The Naga tribes are ethnically very distinct and separate from the peoples of the Indo-Gangetic plains and peninsular India.
The Naga quest for a separate identity independent of India burst into an armed conflict in January 1956 when A.Z. Phizo assumed full control of the Naga National Council (NNC), which was championing the Naga cause. Immediately, the Naga Hills was declared a disturbed area and put under the control of the Indian Army. At that time eminent Indians like Jayaprakash Narayan chastised Jawaharlal Nehru for sending the Army to “pacify” the Naga Hills. Nehru assured his critics that the Army would be in the area for just a few months. The Indian Army is still deployed in the region and 3 Corps is permanently headquartered in Dimapur. Sadly, the Army’s promise to “exterminate terrorism” might have succeeded in quelling the insurgency but only exacerbated the alienation.
A ceasefire has been in place with the dominant NSCN(I-M) since 1997. The Indian government has been engaged in talks with top NSCN leaders since then through senior interlocutors like K. Padmanabhaiah and R.N. Ravi. From time to time news would filter out that the contours of a settlement were visible, but nothing of consequence emerged. On August 3, 2015, the Modi government announced an agreement had been reached but the details would be kept secret. Why the details of the accord must be kept secret is best known to it, and what exactly it is has been the subject of much speculation? But in recent days certain events suggest that something is afoot.
In August 2016 the NIA suddenly stopped opposing bail for the NSCN(I-M)’s Anthony Shimray, who was charged with “conspiring to procure large quantities of arms from foreign countries”. Judge Amar Nath explicitly said: “The special public prosecutor for NIA states that he has received an email (from the agency) directing him not to oppose the bail application of Shimray. It is submitted that the bail of the accused is important in the interest of peace negotiations between the NSCN(I-M) and the Government of India.”
In an interview with a prominent magazine recently, Shimray, while not quite letting the cat out of the bag, has allowed us a peep into it. He said: “Actually, we proposed a different constitution. But it (the special constitutional provisions for the state of Nagaland under Article 371A) is almost the same. The Government of India made its fears known to us and we respect it. They said we have recognised your rights, you are different; but we can’t afford a different Constitution because there may be demands from (other) states.”
Asked about the powers that would be conferred on the new state, Shimray said: “All kinds of power — judicial, law and order and administrative. In order to protect the security of India, we need to have a joint defence, the Indian Army and the Naga army will (have a) joint defence. That is all in the framework agreement. Naga and India will go as two separate entities. We will be owners of our land and resources.”
In a paper published March 30 in a widely-read website devoted to India’s security affairs and maintained by the highly-regarded Maj. Gen. P.K. Mullick (Retd) (http://strategicstudyindia.blogspot.in), Lt. Gen. J.R. Mukherjee (Retd), a former corps commander with extensive experience, knowledge and connections in Assam and the Northeast wrote: “Unauthenticated leaks from reliable sources indicate that the points agreed are: a separate Constitution???, flag for Nagaland, separate currency and passports for Nagas. Nagaland would have a UN representative, foreign affairs and defence would be a joint subject and a pan-Naga government to cover all Naga-inhabited areas.”
This is why Manipur is agitated as it will reduce the state to just the valley. The unabashed misuse of the office of governor following the recent elections to install a BJP-led government leads credence to a certain urgency to implement the deal.
At this stage it will be worthwhile to recall history. The Naga Hills was the very last British annexation in the subcontinent. That annexation began with the establishment in March 1878 of the chief administrative centre for the region in Kohima, then a large Angami village. This was completed in 1949 when the new Government of India extended its authority to the Tuensang region. Before this, the Naga tribes were independent of the powers centred either in Assam, Burma or India. This is thus very unlike Jammu and Kashmir, which historically was always an intrinsic part of India’s politico-cultural milieu.
The Naga tribes are ethnically very distinct and separate from the peoples of the Indo-Gangetic plains and peninsular India. According to Hokishe Sema, a former Nagaland chief minister and later Himachal Pradesh governor, it becomes difficult to categorise the Naga tribes.
Mr Sema has written in his book Emergence of Nagaland that while it’s possible to categorise Garos as a Tibetan race, Khasis as Mongoloids with connections with Thais and Cambodians, and Mizos with the Chins of Burma, Naga tribes “defy a common nomenclature”. He further writes: “This is because there are no composite ‘Naga’ people, and among them are many distinct tribes having more than 30 dialects, with almost every tribe constituting a separate language group. Moreover, their cultural and social setup varies vastly from tribe to tribe. Even their physique and appearance differ from group to group and place to place. The nomenclature ‘Naga’ has been given to these tribes by outsiders. The lingua franca, Nagami, is a still-evolving pidgin of Assamese and English, with a good bit of Hindi thrown it. Without it, people wouldn’t have been able to communicate with each other. Quite clearly, there is no sound basis to claim a common Naga identity, let alone a nationality, but it is there, thanks to our maladroit ways.”
Another, possibly the most important factor in fostering a sense of separateness been the rapid spread of Christianity in the Naga Hills. While it must be acknowledged that the missionaries have played a pioneering role in establishing modern health and educational facilities, we should not remain unaware of the role of the Baptist Church in creating a new awareness and sense of oneness among Naga tribes.
While the armed forces may have learnt from their experience, our political and bureaucratic leadership never seemed to have learnt anything or worse, forgotten anything. We have since the formation of Nagaland in December 1963 lurched from one political compromise after another. Consequently, the Naga Hills region — Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal — have had the most uncaring and corrupt state governments, with little to show on the ground despite India’s highest per capita development expenditure. India’s long-term security interests, and the steady expansion of Chinese influence in Burma in the areas adjoining our borders, equally require our military and administrative presence in the Naga Hills as it does a general stability. The answers to these can only be found in new and innovative political and administrative arrangements that factor not just the culture of the Naga tribes but also the geography of the Naga Hills. Article 371A of the Indian Constitution does provide some safeguards, but these may not be enough. But a separate constitution, flag, currency, army and membership of the UN might be going a bit too far. Will this not have consequences in other parts of the country, such as Jammu and Kashmir, where a secessionist war is raging, and in states like Tamil Nadu, where regional nationalism is very strong?