Dr. Visier Sanyü
Naga Nation is an imagined creation, a historical process and a historical necessity forced by colonialism, conversion, a fast-changing world and more.
In this brief note, I endeavour to take a fresh approach to demonstrate that Nagas are not primitive hill tribes, but peoples. The damage of colonisation has been exposed by historians, anthropologists and other scientists. Joseph Conrad refers to it as the ‘Heart of Darkness’, but the consequences faced by the Nagas extend far beyond this scope. Indeed, Nagas are still a colonised people, but when the colonials – both Europeans and Indians – refer to the Nagas as ‘Indian tribes’, it insinuates that Nagas are somewhat backward and primitive, inferior to the Brahmins. The terminology, ‘tribe’, does not even exist in any Naga language. ‘Angami Seyie’ means ‘Angami nation’ and not ‘Angami tribe’, and this applies to all the Naga nations, of which there are many.
There are no people without a unique history of their own, and the Nagas’ history is spectacular, heroic and tragic at the same time. The desire of the Nagas to preserve their identity was so strong that it led to the national movement for independence, shaping their identity as a group of people.
In the past, people believed Nagas were isolated, wild headhunting tribes living in forest hills. But now we know that Nagas were in fact highly social people who had trades and wars with neighbouring kingdoms.
The Naga history tells the story of a group of people growing according to their thinking and understanding of themselves and the world. The dynamic chaos of meeting unexpected challenges has involved God and Blood! The crisis has also made others search for the deepest meaning of God’s purpose for them and their nation in the modern world. Nagas long to find their rightful place in the world and become a recognised group of people.
The Naga story is the history of several nations, often at war with each other, that were gradually brought together by the powerful impacts on them by colonialism, conversion and Western education. Many changes were introduced by the European colonials, including Guns, Germs and Steel, as Jarred Diamond so dramatically coined it.
With these emerging events, the historical process of the national movement was initiated by the Naga National Council and inspired under the leadership of A.Z. Phizo. However, clan divisions and internal conflicts have caused much bloodshed and suffering. But today, though hated and blamed with good reasons by those hurt by the upheaval, the Nagas are envied and admired for their patriotism, courage and commitment to their cause.
What made our history unique?
Naga history and mythical period are left to the interpretations of historians and anthropologists. However, the modern history has some unique landmarks that have shaped perception of Nagas today.
1. A memorandum submitted by the Naga Club to the Simon Commission in 1929 pleaded that after the British left India, the Nagas be left to govern themselves independently. It stated that India never conquered Naga-Land, and that Nagas were never subject to the rule of the neighboring kingdoms. The members of the Naga Club who submitted the memorandum on behalf of all the Nagas did not have the qualification for the task but they were equipped with sophisticated intellect, visionary minds and were somewhat prophetic in foreseeing the trauma of post-colonialism.
2. Nagas declared independence from Britain on August 14, 1947 – one day before India. Had they declared a day later, the course of Naga history would have been very different. The Naga leaders of the day reaffirmed what their previous leaders had stated in writing 18 years earlier in 1929.
3. The plebiscite conducted by the Naga National Council on May 16, 1951 indicated that 99% of the population voted to remain independent and not to join the new Indian State. This event was the most unique stand of solidarity by the Nagas.
4. The application of a clan system in the National movement enabled the Nagas to govern themselves in a unique and familiar way. The social structure of a Naga clan is incomprehensible to other cultures, just as the caste varna is to the Nagas. The clan structure survived in spite of many changes.
Sovereignty should be discussed when India is ready
The current political processes should not be viewed as the end of the Naga journey toward nationhood, but as the beginning of a new, peaceful political and cultural process.
Even after more than 70 years of struggle the nationalist leaders remain determined to maintain the fight for independence. Tragically they are locked in their factional group think-bubbles of political falsehoods. As a result, the negotiation processes have turned out to be a political charade, a fact those negotiating know better than us. Their position, despite all the appreciation and questions that we may have, reflect the shared predicament of the Naga people. Our duty as a Naga is to critique it but also understand and not over judge it.
A new Naga mindset is needed to assist this process. Although divided geo-politically, Nagas can be united culturally and politically in the broader realities of civic life. This united Naga culture and mindset can develop in all Naga-Lands as a way to work together. In this changing world, we can all look beyond old colonial boundaries and draw strength from an emerging vision of Naga National identity that is rooted in Naga traditional homelands which has spread to encompass Nagas across the world.
Some Naga national leaders have come out with a constructive proposal that is creative and realistic and honourable to both sides. They state that they know it is too difficult for the rulers in Delhi to recognize Naga sovereignty and independence. The people of India who do not know the facts of Naga history will not allow their Government to even discuss the issue. Yet, Nagas cannot deny or ignore the facts of their history just because it is too difficult for India.
In this background, some veterans of the Naga struggle have taken the stand that Naga sovereignty is a problem for the Government of India. It is not a problem for the Nagas. These leaders are taking the line that sovereignty should be discussed in the future by Nagas and Indians when India is ready. If India is not ready, let her negotiators not raise the issue and blame the Nagas. This will be the wise position at this stage in our history.
Naga confidence comes from the important fact that in staying true to their history they are not secessionist or anti-India.
Hope for the Future – The inextinguishable spirit of the Naga people
The Naga determination and spirit has surprised the Indians, Burmese and Naga observers around the world. Despite the setbacks and disappointments, Nagas in all Naga lands have retained a strong sense of their Naga nationality
As globalization improves communications, more Naga have awakened to a vision of their Naga nationhood and a determination to continue to fight for the reunification of their homeland. This Naga national spirit will grow stronger.
The Government of India and Indian thinkers have started to realize that the Naga desire to preserve their identity and nationality cannot be defeated by conventional warfare and military power. There is something in the human spirit that is far more powerful than the barrel of a gun.
Where to from here?
The hopes that motivated the heroic struggle of the Naga people in the past have been disappointed. Yet the scenario, if faced realistically, does provide grounds for hope.
Similar struggles around the world have shown that a group of people, no matter how geographically fragmented, can develop a united identity and voice. The Naga leadership is currently fragmented, but it is possible for old factional enmities and allegiances to be put aside for the sake of a future goal.
The development of Naga nationhood and unity can occur across the world and can help build a united political identity, even though in physical and geographical terms we are divided between two nation states. This vision of Naga unity achieved peacefully in a ‘virtual world’, and implemented separately in two states is a starting point for rethinking a new vision of Naga nationhood.
‘Nationhood’ does not have to be all or nothing. There are many constitutional arrangements where Nations have allowed smaller nations to pursue many of its national goals, while remaining part of a larger sovereign state.
Today the Naga sense of identity remains strong and there are many opportunities that can shape our future. The history of many nations has shown that a flexible approach to leadership can shape the future. History has also demonstrated that such opportunities can be lost if a leader is locked in backwards thinking and hatreds of the past.
Many volatile situations have been solved by the goodwill and determination of the people. The human desire to live in peace is so great that given the right opportunities and leaders with vision, communities that have in the past fought and struggled can put aside their differences and work out a peaceful way forward. With realism, the right attitude, and the growth of trust between leaders, seemingly impossible conflicts can be worked out peacefully. Examples include the ending of apartheid in South Africa, and the successful peace process in Northern Ireland.
One point I want to emphasize is about Nagas Without Borders. Make no mistake; there is no greater Nagaland or smaller Nagaland but there is only one Naga-Land. Naga ancestral land belongs to the Nagas and to no one else. We have the right to live together with our own laws and our own culture. We have the right to inherit our ancestral land. The solution has to be worked out through dialogue with our neighbours because it cannot be imposed on us by Delhi or Yangon.
I would like to conclude by what T. Sakhrie, the then General Secretary of Naga National Council, wrote some seventy years ago:
“If I were to choose a country it would be Nagaland, my fair Nagaland, again and again.”
Dr. Visier Sanyü is a Naga historian. He lives in Healing Garden, Medziphema, growing trees for future generations. Sanyü has authored the book “A Naga Odyssey: Visier’s Long Way Home” with Richard Broome, which was published by Monash University, 2017.
Dr. Sanyü is the President of the Overseas Naga Association