was a spate of brutal killings and entire villages lived under the pall of fear. The divisions between the moderate and extremist wings of the NNC became irreconcilable. They reached a head in 1956 when the moderate leader T. Sakhrie was killed by Phizo’s extremist faction.
Sakhrie and Phizo belonged to different clans from the same village, Khonoma. The killing sparked a ‘blood feud’ between the families. The political turned personal. The rift between Phizo’s Dolie and Sakhrie’s Lievüse clans over the Nagas’ political future was marked by revenge killings and disagreements. It would span generations and have an outsize influence on the struggle.
After Sakhrie’s assasination, the lines between clan, tribal and political rivalries were forever blurred. In 1956, a few months before escaping to London via East Pakistan, Phizo announced the formation of the Federal Government of Nagaland.
n March 1934, around the time British lawmakers were putting together the Government of India Act, a Tangkhul Naga was born in Somdal, in present-day Ukhrul district in Manipur. Growing up, young Thuingaleng Muivah would often walk the 100-odd kilometres to Imphal, where he dug tanks and ponds in the yards of Hindu Meitei families.
The discrimination he experienced there would come to shape his worldview. In an interview he gave in Bangkok in 1998, Muivah recalled how the Brahmin Meiteis would shout: Mange mange lak kanu hao hao. Tribals, don’t come close. We will get polluted. The Meitei would wash themselves if a Tangkhul left a footprint around them. Tangkhuls were also forbidden from entering the kitchen.
As a young adult in Shillong’s St Anthony’s college, Muivah met others who would go on to become influential figures in the political life of Nagaland. It was now the late 1950s. India’s notorious Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) had been enacted to quell the Naga rebellion. The militants had already gone “underground.” Between 1956-58, the Minority Rights Group  estimated that 1,400 Nagas had been killed. Even at the time, Muivah said, there were many on campus who thought that Naga independence was an unrealistic goal.
In those formative years, some tried to tame Muivah’s radical views. Take the example of Runsung Suisa, a Tangkhul who was a member of parliament from 1957 to 1962. Uncle Suisa, as he was fondly known, advocated the path of patiently educating the Indian leadership on the Naga issue.
In the Bangkok interview to Nandita Haksar and Sebastian Hongray, Muivah suggested Suisa’s method had not worked with the establishment in Delhi. “He (Suisa) said he had spoken to the Indian Home Minister Gobind Ballabh Pant, who reacted angrily to Uncle Suisa but that did not deter him. Uncle Suisa talked to Jawaharlal Nehru who banged on his desk in anger when Uncle Suisa said the issue had to be settled between his Government and the Nagas, and instead the Indian Armed Forces were killing Nagas.”
The brutalities of the 1950s forced Nagas outside the NNC to look for ways to achieve peace. Under the auspices of the Union government, representatives of all the Naga tribes met to form the Naga People’s Convention (NPC). More than 3,000 delegates attended a historic convention in Mokokchung in 1959: it resolved to request the formation of a separate state within the Indian Union. That was how Nagaland came to be, in 1963. 
ho speaks for the Nagas? Journalists and researchers both within and outside Nagaland continue to contend with this question. The movement has splintered continuously, and there are so many political groups that they have their own collective abbreviation: NNPGs or the Naga National Political Groups.
Apart from the NNPGs, the alphabet soup includes human rights groups, student unions, tribal organizations and women’s organizations.
This proliferation has, in no small part, been encouraged by the Union government. According to Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC journalist who covered the Northeast in the 1980s and 1990s, the Centre’s political strategists, typically upper caste Hindus, are overwhelmingly influenced by the ideas of Chanakya or Kautilya. Bheda or causing dissension, Bhaumik said, was Chanakya’s preferred mode of operation. 
After the Centre failed to completely quash the separatists in the 1950s, splitting the movement came to be seen as the most effective counter-insurgency strategy.
Some analysts say that brutal military repression of the 1950s was counterproductive and left deep scars. Counter-insurgency specialist Lt. Col. Vijay Kumar Anand wrote that “antagonism against the Indian state grew stronger as villages were burned, granaries destroyed and people killed. Even more Nagas, young and old, took to the hills to join the resistance forces.” 
By 1964, some of the NNC cadres had trekked to China to be trained by the People’s Liberation Army, and receive arms from Mao Zedong.
In his memoir, former Intelligence Bureau chief and Nehru’s security advisor BN Mullick, acknowledged that a political settlement was the “ultimate solution of partisan guerrilla warfare.” In the late fifties, Mullick and his deputies opened up lines of communication with Naga leaders who were troubled by widespread killings and suffering. The creation of the NPC as a counterweight to Phizo’s ‘hostiles’ was the first success of this strategy. 
The Naga National Council underground, meanwhile, continued its mission. By 1964, some of its cadres had trekked to China to be trained by the People’s Liberation Army, and receive arms from Mao Zedong. Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu had already joined the NNC. They were now uniting villagers in the Indo-Myanmar border regions under the banner of ‘Nagaland for Christ.’
Tribal rivalries had begun to cause fractures in the NNC. Sema leaders such as General Kaito, the Naga federal government’s defence minister, were unhappy with the Angami leadership. The NNC factionalized into western Nagas loyal to Phizo on the one hand, and the Sema-led Council of the Naga People on the other.
Again, the Union government sought to capitalize. The early 1970s saw many in the underground give up arms, and set the stage for another accord. In his book, Major General DK Palit wrote: “Fortunately, intelligence gathering was greatly facilitated by the fact that not only did the vast majority of the Naga people support the Government but for the first time, so did a section of the underground.”
The Baptist Church Council, a key player in religious Nagaland, also pulled its weight. It was wary of the Communist leanings of the NNC cadres, including Muivah. They were getting too close to the Chinese Communists for the church’s comfort.
On 11 November 1975, the Indian government signed an accord with the NNC in Shillong after four rounds of discussions with six leaders. The “Accordists” accepted the Constitution of India without condition.
It was the culmination of a shift in attitude that had begun since Indira Gandhi became prime minister in 1966. For one, the foreign secretary TN Kaul, her advisor on Naga affairs, had developed strong links with some NNC leaders. (Gandhi’s cousin Braj Kumar Nehru threw a fit at his first function as the Governor of Assam and Nagaland when he saw Kaul, a fellow Kashmiri Pandit, according ‘red carpet’ treatment to underground leaders.)
Under Gandhi’s watch, the talks had moved from the ministry of external affairs to home affairs. “Politically, it was very significant,” Sanjoy Hazarika explained to me.“The dialogue shifted from a bilateral forum to a domestic issue.”
The Emergency was already in force when the Shillong Accord was signed, and the press under severe restrictions. A senior journalist in Nagaland, who asked not to be identified, remembered that no one could come out on the streets and protest against the Accord, particularly since Nagaland was under President’s Rule at the time.
Independent scholars and security experts have criticized the short-sightedness of the Centre in signing the accord with only a section of the NNC. Bhaumik told me that it was “an accord towards an accord” which the government went ahead with despite several warnings.
Bhaumik had an ‘in’: an uncle, S.C. Dev, who was Home Secretary of Nagaland between 1972-73. Bhaumik said Dev got into a fight with the state’s Chief Secretary and Lieutenant Governor, “because he recommended that the Naga rebels like Muivah in China should be brought into the talks.”
“If you leave them out,” Dev told the officials, “these guys will create a problem again.”
sak and Muivah were in China’s Yunnan province when they heard about the accord on the radio. In the Bangkok interview, they recalled waiting desperately for correspondence from Phizo to condemn the accord in unequivocal terms.
When it didn’t come, both felt compelled to start a new organisation to keep the movement going, and they were not alone. In the new organisation, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the balance of power shifted in favour of the non-western Nagas at the cost of the western elite. Existing tribal fault lines deepened, and it set off a period of factional killings in the 1980s.
Isak and Muivah purged the movement of their old enemies while Phizo remained in exile at his home outside London. The NNC lost its clout and the NSCN emerged as the face of the struggle.  Dolly Kikon, an author and anthropology professor at the University of Melbourne, attributed the divisions in the movement to the Indian state, which she says created “political fissures among the Naga people by establishing political and cultural units and pitting one section against the other.” 
There was to be a further fissure in 1988. A Hemi Naga from Myanmar named SS Khaplang broke away to form the NSCN-K. Isak-Muivah’s faction became the NSCN-IM. The NSCN-K forced Indian Nagas to leave Myanmar, and increased its clout in the Northeast by providing logistical support to separatist movements in Assam.
Through the 1990s, different Union governments tried to impose order on the chaos in Nagaland. First, the Narasimha Rao-led Congress government reinitiated a series of talks with Isak and Muivah, who had by then shifted some of their activities to Thailand. The move to South-East Asia had been made possible by involvement in the lucrative contraband trade in the Golden Triangle region  and friendly forces in the Bangladesh government in Dhaka.
In Delhi, the Janata government that followed continued the union’s efforts. In July 1997, Prime Minister Deve Gowda, leading the United Front, inked a ceasefire agreement with Isak and Muivah’s party. The two sides agreed that negotiations would occur without precondition at the highest level and they would take place outside Indian borders.
That ceasefire agreement required the Nagas to surrender their arms and the Indian state to refrain from carrying out any operation against them. These terms have underwritten the state of affairs for twenty-three years. Inconclusive political talks have been taking place under its umbrella, and its repeated extensions have helped various interests drag their feet on the matter.
For the IM, the senior Naga journalist said, it became a tactical move to regroup since they’d lost a lot of men and arms in the 1980s and 1990s. “Post ceasefire, they (IM) turned their attention to the other factions,” this journalist explained. “This led to a spike in factional feuds as well as extortion, helping them take over the polity and economy of Nagaland. This is the reality here and the Indian government did nothing about it.”
Native residents of Nagaland may be exempt from income tax, but several groups in the state and beyond consistently demand their pound of flesh. A government official I spoke to said there was a time in the not-so-distant past when they had to “contribute” upto 30% of their monthly income as “taxes.” Now, “there’s no fixed percentage we have to give,” one of the officials told me on condition of anonymity. “It varies across departments, depending on your negotiating acumen.” The official said employees of their department had not been asked for a contribution over the last year.
Bibhu Prasad Routray, director of the think-tank Mantraya  said that the IM is now largely funded by extortion in the Naga-inhabited areas of the Northeast. “The biggest chunk of ‘taxes’ comes from business houses, salaries of government officials, and the transport network of trucks and taxis,” he said.
uivah’s dream was of a sovereign Nagalim or Greater Nagaland. This comprised not only the existing state of Nagaland but areas traditionally inhabited by Naga tribes inside the borders of present-day Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur.
That demand has been diluted.  The ask is now for territorial councils in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur that will be linked to the pan-Naga Hoho, the apex tribal governing body. Outside Nagaland, there is concern that these councils will be remote-controlled by the Kohima-based elite. “The problem I foresee is that the same tribal hierarchies will play out in a pan-Naga Hoho,” a Manipur-based Naga person, retired from Indian government service, said. “So unless all the tribes are on an equal footing in the Hoho, I only see it in namesake.”
Last year in Hebron, Muivah told me that they would continue to press for all Nagas to be included in the final outcome. “We are not anyone’s enemy,” he said. “We are ready to work it out with the Meiteis and Kukis (the two contesting communities in Manipur) even though the government is instigating them against us.” 
As of this writing, the fog around the framework agreement remains to be cleared. In August this year, IM released a single page of the agreement while alleging that a doctored version had been circulated by the interlocutor and Nagaland governor RN Ravi.
For Ravi, it has been a rather dramatic falling out of favour. At Hebron last year, a young cadre showed me a list stuck on one of the church doors. The cadre explained that it had the names of people the congregation remembers in its Sunday prayers. The list mentioned the offices of the Chief Minister of Nagaland and Prime Minister of India. There was only one person referred to by name, and without an official designation: Ravindra Narayan Ravi.
In June this year, in his capacity as governor, Ravi wrote to the Nagaland Chief Minister about the “crisis of confidence” caused by the state government’s inaction against “rampant extortion” by “armed gangs.” Muivah, for his part, has asked for Ravi to be removed from the post of interlocutor and for talks to be shifted to a third country.
Increasingly, it looks like Ravi will have the last laugh. Eight NNPGs, 14 out of the 16 tribes of Nagaland and the Gaon Burah Federation (a collective of village headmen) are all ready to sign a full and final settlement.
“For the Indian government, peace talks is a war by other means, or an extension of war.”
Muivah has made noises about “shared sovereignty,” a concept that long-time Nagaland watchers find highly unconvincing. In an interview during the 2018 assembly election in Nagaland, Alezho Venuh, the spokesperson of the Working Committee of 7 NNPGs, told me that “shared sovereignty” was a face saving euphemism for a demand that no longer exists. “What does shared sovereignty even mean? Doesn’t every state share their sovereignty with India?” he asked.
If shared sovereignty implies a separate flag and a Constitution, then that, too, is looking like a pipe dream. Routray said that the “integrationist” model of the Bharatiya Janata Party government made it unlikely for the Nagas to get a separate flag or constitution. “Had they stepped down from their demands during the UPA regime, a more amenable autonomous model perhaps could have been worked out.”
Little is known about the IM’s own Yezhabo, its constitution. Khekiye K Sema, a former bureaucrat who launched the ACAUT (Against Corruption or Unabated Taxation) campaign in 2013, told me that the IM’s Yezhabo reads like Mao Zedong’s Red Book. “Unlike the traditional Naga customary laws, or the Yezhabo drafted by the NNC in 1956, the IM’s Yezhabo seeks to place all land and property in the hands of the state,” Sema said.
Much like the specifics of the framework agreement, most Nagas are not aware of the contents of either of these Yezhabos. “While appreciating the genuine concern of the Naga people to know the details of the competencies, we are constraint (sic) to inform you that some of the competencies are still under hectic negotiation as you all are aware of,” the IM said in a statement this September.
“They need to make it clear to people that we’re not talking about the communist Yezhabo at this point of time,” Sema told me, “but a democratic one that respects the right of individuals.”
K Elu Ndang, general secretary of the Naga Hoho, said that every Naga political group has its own Yezhabo. “Once the peace accord is signed, constitutional experts and intellectuals will frame and work on the Naga Yezhabo,” he said. When asked if there would be one Yezhabo for all the Nagas or several, as in practice, Ndang said there will be “one constitution” for all Nagas.
Almost every security expert I spoke to said that going back to the jungles is no longer an option now for the senior IM kilonsers, or ministers, after more than two decades of a plush life under ceasefire, aided by funds from extortion, illegal contraband trade, and government packages.
“Moreover, the romanticism of the 1960s and 1970s to fight for a Naga nation is no longer there among the middle-ranking officials or the new recruits,” said an intelligence official who has worked in the Northeast. Young recruits are now often attracted by the easy riches of extortion, the bravado of bearing arms, and a reluctance to go through the grind of seeking a professional fortune in India’s hostile metro cities, or shelling out money to secure a position, even a small one, in the Indian bureaucracy.
A former intelligence official, however, told me that Muivah has kept his channels open with Myanmar and China. “He (Muivah) is a shrewd negotiator. Even after the framework agreement was signed, he continued to send his boys across the border,” the official said. With heightened tensions over the Line of Actual Control, he added, there is a fear of China refuelling insurgency in the Northeast.
So there is uncertain support from China, as well as the Underrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation.  But Muivah finds himself backed into a corner. At 86, he may have a lot more to lose in terms of time and face than the Indian government. Through constant negotiations, vaguely worded agreements, and the splintering of factions within the Naga groups, the Union appears to have the upper hand.
The ruling BJP is keen to seal the deal to consolidate its own strong presence in the Northeast. Earlier this month, there were reports of Assam minister Himanta Biswa Sarma conducting meetings with Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and opposition leader TR Zeliang in Kohima. Sarma is also the convenor of the North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA), a BJP-led coalition of parties from the eight states of the Northeast.
As a precedent for lasting peace, the BJP needs only to look at Mizoram. The Mizo National Front, its NEDA ally and the state’s ruling party for all but 10 years, signed a peace accord with the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in 1986. Then, the Centre’s star negotiator was home secretary RD Pradhan. Ravi and Sarma will be hoping to repeat that success sooner rather than later.
Peace talks were never about sorting out the problem in the “true spirit of Indian federalism,” Bhaumik said. “For the Indian government, peace talks is a war by other means, or an extension of war, where you get these guys to sit on the table and wear them down.”
“The government of India could never defeat the Nagas in the jungles,” Bhaumik told me. “But they have defeated them on the table.”
Makepeace Sitlhou is a Guwahati-based independent journalist covering India's Northeast for several national and international publications. She has received several media fellowships and awards including the National Media Award, the South Asian Journalism Award and the Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity.