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While several ceasefire agreements and peace deals have been signed in the past, this time protests broke out in neighbouring Manipur fearing loss of territorial integrity! Similar concerns are being expressed in Nagaland’s neighbouring states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
However, on Tuesday, November 19, Union Minister of State for Home GK Reddy attempted to allay fears of neighbouring states saying that they would be consulted before any final decision was made on the subject. Replying to a written question in the Lok Sabha Reddy said, “All stakeholders, including the states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, will be duly consulted before any settlement is arrived at with the Naga groups and their concerns taken into consideration.” He also said that considerable progress has been made in the ongoing talks and almost all Naga groups are engaging with the government.
Additionally, the demand for a separate constitution and flag had also ruffled feathers as it virtually grants Nagaland the status of an entity distinct from India. This had held up the agreement and there were fears that the deadline to finalise it would lapse. However, on October 31, the Naga nationalists appeared to soften their stand on the matter of a separate constitution and agreed for a “conditional flag” to be used for non-government purposes. Therefore, now the demand appears to be more along the lines of shared sovereignty and peaceful coexistence.
To understand why the entire region is watching the ongoing Naga deliberations like a hawk, let us first understand the genesis and evolution of the issue.
Pre-independence: Naga Hills district
A region with a large population belonging to Naga tribes came under the control of the British in 1881. In 1886, it was named the Naga Hills district. From 1875 to 1910 several other regions inhabited by various Naga tribes such as the Lotha Nagas, Ao, Sema Nagas and Konyak Nagas were annexed by the British and added to this district.In 1912, the Naga Hills district was made a part of the Assam Province.
Naga tribes also played a role in the struggle for independence from the British. When the Simon Commission visited the Naga Hills in January 1929, the Nagas submitted a memorandum that read, “…we should not be thrust to the mercy of other people who could never subjugate us, but leave us alone to determine ourselves as in ancient time.” This may be viewed as the first indication of the Naga people’s desire for sovereignty.
Naga spiritual leader Haipou Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu were key leaders of the struggle against British colonists. Jadonang was martyred at 26, and Gaidinliu who joined the resistance at the tender age on 13, went on to be taken prisoner on October 17, 1932, when she was just 16 years old! She was only released after India gained independence.
Under the Government of India Act, 1935 the Naga Hills district was declared an excluded ‘area’. It came to be administered by the Governor of Assam. In 1945, the Deputy Commissioner of the district Charles Ridley Pawsey established the Naga Hills Tribal Council which evolved into the Naga National Council(NNC) in 1946.
The Naga Council – Akbar Hyderi Agreement, 1947
In June 1947, the NNC and Assam Governor Akbar Hyderi initiated negotiations to settle the Naga issue by way of an interim political and administrative arrangement.
As per the agreement, the Nagas were granted varying degrees of judicial and administrative autonomy. The Naga Council was also granted taxation rights. The Governor of Assam and the Government of India were to ensure the observance of the agreement for a period of 10 years, following which a decision was to be taken to either extend the agreement or enter into a fresh one. The agreement may be viewed here:
However, the clause about the 10-year period has been interpreted by the two sides differently. While the Nagas saw it as independence from India after 10 years, India took it to mean that a new agreement would be entered into should the present one fail to address all concerns sufficiently.
However, this was not acceptable to the NNC and on August 14, Angami Zapu Phizo declared Nagaland’s independence, a move India did not find acceptable.
Post-independence: The growth of Naga nationalism, rise and fall of AZ Phizo
The movement for a sovereign Nagaland continued after Indian’s independence from British colonists. In 1949, Phizo became chairman of the NNC that now sought to secede from India. To this effect, Plebiscite Day was observed on May 16, 1951, where Phizo made a passionate appeal for Naga sovereignty in a speech saying, “Prior to the transference by the British of their administrative authority and controlling over – that is, military and police – into the hands of Indians, we had talked to the British for our Independence. But there again we made a mistake. We had not put it in writing for record. Anyway, we the Naga people declared ourselves Independent on the 14th of August, 1947, and on the same day we informed India by telegram, and cabled to UNO for information and record.”
Phizo continued, “Since then, we have tried to settle our political issue with India on various occasions. But we have not been successful. As a result we have gathered here together in order to try to convince India of our inherent right to be free and equal to any other nation as a distinct people. This time, and from now on, we shall put everything into writing. We shall see to it that our talk do not end in mere words.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 perfectly clear. We are a democratic people, and as such, we have been struggling for of a Separate Sovereign State of Nagaland in a democratic way through constitutional means as it is so called. We shall continue to do so.”
In the same speech, Phizo went on to address each of India’s key arguments against granting Nagaland independence. He said, “The first argument is about the “menace” of China and Burma. They always say this trying to scare us which we do not have the least thing to worry.”
“The second argument is what they called “strategy” for security of India. Just as much as India needs precaution for her security other countries also require the same precaution. At Least, Nagaland cannot permit India to build up military strategy in our country against Burma or China whose people are our own blood relatives. We have another neighbour in the south west which is Pakistan. We have no quarrel with them. Whether China, Burma or Pakistan, these neighbours have not given us any trouble and we are certain that they have no evil design to annex Nagaland. Whatever it is, we cannot allow India to build up military defence in Nagaland not only against our good neighbours but for our own safety as well. Our country can easily become a graveyard and we, on our part, are determined to prevent it,” said Phizo.
He further argued, “The third Indian argument is about economy. The Indians say that Nagaland cannot maintain itself economically as if we are a sort of just crawling out from a hole. Their talk is nothing but insult. The truth is, Nagaland had never been dependent on India at any time in history.”The full text of A.Z. Phizo’s entire speech in Kohima may be read here.
The Nagas boycotted the 1952 Indian elections. Phizo held three meetings with then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru; December 1951 in Assam, March 1952 in Delhi and July 1952 in Dhibrugarh. In September 1954, Phizo formed the People’s Sovereign Republic of Free Nagaland and reorganized the NNC set up. In 1955, two Angami leaders, T. Sakhrie and J.B Jasokie separated from Phizo. In 1956, Phizo allegedly had Sakhrie killed in 1956. Phizo formed the Naga Central Government in March 1956 (which was renamed Federal Government of Nagaland-FGN in 1959). This new organization also had a military wing.
But the Indian government retaliated against this separatist attempt and Phizo was forced to flee. He remained in exile in London and continued to support the movement for a separate nation of Nagaland from there till his death in 1990.
Armed insurgency, AFSPA and peace initiatives
The Naga insurgency was an armed conflict led by the NNC aimed at gaining Nagaland’s sovereignty from India. The Assam government imposed the Assam Maintenance of Public Order (Autonomous District) Act in the Naga Hills in 1953. There was a crackdown on rebels by the police. The Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Ordinance was promulgated in May 1958, which was replaced by the Armed Forces (Assam and Manipur) Special Powers Act on September 11, 1958. It is alleged that many excesses were committed by military personnel in the Northeast after the AFSPA was brought in.
In 1959, moderates under the banner of the Naga People’s Convention (NPC) adopted a proposal for constitution of a separate state of Nagaland. The proposal called the Sixteen-Point agreement may be read here. In 1963, the Naga Hills-Tuesang area was carved out of Assam and made into the state of Nagaland. But, the NNC opposed this. In the following year, a Peace Mission comprising Jayaprakash Narayan, BP Chahila and Reverend Michael Scott managed to broker a ceasefire with rebel groups. The Nagaland Legislative Assembly was formed on February 11, 1964.
However, the ceasefire was violated when an attempt was made allegedly by rebel groups on the life of then Chief Minister Hokishe Sema near Kohima in 1972. The Indian government subsequently declared the NNC and the FGN illegal organisations. In a significant move, the Ministry of Home Affairs took over the responsibility to deal with Nagaland related affairs from the Ministry of External Affairs, a move by the GOI to reiterate that Nagaland was very much a part of India.
In 1975, a section of the NNC signed the Shillong Accord with GOI and agreed to lay down their weapons. Though Phizo was still in exile in London at this time, faultlines emerged in the NNC leadership that remained it India and in 1980, the NNC split leading to the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). 10 years later this organization also split into two; NSCN-K led by S.S Khaplang and NSCN (IM) led by Isak Chishi Swuu and Thuingaleng Muivah. For nearly two decades thereafter the two rivals engage in bitter conflict with each other when they were not fighting the Indian government. This was a particularly violent period of armed insurgency in Nagaland.
In 1997, NSCN (IM) signed a ceasefire agreement with the government. It also demanded that all Naga areas be brought under one administrative unit. In 2001, NSCN-K also signed a ceasefire agreement. But the rival factions kept fighting against each other. In 2015, the NSCN-K disregarded the ceasefire an attacked Indian security-forces in March. However, in August that year the NSCN (IM) decided to sign the framework political agreement with the GOI.
In 2017, six other Naga nationalist groups joined the talks. These are NSCN (Kitovi Zhimomi), the Naga Nationalist Council, the Federal Government of Nagaland, the NSCN (Reformation), the National Peoples Government of Nagaland (Non-Accord), the Government Democratic Republic of Nagaland (Non-Accord). Later even the NSCN-K came onboard.
The demands of the NSCN (IM) with respect to Naga areas remains unchanged from its stand in 1997. They want all Naga areas, including those located in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to be brought under a single administrative unit. This has especially caused a lot of anxiety in Manipur which fears that it stands to lose its Naga dominated districts.
However, a possible solution of having Naga Regional Councils in these states is one option. Naga groups have proposed that Naga Regional Territorial Councils have their own legislature, executive and judiciary. They have also proposed that both customary and modern law be taken into account in matters of jurisprudence. While security will be handled by the local government, defence will be shared with the Indian Army.
With reports that the accord could be finalized before Christmas, there are hopes and prayers for an amicable solution, given how much blood has already been spilt in the Northeast.