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Nagaland’s Cycle of Slogans, Elections, and Elusive Solutions

New Delhi: Chief Election Commissioner A K Joti flanked by Election Commissioners Sunil Arora and O P Rawat announces the schedule for Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland assembly elections, at a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday. PTI Photo by Manvender Vashist (PTI1_18_2018_000035B) | Photo Credit: PTI

As Nagaland heads for the polls to the State Assembly on February 27, 2018, an enduring solution to its decades-long crisis remains elusive despite a peace process that has gone on for two decades. Along Longkumer, journalist and author, places the issues relating to the peace process, the need for greater transparency, and the relationship between the Nagas, elections, and their expecations of Indian Union in perspective.

For 20 years, the Indo-Naga peace process has successfully navigated the churn in Indian politics. It has also seen through several Prime Ministers and governments headed by different political parties at the Centre, including that led by incumbent Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This is a record of sorts when it comes to peaceful negotiation between two conflicting parties. As Nagaland heads for the State Assembly polls on February 27, there is now, therefore, good reason to ask why the negotiation has been going on endlessly without coming to any sort of conclusion. Is it because of a deadlock in negotiation? Could it be that more time is needed to resolve all issues? Or is there a vested interest in prolonging the peace process?

On account of its sensitive nature, over many years now, the benefit of doubt has always gone to the parties engaged in peace negotiations. This includes the previous Union governments and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM). And as such, contents of the peace talks were never made public till now despite calls for its disclosure. As things stand, the ground reality is that people are no longer convinced about the rationale behind the secrecy surrounding the peace process. The time has come to bring it out in the open and clarify as to what exactly is going on behind closed doors.

The politics of boycott

The recent events in Nagaland such as the demand of ‘solution before election’, the mass boycott call given by civil society groups along with tribe Hohos that was initially supported by all political parties, the decision of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to go ahead with the scheduled elections despite opposition from the Naga public, and finally the series of twists and turns culminating in support for election—all these have raised more questions about the Indo-Naga peace process and also the elusive Framework Agreement.

The one clear outcome of the recent protest that was spearheaded by the Core Committee of Nagaland Tribal Hohos and Civil Organisations (CCNTHCO) is this: the people of Nagaland were more concerned about the content of the solution than stopping the election process. At the grassroots, people were, therefore, keen to have elections and participate in the democratic process. This view was expressed by none other than the Convenor of the CCNTHCO, Theja Therieh 1 .

While Naga public sentiment still favoured an early and honourable solution, at the end of the day, the call for boycott of election failed precisely because it seems that people in Nagaland were not willing to place their bets on a solution that they have no clue about! The lack of reliable information regarding the content of the Framework Agreement and the absence of any credible evidence that it actually exists is not helping in dispelling growing doubts in people’s minds.

Twenty years of the Indo-Naga peace process is a long enough time to have either concluded negotiations or to, at least, publicly acknowledge the difficulties standing in the way of a solution. Simply talking about the peace process going in the ‘right direction’ and holding out generalised assurances at the time of election is not enough anymore.

Two things must happen to find a way out of this logjam. Firstly, the secrecy surrounding the Indo-Naga peace process and Framework Agreement must end. Simultaneously, the Union Government needs to take a number of initiatives to provide impetus to the peace talks and prepare the way for implementing the Naga accord.

Populist slogan on ‘Naga solution’ can win you elections in Nagaland

The Framework Agreement was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It was signed in front of national television on August 3, 2015 by the NSCN (IM) General Secretary Th. Muivah and Government of India’s Interlocutor R.N. Ravi. The Prime Minister was personally present on that day to supervise its signing and described it as a historic agreement. However, the Framework Agreement has not delivered any outcome. Will the coming elections in Nagaland solve the Naga problem? The BJP thinks so.

Discussions on the Indo-Naga peace process and the million-dollar question of solution become even more amusing during the election season. At least on paper all political parties contesting the upcoming elections in Nagaland are clearly confident of an early solution.

A former Chief Minister of Nagaland, then heading into elections, promised ‘solution’ within a few months of coming to power. He did go on to win the election and, in fact, returned to power for three consecutive terms harping on the unresolved Naga political issue.

It is now 15 years but the people are still waiting for an outcome. Populist slogan on ‘Naga solution’ can win elections in Nagaland. But the point really is this: winning election has certainly not brought about any such solution.

Now, even the ‘party with a difference’, the BJP, has put a new spin into this whole debate of solution or election with the latest slogan ‘election for solution’ 2 framed by BJP leader and National General Secretary Ram Madhav, who is also in-charge of the party’s North East affairs.

The BJP’s argument is that election can bring about a solution to the Naga political issue under Prime Minister Narendra Modi! While justifying the holding of elections (over solution), Madhav went to the extent of suggesting that a “new and helpful State government would bring the solution faster”. He so easily forgets that the BJP was part of the ruling NPF Alliance for the last 15 years. Neiphiu Rio, former Nagaland Chief Minister, with whom the BJP has struck a pre-poll alliance, was heading the NPF-led DAN government for a little over 10 years!

On a more serious note, does Madhav, therefore, mean to say that the State government is the hurdle to a negotiated settlement? If the answer is yes, the Government of India must tell the Naga people as to how the NPF government/s was unhelpful.

As the BJP National General Secretary goes on to say: “The peace process between Government of India and the NSCN (IM) has progressed to a great extent. We need a government that will be helpful in finalising the Framework Agreement,” he said in Dimapur at a programme held on January 22, 2018 where the newly joined BJP members were felicitated 3 .

This article may be proved otherwise, but even the BJP comes off as a party not in grips with the impact of what it is actually putting forward. And this confusion about the Naga peace process can be summed up pretty well. During a press conference at Guwahati on February 3, 2018 while announcing the BJP’s pre-poll alliance with the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party (NDPP), the BJP’s Minister of State for Home, Kiren Rijiju, while “favouring early solution”, was asked as to when the issue was likely to be resolved. The BJP Minister refused to give any timeframe saying “the issue is very complex”. So much for the ‘election for solution’ theme of the BJP!

As already noted, it has been more than 20 years after the peace process started and two years since the Framework Agreement was announced by Prime Minister Modi. It is pretty clear that 20 years of political sloganeering vis-a-vis the Indo-Naga peace talks has not brought the desired results.

This is the reality of the Indo-Naga peace process in a sentence:

Much talked about, highly cited by every prime minister since the 1990s, good media spectacle but low on outcome and delivery.

Compulsion of party and electoral politics

It will be worth remembering that as early as 1998 (when Nagaland Assembly election was due at that time), Naga civil society had coined the slogan ‘Nagas want solution not election’. Except for the Indian National Congress (INC) under veteran Congressman S.C. Jamir, now the Governor of Odisha, the other parties, including the regional outfit NPC/NPF and even the BJP, had lent their support to the appeal. Terming the Congress as ‘anti-Naga’, these parties, backed by the NSCN (IM), stayed away from taking part in the electoral exercise.

Ironic as it may sound, the BJP, which is in power at the Centre, is speaking the same language that was advocated by the INC. The Congress had then argued the case that continuity had to be maintained and election was a constitutional necessity to have a government in place. While stating this, the then Chief Minister Jamir reiterated his stand of stepping down when a final settlement between the Government of India and the Naga underground militants was arrived at and to pave way for such an alternative arrangement. Ditto the BJP’s current position.

Despite the heavy criticism that he had faced then for his stand, including by the Naga national groups, it now appears to be that Jamir’s position has become a precedent for successive State governments in Nagaland—from Neiphiu Rio to now T.R. Zeliang who have taken the stand that they will not resign before the solution or, in other words, they are ready to dissolve the government only in the event of solution coming.

For the upcoming elections in Nagaland, the same slogan was resurrected with a slight yet significant difference. This time it was ‘Nagas want solution before election’. In 1998 the demand was more extreme ‘solution and not election’. In a way this can be interpreted as Nagas becoming more accommodative of India’s position. A careful reading of the text of letter written to the ECI by the CCNTHCO reveals the moderate position adopted. An extract of the letter is provided here:

This is what the people of Nagaland desire:

For deferment of Assembly elections in Nagaland to a later date so as to allow bringing to a conclusion, in time, the peace dialogue between the Government of India and the Naga Political Groups…

…Rest assured the people of Nagaland are keen and determined to work with the ECI in exercising their franchise to have an elected government. We cannot however participate in such an exercise till our desire for a political solution is met.

A good question to ask here is whether the Modi government could have considered the appeal for ‘solution before election’ and come halfway to accommodate the sentiment of the Nagas for early solution?

According to a news report 4 , there were suggestions made to the Centre before the announcement of poll dates that the Nagaland elections be deferred by six months. A specific timeframe, where all stakeholders come on board by the end of this year, was proposed. However, the Modi government decided not to set any deadline for signing the final accord with Naga insurgent groups, it was reported.

In another news analysis 5 , ‘Political will needed to defer polls in Nagaland…’ that was published in the online portal The Naga Republic , the report gives highlight on the letter written to the Election Commission of India (ECI) by the CCNTHCO wherein it mentions about a crucial note issued by the ECI that “holding of regular elections can only be stopped by means of a constitutional amendment”.

This revelation came even as Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju put out a series of tweets justifying the elections in Nagaland by pointing out that “holding of timely election is a constitutional process” and that “the central government is bound by the Constitution”. Mention may be made that Mr Rijiju is also BJP’s election in-charge for Nagaland.

The mainstream media went buzzing with the narrative put out by the Minister. However, as explained in the news analysis of The Naga Republic , there was not even a single media report that talks of the letter written by the Naga civil society groups to the Election Commission of India. It may be mentioned that the CCNTHCO, in its letter to the ECI dated January 27, mentioned the crucial note put up by the ECI on the functioning of the electoral system in India where the ECI has categorically mentioned the following:

“Holding of regular elections can only be stopped by means of a constitutional amendment and in consultation with the Election Commission, and it is recognised that interruptions of regular elections are acceptable only in extraordinary circumstances”

It is understood that the letter to the ECI by the Naga representatives was written on the knowledge that the present political dispensation in Delhi can take the political initiative to defer conduct of Assembly Elections to a later date in consultation with the Election Commission of India.

According to a fact-check done by The Naga Republic , while the Election Commission of India is indeed an autonomous constitutional authority, its main responsibility was that of “administering election processes in India”. The ECI is, therefore, not supreme but must function according to the constitutional provisions supplemented by laws made by Parliament. The major laws are Representation of the People Act, 1950.

In short, therefore, the news analysis argued that the government of the day i.e. the political executive, which is responsible to Parliament, had the power to decide in accordance with the Constitution, including bringing constitutional amendments. The only thing required was demonstrating the political will by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A joint declaration 6 was signed on January 29 by all the representatives of both National and Regional Political Parties in Nagaland, the Presidents of all Hohos and Tribal Councils to come together in solidarity with the call for solution before election and defer the forthcoming state assembly elections. The declaration also stated that in compliance with the wishes of the people, the political parties have decided not to issue party tickets or file nomination papers. The BJP was the first to back out.

Credibility of peace process, Framework Agreement under question

It is for the Government of India to prove otherwise, but Mr Modi and the BJP should not be under the impression that conducting election in Nagaland will pave way for an early solution. It will be worthwhile to remember that after coming to power in 2014 the Prime Minister had instructed the new interlocutor, R.N. Ravi, to come out with a proposed settlement that could be a final solution to the simmering Naga issue preferably within a year to 18 months 7 . So why couldn’t this happen?

Many people, including those in Nagaland, had expected that the issue will be finally resolved before the end of 2017. Sometime in July of last year, Mr Ravi had indicated that they were “inching closer to a solution to the Naga insurgency problem”. “We are close to a solution and bringing the Framework Agreement to a conclusion, and therefore wanted to have one more round of consultations with the Naga civil society,” Ravi told journalists in Kohima 8 .

With the failure to conclude a peace deal in 2017, now all of a sudden the refrain coming from Delhi was that no deadline can be fixed for the Naga peace agreement. This is what the Government of India’s interlocutor R.N. Ravi reportedly told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs headed by former Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram.

From then on, catchphrases became more prominent than the idea of a peace accord. As was often done in the past as well, these catchphrases have been used by those involved in the peace process to deflect criticism about the inability to conclude the talks. Now we are getting to hear new arguments that “election and solution are not related” and therefore the Government of India was delinking the two issues. And of course the latest slogan of the BJP on the Naga issue is ‘election for solution’.

If we are at all serious to resolve the Naga issue as everyone seems to agree, then what is stopping us from starting an honest conversation among all stakeholders without the pretense of trying to fool one another?

Despite the strong sentiment of the Naga public for solution, the fact that many tribal Hohos in Nagaland decided not to boycott the coming elections is also a sign of the growing distrust with the peace process and the lack of confidence in the ‘historic’ Framework Agreement.

For instance, one common feeling in Nagaland is that people do not know anything about the Framework Agreement despite repeated demands to disclose its contents. And since its contents are unknown, people don’t know what the solution is all about and, therefore, they are not in a position to support such a demand for solution before election.

The RSS factor and national security

While electoral politics and national security considerations were two existential factors that were always present as far as the Indo-Naga peace process goes, the new third dimension that seeks to influence and sway the process is undoubtedly the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The usual hardline position taken by intelligence and security agencies in India is in consonance with the equally hawkish nationalist stand of the RSS, the right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation that is widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The RSS’ influence is a matter of fact and not one of fiction anymore. It was reported widely in the media 9 that on January 14, 2018, several BJP and RSS leaders met at Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s residence to hold deliberation on the upcoming assembly polls in three northeastern tates—Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also attended the meeting. Though details of the deliberations were not immediately clear, it is obvious that the political situation, including election strategy in the region, was at the centre of the discussion.

It is almost a ‘divide and rule’ game being played out by the ruling establishment in Delhi. To recall, during the latter part of 2017, the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) had asked its legislators to resign if their demand for a separate state of “Frontier Nagaland” is not fulfilled by the Union Government before the Assembly election 10 . The ENPO had also threatened to boycott the coming elections.

And just when the Naga boycott call was being given around January 29, 2018, under the aegis of the CCNTHCO, the ENPO had received a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs on January 31, inviting an ENPO team to hold talks in March. An online news portal NEWSCLICK had this insightful analysis on this sudden letter despatched by the MHA: “That the MHA has decided to send a letter calling an ENPO delegation for talks in March this year at the moment that Naga organisations seem united for once, reveals a cynical strategy” 11 . During the 2013 Assembly Elections in Nagaland, the BJP had been acknowledging the “unique background and separate entity of the Eastern Naga peoples”. The then National President of the BJP, Nitin Gadkari, at that time is shown on record as assuring that a separate State of Frontier Nagaland will be created if the BJP-led NDA came to power at the Centre.

Interestingly, the proposed ‘draft agreement’ 12 written by one Jagdamba Mall calls for a Union Territory (UT) carved out of the five border districts of Nagaland. Named “Frontier Nagaland”, the UT comprises Mon, Tuensang, Longleng, Kiphire and Noklak districts bordering Myanmar. Mall’s proposal falls in line with the demand of ENPO since 2010 for a separate state of Frontier Nagaland. Jagdamba Mall, a known face of the RSS in the Northeast, nevertheless points out that the draft accord is his “personal effort” emanating from his “study of the Naga issue for over 45 years”.

It is evident that the RSS has a political counter-narrative to what is happening in the region, including its own vision and idea of a Naga peace accord that appears to be greatly intolerant of the unique history and situation of the Nagas, acknowledged by none other than BJP’s former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Fear and anxiety about the unknown

Based on the author’s observation and study of the Indo-Naga peace process for the last 20 years the following are some of the conclusions one can draw upon. Perhaps it is the intricate nature of the Indo-Naga peace process that makes it so vexed. Due to the demand for integration of all Naga inhabited areas with present Nagaland, it becomes even more complex to solve the issue. Related to this is the element of fear psychosis and anxiety about the unknown.

And because of this, the concerned parties, in this case, the Government of India and the NSCN (IM), are not confident enough to carry forward the negotiation to its logical conclusion. According to a recent report 13 in The Hindu , the Union government and the NSCN (IM) had almost sealed the final agreement a day before the Election Commission of India announced the poll schedule, but the outfit pulled out at the last moment. A top source also told The Hindu that since a compromise on the territorial integrity is out of the question, the NSCN (IM) was offered a socio-political body like the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee. After agreeing to the terms, the outfit refused to sign the final agreement, leading to the impasse. It is also becoming clear that the political and security establishment in Delhi is worried how the fallout of a Naga peace accord will be managed or contained.

On the other hand the Naga Political Groups, especially the NSCN (IM), after engaging in political negotiations with Delhi for the last twenty years, may not want to alienate public support with a solution that does not meet its own high expectation. And also with the rise of nationalist forces under the BJP-RSS, the scope and direction of the Indo-Naga peace talks with the Government of India looks to be getting smaller by the day. From the high position of sovereignty and integration to negotiating for a middle path solution involving shared sovereignty and Pan-Naga Hoho, now the buzz is around economic and rehabilitation package. The fear that this may not fulfill the fullest aspirations of the Naga people could be holding the NSCN (IM) back.

One pertinent question to raise in this context is whether there is also a vested interest, especially within the security establishment, to prolong the negotiation and wear out the Naga political group/s. After the death of A.Z. Phizo, in recent months the Naga movement has lost two other veterans, Isak Chishi Swu and S.S. Khaplang. Of that lot, only Th Muivah is surviving. But even he is not getting younger. It does appear that as far as the Naga position is concerned, the scope of negotiation and settlement is becoming smaller by the day.

Interestingly, the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) has recently brought out similar concerns 14 . According to the NPMHR, over long years of political negotiations India has come to terms with some of the issues that are dear to the Nagas. However, the Government of India was attempting to undo its very own agreed upon principles. The NPMHR says that this was again proven when India wanted to push for a solution “within its convenient parameters if Nagas want solution and not election”.

It appears that compulsion of electoral politics, including the growing influence of the RSS, seeking to penetrate a Christian bastion State of Nagaland, along with the national security predicament, has again delayed a much needed political initiative on the Naga issue.

In comparison to the previous political dispensation, the Modi led BJP Government of India appears to be adopting a more tough, hard-line and uncompromising stand vis-a-vis the peace negotiations with the Nagas. If at all the BJP or for that matter, the RSS is truly serious about the Indo-Naga peace process, they need to consider the implications of their actions. Playing hardball in Nagaland will be as counterproductive as it has proved to be in Kashmir.

But not taking a decision is also adding to the uncertainty not just among the Nagas but across the North East. The reputation of the Indian Prime Minister is also at stake here. As already mentioned, no one has much idea about this Framework Agreement, including within the Government of India set up. Rahul Gandhi, the President of the Congress party is not wrong when he questions Mr Modi about the Framework Agreement signed on August 3, 2015.

In a tweet, Rahul called Modi the “first ever Indian Prime Minister whose words don’t mean anything”. Though the Naga issue may not have a big impact in national politics, the opposition parties may target Prime Mini ster Modi and his leadership credibility during the coming General Elections in 2019. The Framework Agreement may be used as proof of Mr Modi’s failure to keep his words.

Need for concrete steps with new modalities

An editorial 15 in the Indian Express , ‘Choice in Nagaland’, dated January 31, 2018, has put it well when it states that “this lack of transparency about an agreement with far-reaching implications for the region has led to widespread speculation, including on Naga sovereignty and the making of Nagalim or Greater Nagaland”. It goes on to suggest that Delhi must “clear the air about the framework agreement” because in the absence of details, there is fear and suspicion in Nagaland’s neigbouring States, including Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

Not only that even the Naga population is in a similar state of confusion and uncertainty fast losing their goodwill and patience. A very pertinent point that the Indian Express editorial puts forth is this: “A sustained dialogue among a larger pool of stakeholders in a climate of transparency and mutual trust is necessary…”

The Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in its wisdom has now decided to go ahead with Assembly Elections in Nagaland despite the strong public sentiment in favour of solution.

One thing that stands out quite clearly in the aftermath of the recent public discourse on solution and election is the need to bring in a new approach to the peace process. Some kind of modality to conclude the peace talks has to be found.

It is now found that both the Government of India, represented by its Interlocutor and Naga negotiators, represented by the NSCN (IM) and the Working Group of six other Naga Political Groups are also under pressure and finding it difficult to conclude the peace talks.

The assurance by the ruling BJP party at the Centre that elections in Nagaland will pave way for early solution to the Naga issue is not convincing at all. It is the same story being retold over and over again. The fact that negotiations have been going on endlessly without any outcome is a matter of concern. Any argument to prolong talks is now becoming untenable.

But coming back to the suggestion for incorporating some new element into the lackluster peace process, any conclusive, peaceful settlement of the Naga issue will require a fresh political initiative from the Prime Minister.

A Way forward: Appointing a Group of Naga Interlocutors

A suggestion for the Government of India is to immediately appoint a Group of Naga Interlocutors to assist in the peace process and help in its early conclusion. By taking this initiative, it will demonstrate the seriousness of the Modi government and prove to the Naga people that the assurance for early solution is not just an empty election slogan.

Such a modality is needed if the Government of India is serious at all in concluding peace negotiations that has been going on for 20 years and more.

This Group of Naga Interlocutors will be selected on the basis of their wide acceptability and their ability to unify the Naga socio-political divide.

The Group of Naga Interlocutors will work alongside RN Ravi, the Government of India’s Interlocutor.

They will help mediate with the Naga Political Groups on the one hand and also work with the larger Naga civil society in facilitating the way forward, on the other.

For the purpose of bringing together all stakeholders, the Group of Naga Interlocutors be authorized by the Central Government to call for a larger Naga platform so that proper and informed deliberation is allowed to take place.

If and when required, the Group of Naga Interlocutors will also hold sustained people-to-people dialogue with neighbors in order to promote peace and understanding in the region.

The Group of Naga Interlocutors will also help the negotiating parties identify the political contour of a solution and present it for public consultation and acceptance. This will act like a safety valve so that whatever agreement is possible at this juncture can be accepted by all sections of the Naga people, especially the Naga negotiators, without fear of reprisal.

It will be a bold and visionary step on the part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to appoint such a Group of Naga Interlocutors. It is strongly suggested that this initiative must come from the Prime Minister.


With General Elections due in the early part of 2019, the present government under Prime Minister Modi cannot risk leaving a decision on the Indo-Naga peace process to a later date. With priority to prepare for the 2019 election it will not be politically feasible to address the Naga issue after the first six months of 2018. It that case, the issue will again be put in the backburner. There is also no guarantee that Modi and his government will enjoy the same kind of majority as it does now even if the BJP is to get re-elected.

Given the circumstances and also the political configuration in place, this is the best time to have some kind of closure with the Government of India on the long pending peace process. With a single party majority government in Delhi and more crucially with BJP governments in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, this all-India political dynamics at present is best suited to tackle a difficult and complex problem such as the Naga political issue, which goes beyond the boundary of present day Nagaland.

In the past, the one adverse factor for the Naga peace talks that considerably slowed down the decision making process could probably be due to almost two decades of coalition governments at the Centre, ever since the ceasefire agreement was signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM) in 1997.Unlike in the recent past, Prime Minister Modi is not constrained or entangled by compulsions of coalition politics. The power-equation in the present political dispensation is also such that it is the Prime Minister who calls the shots, at least when it comes to the Indo-Naga peace process.

The longer India and the Nagas wait for a perfect solution, the more complex, improbable, and uncertain things will become. The present opportunity for a solution should therefore not be frittered away. By taking an initiative like the one proposed of appointing a Group of Naga Interlocutors or even otherwise putting some kind of modality in place, the Prime Minister will be in a better position to deliver on his assurance for early solution. The Nagas will also not be found wanting in the support of any fresh impetus given to conclude the two decade long negotiation.


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