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Can Nagas Dump History For Peace?

POSTED ON MAY 23, 2009

WASBIR HUSSAIN
DIRECTOR, CENTRE FOR DEVELOPMENT AND PEACE STUDIES

More than six decades after the Naga rebellion began, making it one of South Asia’s longest running insurgencies, and after twelve years of uninterrupted dialogue between a frontline Naga rebel group and the Indian Government, a new voice has emerged from among the Naga leaders asking if their struggle for ‘full independence’ was practical in today’s changing world order. This is significant because from the time Angami Zapu Phizo, considered the father of Naga insurgency, declared war against the Indian state by announcing ‘independence’ of the Naga areas on August 14, 1947, the Naga insurgents have been pushing for and dreaming of an independent Naga homeland.

The Isak-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or the NSCN-IM—regarded as the most powerful of the three main Naga insurgent factions (the other two being the Khaplang faction of the NSCN and the near defunct Naga National Council formed by Phizo and others in 1946-47)—after years of sticking to the independent homeland idea did indicate a change in stand when it talked of a ‘greater Nagaland’ comprising Naga-inhabited areas of the region along with the existing Nagaland state. But till today, the NSCN-IM has not made it clear whether it sees such a homeland within India or outside it although the group has held more than 60 rounds of peace talks with the Indian government leaders ever since it entered into a ceasefire with New Delhi in August 1997.

It is in this backdrop that the recent brain storming by the influential Naga Students’ Federation (NSF), the apex student organization of the Nagas, on the future of the community bears significance. Ahead of its 23 rd. general conference in April 2009, the NSF produced a concept paper titled ‘Forging Mutual Destiny’ where it noted that ‘generation after generation (of Nagas) had been treading the same road (in the quest for a homeland) without any logical outcome.’ The NSF said: “When the world is advancing rapidly the Naga people are still stuck in the ancient/ancestor’s trend of thought that Nagas can live in isolation with the belief of (achieving) full independence.” The NSF concept paper called for ‘today’s generation’ of Nagas to do a thorough “reality-check”. The student group said ‘Nagas need to realize that the world has become interdependent and not fully independent’.

The Nagas have been talking even today about the ‘uniqueness’ of its history, an argument that has not cut much ice with the Indian Government that wants a solution to the Naga problem within the framework of the country’s Constitution. The Nagas have been sticking to the premise that they were historically independent even before India attained freedom. And this assertion of historicity, if it can be said so, is what triggered the Naga insurrection in 1946. They say Indians had never subjugated them and blame the British for handing over the Naga areas to New Delhi when they withdrew as India attained freedom in 1947. The British, the Nagas would like to argue, came to exercise control over Naga territory after they signed the Treaty of Yandaboo with the Burmese on February 24, 1826 after defeating the latter. The Treaty that brought the curtains down on the first Anglo-Burmese War gave the British control over Assam, of which the Naga-inhabited areas were then a part.

Over the years, Naga insurgent groups have multiplied, mostly after parent groups split into breakaway factions, making things extremely murky on the ground. The NSCN was formed in 1980, and in 1988, it split into two factions—one led by Isac Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah and the other by S. S. Khaplang. Armed campaigns against the Indian state were on until New Delhi signed a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN-IM in 1997, and later with the NSCN-K in 2001. Peace talks are being held only with the NSCN-IM but a solution is nowhere in sight. That the various Naga rebel factions are engaged in violent fratricidal feuds is another story, but none of them have ever openly expressed their willingness to work out an acceptable solution within the ambit of the Indian Constitution. Sections of Nagas are obviously frustrated at the uncertainty of the community at the end of it all.

The NSF’s call for a ‘reality check’ can, therefore, be seen as voice for change—a change in the outlook of those pursuing the Naga dream of an independent homeland. “We need to reassess the idea of our struggle and bring to a logical end without compromising the basic features of an independent nation”, the student group observes. “Time is running out,” the NSF rightly notes and calls for the need to “put our ideas together to see what is within our reach and what is attainable as this moment”. This is indeed a very valid point: the need to realize what is attainable and what is not. The Naga rebels cannot obviously hope to achieve a military victory with the Indian military or security establishment and carve out their dream homeland.

Introspecting further, the NSF has observed that Nagas are not engaged with the entire world as far as its struggle for nationhood is concerned. “But it is with Burma and India to whom we are directly concerned with as half of our home is within the administrative control of Burma and other half within administrative control of India”. In a carefully worded observation, the NSF has stressed on the need to “examine” the growing strength of these two nations and “forge our mutual destiny” accordingly. The student group has also expressed its dismay at the factionalism and lack of unity among the Naga rebel groups although it sought to regard it as ‘inner differences’ that need to be resolved as soon as possible.

Time is running out for the present generation of Naga rebel leaders, the still active top rung being in their seventies. The magic formula lies in their willingness for a compromise. The NSF on its part has called for a solution without compromising the basic features of an independent nation. A separate nation may be far fetched but Nagas can certainly live and prosper as a unique and distinct community within the four walls of India. If an independent homeland or a unified Nagaland (formed with the merger of Naga inhabited areas in the adjoining states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh to the existing Nagaland state) is out as a possible formula for a solution, how does one hope to bring the curtains down to the Naga insurrection? The following questions may be asked:

  • Could it be dual citizenship for the Nagas (a Kashmir-type status through greater devolution of powers under Article 371 (A) of the Constitution had been rejected in the past by the NSCN-IM)?
  • Could Nagaland’s administration, as a feel good factor of the Naga areas being a distinct entity, be brought under the ministry of external affairs (this indeed was a proposal from New Delhi a long time ago)?
  • Could the Nagas get a new autonomy package?
  • Could New Delhi take a re-look at what then Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was supposed to have agreed to examine way back in 1966—a Bhutan-type protectorate status for Nagaland (the Naga National Council led by the father of Naga insurgency, Angami Zapu Phizo, had rejected the idea at that time)?
  • Could Swu, Muivah and other NSCN-IM top guns be simply installed as government leaders to run the affairs of the Nagas in accordance with the Indian Constitution after a deal that gives the Nagas maximum autonomy and some sort of economic independence, and, of course, a proper rehabilitation of the NSCN cadres (this was more or less the model that New Delhi used to clinch the deal with the rebel Mizo National Front in Mizoram in 1986)?
But the question that arises is whether a deal with the NSCN-IM is going to solve the Naga problem. Another question that needs an answer is whether the NSCN-IM is the sole representative of the Nagas, and whether the group reflects the Naga opinion in its totality. The answer is no. The NSF’s call to resolve the “inner differences within the Naga family” could not have been more appropriate.