The Naga quest for sovereignty burst into an armed conflict in 1956, when AZ Phizo, head of the Naga National Council, announced a parallel government, the Naga Federal Government, with a military wing.

The Naga National Council had come into being in 1946, with the encouragement of the British Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills district of Assam. Over time, the struggle for secession under it began in full form.

The Central government then sent the Army to pacify the rebels. Though eminent leaders of the time like Jayaprakash Narayan chastised Jawaharlal Nehru, for this, he assured critics that the Army would be in the area for just a few months.

More than six decades later, the Indian Army is still deployed in the region and enjoys special powers there, while the 3 Corps is permanently headquartered in Dimapur.

In 1997, a cease-fire was signed with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland’s Isak-Muivah faction, or NSCN (IM) that had been formed to take the nationalism movement forward after the Naga National Council signed a peace accord with the Centre and agreed to lay down arms.

Secret ‘historic’ deal

The ceasefire was meant to find a “peaceful political solution” to the Naga issue but served to push it into obscurity, given the many issues that dominate our public consciousness.

The Indian government has since been engaged in talks with the NSCN leaders through senior interlocutors like K Padmanabhiah 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 would be kept secret for the present. The reasons for the secrecy were best known to the government and its contents had been the subject of some speculation.

However, murmurs over the deal have gathered pace in light of recent events.

Sweet deal?

In August last year, the National Investigation Agency suddenly withdrew its opposition to the bail plea of NSCN (IM)’s Anthony Shimray, who was charged with “conspiring to procure large quantities of arms from foreign countries.” While granting Shimray bail, District Court Judge Amar Nath 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 NSCN (IM) and the Government of India.”

However, the murmurs over the deal really picked up when on March 23, NSCN (IM) general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah issued a statement saying that the agreement with the Centre recognises “the legitimate right of the Nagas for integration of all Naga territories”. The denied that it had agreed to any such demand.

It has been speculated that the 2015 deal only concerned the territory of Nagaland. It was agreed that the issue of the other areas of “Greater Nagalim” – Naga-inhabited areas in neighbouring Northeastern states – a long-pending demand of the NSCN, would be resolved consensually through dialogue with Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, a part of whose territories would have to be carved out if such a region was to materialise.

Now, more details are emerging.

A paper by Lt General JR Mukherjee (retired), a former corps commander with extensive experience and connections in Assam and the Northeastern region, published on March 31 in the widely read Indian Security Affairs blog said:

“Unauthenticated leaks from reliable sources indicate that 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.”

Manipur is strongly opposed to such a plan as it will be left with just the Imphal valley. But unabashed misuse of the office of the governor in the state to install a BJP-led government last month – the saffron party had come second to the Congress in a hung Assembly – lends credence to the speculation that there is a certain urgency in implementing the deal, as the talks have been going on for almost 18 years.

Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP.

History of neglect

A look at the history of the region gives us a little more perspective on the issue. The Naga Hills was the very last territory in the sub-continent annexed by the British. That annexation began with the establishment of the chief administrative centre for the region, which would come under Assam, in Kohima – then a large Angami village – in March 1978.

The Naga tribes are ethnically distinct and separate from the people 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 is difficult to categorise the Naga tribes.

In his book the Emergence of Nagaland, Sema wrote:

  “…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.”  

Their lingua franca, Nagami, is an evolving pidgin of Assamese and English with a good bit of Hindi thrown in. 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 possibly the most important aspect is 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 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 British authorities. Its members were important village headmen, government officials and educated Nagas, including some recent graduates from Indian universities.

Given the nature 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 thus made it 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 freedoms.

Expanding ambitions

In 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 evolved into the Naga National Council 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, Council secretary T Aliba Imti Ao, 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.

In the 1950s, as insurgency peaked, the Indian Army was deployed in the region. Sadly the armed forces’ promise to exterminate terrorism 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 this experience, our political and bureaucratic leadership did not. 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 insurgency and is the world’s major production center 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 areas abutting our borders, require our military as well administrative presence in the Naga Hills but also requires 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 – which upholds Naga customary law – does provide some safeguards, but clearly these are not enough.