Nagaland state spans over 6,500 sq.m. and has a population of about two million.
The Narendra Modi government is struggling with itself to find a suitable solution to the Naga problem. It often seems that it has hammered out an agreement, but is afraid to bite the bullet. Especially since that bullet might get stuck in its gullet with demands for similar arrangements from Kashmir, and who can tell — from southern India too?
Speaking at a meeting in August 2017 in Dimapur with six Naga groups, including breakaway factions of the NSCN, government interlocutor R.N. Ravi said: “The Government of India is an abstract body and remains the Government of India. Its character depends on the personality of the leader who is heading it… Its character will change with the change in leadership. The Prime Minister, who is taking so much interest, keeps asking me (about the progress of the talks). I can see the urgency on his part. We must not waste time.” Mr Ravi, was also chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), had been negotiating with only the NSCN (IM) since August 2014. He alluded to a possible solution that will be “of 100 per cent satisfaction to all” assured that the Naga issue will be settled on the principle of equality and mutual respect. Interestingly enough, Mr Ravi has just been appointed governor of Nagaland, lending credence to the notion that something new is brewing to cap the decades-old flames of Naga separation.
What is this solution that offers “100 per cent satisfaction to all”? Clearly, what seems to be in the anvil is a solution envisaging “co-sovereignty” and was the unstated agreement with the leader of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), Thuingaleng Muivah, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August 2015. Speaking then, Muivah said that this Framework Agreement “will give the Nagas maximum sovereign power to grow into a developed political people and it will also strengthen the security of India”. The details of this “historic” agreement were never spelled out. In May last year, Muivah reiterated that the Government of India has accepted the demand for greater Nagaland, creating ripples in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh. This announcement came a month after Prime Minister Modi declared that the framework of agreement signed between the government of India and NSCN (IM) contains nothing against the interests of Manipur.
The questions now are, what can Mr Modi give and what does the Naga leadership want? Muivah, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur, says: “The political concept of NSCN is rooted in a sovereign state and government. It is so because sovereign government can make people grow and develop their land into their fullest size.” A “100 per cent satisfaction to all” solution has to find a bridge between this and the Constitution of India. Two comments by people who should know seem to indicate what is on the anvil.
In March 2017, 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.”
In August 2017, the NIA suddenly stopped opposing bail for Anthony Shimray, the top NSCN (IM) official 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 interests of peace negotiations between the NSCN(I-M) and the Government of India.”
In an interview with a magazine recently, Mr Shimray 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, Mr 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.”
Nagaland state spans over 6,500 sq.m. and has a population of about two million. Till 1963 it was a district of the composite Assam state. There are 35 Naga tribes, of which only 16 live in Nagaland state. Several big tribes such as the Tangkhul live in other states. There are also a few Naga tribal groups in Myanmar. Together, it is estimated that the total number of Nagas is close to 3.5 million. The Naga quest for a collective identity thus extends well beyond Nagaland and involves the dismemberment of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, and some parts of Myanmar. This Naga homeland is what is now called Nagalim.
The neighbouring state of Manipur (pop.2.85 million) has a long and distinct identity and was an independent princely state in British India and became a part of the Indian Union in 1949. It is unique among the northeastern states, being the only one with a Hindu majority. The Vaishnavite Meiteis constitute 54 per cent of the population. A quarter of Manipur’s tribal people are non-Naga tribes like the Kuki, Paite and Hmar. The Tangkhul, who are in the forefront of the Naga movement, comprise only six per cent of Manipur, or less than 200,000, still putting them among the bigger Naga tribes.
To understand the Naga problem better, we must first understand certain historical facts. The first of these is that 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 at Kohima, then a large Angami village.
The Naga tribes are generally considered to be of Tibeto-Burman stock. According to Hokishe Sema, a former chief minister of Nagaland and later governor of Himachal Pradesh: “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’ is given to these tribes by outsiders.”
What now seems to bind the Naga tribes together is the rapid spread of Christianity in the Naga Hills. The first Baptist missionaries went there in 1836, when Reverend Miles Bronson set up a mission in Namsang. The Church has never looked back since then, and now maintains more than 800 churches and a majority of Nagas under its fold.
The initial impetus to this Naga unity was provided in 1918 by the setting up of the Naga Club, with the tacit encouragement of the British authorities. Its members were important village headmen, government officials and educated Nagas, including some recent graduates from Indian universities. When the Simon Commission visited in January 1929, the Naga Club pleaded: “We pray that we should not be thrust to the mercy of the people who could never have conquered us themselves, and to who we were never subjected; but to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times.”
The Naga insurgency of 1954 saw the entry of the Indian Army once more into the region. Sadly, the Indian Army’s promise to “exterminate terrorism” mostly degenerated into an indiscriminate and often lawless campaign of terror and destruction. It might have succeeded in quelling the insurgency, but only exacerbated the alienation. The alienation persists. We have since the formation of Nagaland in December 1963 lurched from one political compromise after another. The spate of racist attacks on northeasterners in the Delhi-NCR region has only added to the alienation.
Article 371A of the Indian Constitution specific to the Nagas does provide some safeguards. However, most Nagas believe that Article 371A confers on them a unique level of independence. Justice Hotoi Khotoi Sema, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, recently clarified to his fellow Nagas that Article 371(A) of the Constitution, which grants special provisions to the state of Nagaland, has been “misinterpreted, misunderstood and misused” largely due to “lack of communication’ between the executive and the common people”. The Nagas think that because of Article 371(A), other provisions of the Constitution like equality for women are not applicable in the state. Justice Sema reminded them that the state of Nagaland itself is a creation of the Constitution, and the people of Nagaland too are bound by the Constitution. Just as the Government of India is bound by that Constitution. So what is the “creative solution?”