“During 1917 my father Dr. Khosa Zinyii went to France along with the Naga Labour Corps as we are under the British rule. Unfortunately, many people lost their life and few came back home through the grace of God in May & June 1918 with great difficulties. While seeing the life of other countries, we thought that we also should become free from all our bondages and should have Independent and Sovereign Country until and unless we do that, we will be continued to be the slaves of other always in our life times. With this in view, those who have come back home and along with some elite people in our land, we formed the Naga Club at Kohima on 31st October 1918.”

So runs a column in the Eastern Mirror, a Nagaland daily. Like so many other aspects of the Naga Club, the first pan-Naga organisation, its founding date is lost in speculation. Some accounts suggest it was November 24, 1918. Another school of thought holds that the club was formed in January 1918, before the members of the Naga Labour Corps returned home.

The Naga Students’ Federation commemorated 100 years of the club on October 31. The Naga Club itself, which was reconstituted in 2017, decades after it went dormant, unveiled a centenary monolith on November 29 in Jotsoma village.

But on some matters at least, there is little public dispute. The Naga Club put forward “the first articulation of our aspirations,” said Theja Therie, convenor of the programme committee for the November 29 event. “Our struggle continues till today.”

The Centenary Monolith. Image courtesy: AIR Kohima/Facebook

The Simon Commission

Therie was referring to the Naga Club’s main claim to fame: a memorandum submitted to the Simon Commission in 1929. The British had set up the Commission to report on the progress in constitutional reforms in the country. The club was represented by 20 employees of the colonial government who signed off on the petition. They included Angami, Lotha, Sema, Rengma and Sema Nagas, and even a Kuki interpreter. Curiously, the British deputy commissioner at Kohima was said to be the “guiding light” for the petitioners, though there is some dispute over what role he played in it.

The memorandum has been described as “the first collective expression of Nagas (even if only some tribes are represented) about their identity as separate people and [that] they are different from India and even from other communities in North East”. Its main demand: that the Nagas be left out of the reformed scheme of administration that the Simon Commission was contemplating for British India. It expressed anxieties that the “introduction of foreign laws and customs” may supersede Naga customary laws. Significantly, it referred to Naga areas as “our country”, populated by eight tribes that were different from one another but also engaged in intermittent war with the Assamese in the North and the West as well as the Manipuris in the South. Most keenly, it asserted the need to be sequestered from any native Indian government, should it come to be.

“If the British government, however, wants to throw us away, we pray that we should no be thrust into the mercy of the people who could never have conquered us themselves, and to whom we were never subjected but leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times.”

— Naga Club memorandum.

Under the British, the Nagas had largely been left alone. The colonial administration, which wanted to protect its commercial interests in the Assam and Imphal Valleys, responded to the periodic incursions of the hill tribes by drawing the “Inner Line” through a legislation in 1873. It cordoned off the valleys of Assam and Manipur; the territories beyond were known as un-administered areas, later christened “backward tracts”. Any British subject who ventured there required a special permit.

For the British administration, according to some readings, the line may have separated those whom it deemed fit for governance from those it considered ungovernable. For the Nagas, it was an acknowledgment of their political and cultural distinctness, a recognition that they could not be subjected to external rule.

According to the Naga Student Federation, which issued a concept note before its centenary ceremonies on October 31, the memorandum of 1929 led to Naga areas being renamed “excluded areas” in 1935, “in the background of the Britisher’s own experience where they could never subjugate a large majority of Naga areas under their colonial rule for over a hundred years”.

In the battlefields of France

Most Naga histories speak of how a dawning consciousness that the Nagas were a nation, united in all their diversity and distinct from other peoples of the subcontinent, led to the formation of the club after the First World War. The son of one member of the Naga Labour Corps mentioned more immediate concerns.

One member of the Naga Labour Corps was Khosa Zinyu, the father of the late Jasokie Zinyu, former chief minister of Nagaland. Jasokie Zinyu had reportedly said that the idea of forming the Naga Club took root after seeing the “European Club at the Town Hall Kohima, where all the white People in the HQ in those bygone days used to gather every evening for Drinking, Dancing, Singing and spending their leisure together in recreation”.

No non-whites were allowed into that club so “native government servants” formed their own. According to this account, it was the government-employed elite who established the Naga Club under the encouragement of the British deputy commissioner rather that the former members of the Naga Labour Corps, who returned to their villages after the war.

Another account suggests that the club was more diverse, including government servants, village chiefs and elders, as well as members of the Labour Corps, now regarded as heroes. Either way, it might have been the war that brought an experience of social fluidity, that broke down walls between various Naga tribes, that prompted the colonised to demand the same freedoms the coloniser had, whether it was to drink, dance and sing in a club hall or to determine their own political future.

From June 1917, companies of the Indian Labour Corps started being shipped into Marseilles in France so that white personnel could be transferred to combatant positions, writes historian Radhika Singha. Soon, this would swell to a non-combatant force of 50,000 men, including “primitive hill-men” from the Assam-Burma Hills. Some 2,000 Nagas are believed to have been part of this number, assembled by the British deputy commissioner in Kohima. The first batch set sail in April 1917, so the journey would have taken an arduous two months.

As Singh points out, the label “coloured” or “native labour” justified harsher work conditions and disciplinary regimes. Workers were crammed into the lower decks of ships and then into barracks or camps within reach of fire from enemy lines, kitted out in coarse cloth and barred from seeing much of the country they had been transported to. British administrators grappled with the problem of how to deal with “simple” beings who had been pitched into the theatre of an industrial war, arranging companies along ethnic lines, characterising Indian labour as “frail” and slower than their counterparts from other colonies, which apparently necessitated longer work hours and disciplinary measures, writes Singha. But these “primitive people who had never been beyond their own villages” – so the war propaganda described them – were crafting their own forms of agency.

Companies organised along ethnic lines grew more tightly knit as they worked together, cementing the formation of modern ethnic identities. Besides, Singha observes, there were acts of ingenuity, skills of making-do, not just to soften harsh work environments but also to add efficiency to the war effort. There was also some space for fraternisation with British and Dominion forces. Food and hospitalities were extended to such forces, while skills such as darning socks and playing football were acquired. The Indian Labour Corps were never given the status of combatants in the First World War. But, Singha writes, “by creating suggestive equivalences between themselves and other military personnel, they sought to lift themselves from the status of coolies to that of participants in a common project of war service”.

The Centenary Monolith. Image courtesy: AIR Kohima/Facebook

Organising Naga-ness

These solidarities and projects of self-esteem seem to have translated into new political formulations back home. The club shaped the idea of “Naga-ness”, a common identity to be protected and eventually fought for. “The Naga Club not only protected our proud Naga identity but also planted the growth of organised movements,” said the concept note by the Naga Students’ Federation.

Therie draws a direct link from the memorandum of 1929 to the formation of the Naga National Council in 1946 to the plebiscite held by the council in 1951, where the overwhelming majority voted for Naga sovereignty. As the Indian Army advanced on the region, Naga leaders went underground and took up arms, giving rise to one of the oldest militancies in India. The imagined country these armies have fought for is “Nagalim” or “Greater Nagaland”, comprising Nagaland as well as contiguous Naga-inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Burma. The “Naga political question”, as it came to be known, awaits a resolution with the largest armed outfit, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah faction), backed by six other groups, deep in talks with the Union government.

As for the Naga Club, it largely disappeared from public view after the great push of 1929. After 1983, the executive committee stopped being constituted and the old club building was taken over by the Naga Students’ Federation, which still works out of there. In 2017, after 34 years, the Naga Club was resurrected. This iteration of the club was to be a socio-cultural organisation. Members say it is modelled on the lines of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, the literary body formed in 1917, which marked the beginnings of Assamese nationalism.

Early on, the club ran into some controversy, with one bureaucrat saying that only descendants of the original Naga Club must be allowed to become members. This suggestion was rejected. Then, it was said that the new club stood only for the Nagas of Nagaland and not for those in neighbouring states. This prompted the chairman to put out a note of clarification saying: “the Naga Club was not for any particular tribe or community or religion. It is for all Nagas.”

The separate centenary celebrations also gave rise to some chatter. “It has given out the wrong impression that we are divided but our aspirations are not divided,” said Therie, ruefully. The newly-formed club does not want to take a “political stand” on the Naga question for now, but is still animated by the dreams of 1929. “To govern ourselves, to determine our own political future, that spirit is still there,” said Therie.