Naga village in Myanmar. Photo: Kuku Christina
Khekiye K. Sema
For those living in mainland India, I am about to narrate a true story that has rarely been shared candidly which could cause discomfort to many, and sound unpalatable to others…yet truth must prevail at some point. Let me therefore try and honestly recount the harsh historical realities in perspective.
An even-minded Indian historian would know in no uncertain terms that a race called the Nagas inhabiting the long North Eastern Frontier, which happens to geographically be connected to mainland India, was neither a part of India nor participated in ancient and medieval Indian history. In the first place, ancient India itself did not have a clear unified identity called “India” as we know it today. It was a conglomeration of ‘Independent Princely States’ that happened to be in a compact geographical sub-continent. These princely states were not only at war with one another but were also invaded individually and subjugated by one foreign power or the other over the centuries, with the ever-changing geographical boundaries reshaped in accordance to the fortunes of the conquerors like the Kanishkan or Mughal Empires, for instance, prior to the wholesome consolidation through annexation and colonisation of each independent princely state by the British.
The Mughals perpetuated the initial process but it was the British who finally painted the picture of India as an amalgamated whole. That picture of India that emerged from the chaos therefore did not have an inkling of itself as “India” in a comprehensive sense…let alone being aware of a race called the “Nagas” in the North Eastern Frontier. In fact Nagas themselves did not even begin to see themselves as a common race until head-hunting was terminated by the British sometime in the early 20th Century. The Naga Labour Corps (NLC) that had been requisitioned from the Naga Hills from various tribes to assist the Allied forces during the First World War in France (1917-1918) played a major role in opening the eyes of awareness for the Nagas in discovering each other for the first time as belonging to a common race.
Indian history also records a statesman in the person of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, known as the Iron Man, who has been credited with the absolute unification of modern India after the departure of the British in 1947. He competently incorporated more than 550 princely states into the Indian union, thereby preventing the splitting of the country into miniature nations. Here too, the Nagas were never a part of his accomplishment in the manner of all the other Indian states who acceded to the establishment of the Indian Union. Right from the beginning the Nagas had made it explicitly clear through their “Magna Carta” memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 to leave them out from the British reformation scheme and let them remain “free” as they lived before the advent of the British into their territories. The Nagas officially hoisted their National flag on the 14th August 1947 a day before India hoisted its National flag. Historically speaking, therefore, the Naga national flag is one day older than the Indian national flag.
That India occupied Nagaland is a historical fact. Leaders of post-Independent India did not quite understand the spirit of the Nagas and grossly misjudged the core sentiment of ‘freedom’ as something that a few educated Nagas were being instigated into by Western Christian missionaries. They concluded that such a misguided uprising could be crushed within a couple of months. That crucial misreading that such an uprising could be wiped out in a couple of months is now 73 years old. Thousands of lives have been lost on both sides of the fence.
History amply shows that India has never taken the Nagas seriously and at best has only tolerated their existence as second-class citizens unworthy of being consulted. Among others, the demarcation of India-Myanmar international boundary based on watershed principle is a stark outstanding example of this attitude. Nagas woke up one fine morning to find that their uncles/aunties/ grandfathers/grandmothers had become foreigners. The modern Indian leaders could only perceive the shallow savagery of Nagas head-hunting one another and nothing beyond. They never understood that the naked Nagas fought fiercely to protect their individual village boundaries in an effort to ward off being dominated by others.
Yes, the illiterate Nagas would not have been able to academically define the word “sovereignty” or “independence”, but their very existence was an expression of that “raw freedom” no dictionary could ever define with the precision that the Nagas felt in their carefree lives. This feeling found expression in the plebiscite of 1951 re-affirming their free status and practically displaying their serious intent by boycotting three successive Indian elections after Indian independence. Therefore there can be no doubt as to why the more honest Indians acknowledged the “Unique History of the Nagas” taking these historical facts and realities into consideration. The Nagas are therefore not trying to secede from India. They were never a part of India in the first place. They just want to be left alone with their God-given freedom.
The resolve of the Nagas has been relentlessly tried and tested by India to an inhuman extreme in the past. The Naga hills became killing fields. “Operation Scorched Earth” in the mid-1950s saw villages across the Naga Hills being burnt to ashes along with their granaries, the only wealth that the Nagas ever knew, in order to cut off food supply to the Naga national workers. The whole population of men, women and children from different villages would be herded together like animals without proper shelter under “Grouping” policy which was akin to the Nazi’s concentration camp for the Jews. The only difference was that the Indian Government did not install the gas chambers. Malnutrition, diseases and lack of shelter however did the same job that the gas chambers did for the Nazis.
Consider this: At that time the Naga population was averaging around three lakhs only and with thousands of men, women and children perishing in these “grouping encampments” it was comparable to the slaughter of the Jews in their millions in terms of percentage. Beyond this human degradation, many a time, able-bodied males were shot on sight to ensure that they did not join the national movement. Indian Army units in many cases behaved towards the Nagas like white settlers in America had once done towards Red Indians, following the dictum that “the only good Naga was a dead Naga”. Thousands of Naga women were raped at will by the Indian soldiers. Many were sacrilegiously raped within the confines of churches before the buildings were torched. Suspects were hung upside down with ‘halal’ being performed on them, adding salt and chilly to their freshly sliced flesh.
They would thereafter carry out endless thrashing with gun butts throughout the days and finally bayonet them to death. The sheer sadistic human tragedy of unimaginable proportions went to the extent of disallowing the relatives of the victims from retrieving even the dead bodies which were thrown into gutters for dogs to feed on the mutilated carcasses. Theses gory details of inhuman acts to which many bear witness went unreported because journalists were refused entry into the operational theatre and therefore neither the good people of mainland India nor the international community were aware of such extreme human rights violations being committed. There was a total blackout of news. The Nagas braved these cruelties unwaveringly and still dared to continue their quest for freedom. The shameful atrocities committed by the Indian rejuvenated the fighting spirit of the underground cadres rather than discouraging them.
Despite this dark history, there’s no denying that the Nagas also understand the ground reality as plainly expressed by the Interlocutor, Governor of Nagaland Mr. R.N. Ravi, that the Nagas cannot force India to get out of Nagaland (18th October 2019 at Japfu Hotel conference hall). The Nagas know that they have neither the strength of population nor the military prowess to dictate such a term. It is very much akin to a scenario of a young boy in an ice-cream parlour lovingly holding on to his ice-cream, when along comes a bully who forcefully takes the ice-cream from this little boy’s hands. This little boy knows that he is physically incapable of matching the strength of the bully but his spirit refuses to accept this unjust reality. He fights back knowing full well that he has no chance of winning the argument through brute force against a bully devoid of conscience.
This is precisely the sad story of that little boy called the Nagas fighting India for the past 73 years. It took more than a couple of decades and thousands of deaths for India to realise that this conflict was not resolvable through military force alone. A political solution through dialogue was therefore arrived at as the Indian national policy to tackle this crisis. Despite the excruciating unforgivable past suffered at the hands of the Indian Army, the Nagas too pragmatically opted to negotiate with their Indian adversary rather than face complete annihilation of their race in the hope that decent human beings with conscience and honour still existed at the helm of affairs within the Government of India and amongst the people living in mainland India.
Starting from 1967 the Indo-Naga negotiation began in earnest during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She offered the Nagas everything except sovereignty. It however ran into a deadlock because the Nagas wanted nothing else but sovereignty. The back of the united house of the Naga National Movement however was broken when Shilong Accord of 1975 was signed by some underground elements within the Naga National Council (NNC) and Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) agreeing to accept the Indian Constitution ‘on their own volition’. Mr. A.Z.Phizo, then the figurehead of the National Movement based in London, failed to condemn this contentious “Shillong Accord” despite being repeatedly reminded to do so.
What the Indian Army was unable to accomplish, “Shillong Accord” achieved by splitting the once united Naga National Movement under Naga National Council/Federal Government of Nagaland. Thereafter, Isak Chishi Swu, Th. Muivah and S.S. Khaplang together decided to form National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. The NSCN however split again into NSCN (IM) [Isak/Muivah Faction] and NSCN (K) [Khaplang Faction]. Family planning within the National Workers was now thrown into the dustbin with multiple factions mushrooming overnight, each raising their so-called unabated multiple “sovereignty tax” on the common man. The common man, who is actually the stakeholder, has been reduced to a state of beast of burden for the past half a century by the very national workers who now seem to be fighting for 7/8 different kind of sovereignty that the common man hardly recognizes or appreciates. The stakeholders too have reached the end of the road to say “Enough is enough”.
Times have changed dramatically from the picture of the 1950s. The world is slowly evolving into a global village. Therefore, in spite of the long, difficult road travelled for the past 73 years, the present generation is anxiously looking forward to a time of real peace that has long eluded them. The time to unload the past and gear up for advancement and progress has hopefully arrived.
It is here that the Nagas needs to have the bigness of heart and try to appreciate that India too is a young country in need of magnanimous maturity as a nation, and is yet to understand the core sentiment of the race called the Naga people. The impatience of the Nagas to find a solution is palpable but without paying a price of mutual concessions, roadblocks are inevitable. Under this given unfortunate circumstantial impasse it would seem absolutely rational at this point that each side take a long deep breath and temporarily suspend the issues of sovereignty, integration, constitution and flag for the next 25 years or so. A date to allow a ‘Naga referendum’ to decide whether Nagas would want to stay with India or separately may be set. By then both sides perhaps might attain reasonable maturity.
India knows very well that Nagaland is nothing more than an economic liability but still cannot consider giving up this contentious territory in fear that Nagaland becomes a satellite station to another powerful foreign country that could threaten its very existence. On the other side of the fence, the Nagas treasure their freedom above all else…and for that it should be prepared to concede to the national security concerns of India. Both sides could therefore work on a common platform whereby each ensures the security and identity of the other through a mutually agreed pact, sealed with honour and trust in one another. This is perhaps an option worth considering for both the stubborn contending parties in question, to wind up the uncertainties and avoid further bloodbath for a mutually agreeable lasting peace that both sides could comfortably benefit from. At the end of the day, the words of Jayaprakash Narayan rings true when he expressed his genuine sentiment that “It is better to have friendly Nagas on our frontier than unfriendly and discontented Nagas forcibly kept within the Indian Union.”
The writer is a retired IAS officer. He can be reached at email@example.com