Nagas struggle and the world

NP Ariiphre-ou

These touching words are engraved on the epitaph that stands tall in middle of Kohima which hosts one of the most spectacular British memorial cemeteries for soldiers, who gave their lives during the World War II in the eastern frontier near today’s Indo-Burma border.

The end World War II brought the phenomenal upsurge of demands for national self-determination around the world. It was decolonization process initiated by many nation states gaining sovereignty from their former colony powers particularly in Asia and Africa. However, in the process of decolonization and granting of independence to many larger nation states, numerous rightful demands or assertion/declarations of nationhood by multitudes of the minority and indigenous peoples like that of the Nagas were ignored.

The Naga story spans more than half a century struggle predating many struggles around the world and contemporaries with Palestinians. The fact that the Naga struggle has not received international recognition or visibility is due the crucial interplay of ‘real politix.’ Either the Naga struggle does not connect to the rich northern hemispheres interest or a Rwanda-like genocide is needed to provoke the humanitarian consciousness of the so-called western world. 

Before the 1997 signing of a formal cease-fire between the Naga resistance groups, the NSCN, and the Government of India, the print and electronic media did not make any sensible coverage of the Naga people and their more than half century struggle.

Prior to this historical cessation of open armed conflict between the Indian military and the Naga Army, Indian media nationalistically upheld total censorship of the events in its most isolated northeast, except for cursory stories of the number of killings and counter killings by the state forces and the insurgents or the exotica of the hill tribes of the region. 

Sometimes stories don’t get told simply because those in power make damned sure they don’t….India’s censorship of its war in Nagaland has been successful. Helped by geography, the Indian authorities have succeeded by making it a no-go zone. Nagaland is one such case.’ as Vanessa Baird of the New Internationalist declared.  

The virtual martial rule under which the Naga communities have struggled and survived in the past almost sixty years has hardly been publicized or reported to the public in the Indian subcontinent; leave alone the reportage in the international media or forums. For the past half century, the Indian state totally censored the events in the Naga homeland apart from portraying the people negatively and majestic blue mountain ranges. 

Since 1955, Indian Government has put a blanket ban on the entry of its own national media and conscientious Indian citizens by using many of the inherited colonial legacies such as the Inner Line Permit (ILP) regulation. The imposition of Restricted Areas Permit (RAP) or Protected Areas Permit (PAP) by the Indian Ministry of Home affairs to regulate and aggressively monitor the foreign travelers has left this part of the world off the route for tourist destinations despite its amazing beauty and wealthy diverse eco-system.   

In December 1960, a press team comprising of western and Indian newspaper correspondents were allowed into the conflict zone escorted by the security officials for a meeting with selected state clients.

There was an unpleasant epilogue to the trip. The foreign correspondence had incurred the animosity of the conducting officer, chief of External affairs press relations, PN Menon, by their insistence on hearing any free and articulate Naga who wanted to speak to them. On our return to Delhi what amounted to a campaign of slander against us was begun, originating in the Press office and disseminated through their touts in the local papers – in which there appeared accusations that we had deliberately encouraged the rebels. It seems to be petering out now  Neville Maxwell to the Times in January 1961.

One of the only western correspondents to have moved freely with the Nagas in recent times was Gavin Young. He managed to enter through the eastern corridor of the Naga homeland via Burma. Young’s articles  were published in The Observer London about his account of his visit to Nagaland in 1961. 

However, today after many decades of armed political conflict, the perception is changing with the formal cessation of military conflict after the 1997 signing of ‘ceasefire’ agreement. The realization that the Indo-Naga conflict is of a political nature and that peaceful means was necessary to find a political solution discarding the ‘military option’ has given rise to new hope for the possibility of Naga exercising their right to self-determination and the eventual removal of imposed barriers for reunification of Naga homeland.

Colonial Entrapment

The British entered the Brahmaputra valley in the early 1820’s but it was only at the close of the 19th century that British colonizers were able to virtually commence a semblance of control and administration in some part of ‘Naga Hills’. “The Nagas, traditionally accustomed to their sovereignty strongly resisted the imposition of British authority, suffering the destruction of their villages and crops as a result.” They were however cautious and maintained a ‘non-interference’ policy with the Naga’s socio-cultural setup which they considered to be highly organized apart from the ceremonial head-hunting culture. 

The British introduced opium in certain pockets of the Naga Frontier areas to subdue the more mobile communities. Overtime, this became a serious societal problem the affects of which the Nagas continue fighting to this day. However, the works of American missionaries whose charitable intervention in the forms of establishing English medium educational institutions and introducing the Christian faith are considered to have propelled the Naga society to a higher level of organisation and sophistication. 

Despite the British occupied and administered parts of some Naga territories, its sphere of influence did not penetrated to more than half of the Naga territories which Nagas considered as the ‘free Naga land.’ The British created and perpetuated the concept of ‘non-interferences’ in relating with Nagas has also been partly for their own vested interest particularly where they consider the zone as a perfect geo-strategic buffer zone between British India and China. Or as I saw in the British TV Channel 4 series depicting how a wooden sledge, like the one used by Nagas, were used to explain how the large stone monoliths might have been brought and arranged on the highland around Stone Henge, representing the British anthropologist’s search for a solution to their anthropogenic origins.

The Nagas experiences of the two major world wars, initially as volunteer labor corps in Europe during the Ist World War (1918) and, secondly, the agonizing experiences of the final victory of the British in the East over the intruding Japanese forces during the 2nd World War (1940’s) which was fought in the deep jungles of Naga homeland. These war experiences have to a large extent cemented the consciousness and rapport of the different ethnic communities under the banner of the Naga National consciousness and their united urge for self-rule.

Prior to the British Administration in India relinquishing their power, Nagas had already clearly stated their position for a sovereign independent state. “In the 1920’s the Nagas reasserted a right to be independent. In 1937, the Naga Hills were renamed ‘Naga Hills, excluded area’ to underline these demands. By 1940s the position uphold by the radical Naga National Council, under the leadership of A. Z. Phizo, demanded the creation of an independent, Sovereign Naga state. ”

At the close of British colonial rule in February 1947, the Nagas framed a scheme to the British Government and the Government of India asking that “an interim Government be set up for a period of ten years, at the end of which Naga people will be left to choose any form of Government.” This proposal for ten year guardianship, though negotiated, fell short of self-determination and was rejected by the Nagas. In 1949 after Independence, the Indian Government followed-up with the Negotiations where the British had left off. 

Despite repeated engagement both entities failed to arrive at an agreement. India later rescinded from the process and contradictorily stated that ‘the desire for independence’ was held by only few educated ‘extreme’ Nagas. This has prompted an ongoing low intensity conflict in the region for the past six decades. 

Naga Homeland

On 14 August 1947, when the British decolonization was taking place in the Sub-continent, the Nagas under the platform of Naga National Council (NNC) declared their own independence. However, their right to sovereignty was denied and the Naga country was arbitrarily divided and incorporated into the newly Independent Indian State. In keeping with past colonial and neocolonial designs, a part was sliced out into Burma (Myanmar). Subsequently on 16th May 1951, the Nagas carried out a voluntary plebiscite in which 99.9% of the people voted for an independent Naga state in an affirmation of the Naga declaration of Independence from all alien domination, subjugation and exploitation. Even so, India and Burma defiantly ignored Naga’s legitimate rights and unleashed a policy of genocide and militarization leading to thousands of deaths and wide scale repression. As a policy of occupation, the Nagas are today further divided into different ‘administrative units’ like Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and the Nagaland state within the Indian Union, and remaining areas into Sagaing Division within Burmese state (Myanmar).These divisions systematically denying the Nagas being recognized as an independent political entity by old and new colonial powers. Nagas are minority in all states except the Indian imposed state of Nagaland.

Policy of militarization

Shelby Tucker, the author of the travelogue Among Insurgents - Walking Through Burma” while releasing his book in London (2000) recalls, “I entered through Red china and travel throughout insurgent infested and military Junta territory in Burma, nowhere was I detained or harassed, but when I entered the so called white democratic India, I was detained, interrogated and tortured and that also asking if I have met any Naga. ” 

This represents the kind of treatment the Indian states machinery dishes out to outsiders when coming into the occupied areas. By the early 1950’s Naga Patriots organized themselves demonstrating the people’s aspirations through non-violent and non-cooperation movements, to prove the Indian state propaganda that “Naga struggle is a demand by just a few misguided extremist elements” as misplaced and a way of escaping responsibility from engaging constructively for securing  peace with the Nagas. 

Drummed up conspiracy theories stating that Nagas are not capable to eloquently formulate their demands and that some foreign hand must be involved to retain Naga hills as a imperialist stronghold were further reinforced by Nehru who said in reference to the memo of Naga independence, “as no Naga could have written” it. “Nehru’s view was that the very idea of independence was a piece of mischief planted in the simple Naga soul by some of the British administrators and the missionaries.” Thus, the Baptist missionaries after serving Nagas for nearly 120 years were forced to leave by 1955. This exodus further cutoff Naga’s existence and communication to the outside world.

Newly independent Indian policy makers no doubt had scant understanding on Naga’s worldview and sought advices from the erstwhile British anthropologists who had interacted with some Nagas. Basing on these inadequate competencies, the Indian state conveniently replicated the obnoxious colonial legislation by promulgating the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1958 to deal with the Naga resistance. 

The anti-democratic provisions of AFSPA such as granting legal immunity to the Indian Army, as well as power of arrest, right of assembly, search and seizures without warrant, and entitlement to shoot to kill on mere suspicion have with the passage of time eaten into India’s own democratic fibers. The casualties of this massive project of militarization have been the siege on innocent masses and not the fighting armed resistance cadres. 

The demand for repeal of AFSPA campaign was taken to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by local human rights movement – the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR), where India was questioned for the use of such emergency provisions that are inconsistent with her commitment to international treaties/ convention on respect and promotion of fundamental freedom and human rights. The N P MHR filed a case challenging the constitutional validity of the AFSPA in the Supreme Court of India in 1982, which came up for review in 1997 wherein “the Supreme Court finally ruled, upholding the Act as constitutional.” Despite this temporary hiccup, the momentum of the campaign demanding the scrapping of this draconian legislation which is violative of democratic values has gained ground today as a sub-continental campaign.

Quoting from The Discovery of India where Nehru penned the following goals in 1947:

The right of any well-constituted area to secede from the Indian federation or union has often been put forward, and the argument of the USSR advance in support of it… Before any such right to secession is exercised there must be a properly constituted, functioning, free India. It may be possible then, when external influences have been removed and real problem face the country, to consider such questions objectively and in a spirit of relative detachment, far removed from the emotionalism of  today…Thus it may be desirable to fix a period, say ten years later after the establishment of the free Indian state, at the end of which the right to secede may be exercised through proper constitutional process and in accordance with the clearly expressed will of the inhabitants of the area concerned.

On August 15, 2007, India will celebrate its 60th anniversary of national independence from the erstwhile British paramountcy. Will India take a step back to reflect on how its visionary leaders like Nehru have stated to discern how to move forward putting meaning into its democratic credential?

With the International Criminal Court (ICC) coming into operation and with India becoming a member of the UN Human Rights Council; Will India shield herself of the ‘democratic deficit’ on her home grounds, such as the rising violence in central India against the Naxalites, Azad Kashmir in the northwest and the turbulent India’s Northeast? Can India continue to deny the same rights - the right to self-determination - to other struggling nations through the exercise of which, she emerged as a modern independent nation-state? With human rights campaign high on the cyber world will the Indian state evade the harsh accusation of the violation of rights on her minorities or indigenous peoples struggle or will the international community lay back allowing India continue to remain unquestioned for righting the ‘historical accident’ as in the case of the Nagas? Or, will the Indian state look back inward towards here own proclaimed principles of nonviolence and empower her own people, wherein lies her actual strength, to peacefully renegotiate relations amongst the various nationalities and struggles within her territory, on the basis of mutual respect, Justpeace and Ahimsa? Will the Nagas ever give up their aspirations for a sovereign independent state? And as Neville Maxwell remarked in 1973, “(and) Naga irredentism would also be a force to watch for.” With the recent (June 15, 2007) United Nations General Assembly resolution declaring the 2nd October as the International Day of Non violence, it is imperative for India to once again re-embrace the principles of Ahimsa and give credence to what Mahatma Gandhi committed to the Nagas on July 19, 1947, at Bhangi Colony: 

Nagas have every right to be independent…. I believe in the brotherhood of man, but I do not believe in force or forced unions. If you do not wish to join the Union of India nobody will force you to do that.