Imagining Change – The Journey of Common Hope

In this August 2008 File Photo, members of the various Naga political groups, tribe organisations, Conciliation Group of the Quakers, Britain, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and Forum for Naga Reconciliation are seen here after the Third Chiang Mai meeting. After two round of quiet diplomacy, the Third Chiang Mai meeting issued its first public statement where the groups expressed their commitment to the Naga Reconciliation process.

In this August 2008 File Photo, members of the various Naga political groups, tribe organisations, Conciliation Group of the Quakers, Britain, Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and Forum for Naga Reconciliation are seen here after the Third Chiang Mai meeting. After two round of quiet diplomacy, the Third Chiang Mai meeting issued its first public statement where the groups expressed their commitment to the Naga Reconciliation process.

Wati Aier 
Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR)

At a time when most Naga areas were seized by Naga “factional” killing and death, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) was christened. That was March 25, 2008, in Kohima with the support of 39 Naga frontal organisations, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC), the Council of Naga Baptist Churches (CNBC), Nagaland Christian Revival Church (NCRC) and the Catholic Association of Nagaland (CAN). The forum which was initially comprised of 14 members expanded to 34 members in 2017.

FNR’s first commitment was to reach the then, four Naga political groups – NSCN (IM), NSCN (K), NNC (Adino Phizo), and NNC (S. Singnya and Zhopra). For 34 days, from March 28 to May 1, 2008, FNR did not find an entry point to any of the groups. With such dark clouds hovering around our mother land, FNR members suffered lack of trust from the groups. Understandably, FNR was looked upon as “agents” and “sympathizers” of another Naga political group or as actors at the behest of the State governmental agency and the Central Government of India. Even the public was pessimistic at the prospect of a reconciliation and peace, when blood was running thicker than the quest for Nagahood.  

Against the backdrop of suspicion and fear, we trusted God and with much prayer we traversed many a day and night, shuttling back and forth the dusty, bumpy roads of Vihokho and Hebron, then to the Eastern Naga-land into Noklak and Mon and trails to Khamti and Taga in Burma. Literally, FNR members were on the road for 33 days meeting the Naga Political Groups (NPGs) leaders. Some FNR members traveled on foot to Khamti and Taga in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, Burma. FNR visited several places and held 14 meetings within this period. 

Quite unexpectedly on Friday, May 2, 2008, FNR received a call from late Mr. Isak Chishi Swu that his government was willing to participate in the reconciliation meeting. Amidst joy, tears and cautious optimism, FNR contacted the late Mr. SS Khaplang, and he reciprocated to the call to Naga reconciliation followed by Brig (Retd) S. Singnya. The next question was where to hold the meeting, since the situation then was not conducive to meet in Nagaland. Members of the different NPGs were not free to move around. The NPGs expressed their apprehension of meeting in Naga-land, although the FNR felt that meetings should be held in our own land. It would have been daunting to conduct any serious meetings even for an hour given the unstable security, besides other serious pitfalls. Most important was to be in a safe environment where the NPGs would be able to spend rewarding time together for extended days.

After consulting the NPGs and their top leaders, it was agreed that representatives from the NPGs and FNR meet in a third country. FNR needed human resources, competent facilitators in the area of conflict transformation. This led to seek help from the Quakers whose experience was demonstrated with proven record of making peace and reconciliation all over the world, testified by their impeccable track record of transparency. Alongside, the pastoral care received from the American Baptists and the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America greatly sustained our journey of common hope.  

On May 9, 2008, in our first trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, one NPG expressed the fear of traveling in the same flight with the other NPGs. NPGs also requested FNR put them in rooms on different floors in a Chiang Mai hotel. In our third Chiang Mai meeting, because of some seemingly “unsolvable” issues, one NGP group wanted to take the next flight home. After pursuing their concern through the night in one of the hotel room, the group agreed not to leave. The next morning was not “bright and sunny.” The bitterness accompanied one of the groups and they were not in any mood for the morning devotion to begin the day.

To break the ice, FNR decided to move outside of the box to do something unplanned. We decided that the NPGs, FNR and the Quakers go to a football field for a match between the NPGs named the “Naga Parliament Team” and the FNR/Quakers combined team. And so the football match began. Swiftly, the “Naga Parliament Team” ‘jelled’ as a team and started to talk and encourage one another – “Pass koribi! Yati! Maribi!” with the aim to win. Because of some younger and faster FNR players, the Naga Parliament team had to defend with full force from losing the match! And win they did. 

What FNR liked about the match was that it clarified how real and dear the spirit of Naga nationalism could be. It brought to light that the NPGs were different facets of the same Naga attribute. Just thinking outside of the box, the team brainstormed toward unity to win. It dawned on all of us that there is a great Naga potential constructed around the conviction of belonging. The Naga Parliament team had something more in common to win than they had in conflict. 

In our 3rd Chiang Mai Conclave, it was resolved that the time was ripe for the NPGs to meet in our own land. Accordingly, the first meeting in the rank of Kilonsers and above the ranks of a Colonel in Naga homeland was arranged on December 4, 2008, at the Akuvotu Mission Centre, Dimapur. Just an hour before the meeting began, one NPG called the FNR Convener to say that on their way to the meeting they received a call informing that cadres of a particular NPG in full arms were moving around to prevent them from attending the meeting. Though FNR was not able to verify this information, locals attested that a section of “tribal” looking soldiers were posted along the road in Nagarjan, Dimapur. After some time, with the assurance given by the FNR, to the particular group, the meeting was held. 

Throughout the journey FNR has learnt that our activism will run dry unless, “We Drink from our own Deep Wells” (Gutierrez). FNR members remained deeply rooted in and led by the Spirit of God. Soon peoples support for Naga reconciliation was given a lift on September 25, 2008, in Dimapur Sumi Baptist Church, where 47 Naga organisations and the apex Church bodies, resolved that “FNR must work, with the support of the Naga people and called for the “Highest Level Leaders’ Meeting” at the earliest. With this mandate of the Naga organisations, FNR members tarried and traversed for 40 days and nights (April 17 to May 26, 2009) in undisclosed locations, often riding hired dirt bikes to hear from the late Mr. SS. Khaplang. On Tuesday, May 26, 2009, a person informed the FNR by phone that Mr. SS Khaplang had officially authorised nine members to meet the FNR and the other NPGs. Soon the historic signing of the Covenant of Reconciliation (CoR) took place on June 13, 2009, by the late Mr. Isak Chishi Swu, the late Mr. SS. Khaplang and Brig (Retd) S. Singnya.

Signing of the CoR and its announcement to the people living in Naga-land was socially and politically significant and brought surprisingly positive results. The NPGs were able to move around freely, and provided the space to be united with family members in their own homes where children longing for their parent(s) came true. In these small ways the CoR created the space for humanising and integrating the NPGs in the society. The ripple effect of signing the CoR began to spread. Social and community fiestas began to take place, shops and eateries opened into the early evenings, as opposed to closures before dusk. Children in joyous mood could sing and play in their neighborhoods without the haunting sense of fear of sudden gunshots. The general psyche of the common person began to ease and assurance of one’s calculable safety got a firmer hold. The businesses in major cities and towns in Naga areas are seeing unprecedented growth. In many corners, people began to coalesce and contribute to transformative changes, constituting of peoples’ voices and actions stronger than it has ever been before.

Following the CoR, NPGs and FNR have convened 267 meeting which led to three significant agreements, namely: Turning Swords into Plowshares, signed September 9, 2009; the Naga Concordant of August 26, 2011; and the Lenten Agreement resolved on March 28, 2014. 

In order to accomplish the CoR, the signatories resolved to constitute a Joint working Group (JWG) to initiate a “ceasefire.” Accordingly, the JWG accepted the biblical phrase “Turning Swords into Plowshares” (Isaiah 2: 4), as a better alternative to the word “ceasefire.” The JWG and the FNR felt that “ceasefire” basically implied “stopping of fighting” which is static. In the Naga context, the metaphor of turning swords into plowshares meant weapons of armed conflict being transformed. The phrase implies a dynamic transformative energy of renewal, and rejuvenation that is life-giving.

The Naga Concordant resolved in “principle to work towards the formation of one Naga National Government. To expedite this process . . .  a High Level Commission was formed with the FNR as facilitators.” (Naga Reconciliation – A Public Statement, FNR, September 24, 2017.) The Naga Concordant was strengthened by the Lenten Agreement and, the signatories stated, “We request the FNR to work out the modalities to expedite the Naga Concordant. While this task is being carried out, we call for the maintenance of status quo, by vigilantly refraining from any unwarranted activities by the Nagas. Furthermore, in the spirit of Naga unity, through reconciliation and peace, we remain open to other Naga groups who are committed to Naga reconciliation and agree to abide and uphold its aim and purpose.”

We reiterate the FNR’s Public Statement of September 24, 2017, that “even with the best of our (FNR) intentions, we were unable to clearly respond when the (Naga) process faced new challenges along with our (FNR) inability to keep the public in confidence about this fragile situation.” We appeal to all conscientious organisations and the average citizens in Naga-land – Nagas and non-Nagas alike, that FNR is very insignificant in comparison to the larger populace. In the case of Naga reconciliation, FNR has stated unequivocally that we must uphold and appreciate each other.

FNR does not claim to have a monopoly on Naga reconciliation as FNR is only a “small piece of the jig-saw-puzzle.” Today, FNR continues to travel the Journey of Common Hope into different cross-sections of Naga society, believing that reconciliation must be inclusive in which the public has a vital role to play.

In such a time as this, all should understand that the ultimate act of disaffiliation is violence of words and perception, and distance and silence against our own belonging. Bankruptcy of mind is exhibited in the genre of personal interests and fencing the limited wall of one’s yard from within. Naga leaders and the average intelligentsia must debunk the idea that our common belonging, namely, the Naga political destiny, limits one’s regional, social and cultural interests. At the same time, those who imagine everything within the ambit of nationalism are destroying regional cultural and social interests of the east, west, north, south and the central Naga people. 

Is it possible for the Naga public from the east, west, north, south and central to appreciate and affirm each other’s cultural and social interests and differences? Can we all affirm of each other, to the foundational value and spirit of the Naga political rights? FNR opines that this is most essential and crucial at this given moment of our history. Here there is no gimmick or room for suspicion. Will any of the apex organisation, initiate such a process? Naga people cannot tarry anymore with one civil organisation trying to undo the other simply dictated by an unfounded pre-conditioned mindset. FNR believes that we can all be sensible enough to undertake the Journey of Common Hope.

On June 13, 2019, the signing of the CoR completes ten years. As a symbolic gesture of the continual need for Naga reconciliation, FNR has requested through the Nagaland Joint Christian Forum (NJCF) that all churches in Naga areas, across denominational lines, ring their church bells/chimes for 60 seconds at 12 noon on June 16, 2019, and pray for peace and reconciliation. We hope everyone will appreciate the significance of this symbolic gesture and join in this action.

In context, imagining change is a means that Naga people and non-Nagas living in Naga-land can apprehend what is our reality today and to reason what is possible within us. Imagining is a rewarding form of peoples’ self-consciousness. By this means of reflection we acquire a new paradigm of sensibility and dignity. Finally, we all need to remember that “Peace like war is waged.” To this end, may God be at the centre of this quest!

This is the first article of a 12-part series by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation on the 10th year of signing of the Covenant of Reconciliation (CoR) by Isak Chishi Swu, Chairman, NSCN/GPRN; SS Khaplang, Chairman, GPRN/NSCN and Brig (Retd) S Singnya, Kedahge (President), FGN on June 13, 2009. To celebrate the milestone, a cross section of authors will assess and highlight the impact of the CoR as well as examined, critiqued and encouraged the process in the series. The first is piece by the Convener of the FNR.