In his memoirs, SC Dev, a retired official of the Indian Frontier Administrative Services recalls his embarrassment during a tour of Nagaland’s Mokokchung district in 1985. Mokochung is primarily home to the powerful Ao Naga tribe. The area was scattered with gravestones commemorating Naga nationalist fighters who had died battling Indian security forces.

For decades, Naga nationalists have waged an armed struggle for secession from the Indian state. Their demand: a sovereign ethnic homeland that would include Nagaland as well as the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar across the border.

The “offensive” epitaphs on the tombstones in Mokokchung, valourising Naga fighters, were such an “awkward source of discomfiture” for Dev that he ordered subordinate officers “to ensure that all such epitaphs were either erased or destroyed”. A year later, when he returned to the area, he found two tombstones still standing, prompting him to take matters in his own hands. “I visited these two villages with a police force had the memorials taken out, and imposed a fine of Rs 10,000 on each village,” writes Dev.

Nearly 35 years since, most major Naga armed groups have signed peace pacts with the Indian government and Nagaland is largely free of violence. A very different kind of memorial has been constructed in Mokokchung, this time by the state.

On February 1, the Indian Army and the Assam Rifles inaugurated their own “combined” memorial – “Veer Smriti” – in Mokokchung to honour the lives of 357 personnel who had been killed in counter-insurgency operations in Nagaland. “It was necessary to have a memorial that was befitting the supreme sacrifice made by our men in uniform and one which also acts as a beacon of motivation for future generations in the state and country,” said the Assam Rifles in a written statement.

The project, a spokesperson said, was “conceptualised, planned and executed by the Inspector General Assam Rifles (North)”.

Neither the memorial nor the justification has gone down well with Nagas.

‘Calculative insensitivity’

Unlike Dev in the 1980s, Nagas have not asked for the monument to be “erased or destroyed”. But Ao elders as well as a section of the Naga intelligentsia have issued angry “objection” statements. “We are shocked and hurt by this calculative insensitivity,” reads a statement signed by several Naga writers and academics.

The crux of their objection is this: that it was an “asymmetrical” war and Nagas were forced to pick up arms to defend their “homeland”; a memorial in honour of slain Indian security forces personnel on Naga soil was an “insult” to the community.

As Naga peace activist Niketa Iralu said, “We were simply protecting and upholding the dignity of our land and history.”

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Kohima in 1953 (Credit: NagaByBlood/Facebook)

The Naga struggle

This idea of a Naga homeland comes from a centuries-old firmly-held belief among the community that they are a race and nation that is distinct from the rest of India and even other parts of the North East. The colonial government had largely left the Nagas to their own devices after initial attempts to administer them was met with stiff resistance. The first formal representation that Nagas be left out of the Indian administration was made to the Simon Commission in 1929.

In post-Independence India, Nagas organised their own plebiscite in 1951. An overwhelming majority voted for a sovereign Naga nation. As Naga nationalism gained pace, the Indian state sent in the army to put down the rebellion. It led to a long and bloody insurgency.

In 1997, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the largest and most influential of the Naga armed groups on the Indian side of the border, finally signed a peace pact and started talks with the Centre. But progress was painfully slow till 2015, when the Narendra Modi-led government signed a “framework agreement” with the NSCN (IM), giving the peace process a new lease of life.

In 2017, more Naga groups were made part of the talks, broadening the scope of the dialogue. During the course of these negotiations, the Naga armed groups dropped their demand for secession. In October 2019, the Naga armed groups and the Indian government concluded talks and agreed, in principle, to a peace accord. But it is yet to be signed.

A number of Naga public intellectuals called the move to construct a war memorial, even as a peace accord was being finalised, particular jarring. “On one hand, India talks about an honourable solution,” said K Toshinaro Longchar, who teaches peace and conflict in Dimapur’s North East Institute of Social Sciences and Research. “But this war memorial disrespects and undermines the vary basis of the Naga struggle.”

The choice of the memorial’s location has also come in for criticism, particularly from the Aos. Violence was endemic to Nagaland till as recently as the mid-1990s. Mokokchung, once a bastion of Naga nationalism, witnessed some of worst episodes of alleged state repression.

Naga insurgents surrender to the then Nagaland governor BK Nehru in 1973 (Credit: PIB)

Mokokchung memories

According to several independent accounts, on December 27, 1994, members of the Assam Rifles allegedly went on a rampage in Mokokchung town, committing rape, murder and arson, soon after Naga fighters had ambushed a colonel. A citizens’ fact-finding mission threw up some chilling findings: 49 burnt houses, 89 destroyed shops, 12 deaths – seven were shot dead and the rest burnt alive – and eight women raped.

Then there were the burnt villages. It has been a common counter-insurgency practice to empty out whole villages perceived to be sympathetic to militants, isolate the inhabitants in camps and torch their homes to prevent them from returning. Not too far from Mokokchung town, which houses the new war memorial, a village called Mangmetong was allegedly burnt down by security forces 19 times, according to local accounts.

“They burnt down our villages and destroyed our memorial stones in village after village,” claimed Temjem Paul, convenor of the Ao Senior Citizens’ Forum in Mokokchung. “It is not really not right for them to build their own memorial after all that.”

What seems to have frayed tempers further is the that the Army and the Assam Rifles did not consult local residents before embarking on the project. Even the Nagaland government was not in the know, said the state’s chief secretary, Temjen Toy.

“If they treated us as equals, they would have consulted with us or at least bothered to respond to our objection statements,” said Longchar

The Assam Rifle, for its part, said Mokokchung was selected because of its “centrality, richness in culture and because a large number of soldiers were martyred in the district in the line of their duty”.

Whose war, whose memory?

But in Nagaland, the memorial has other meanings. “The Assam Rifles was part of a violent operation against the Nagas and this memorial brings back all those all those old memories of excessive force and needless repression we have still not recovered from,” said Iralu. “We are sorry for the losses of Indian security forces but they don’t seem to understand our losses: by building this war memorial, they seem to be saying they are mightier than the Nagas, that they defeated us.”

Former army officers say it is imprudent to ascribe any “political colour” to a war memorial. “War memorials are built as a mark of respect to soldiers who have laid down their lives in service of the nation,” said retired lieutenant general DS Hooda, former head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command. “It’s not meant as mark of disrespect to anyone.”

But other observers say the Nagas may have a point. “War memorials are generally established for those who have fallen on the side of the victors or so-called ‘good guys’ of any war,” said Jelle JP Wouters, author of In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India. “So clearly a war memorial for Indian soldiers is a political and moral statement.”

This statement became even more evident with the Indian state’s destruction of memorial stones for Naga fighters, Wouters said.

Others argue that what transpired in Nagaland was not a “war” at all. “Wars are fought with the national enemy,” said Nandita Haksar, a rights activist and a long-time observer of the Naga political struggle. “War memorials to soldiers lost in counter insurgency movement against [a country’s] own citizens do not send a good message in a democratic India which is having peace talks with Naga insurgents.”

Iralu was more scathing. The whole affair, he said, reeked of a “thoughtlessness and recklessness” that did not behoove the Indian state: “India is not a failed nation and the Indian army not the army of a banana republic.”