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Nagaland: One political compromise after another

August 10, 2015 14:52 IST

'The Naga Hills region, Nagaland and Manipur, have had the most uncaring and corrupt state governments with little to show on the ground despite the nation's highest per capita development expenditure,' says Mohan Guruswamy.

To understand the Naga problem better we must first recognise certain historical facts.

The first of these is that 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 centered either in Assam, Burma or India. It is thus very unlike Jammu and Kashmir, which historically was always an intrinsic part of India's politico-cultural milieu.

The Naga tribes are generally considered to be of Tibeto-Burman stock, 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.'

'This,' he writes, '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 still an evolving pidgin of Assamese and English with a good bit of Hindi also 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 yet 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 E W Clarke. His 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 freedoms.

When Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi's Japanese 15th Army launched their attack on March 7, 1944, WWII finally came to India. This attack along the Kabaw valley faltered at Imphal where the famed 4 Indian Division held its ground. For three long months the fate of India teetered on the forested ridges of Manipur as two great armies fought furiously and savagely. The Nagas contributed enormously to the Allied effort.

Field Marshal Sir William Slim wrote in Defeat into Victory: 'The gallant Nagas, whose loyalty never faltered. They guided our columns, collected information, ambushed enemy patrols, carried our supplies, and brought in our wounded under the heaviest fire -- and then, being the gentlemen they were, often refused all payment.'

This spontaneous loyalty was largely motivated by the hope that the British would support their quest for independence. 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 and 1947, the Naga Hills District Tribal Council was set up with the intention of uniting all the Naga tribes. This became 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, T Aliba Imti Ao, the secretary of the NNC, while 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 again 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.

Mercifully today's Indian Army has learnt its lessons well and Indian public opinion is more sensitive to human rights particularly in insurgency-ridden areas. 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 and Manipur, have had the most uncaring and corrupt state governments with little to show on the ground despite the nation's highest per capita development expenditure.

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 does a 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 Constitution does provide some safeguards, but clearly these are not enough.

Image: A member of the Naga Students Union Delhi during a protest in New Delhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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Mohan Guruswamy