Explainer: What the Naga insurgency is all about

The Naga demand for separate nationhood is pre-Independence
Explainer: What the Naga insurgency is all about
Explainer: What the Naga insurgency is all about
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The Indian government has signed a peace accord with one of the biggest insurgent groups in the north-east, but the contents of that agreement and the Indian government’s position on the demand for Naga sovereignty and nationhood are still unclear. 

On Monday, the government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) signed a peace accord, and the only known detail of the accord is that a ceasefire has been agreed upon until April 27, 2016.

Naga Nationalism

In January 1929, a delegation of Naga people under the banner of the Naga Club (formed in 1918) made a representation to the Simon Commission which had been tasked with the study of constitutional reforms. They asked to be left alone, because they did not identify the rest of the people of India, and because they wanted to protect their culture. 

“Our language is quite different from those of the plains and we have no social affinities with the Hindus or Mussalmans. We are look down upon by the one for “beef” and the other for our “pork” and by both for our want in education, is not due to any fault of ours.” “new and heavy taxes will have to be imposed on us, and when we cannot pay, then all lands have to be sold and in long run we shall have no share in the land of our birth and life will not be worth living then. Though our land at present is within the British territory, Government have always recognized our private rights in it, but if we are forced to enter the council the majority of whose number is sure to belong to other districts, we also have much fear the introduction of foreign laws and customs to supersede our own customary laws which we now enjoy”. - Naga representation to the Simon Commission

Following this, the British government classified the Naga Hills, which were then part of Assam state, as “excluded areas” in 1935.

The formation of the Naga National Council in 1946 signaled the “foundation of Naga consciousness”, Sanjoy Hazarika and Charles Chasie write in their paper "The State Strikes Back: India and the Naga Insurgency".

The NNC reasserted the position of the Naga Club, and spoke of all the Naga people as a single cultural entity despite the many complex differences among them.

Another group, called the Naga National League was formed in September 1946 to struggle for the unification of the Naga areas of Manipur with the Naga district of Assam. (Manipur was a separate kingdom before British annexation). In 1948, two of its leaders were jailed in Calcutta’s Dum Dum central jail, Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray write in their book The Judgement That Never Came.

In June 1947 the NNC signed an agreement with the then Assam Governor which granted them special rights and privileges. But at the end of 10 years, the NNC would be asked if they wished to continue or draw up a new agreement.

However, Assam Governor Sir Akbar Hydari died soon after and both New Delhi and the NNC rejected the agreement. This lead to the NNC declaring independence on August 14, 1947, but to no effect.

The Nagas had unwillingly become subjects of the Indian government, and the government in Assam showed “neither sensitivity to their concerns nor appreciation of their history”, Hazarika and Chasie wrote.

In 1949, the “charismatic” Angami Zapu Phizo was picked as the head of the NNC, and it was he who pushed aggressively for independence from India. In 1951, Phizo organized a referendum on the question of Independence and even though he claimed that 99 percent of Nagas were in favour of it, the referendum had only been conducted in some areas of the Naga Hills. The NNC boycotted the country’s first general elections.

One incident however embarrassed the then prime minister Nehru, and may have increased the disconnect between New Delhi and the NNC. During a meeting in Kohima, between Nehru and his Burmese counterpart Thakin Nu in 1953, the NNC requested that Naga elders be given an audience with Nehru.

However, they were prevented by a bureaucrat, and the NNC staged a walk-out. When peaceful means did not yield any result, many Nagas joined the Phizo’s Naga Federal Army formed in March 1956 along with an underground government called the Naga Federal Government. Phizo left Naga Hills in 1956 and lived in London. Phizo continued his quest for independence from there until his death 1990.

In 1958, the Indian government had passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and used it to crackdown on a political uprising. In the 1950s and 60s, especially after the enactment of AFSPA, many of the Naga Army’s cadres were arrested, tortured and killed.

In 1963, the government of India created the state of Nagaland. Between 1964 and 1968, a Peace Mission attempted to reach a solution that would be acceptable to all stakeholders, but it too fell through.

Chronicling talks during Indira Gandhi’s time in his book The Naga Story – The First Armed Struggle in India, senior journalist Harish Chandola says: “Government participants did not pay attention to what the Naga delegation was saying… whoever came to negotiate with the Nagas said just one thing: accept the Indian Constitution. Nobody tried to explain what it contained. The implementation of Indian Constitution in Nagaland had been very brutal, leading to raids on villages, searches, arrests, interrogations, forced labour, disappearance and killings. All these were not in the Constitution.”

In 1972, the government banned the NNC under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act of 1967.

In 1975, a Naga “underground organization” signed the Shillong Accord, accepting India’s Constitution “without condition”.  This eventually led to the formation of splinter group in 1980, called the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, led by Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and SS Khaplang (a Burmese national).

Khaplang broke away in 1988 because of tribal differences forming his own group, the NSCN (Khaplang). Both NSCN (Isak-Muivah) and NSCN (Khaplang) wanted a Greater Nagalim (greater Nagaland) comprising the Naga inhabited areas in Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and even portions of neighbouring Burma.

Other factions and grouping have emerged since, displaying their strike capabilities. Ceasefire agreements and peace talks have been held, to no avail. There have also been numerous casualties, and allegations of attacks, torture, rape and killings of civilians by the armed forces have been high but never investigated.

In August 1997, the government of India and the NSCN (IM) signed a ceasefire agreement and held more than 80 rounds of talks that appear to have gone nowhere.

Major demands

The NSCM (IM) has two major demands: sovereignty for Nagaland, and the unification of all Naga inhabited areas. The Indian government has rejected both. Other states too are wary of territorial reorganization.

The Indian government’s position When the British Parliament’s passed the Indian Independence Act and the Extra Provincial Act, they empowered the Indian government to continue to administer the Naga Hills. ‘Thus, on the basis of its right as “inheritor” of British colonial power, the government of India refused to recognize the Naga case,’ Hazarika and Chasie write, adding that this was why India considers the Naga movement as secessionist.

Historical context

Hazarika and Chasie say that Naga history is a “fiercely independent” one “with each village existing as an independent sovereign republic”. It was the village leadership’s support that underpinned the insurgency, and it was this, which was targeted by the armed forces.

The Nagas had lived for centuries in near isolation even though they had internal conflicts, and also wars with the Ahom rulers of medieval Assam and the Shan region of Burma. 

This isolation was disturbed when the British tried to build a land route in 1932, to connect Assam and the then kingdom of Manipur after the annexing the two territories in 1826. A series of battles followed, ending only in 1880 with the battle of Khonoma in which the Nagas were “besieged for about four months and starved out”. 

(All information in this article is based on the following sources:

The State Strikes Back Back: India and the Naga Insurgency by Charles Chasie and Sanjoy Hazarika, published by East-West Center

The Judgement that Never Came - Army Rule in North East India by Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray

Overview: Insurgency and Peace Efforts in Nagaland, published by the Centre for Development and Peace Studies)

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