India-Myanmar Border Fence and Indo-Naga Relation

Paul Pimomo

In a highly checkered political relation that has lasted for as long as the Indo-Naga one has –almost eight decades --it is easy to miss the forest for the trees. From this perspective, the Indian government’s sudden change in its border policy with Myanmar invites a look beyond the stated reasons for it. The official narrative follows the standard script of India’s burdensome obligation to protect itself from illegal migrants, narcotics and weapons trafficking, and cross-border insurgency. But these ominous sounding challenges have existed in varying degrees for years without their posing untoward threats to India’s national interests, not to talk of its national security. So what else may be gearing the Modi government’s surprise move is anyone’s guess. Might it also have something to do with the Nagas? Specifically, ending the so-called “Naga problem” -- “problem” of the Naga people’s struggle for self-determination and freedom from unending militarization of their lands?

We could begin with the setting of the current border issue. On the one hand, the Indian Government has decided to abandon the Free Movement Regime (FMR) agreement with Myanmar, which permits visits and travel within 16 kms on both sides of the border, without a visa, and to erect a 1,643-km border fence. On the other hand, at least two indigenous peoples (Naga and Mizo/Kuki-Zo) living on both sides of the border will be separated by a physical international barrier. Nagas will suffer greatly from the fence, if built. They live in three of the four Indian states that border on Myanmar: Nagaland, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh, plus in the non-border state of Assam; the rest live in the Naga self-administered zone in northwest Myanmar. It bears reminding that Nagas live in India and Myanmar for the simple reason their ancestral homeland straddles both countries. Their histories in these parts go back to times before written history. 

It is important to put the new policy in the context it belongs, the events leading up to it. Media reports quoting Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh indicate that PM Modi and HM Shah, the decision makers for the U-turn in India’s border policy, relied heavily on his advice. And people who have followed the still unresolved ethnic violence between the Meitei and the Kuki-Zoin Manipur will recall one thing about CM Biren Singh. Throughout the problems, he desperately tried to shift the blame for the chaos in the state under his watch from himself to every other conceivable cause, but failed. As he and Home Minister Shah watched the state fall into unspeakable violence and lawlessness, looking utterly impotent, PM Modi studiously refused to even comment on the situation. In other words, what the Manipur violence since May 2023 has demonstrated is a situation where the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, and the Manipur Chief Minister were either incapable of quelling a violent ethnic outbreak in a border state or were for some reason unwilling to stop it. Then, unexpectedly, all three leaders converged on the same remedy for preventing anarchic situations in the region, like the one in Manipur. So, we now have the Central government, egged on by the Manipur Chief Minister, on a national mission to build a physical fence that will cut through indigenous Naga lands and separate Naga communities between the two countries. Yes, Naga lands and communities only, not the Mizo/Kuki-Zo. Since the announcement of the new policy, as reported by The Print on 18 February, “after meeting Shah, Mizoram Chief Minister Lalduhoma is confident Mizoram sector of the India-Myanmar border won’t be fenced.” 

As for the Indian government’s new-found imperative for abandoning the Free Movement Regime agreement with Myanmar, it was the current Modi government which initiated and adopted the FMR just five years back, in 2018. The situation at the border has not changed since. And yet, the same prime minister and home minister who first championed the FMR as ancillary to India’s outreach and connectivity policies, like “Neighborhood First” and “Act East,” have decided to scrap it and are now championing the border fence. In a critique of the new policy in The Deccan Herald (2 February 2024), Gautam Mukhopadhaya, who served in the Modi administration as Indian ambassador to Myanmar from 2013-2016, has called it a “historically and politically illogical move.” But the question that still remains unasked and unanswered is whether or not the Indian media and the public will buy into the bogey of India’s national security safeguarded by the proposed outlandish border fence with Myanmar.

Either way, a safe bet is that a forced separation of a people by government has reasons other or more than the ones invoked by the authorities that carry out the divisive and oppressive acts. The 77-year long, violence-ridden Indo-Naga relation was carefully shielded from the outside world including even from most parts of India. The Naga homeland is too remote for the rest of the world, and what happens in it is relatively too insignificant to figure in national and international relays of world news. But stories of relentless domination and subordination, regardless of the size and populations of the country and parties involved, belong in the same narratives of human rights abuses and violations, which must be told in the interest of peace and a better future for all of humankind. Large countries and small indigenous peoples equally deserve freedom, human rights, and the fruits of democracy. The Indo-Naga relations, since the end of colonial rule for India, Burma/Myanmar and the Naga homeland, in 1947, need to be understood and told in the context of that larger, longer human history. India’s latest decision to build an international fence across the Naga homeland merits at the very least a brief outline of the Indo-Naga story. I come at it from the perspective of a couple of historic human rights documents that have a bearing on the subject. 

Human beings have lived on the only livable planet, Earth, for at least 200,000 years. The earliest civilization happened around 4,000 BC, in Mesopotamia, what we today call the Middle East. The earliest document on human freedom and equality was declared in 539 BC by Cyrus the Great of Persia. After conquering Babylon, King Cyrus freed the slaves, then proclaimed to the people that they were free to follow their own religions, and that all people were equal regardless of their racial origins. Those rights were inscribed in the Akkadian language and baked into a clay cylinder. We call that proclamation the “Cyrus Cylinder.” The Cyrus Cylinder easily qualifies as the original human rights statement – the ur-bill of rights -- if you will. There were several ancient civilizations that came after, as we know, including Ancient Indian civilization, so admirable in other levels but where most people were excluded from the freedoms and rights inscribed on the Cyrus Cylinder. 

Fast forward to the age of colonialism, which gave birth to the modern world of competing sovereign nation-states we live in today. The nation-states world has given us two world wars in just the last 110 years. WW2 and the Holocaust led to the UN’s historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The Cyrus Cylinder was the starting point for this first global human rights document of the postcolonial age. But the enemies of human rights did not give up, they never do. Remember the Berlin wall, the symbol of the Cold War? The 27-mile concrete wall with barbed wire, 55,000 landmines, and guard towers with 24/7 surveillance? It was constructed in 1961 to keep the people of Berlin apart and against one another – until the people decided to tear it down 28 years later, in 1989. 

Just as fascists and dictators and enemies of human rights don’t ever give up, the better part of humanity did not either. Six decades after the universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN came out with another human rights document in 2007. This time it was the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of the world. Let me refer you to just two articles from the document.

Article 36 reads: 
“1) Indigenous peoples in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations, and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes with their own members as well as other peoples across borders. 

“2) States, in consultation and cooperation with indigenous peoples, shall take effective measures to facilitate the exercise and ensure the implementation of this right.” And Article 30 states that “Military activities shall not take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples” without their free consent. 

As member-states of the UN, India and Myanmar have the obligation to function and govern within the provisions of these declarations. This obligation includes India’s relations with the Nagas -- for the simple reason that Nagas belong to the categories of both human beings and indigenous peoples. And yet, the facts of Indo-Naga relations during the period between the two UN declarations of human rights show the opposite reality of the provisions in them. India and Nagas separately declared their freedom and independence from colonial rule in the same year, 1947. But newly independent India and Burma, without the consent of the Naga people, drew up an artificial international border between themselves that cut right through the Naga homeland, as though the Nagas did not exist. 

What were Nagas to do? Nagas stood up for their right to be a free people and demanded political self-determination and autonomy. As everybody knows, the Indo-Naga relation went downhill from there on: India’s military invasion in the 1950s; armed resistance by the Nagas; division of Naga lands and separation of Nagas in four Indian states; iterations of ceasefires and failed peace missions; bloodshed galore; imposition of extra-judicial military law, Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in 1958, still in force, which exonerates atrocities and human rights abuses by Indian armed forces. Broken agreements starting with the 1947 Nine-Point Agreement with the Naga National Council and currently the indefinitely stalled Framework Agreement made between the Indian Government and NSCN (IM) in 2015.

And now, in 2024, continuing the 77-year old path of egregious human rights violations against the Nagas, the Modi government has decided to abandon the FMR and erect a physical fence that will add yet another layer of separation and criminalize interactions among Naga families and communities across Myanmar and four Indian states. 

In short, India’s decision to build an international fence across Naga territories is not an aberration. It is the culmination of a series of completed Indian Intelligence and government-engineered projects to separate Nag people, keep them apart and divided, for one reason alone: to crush the Naga struggle for freedom and self-determination by any means necessary. For India, this fence is the logical endgame of the nearly eight decades long military, political, economic, and psychological warfare to break the Naga spirit. Today, Nagas are experiencing division and fatigue. India’s subordination of the Nagas looks complete in 2024. But if global history is a guide, then fences and walls that are erected to divide and keep a people apart come down -- sooner than later. It took 28 years for the Berlin wall to come down. Someday, the primarily anti-Naga Indo-Myanmar fence, if built, may look too unnatural and intolerable to live with. It will be too much of an affront for the Nagas, if not now, then in five, ten, twenty years? Because fences that divide a people are for tearing down.