As Nagaland goes to poll, voters hope for peaceful resolution of decades-old insurgency, respite from illegal taxes
For people in Nagaland, the upcoming Assembly election is likely to be about voting a stable government to power to facilitate peace talks on the Naga political issue
The Tata Sumo that he drives across the bumpy roads in Nagaland is Zoel Lotha and his family’s only source of livelihood. Every morning Lotha goes to the Sumo stand in Kohima to carry passengers to their destinations and returns home late at night with his day’s earning.
"But a big chunk of my earning is taken away by UGs," he said with a helpless tone of voice while steering his vehicle across a haze of dust that drifted from the muddy road to Wokha.
UG is a short form to underground groups operative in Nagaland. A good chunk of the money that people earn here is to be paid to these groups.
"If we do not pay, we run the risk of losing our lives," said Zoel who shells out Rs 30,000 a year to these groups as 'tax', which is another word for the extortion money that citizens in Nagaland pay to these groups.
Businessmen or servicemen, small or big, no one is spared from this 'tax' bracket. The money is purportedly collected to purchase arms and ammunition.
Zoel’s father, a government employee died paying this 'tax' all his life, and the responsibility to continue it now lies on him.
Long before India became an independent country, the Naga cessationist groups began the struggle for a sovereign Naga nation. In the year 1975, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was born demanding sovereignty and integration of 'Naga territories' in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh as well as in Myanmar
The Government of India signed a ceasefire agreement with National Socialist Council of Nagaland — Isac-Muivah [NSCN(IM)], the biggest insurgent outfit in the state in the year 1997 and has now begun peace talks with six other such groups. These efforts, though heartening, have hardly changed anything on the ground as these gun-holding groups are still capable of doing whatever they want.
"These groups are now demanding a solution from the peace process in the name of Naga community. What solution are they talking about after looting us for generations?” he fumed.
Presently, there is a growing demand among various civil society organisations to resolve the 'Naga political issue', as the Naga insurgency problem is fondly referred to by Naga nationalist groups as well as Naga insurgent outfits in the North East.
Lotha still believes that the Government of India should accelerate the peace process at least to save them from being extorted, if not for anything else.
The BJP was quick to sense the popular sentiments in Nagaland, hence the Centre not only signed a framework agreement with NSCN(IM) in 2015 but has also made the peace talks its main political plank for the ensuing Nagaland Assembly elections.
It was not surprising that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was applauded in Nagaland when he said, while addressing a rally attended by thousands of people in Tuensang on 22nd February, "I am confident that in the next few months, the people of Nagaland will get an honourable solution to the Naga peace process, for which we are taking all on board who believes in democracy of this country."
If BJP was claiming credit to the peace talks, could the Congress party abstain from doing the same? The Congress party also began making claims of its share of credit.
In an exclusive interview with Firspost, K Therie, president of Nagaland Congress, said, "It was former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi who had offered to talk with the rebel groups without any pre-condition. Similarly, in the year 1996, PV Narasimha Rao made the same offer. Only after these offers that the rebel groups came to peace talks in the year 1997."
The ruling Naga People’s Front is quite sober in its claim to credit though.
"The main political agenda of Naga People’s Front has been (to find) a peaceful and amicable solution of the India-Naga political problem. For other parties, this may be a new thing. But NPF was born because of this issue. The party has been upholding this cause since 1963. It is the only political party in India which has the agenda of Naga political issue in its constitution,” said KG Kenye, secretary general of NPF, while speaking with Firstpost.
Amidst these claims and counter-claims, the voter in Nagaland seems undecided on whom to trust, especially at a time when nothing is known what the peace process is leading them to.
Mhao Humtsoe, a leader of the Lotha tribe said, "People have no clue about what kind of solution the peace process is attempting to bring about. They know nothing about the charter of demands. So they wish to know about it."
Significantly, many tribal organisations in Nagaland had demanded postponement of the Assembly election until the peace talks were completed. They also made political parties sign an undertaking that they will not field any candidate if the election was held before any solution to the peace process was reached.
The slogan raised by them was: “Solution before election.”
The development was seen as a major embarassment to BJP as it cast shadow on the progress made on the peace talks so far. To counter the narrative, BJP came up with the slogan 'Election for solution’, which transcribed the idea that to solve the peace process a stable government is required in Nagaland. BJP portrayed the election as a possible facilitator to the peace process .
Talking about the requirement of political stability in the state M Abu, a leader in the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of BJP said, “We hope people will form a stable government to ensure that the ongoing peace process gets undivided attention from both the Centre and the state."
The move soon picked up momentum as all the political parties backed out of the undertaking and filed nomination. The deadlock caused by the Naga tribal group's movement for 'solution before election' was done away with.
But will the election truly lead to a solution as many like Zoel wish to see? Will it lead to the formation of a stable government to facilitate peace as BJP has cliamed? The answer to these questions lie in the future.
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