Do Not Play With Naga Pride

H. Srikanth writes:

Nagaland’s annual Hornbill festival that is held in December every year showcases the rich and diverse culture and traditions of the state’s tribes. Despite the travel restrictions due to the pandemic, this year’s festival attracted numerous tourists to Kisama village, where cultural groups from various tribal groups displayed their colourful art forms. In his opening address, the state governor hoped that festival would usher in a progressive and peaceful Nagaland.

No one could have thought that the government would have to abruptly cancel the festival five days after inauguration, once protests against the killing of 13 innocent Naga civilians on 4 December in an army operation in Mon district spread like wildfire and as Naga groups withdrew from the festivities in protest.

The gory ‘encounter’ in Mon has become a rallying point for indigenous communities in the North East to demand an end to the regime of sweeping powers to security forces under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). In Mon district, civilians set army vehicles on fire, and ransacked the camps of the paramilitary Assam Rifles. Various civil society organisations across Nagaland demanded action against the culprits. Public anger has compelled mainstream political parties, including the local branches of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and state governments — some of which are allied with the BJP — to speak against the continuation of the draconian act that empowers security personnel to arrest or kill anyone on mere suspicion.

To make sense of the outrage, it is necessary to understand the history and trajectory of resistance movements amongst the Nagas, the first people in the North East to experience the dark side of Indian democracy.

History of Naga struggles

Unlike mainland India, the north-eastern frontier was never fully integrated into colonial rule. The Naga inhabited areas were declared as ‘excluded’, lightly administered, areas and most of its peoples were minimally influenced by the Indian nationalist movement. The official pronouncement to merge these areas into the Indian Union came as a shock to the Nagas. In June 1947, the governor of Assam, Akbar Hydari, concluded the Nine-Point Agreement with the leaders of Naga National Council (NNC), which allowed the integration of the Naga inhabited areas but also admitted the Naga right to review the agreement after 10 years. The leadership of independent India ignored the agreement and its possibility for secession, even as the government made provision for Autonomous District Councils for the ‘hill tribes’ of the undivided Assam state.

Memorial to Angami Zapu Phizo in Kohima | H. Srikanth

While several tribes came around to accept the constitutional arrangements, the Nagas rejected the offer. The NNC went ahead with a plebiscite in the Naga Hill areas in 1951 and claimed near unanimous support for the demand for Naga independence. But the nascent sovereign Indian nation state would not accept the reservations of a numerically insignificant, economically backward, remote community against joining the union. Angered by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s reluctance to consider the demand for a sovereign Nagaland, the leaders and sympathisers of the NNC boycotted Nehru’s Kohima visit in 1953. The police and official harassment that followed the boycott weakened the NNC’s moderates and facilitated the rise of a more radical leadership under Angami Zapu Phizo. Giving up the path of negotiations, India deployed paramilitary forces and enacted AFSPA in 1958, to quell the resistance. But, far from suppressing the insurgency, the human rights’ violations carried out during counter-insurgency operations only united the Naga tribes and widened the support for the movement.

The movement that began in the 1950s went through several ups and downs under different militant organisations and leaders in subsequent decades. Realising that violence alone would not yield the intended result, the union government merged the Naga Hills district with the Naga inhabited Tuensang Frontier Division of the erstwhile North-East Frontier Agency to create a new administrative area, which in 1963 became the state of Nagaland. The Nagas were assured of autonomy through Article 371-A of the Indian Constitution.

The ... peace negotiations became possible not only because the union and state governments and the militant groups wanted it, but also because of pressure from civil society.

But the Naga militants were not satisfied with the new arrangements and continued their struggle for independence. Consequently, in Nagaland, constitutional governance and militant politics ran parallel to each other. With time, the influence of the government of India, and the penetration of the market economy corrupted and co-opted a section of the Naga elite. Following ideological differences over the Shillong Accord of 1975, where Naga groups agreed to accept the Indian Constitution and give up arms, the hold of the NNC weakened, and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) emerged as a powerful militant group. Inter-tribal rivalries and leadership tussles led to further splits both in NNC and NSCN. Corruption and factional fights weakened the morale of the resistance movement. Against the background of these changes, Nagaland witnessed the growth of civil society groups, which began asserting their autonomy vis-à-vis the militant groups as well as the political parties. These civil society groups played an important role in compelling the Naga militant groups and the governments to accept a ceasefire and initiate peace talks in the late 1990s.

Ever since peace negotiations began, law and order in Nagaland has improved considerably. Most Nagas reposed faith in the negotiations and believed that a mutually acceptable solution would emerge and establish peace. During this interlude, anti-Indian feelings, which were rampant in the first three decades of Indian independence, mellowed. Many Nagas now accept that they cannot completely sever their relations with India and seek an independent Nagalim — the name given to a unified homeland of all Nagas across the various states of the North East and Myanmar. Instead, Naga groups now insist more on greater autonomy and the integration of Naga groups across the various states of the North East.

These demands are no doubt complicated. They have implications for other states and communities in the region. Nevertheless, if the negotiating parties are sincere and reasonable, it is possible to arrive at a solution acceptable to all parties. Recent delays in negotiations have made the Nagas tense; they now doubt the sincerity of the Indian government. What happened to the innocent workers in Mon has only rekindled fears and suspicions.

After the killings

The killings at Mon were shocking, coming in the midst of the Hornbill festival and as the Nagas were looking forward to celebrating Christmas. Therefore, the violence that followed was not surprising. However, the wider reaction to the killings is different from the past.

Military operations and draconian acts like AFSPA have become redundant under the changed circumstances.

Unlike earlier times, the mobilisation was not undertaken by any one leader or militant group. It was civil society that reacted spontaneously and took the lead in channelising public anger against the botched army operation. Naga civil society confronted the paramilitary Assam Rifles right in the heart of towns, under the glaring eyes of local and national media. This Naga civil society could not be blackmailed by the national television channels which, left to themselves, would paint all dead Naga coal mine workers as ‘terrorists’ and even as ‘Chinese agents’.

Memorial to Khrisanisa Seyie, the first president of the 'Federal Government of Nagaland' in Khonoma | H. Srikanth 

When confronted by a jingoist media obsessed only with ‘national security’, Naga civil society does not blink even for a second to express their admiration for the militant leaders whom they consider as their national heroes. The Nagas may have problems with their militant groups, but consider them as part of their community, and not ‘terrorists’ or ‘anti-nationals’. One only has to see the inscriptions on the memorials erected in Khonoma and Kohima to understand the respect that the Nagas have for the militants.

It would be disastrous to provoke and antagonise Naga civil society. The latest peace negotiations became possible not only because the union and state governments and the militant groups wanted it, but also because of pressure from civil society. Even at a time when the Nagas had limited resources, the Naga people withstood the onslaught of the military and paramilitary forces and challenged the Indian state. The Nagas of today are more educated and resourceful than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. They cannot be led or misled by any leader, government, or media. Naga civil society organisations are aware of changes within and outside the Naga world and are ready to listen and make accommodations. But they will accept nothing under duress, certainly not at the cost of the Naga pride and Naga interests.

India can win over the trust of the Nagas through dialogue, reason, development, mutual trust, and emotional bonding. Military operations and draconian acts like AFSPA have become redundant under the changed circumstances. It is high time the Indian army, the central government, the ruling party, and the media learnt to deal with the Nagas in mature and responsible ways. 

(This is a revised and expanded version of an op-ed article that first appeared in The Shillong Times.)

Commentator name
H. Srikanth