Statehood movements

In Nagaland, old demand for a new state in the east resurfaces in time for Assembly election

Leaders of the statehood movement threaten to boycott the election if the central government does not engage with them.

In Nagaland, the demand for creating a separate state made up of the four underdeveloped eastern districts of Tuensang, Mon, Longleng and Kiphire has resurfaced. The Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, which is spearheading the statehood movement, passed a resolution on December 22 promising to intensify the agitation in the run-up to the Assembly election in February.

S Khoiwang Wangsha, president of the organisation, said the region would boycott the election if the central government did not respond to the demand. “If the situation warrants it, we will ask the 20 MLAs from our region to resign from the Nagaland Assembly immediately,” he said.

The Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, the apex body of the Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Phom tribes, has been discussing the demand with the Centre since 2015. The last meeting was held on July 31.

Explaining the reasons behind their demand, Wangsha claimed the region’s “historical background is completely different” from the rest of Nagaland and that the ruling establishment based in the capital Kohima has neglected it over the years. “We have been treated as second class citizens by the government of Nagaland,” he alleged, “always neglected.”

Complex history

The region’s history is indeed complex. Almost all of present-day Tuensang, Mon, Longleng and Kiphire was declared an “excluded area” by the British. The region was left outside the “Inner Line”, a bureaucratic division separating tea gardens and other areas of commercial interest for the colonial government in the North East from areas that were unadministered or partially unadministered. The excluded areas were not represented in the provincial legislatures.

In 1945, this region was subsumed in the North East Frontier Agency, an administrative division established by the British, as the Tuensang Frontier Division. In 1957, the Tuensang Frontier Division was separated from the North East Frontier Agency and merged with the Naga Hills district of Assam to form a new administrative unit called the Naga Hills Tuensang Area. While the governor of Assam administered the area, it was under the control of the central government’s external affairs ministry.

When the Naga Hills Tuensang Area was separated from Assam to form the state of Nagaland in 1963, Tuensang was given special status. For 10 years, it would not send legislators to the Nagaland Assembly and instead have its own regional commission. In 1973, the region became just another part of the state without any special provision and was subsequently divided into the districts of Mon, Longleng, Kiphire and Tuensang.

Missing development

Toshu Wungtung, adviser to the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation, said being part of Nagaland has not worked out well for the region. “We are yet to see the fruits of development of independent India at all,” he said. “People have received no benefits by being part of Nagaland. The Government of India should just say yes or no [to the statehood demand].”

Indeed, data gathered by the state government shows the eastern districts compare poorly with the rest of the state on most development metrics. The region’s literacy levels are much lower, the unemployment rate is significantly higher, and the health infrastructure is reportedly failing.

Nagalim or Eastern Nagaland?

The latest upsurge of the statehood demand is especially significant because of its timing: it is widely speculated that the final settlement of the Naga question – the Naga Peace Accord as it has come to be called – is around the corner and may happen before the Assembly election. One of the main demands of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the main Naga group that is negotiating the settlement with the central government, is the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas of Nagaland as well as its neighbouring states into the territorial entity called Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland.

Wungtung said the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation supported a quick resolution of the Naga question and insisted that there was no contradiction between its demand for a separate state and the Isak-Muivah group’s call for territorial integration. “We have not been told what exactly is in the framework agreement, so we don’t know,” he said, “but our demand is within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. We just want our own state of Eastern Nagaland.”

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