Self–Determination: The Naga Context

A Paper Presentation at the 22nd Conference of Naga Students’ Federation, Punanamei, 8th – 12th May 2007 

Ahu Sakhrie

Self-Determination simply means the desire of a people to have a particular system of Self Governance and a Political Status. It has three dimensions (a) The system within (b) The assertion for a Political Status through means diplomatic, non-violent, violent, or all combined (c) External recognition – regionally or globally which would prevent aggression. Self determination came into prominence after World War I when redrawing the map of Europe became a big issue. Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations endorsed and propagated the idea through plebiscite but it was short-lived because of ascendancy of the Nazi in Europe and the manifest inability of small nations to defend themselves in the situation of modern warfare.

After World War II there was unprecedented rise of nationalism especially in the Afro-Asian countries and colonial powers were no more in a position to retain their empires. Eventually many independent nations were born. In this atmosphere the concept of self determination was the fundamental political policy in the formation of UNO and its Declaration of Human Rights. Thus the words ‘all peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development’ were envisaged in major multinational Treaties and International Law.

Self-determination had faced setbacks from the early days. President Woodrow Wilson of the US after the Treaty of Versailles on the one hand condemned conquest but on the other he sided big nations and asserted the rights of national groups to autonomy within the state to which they belonged. After the World War II better organized nations attained independence but after that the principle of right to self-determination began to be interpreted by big nations according to their own interests. This was because of the polarized Cold War and the Non-Aligned Movement. The complex alliances and competition in international relations began to ignore the growing nationalities. Anaya James remarked “unfortunately, international law has operated in historical periods to validate the acquisition of territory by states regardless of the wishes of the indigenous population.” Prof. B.K. Roy Burman also said “the global hegemonic powers can flaunt collective rights of smaller entities including the indigenous people in a selective manner.” In latter years autonomy has become the only option for struggling nationalities.


Nagas lived in segmented village republics when the British intruded in their countryside in the 19th century. Against much resistance they established their administration in 1879 and controlled the Nagas’ practice of head hunting and inter-village feuds. At the same time the American Baptist missionaries had already made inroads in the northern Naga hills with mission centres. Personnel of both these agencies showed no abhorrence to the Naga way of domestic life. And their effort to educate them impressed the Nagas so much so that they began to accept the white man with respect and their administration legitimate.

The rapport that the white man had made enabled them to recruit the labour corp. to Europe during World War I. The significance of this in Naga political history is that Nagas from various tribes were grouped together and while in foreign land they developed a sense of belonging and that they resolved to work for friendship and unity amongst themselves on their return. Thus Naga clubs in Kohima and Mokokchung were organized in 1918.

The Naga clubs were the first expression of Naga unity. By 1929 a proto-nationalism had developed amongst the Nagas and when the Simon Commission came to Kohima they could present a memorandum which demanded besides others, adequate safeguards from any possible rule by the plainsman. Nothing substantial took place because of the petition except that when the Govt. of India Act of 1935 was passed the Naga Hills were placed as ‘excluded area’ and not ‘backward tract’ as it was known earlier.

The World War II exposed the Nagas to a higher plane of political perception. As southern Naga territories were battlefields Nagas experienced the art of organized modern warfare. More importantly nations of the world fighting for their national interests gave the Nagas an urgent need for a national expression. A prominent Naga leader wrote ‘the clash of imperialistic interests had given birth to the new era – full of opportunities and hopes for a glorious future.’

Some British administrators sympathetic to the tribals, proposed a Crown Colony for the people in the Indo-Burmese frontier, but caught in the anti-colonial wave, the Nagas rejected the proposal. After World War II in 1945 the then Deputy Commissioner of Kohima brought various existing tribal organizations together and formed the Naga Hills District Council for reconstruction of the war-torn areas. This Council in Feb. 2, 1946 changed the nomenclature into Naga National Council (NNC). That was how Nagas came under a single political organization.

The structure of the NNC was based on unique foundation while representatives of the affiliated tribes are sent on the basis of the particular tribes’ polity. The members that form the council worked on the basis of a constitutional system and the decision on the majority by voting. Udayan Misra observed “Naga nationalism did not grow at the expense of the tribal structure of the village administration but virtually on it.” The first agenda of the NNC were (1) to assert the Nagas right to self-determination (2) consolidate the solidarity of the Naga people (3) restoration of Naga lands.

The NNC pursued modest political aims initially. The Secretary in 1946 stated that “NNC stand for the unification of all the tribes and their freedom ... our country is connected with India in many ways. We should continue that connection ... but as a distinct community. We also must develop according to our genius and taste. We shall enjoy home-rule in our country, but on broader issues be connected with India.” The Secretary NNC also wrote to Winston Churchill and stated “to British, we Nagas never said ‘Quit’. But when time has decreed that British should quit, we must say quit honourably.” The Nagas’ assertion did not go unnoticed. Nehru the President of Indian National Congress wrote to NNC inviting Nagas to join the would-be independent India.

In 1947 NNC framed a scheme of ten-year interim Govt. and submitted to His Majesty’s Govt. and the Government of India (GoI). One must realize the limitations and harsh realities facing the NNC at that time. Nagas were scattered and never had a proper unified administration. Naga tribes had varied forms of polity. There was no communication, no roads or postal system. There was no common language. Economy of the people was mere subsistence and financial resources were at a minimum. And available educated manpower was literally a handful. The only thing available was the nascent NNC from which a people overwhelmed with nationalism expected so much.

As a follow up of the ten-year guardianship perhaps, the same year Akbar Hydari, the then Governor of Assam, came to Kohima. The Secretary of NNC in his welcome address sought help from the better organized neighbour to help the Nagas to be so schooled as to make a responsible choice and to stand on their own feet so that they may be worthy of a civilized world. A 9 points Agreement which included a ten year guardianship was deliberated upon. The Preamble of the nine points endorsed the Naga’s right to self determination and substantially cover all aspects of the NNC’s letters to HMG and GoI. But it could not come to an agreeable conclusion. The age-old antipathy took its toll and there was mistrust between the two parties. The Secretary of NNC nevertheless stated that ‘it was a democratic and evolutionary step towards self-rule. So long as these provisions (9 points) remain effective, the Nagas can maintain their independent national life.’

NNC sent a delegation to Delhi and met M.K. Gandhi on July 19, 1947 and apprised him of Naga determination of independence. His reply in short was acceptance of Naga’s right to self determination and that force will in no way be used to stop the Nagas to this end. He did not put the interest of India before the rights of the Nagas. Perhaps any reply otherwise would be uncharacteristic of the Mahatma. But unfortunately M.K. Gandhi did not live to see the events that followed in the Indo-Naga relation.

The NNC sent another delegation to Delhi on Aug. 9, 1947 but to no avail. In desperation and anger Naga independence was unilaterally declared on the 14th of August, 1947 by the NNC. The British handed over the administration of the Indian sub-continent including administered portion of Naga territory on 15th August, 1947 much against the wishes of the Naga people. Naga political history before 1947 is an evolution of tribes into a nationality basically founded on xenophobia and primordial conception of difference between the ‘insiders’ (the Naga tribes) and ‘outsiders’ (the plainsmen) and emergence of nationalism through external exposure.


The period of Naga assertion of self-determination after Indian independence was marred by intermittent war and peace. The failure of a clear-cut agreement for an interim guardianship lost a good deal of mutual trust between NNC and the GoI. In this situation the NNC took to a more radical stand. The failure of meetings with Indian leaders and the passive struggle made the people more frustrated and restless. After the re-entry of A.Z. Phizo to NNC and his election as President he galvanised the mood of the people to a more antagonistic approach. A plebiscite was held in 1951 to authenticate NNC’s influence and mandate which claimed overwhelming majority of the people reached. There was a phase of non-violent civil disobedience: Govt. servants resigned, people refused to pay taxes, students abstained from schools, teachers resigned, people refused to give labour assistance to the Govt., red blanket given to village authorities returned, boycott of celebration of the Indian Union, etc. Most remarkable was the peaceful and successful boycott of the first general election of India and Assam’s assembly in 1952. And in 1953, Prime Minister of India visited Kohima with his Burmese counterpart U Nu and faced an en masse walkout in the Kohima local ground. By this time the GoI had already taken for granted that the Nagas and their territory form integral part of India.

By 1954 and 1955, NNC faced the first major schism on policy matter. A.Z. Phizo and his group began to organise themselves for armed confrontation and the educated section in NNC found that suicidal. This brought about a split and a vast majority of Nagas accepted the violent option. Eventually in 1956 Naga Federal Govt. (NFG) with a standing Naga Army was formed. Subsequently with the induction of the army by the GoI as retaliation, a full scale war prevailed in the Naga hills. This resulted in immense human tragedy and the Villagers faced the brunt. Kalbag Chaitanya ( India Today 31.10.82) lamented “... nowhere has the experience of insurgency been greater and longer than in Nagaland and nowhere else in the North-East has human suffering more painful and protracted.” The bitter experience of armed confrontation made some educated section who had kept a low profile through the war come together to convene an all-tribes Naga People’s Convention (NPC) at Kohima in 1957. Weary of the situation people from all walks of life came in their thousands as delegates of tribes and as observers. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) of the GoI took advantage of the huge gathering and mobilized Govt. servants and job seeking educated men to campaign for Nagas for joining the Indian Union. These groups virtually filibustered the sessions and by the 2nd and 3rd NPC meetings in Ungma village (1958) and in Mokokchung Town in 1959 respectively, the agendum was no longer bringing NFG and the GoI together for a dialogue but to present a memorandum of 16 pts to the GoI. Although there were prominent members against the move, the NPC went ahead and the state of Nagaland eventually was created and inaugurated in1963.

By 1963 news spread of Naga Army bringing arms from East Pakistan. Given the uncertainty of the nightmare of the 50s from recurring, the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC) resolved to constitute a Peace Mission (PM). Following this resolution by April 64 a three member Peace Mission was formed consisting of JayaPrakash Narayan, B.P. Chaliha and Rev. Michael Scott. Through the efforts of the PM, the NFG and GoI came into a cease-fire agreement with effect from 6th September 1964 amid great jubilation of the people and churches. The 12 member opposition in the state Assembly also resigned enblock. Peace talks, however, could not reconcile the two groups. From the very beginning the NFG demanded their right to self determination and their sovereignty while the GoI maintained that it could not entertain any demands whose basic premise do not accept Nagaland State within the Indian Union. The PM presented a list of proposals wherein it urged the Nagas to exercise their right to self determination and on their own volition join the Indian Union, and the GoI consider ways of meeting the political aspirations and interests of the Nagas to the maximum possible. The talk ended in a deadlock by 1968.

Fateful events began to occur in the NFG camp when deadlock of the ‘negotiation’ became evident. General Kaito the Keya Kilonser began to differ with the NNC leadership. Scato Swu the Kedaghe resigned in the midst of the talks followed by Kughato Sukhai the Ato Kilonser. The break away group formed a Revolutionary Govt. of Nagaland on November 1, 1968. On the Eastern Front Thongki Chang Angh of Tuensang announced his group’s detachment from NFG. Meanwhile in early 1968, Isak Swu and General Mowu with a thousand men were reported to have reached China. General Mowu and his soldiers on their return were arrested in 1969 and the GoI called it ‘breaking the backbone of the misguided movement’ in the Lok Sabha. The break away group later formally surrendered to the GoI. In the meantime many NNC and NFG cadres began to settle down in domestic life and were unprepared to take up the jungle trail again.

The Nagaland State was generously financed by the GoI for economic development. The expansion of administration and various programmes created avenues of employment. This employed and salaried class brings home cash and other privileges far more than the annual harvest of the traditional strenuous cultivation. In the process, the Naga values and scruples became redundant. Many made the best and the most out of the given situation. This brought about a floating culture – a corrupt westernized and dependent but comfortable lifestyle. This marked the emergence of class in Naga society. The State also brought in an election system which automatically created party politics and every possible malpractice in the game. These undermined traditional polity. It generated clanism, village alliances, and tribe-ism. Even undergrounds and their loyal supporters are drawn to the system.

In the first half of the 70s, NFG and its army were at its lowest ebb. The GoI terminated the ceasefire. It transferred the affairs of the Nagaland State from External Ministry to Home Affairs. Peace observer team was dissolved and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967 was promulgated, under which NFG and the Naga Army were banned. Emergency was declared in India in 1975. Under suppressive circumstances all districts in Nagaland State were declared underground-free except Kohima. NFG functionaries were on the run. Eventually the Shillong Accord was signed in Nov .1975 virtually under duress. It was done in a ‘do or die’ situation. That ended the hope of the Naga people to have a united Naga movement under NNC and NFG.

After the Shillong Accord, Naga nationalist were fragmented into many factions. Political rhetoric, accusations, allegations of selling out the cause, claims and counterclaims, etc. were the order of the day for the following many years. But the bottomline was that there was discord over the Shillong Accord. NFG broke into accordist, non-accordist, and a silent group. A large number of NNC and NFG men came together as Naga National Workers. They denounced the Shillong Accord and tried to patch up their differences but failed.

In the eastern Naga territory the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was formed by Isak, Muivah and S.S. Kaplang. They declared the existence of the NSCN and issued a manifesto wherein they stated “We stand for the unquestionable sovereign right of the Naga people over every inch of Naga territory wherever it may be and admit of no other existence whatever.” But the NSCN also parted ways in 1988 and it became NSCN (IM) under the leadership of Isak and Muivah and NSCN (K) under S.S. Kaplang. The situations in the east thus far elude objective analysis due to paucity of detailed information. Important events that followed are the NSCN (IM) was accepted as member in Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO) in 1993. The GoI and NSCN (IM) came to a ceasefire agreement in 1997 after which talks have been going on. And a truce between the GoI and NSCN (K) came about in 2000.


Nationalism stands up to be the most potent, explosive and dynamic ideology of the 20th century. It saw the ravages of two world wars and many more with nationalism vis-à-vis national interests across the world. Unification and disintegration of nations were important features and the cry of upcoming indigenous people and nationalities were undermined inspite of the fact that the world body the UNO kept repeating the right to self-determination.

In the Naga context the first half of the century saw Naga tribes evolving into a distinct nationality founded on historic, cultural, ethnic differences with its neighbours. Their nationalism appeared at an unfavourable time and in hospitable environment where all powerful nations were in the process of reconstruction after World War II and colonial powers were on the retreat across the globe. There was nobody to be bothered with others’ problems. In the second half of the century Nagas found themselves unable to convince the Indian leadership of their right and therefore they resorted to violent confrontation with the GoI and its army. The people suffered every imaginable tragedy and the GoI and its armed forces inflicted every conceivable atrocity. It was for the ‘historical period’ of complex international relation that denied the Nagas of their right.

In the given situation it is important to note the opinion of those who tried to help. Michel Scott, member of the Peace Mission who was considered Naga-biased by GoI and the Indian press and who proclaimed himself to be a friend and sympathizer of the Nagas, described the Nagas claim of ‘Sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ as an ‘illusion’ and a ‘chimera’. He further stated that Nagas’ fond hope that help would immediately come from the west or that China would become benevolent to Nagas on racial affinity, can only lead to disaster. He pleaded to the GoI for a liberal interpretation of the terms and to the NFG to be more realistic. This approach from both the sides he said might secure a peaceful solution. The Peace Mission toed this line and proposed that the Nagas exercise their right to self-determination and on their own volition thresh out an amicable relationship with India. Given the international situation this perhaps was the only option but the NNC leadership was adamant in their stand. This was an opportunity missed. Because on the GoI side under Indira Gandhi, the Indian National Congress had the required majority in the Parliament for any agreement or treaty to be passed.

The split amongst Naga nationalists after the Shillong Accord damaged the very foundation of Naga unity and the tragedy became so immense due to factional killings. This has come to involve even the public because all factions more or less are now urban guerrillas. By Naga tradition, loss of life is a very serious and intricate matter involving clans, villages and tribes. Therefore, factional killings has created wedges amongst the whole Naga society. In the fight for supremacy, forced support, recruitment of drop-outs, extortion, etc., are on the rise and this time round the people are facing the brunt from their own people. The Naga NGOs especially the church organizations have earnestly taken up the issue of peace through reconciliation. Many talks with all factions have taken place to this end, but thus far all factions appear to be belligerent. It is surprising that nationalists (even in other parts of the world) who are willing to make the supreme sacrifice for their nation are unable to sacrifice and resolve their differences.

Nagas still cherish the idea of living under one roof in harmony. The basic aspiration expressed in the early 40s still persists in the minds of the people. But the question of solidarity amongst themselves has been shelved. It appears that Nagas first need a home where love and fraternity prevail; after that, a roof. The shape and size of the house can be designed according to given situations. For Naga territorial integrity, the GoI must give serious thought. It must take upon itself the onus keeping in mind the Nagas in Burma. Any settlement must not leave behind a possibility of ‘cross border terrorism’ as in Kashmir today.

It must be noted that all factions specially the NSCN (IM) after hobnobbing with personalities and nations around the world finally came back to India for talks as no help from other nations was forthcoming. This is a geo-political and historical compulsion. No nation is willing to displease the biggest democracy of the world. And in the present order of international politics, the fate of the Nagas apparently needs a relationship with India.

History of the last century has reflected that when the Naga people were united the pressure was on the GoI to accommodate Naga aspirations as seen in the 40s and 60s, but with splinter groups the GoI will be in a domineering position. Reconciliation and peace within, therefore, appears to be a perquisite for a peaceful solution. Way back in 1980, Prof. B.K. Roy Burman said “If there had been no major outbreak of violence (against GoI) for sometime, it was not because everybody has eschewed violence but because the Nagas failed to sort out the question of their internal relationship.” He meant that the Nagas’ quest for a political status is still alive. Rajmohan Gandhi also said “you have to speak with one voice.” These are statements of people who have been closely watching the Naga movement with concern.

The floating culture has also seeped in the undergrounds’ lifestyle and the required fund to sustain the standard ultimately put pressure on the State Govt. departments and employees, contractors, business communities and public. This has given ample chance of extortion by imposters. It is a tragic fact that undergrounds and NGOs are functioning indirectly with the Grant-in-aids of the GoI to the State. Naga people have concentrated on the military front and overlooked the rapid changes in the society.

It is also important and pertinent to see the other side of the story, Bill Clinton the former US President said on conflict resolution – “to befriend a people you have to understand not only their dreams and hopes but also understand their worst nightmares.” He also stated the one of the hurdles of people coming together is ‘the fear of the other.’ These lessons must be learned by both GoI and Naga nationalists specially for Nagas to resolve their internal differences. Independent India had to solve many issues such as: Communalism of the Hindus and Muslims, the upliftment of the downtrodden, wrought by Caste and Poverty, the threat to security and integrity of India posed by aspirations of separation in Kashmir, Bengal and the Dravidians, later Khalistan and the North-east insurgencies. An outright acceptance of the Nagas’ right, the Indian leaders must have felt, would precipitate separatist movements in the sub-continent.

In political History, there is nothing called permanent. Who in the 19th century would ever have imagined the appearance of a USSR and who in the mid 20th century would ever have imagined it would disintegrate. Hypothetically, a new political dispensation in a new historical period may appear where Hindu fanatics may come to power in India and want to sever all connection with Naga people. The bottom line is every generation must make the best out of the situation available, most prudently for its own good. Nagas have suffered so much for too long, but still the present generation aims to further endure and hope for a better future beyond.

God bless Nagaland.