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Nagaland: a long road to peace

The Nagas have struggled for self-determination and ethnic recognition. Picture shows Naga men performing a traditional war dance at Kisama village in Kohima during the Hornbill festival. FILE PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR

The Nagas have struggled for self-determination and ethnic recognition. Picture shows Naga men performing a traditional war dance at Kisama village in Kohima during the Hornbill festival. FILE PHOTO: RITU RAJ KONWAR   | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar;Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

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It is a 97-year-old struggle. To initiate even the beginnings of closure is a major breakthrough. And to have achieved that by recognising the Naga people’s pride, culture and history crowns the accord with renewed hope

Poignancy, laced with a sense of Naga pride and aspirations, can best describe the responses to the August 3 Naga Peace Accord signed between the NSCN (I-M) and the government of India. This can only be understood by talking to those living in Nagaland. On August 4, I received an early morning phone call from Zunheboto town (Zunheboto in Sumi dialect refers to a flowering shrub) in Nagaland. The sober voice of one of my young Naga friends broke the silence across the miles as she whispered, “Sister, finally, we do have closure, right?” followed by a spell of silence pregnant with meaning. I knew that she was brimming with emotions — pride amidst hurt; dignity amidst insecurity. I recalled Martin Luther King, Jr.’s lines from the movie Selma: “this is a demonstration of our dignity”.

That is what the Naga struggle has meant to me: a demonstration of the Nagas’ pride and dignity as a people. This, notwithstanding the violence and the insurgency, the fear and the insecurity and a life lived in uncertainty. Naga-inhabited areas resonate with a sense of unique history and culture — the National Socialist Council of Nagaland NSCN (Isak-Muivah) represents both.

Where it began

The ethnic Naga movement began its journey in 1918 with the formation of the Naga Club by 20 Naga members of the French Labour Corps, who had served in World War-I in Europe. The wartime knowledge motivated the few who came in contact with the European battlefield to politically organise themselves as a distinct ethnic entity. It also aroused in them a feeling of Naga nationalism, which shaped the idea of a ‘Naga nation’.

The Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929, in which it stated that the people of Naga areas and those of mainland India had nothing in common between them and hence the Nagas should be left alone. In 1946, Naga National Council (NNC), a successor to the Naga Club, was formed under the leadership of A.Z. Phizo. Phizo, with the collaboration of eight other Nagas, declared Naga independence on August 14, 1947. In a 1951 speech, Phizo argued, “In the name of the Naga National Council and on behalf of the people and citizens of Nagaland, I wish to make our stand and our national position clear. We are a democratic people, and as such, we have been struggling for a Separate Sovereign State of Nagaland in a democratic way through constitutional means as it is so called. We shall continue to do so”.

It is important to note that several efforts were made to resolve the Naga issue. On June 27-28, 1947, the Akbar Hydari Agreement was signed between the then Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari and the NNC, in which the Nagas’ right to freely develop themselves was respected. However, Clause 9 of the Hydari Agreement created divisions as it stated, “The Governor of Assam as the Agent of the Government of the Indian Union will have a special responsibility for a period of 10 years to ensure the observance of the agreement, at the end of this period the Naga Council will be asked whether they require the above agreement to be extended for a further period or a new agreement regarding the future of Naga people arrived at”. This was interpreted by the NNC as terminating in sovereignty.

The NNC took to arms in 1955. Indian security forces responded with counter-insurgency operations, which resulted in the imposition of the Assam Disturbed Areas Act on the Naga Hills on August 27, 1955. This later became the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, further amended in 1972.

Those were turbulent times in Naga history, with the landscape plagued by violence, counter-insurgency and civilian deaths. The hills came alive with a complex mix of political ideology, a desire for self-determination, ethnic alignments and tribal divisions. It was not an easy situation to deal with. The insurgency and the deployment of armed forces resulted in civilian deaths.

In 1963, as a mechanism for conflict resolution, the Nagaland State was established. Yet, the insurgency continued, as most Naga inhabited areas were left outside the purview of the new State. In 1964, a Nagaland Peace Mission was created and a ceasefire agreement was signed that lasted till 1968. After years of violence, another effort at peace was attempted with the signing of the Shillong Accord in 1975, where the NNC members agreed to give up violence and accept the Indian Constitution.

However, Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu, then members of the NNC, interpreted the Shillong Accord as a complete sellout and revolted, going on to form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. S.S. Khaplang, who now heads NSCN (K), was a member of the unified NSCN that split in 1988 to form the two divisions: NSCN (I-M) and the NSCN (K).

Looking ahead

This history of the struggle is important as a backdrop to understand the significance of the Naga peace accord signed on August 03. NSCN (I-M) under Muivah and Swu have held to the ceasefire since its signing in 1997.

The ceasefire by NSCN (I-M) attained greater significance after NSCN (K) abrogated its ceasefire on March 27, 2015. Also, unlike NSCN (K), whose leader Khaplang has failed to maintain unity within the group, the NSCN (I-M)’s leaders and cadres have stayed with it since 1988.

Where the NSCN (I-M) has succeeded while groups like NSCN (K) have failed is in establishing a presence across all Naga-inhabited areas. It has achieved this by holding regular People’s Consultative Meetings (PCMs) with groups such as the Naga Hoho; Naga Students’ Federation; Forum for Naga Reconciliation; and the larger Naga civil society across States.

The PCMs have reinforced the much-needed local social networks that are the mainstay of any insurgent group. This largely representative structure has also kept violence in check and created an accountability mechanism where aspirations for Naga dignity and pride have taken centre stage.

It is notable that the NSCN (I-M) has shown flexibility in relegating the sovereignty clause to the background and bringing to the fore the issue of Naga identity — a more negotiable factor with the Central government.

Consequently, as I read through the Prime Minister’s speech at the signing ceremony that set the framework for a peaceful resolution to the Naga insurgency, his emphasis on restoring a sense of dignity, pride and respect to the Naga people stood out. This, as the 97-year-old Naga struggle will tell you, is the core issuefor the Nagas — a recognition of their history, dignity and culture.

The details of the Accord are yet to be made public, especially on how the NSCN (I-M)’s complicated political demand for a ‘Greater Nagalim’, comprising areas in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur will be negotiated. However, the biggest breakthrough is that the group has agreed to give up violence and resolve all issues peacefully. For now, this Accord has ushered in hope, bringing joy mixed with poignant memories to my friend from Zunheboto… and that matters the most.

( Dr. Namrata Goswami is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. E-mail: [email protected])

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2019 8:25:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/nagaland-a-long-road-to-peace/article7504003.ece

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