Is PM Modi giving the Nagas ‘Azadi’?

Has the Centre agreed to Nagaland having a separate constitution, flag, currency and membership of the UN? New Delhi needs to dispel all doubts

A contingent of the ‘Naga’ Army maintained by NSCN at Hebron. NSCN has been collecting tolls, levies, etc. besides what it allegedly receives from New Delhi
A contingent of the ‘Naga’ Army maintained by NSCN at Hebron. NSCN has been collecting tolls, levies, etc. besides what it allegedly receives from New Delhi

Mohan Guruswamy

Social media is now abuzz with the story that government of India has virtually agreed to the separation of Nagaland from India. I have suspected for some time that something was afoot.

The Naga quest for a separate identity independent of India burst into an armed conflict in January 1956 when AZ Phizo assumed full control of the Naga National Council (NNC), which was championing the Naga cause. Phizo took control of the NNC by the simple expedient of murdering T Sakhrie, the Angami leader who was the Secretary of the NNC since its inception. The NNC came into being in 1946 with the encouragement of the British DC of the Naga Hills district of Assam.

Immediately after Phizo took over, 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 the 3

Corps is permanently headquartered in Dimapur.

The cease-fire that has been in place with the dominant NSCN (IM) since 1997 has served to push the Naga issue into obscurity, given the many issues that dominate our public consciousness. The Indian government has been engaged in talks with the NSCN leaders since then through senior interlocutors like K Padmanabhaiah and RN Ravi.

From time to time news would filter out that the contours a settlement were visible, but nothing of consequence came out. On August 3, 2015 the Modi government announced that an agreement was concluded and that the details of it will be kept secret for the present. Why the details of the accord must be kept a secret is best known to the government 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 last year the NIA suddenly withdrew its opposition to bail for Anthony Shimray of the NSCN (IM) who was charged with “conspiring to procure large quantities of arms from foreign countries.”

Judge Amar Nath recorded, “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 NSCN (IM) and the Government of India.”

While the details of the “historic agreement” are still shrouded in secrecy, it is believed that the immediate deal only related to the territory of Nagaland. It seemed agreed that the issue of the other areas of “Greater Nagalim” would be resolved consensually through dialogues with Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

It is likely that the deal will pave the way to an election where the NSCN-IM or a successor political party will be facilitated to secure power through polls, as was done in Mizoram. Now more details are spilling out.

A paper published on March 30 in a widely read blog “Indian Security Affairs” maintained by the highly regarded Maj. Gen. PK Mullick (retd.) (, Lt Gen. JR Mukherjee (retd.), a former corps commander with extensive experience and connections in Assam and the northeastern region, wrote: “ Unauthenticated leaks from reliable sources indicate that points agreed are – a separate constitution and 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 leave it with just the Imphal valley. The unabashed misuse of the office of Governor following the recent elections to install a BJP-led government lends credence to a certain urgency to implement the deal, as the talks have been going on for almost 18 years.

At this stage it will be worthwhile to recall the history. The Naga Hills was the very last British annexation in the sub-continent. That annexation began with the establishment in March 1878 of the chief administrative Centre for the region at 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 Chief Minister of Nagaland and later Governor of Himachal Pradesh, it becomes difficult to categorise the Naga tribes.

Sema has written in his book, Emergence of Nagaland, that while it is possible to categorise the Garos as a Tibetan race, the Khasis as Mongoloids with connections with Thais and Cambodians, and the Mizos with the Chins of Burma, the 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 thirty 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.”

The lingua franca, Nagami, is a still evolving pidgin of Assamese and English with a good bit of Hindi also thrown it. Without it the common people would not be 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.

The third and now possibly the most important factor has been the rapid spread of Christianity in the Naga Hills. The first missionaries went there in 1836 when Reverend Miles Bronson set up a mission in Namsang, now in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tirap subdivision.

But the real impetus to Christianity came after the advent of an American Baptist missionary, Reverend EW Clarke. Clarke’s efforts struck pay dirt when he managed to baptise nine Nagas in 1872. The Baptists never looked back since then and now maintain more than 800 churches and have a majority of Nagas under their fold. While it must be acknowledged that the missionaries have played a pioneering role in establishing modern health and educational facilities, we must not remain unaware of the role of the Baptist Church in creating a new awareness and sense of oneness among the Naga tribes.

The initial impetus to this 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. Given the character of its membership, the Naga Club soon acquired political overtones and became a vehicle to express local aspirations. Thus when the Simon Commission visited the area 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.”

They therefore demanded the return of their liberty when India got her Independence, thus making it very clear that while English rule was acceptable to them, they wanted no part in an independent India, even if it were to be a democracy with a liberal Constitution that guaranteed individual and collective freedom.

After the Japanese defeat, in April 1945, with the active encouragement of Sir Charles Pawsey, the British Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills between 1937-47, the Naga Hills District Tribal Council was set up with the intention of uniting all the Naga tribes. This became the Naga National Council (NNC) the following year.

The initial aspiration of this mother of all later Naga political parties seemed only to get local autonomy within Assam. But on December 6, 1946, T. Aliba Imti Ao, the Secretary of the NNC, addressing a public meeting in Kohima called for the unification of all the Naga tribes and raised a demand for freedom. It is possible to discern the subtle hand of the soon to depart British in this.

The Naga insurgency of 1954 saw the re-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.

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 expenditures.

To compound our problems, the region falls alongside Burma, which is riven with insurgencies and is the world’s major production centre for heroin. Imphal, Kohima and Dimapur are astride one major heroin highway to the outside world. It is bad enough that narcotics and terrorism go hand-in-hand, but now we are faced with a major addiction problem in the region and the indiscriminate use of needles has caught Nagaland and Manipur in a vicious maelstrom of HIV.

India’s long-term security interests, and the steady expansion of Chinese influence in Burma in the areas abutting our borders, equally require our military and administrative presence in the Naga Hills as it is to ensure 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 clearly these are not enough.

But a separate Constitution, flag, currency and membership of the UN might be going a bit too far. Will this not have consequences in other parts of the country like Jammu and Kashmir, where a secessionist war

is raging, and in states like Tamil Nadu where regional nationalism is very strong?

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