Dialogue  January-March, 2005, Volume 6 No. 3


The Easterly Winds: Peace moves in Nagaland

B.P. Singh

This is sheer happy coincidence that as soon as I finished writing foreword to a fascinating book entitled “The Naga Identity” by my friend Braj Bihari Kumar, I find that the Naga delegation led by NSCN(I-M) leaders Isak Swu and T. Muivah arrived in New Delhi and had a positive dialogue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Shivraj Patil. Two things have clearly emerged from this on-going dialogue process: (a) that both the sides are “in favour of a mutually acceptable and honourable solution” to the long standing problem in Nagaland; and (b) that both sides believe that “a solution cannot be found in violence and blood”.

I first visited Nagaland in 1965 and these enchanting frontiers have has always fascinated me. In fact, to students of history, sociology, politics, administration and religion, the Nagas have invariably invoked both awe and fascination. This feeling is a product of a large variety of imaginations and myths: of the Naga image of ‘Head-hunters’; of a group of people who would never harm children and women whatever may be the provocation or the need; of their phenomenal attachment to their villages; of their deep sense of humour. This feeling is also shared by all those who have come in contact with the Nagas; be they be Assamese “gossains” or Christian missionaries; civilian administrators or members of the armed forces; travelers or inquisitive visitors; small traders or migrant business houses; road builders or students from neighbourhood.

The Nagas have led cloistered existence. The process of opening up commenced with the British annexation of Assam in a big way during the nineteenth century led and supported by Christian missionaries. The British encouraged Christian missionaries to play a major role in the entire north-eastern region including Nagaland. Accordingly, various missionary groups hailing from U.S.A., U.K., Germany and several other western countries moved into the region. The American Baptists came to Nagaland and set up their mission in 1867 to work among the Ao Nagas; in 1879 to work among the Lhota Nagas and in 1880 among the Angami Nagas.

The Nagas were exposed to the outside world for the first time during the First World War, when 2000 of them served in france. In 1918, a Naga club was formed. In 1929, they submitted a petition to the Simon Commission, wherein they desired to be left out from the reformed scheme for India. The relevant portion reads as follows:

“Before the British Government conquered our country in 1879-1880, we were living in a state of intermittent warfare with the Assamese of the Assam valley to the North and West of our country and Manipuris in the South. They never conquered us nor were we subjected to their rule. On the other hand, we were always a terror to these people. Our country within the administered area consists of more than eight Tribes, quite different from one another with quite different languages which cannot be understood by each other, and there are more Tribes outside the administered area which are not known at present. We have no Unity among us and it is really the British Government that is holding us together now.” (Memorandum of the Naga Hills to Simon Commission on January 10, 1929).

The origins of the word ‘naga’ or ‘nagas’ is shrouded in mystery. But its popularization is certainly a nineteenth century phenomenon. For a very long time, the Assamese plains people have called them as ‘noga’. The appellation ‘nagas’ has acquired a generic form that includes more than 30 tribes who live in Nagaland and neighbouring states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur and the bordering nation-state of Myanmar. The tribes of north east India, however, find mention in the Indian epics i.e. the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as ‘kiratas’. And this denotes the entire race of tribes and is more inclusive in nature than another generic term ‘Bodos’ which denoted a majority of plains tribes since the medieval period. The Ahoms who ruled over Assam and neighbouring hills for over six hundred years (during 1220-1826) have a separate identity of their own as a ruling elite but they married the girls from among the plains tribes as well as caste-Hindus predominantly of the Brahmaputra Valley and are now an other backward Classes (OBC).

The Nagas have shared history with the Assamese, Manipuris, Cacharis and the Singphos. There are certain common traits which make it difficult to distinguish the Nagas from other tribes of the north-east. Their languages share certain features even with the distant Munda group of languages of people living in Jharkhand. The insistutions like morung and head-hunting have wide currency even outside India. While the Nagas have many similarities/common traits with the non-Nagas, the intra-Naga differences are at the same time too many. A study of major tribes of Nagaland (Ao, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Rengma, Chakhesang, Yimchunger/ Kalya-Kengnyu, Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Phom, Zemi, Liangmei, Rongmei (Zeliangrong), Khiemungan) would reveal that the Nagas differ in their languages, village-polity, social institutions and usages, physical features, temperament, myths of origin and migration, etc. While asseting Naga idenity, the similarities between the Nagas and non-Nagas, and intra-Naga differences are often overlooked. Uncritical rejection of facts has led to certain obsessions, bias, subjectivity and myth-making. Such things have happened specially in the case of the Nagas and generally in the north-east.

The Nagas migrated into the Naga Hills from southeast China and Burma over a long period of time. The Naga legends make us believe that all the Naga tribes migrated from Burma across the Somra tracts and reached a place called Khezekenoma just across the border of Manipur. The name Naga was given to them by outsiders. The Nagas resented the name for long, till political expediency caused it to be accepted. The different Naga tribes never lived as one group. Each tribe lived in one village or more but it exclusively belonged to them. Each village was self-sufficient as demands were limited and by and large maintained its independent character. Any interference, trespassing or encroachments by members of other villages (which invariably meant another tribe) in its territorial jurisdiction usually provoked inter village war leading at times to head-hunting.

My description of the Naga society as narrated in my book “The Problem of Change” needs recalling. It reads:

“The Nagas are not the ‘naked’ people , as is erroneously understood by the word ‘Naga’. Except for the Angami sub-clan, the Nagas are a group who developed strong village institutions under the leadership of a chief and loved their freedom passionately. Stone worship is common among the Nagas as they believe that they are born of stone. The various tribes of Nagas, each speaking a dialect of its own, had one thing in common and that was their sense of valour. At different periods of history the Nagas have indulged in constant feuds and head-hunting. The Nagas’ conflicts with Manipur, the British forces and the security forces in the post-Independence era are well-known. The feud between the Assamese plainsmen bordering Naga territory is almost a constant feature of known history. In their socio-political outlook, while the Nagas accord equal rights to men and women, the women are prevented from participating in politics, fighting and hunting. The political process in Nagaland, in tune with its past traditions, has not sent any significant number of womenfolk to their legislative assemblies. The traditional Naga attitude towards property was one of ‘renunciation’. The Feasts of Merit, which bestowed distinction on their donors, was intended to show the virtues of distributing wealth over its possession. While the Feasts of Merit are still in vogue, the attitude towards property has changed. Acquisitiveness is now dominant, and the traditional institution of communal ownership of property is cracking. The process seems irreversible”. (pp. 30-31)

Language contributes meaningfully to identify formation. The Naga languages belong to the Tibeto Burman family. There are more than eighteen languages spoken by Nagas in Nagaland itself. The prevalence of Nagamese as the language of dialogue among Naga tribes and of the local market is a recent phenomenon and shows predominant influence of Assamese language. The Nagas had a long tradition of visiting the Assam plains and particularly their weekly hats (bazaars). The rich Christian religious literature put down in Roman script is another feature of Nagaland’s linguistic profile. All these reveal great spirit of accommodation in Naga society.

During the Second World War (1939-45), Kohima was a battle ground of the Allied and Axis forces. The journey of the Nagas from a district of Assam to the status of Union Territory and the State has been very quick. The State of Nagaland was inaugurated on 1st December, 1963. The inauguration of Nagaland as a full-fledged state of the Indian Union brought a population of 3.71 lakhs in an area of 16579 sq. kms. at par with the bigger States such as the Uttar Pradesh with 74 million people and 2,94,416 sq. kms. area, with the same privileges and status. Nagaland was the first state in the country with such meagre population and small area. It was not formed on linguistic lines nor it conformed to the criteria of economic viability but purely on political consideration. The state was to run and continues to be sustained mainly on the grants received form the Consolidated Fund of India.

The formation of the new state gave birth to never ending demands for small states in the north-east and elsewhere in the country on ethnic lines. Nagaland was replicated in Mizoram. The insurgency in Mizo Hills district of Assam by the Mizo National Front (MNF) under the leadership of Laldenga, and the formation of Mizoram as a state of the Indian Union, was much on the same lines as witnessed in Nagaland. The demands for the formation of Meghalaya by All Party Hill Leaders Conference (APHLC), and similar demands for the full-fledged statehood in Manipur and Tripura got encouragement due to the creation of Nagaland. Thus the statehood of Nagaland was the fore-runner of the reorganization of the north-east. The same may be said about the insurgency in the rest of the region. The Naga insurgency is the mother of all the insurgencies in the north-east India. Fortunately, the re-organisation of north east India got completed by 1972 and successive governments at the Centre have wisely resisted demands for further division of Assam and rationalization of boundaries of States of the region on ethnic lines of exclusivity denying the logic of a plural society.

Democracy has greatly contributed to forging of a composite Naga identity in Nagaland. Notwithstanding insurgency and occasional boycott, the forces of insurgency articulated the proud and independent character of the Nagas even as the forces of democracy had used the tradition of democracy in Naga society to make it participate in elections. Fortunately, the democratic forces are having now a upper hand. The small group of people who wanted to secede from India are losing support as democratic process are gradually integrating the Naga people into the mainstream of economic development and modernization. The nation could reasonably be proud of a moderately stable constitutional culture in Nagaland particularly in the backup of the earlier insurgency movements and violence.

The growth of the middle class in Nagaland was intimately linked up with the spread of education and was not based either on a landed aristocracy, which never existed, or on commercial activity, which came only with the introduction of English education. Even here the middle class is the dominant group. It comprises the politicians, bureaucracy, businessmen from contractors to shopkeepers, and those belonging to independent professions, such as law and medicine. The migrant middle class is a product of the massive expenditure on development schemes dating back to the 1960s and consists of contractors, shopkeepers, foodgrain dealers, etc., from North India. They are mainly concentrated in Dimapur, which is outside the purview of ‘inner-line’.

The middle class phenomenon in Nagaland has four distinctive features: (1) the absence of a traditional bourgeoisie or capitalist class; (2) the contradictions and conflicts between two easily identifiable groups – the indigenous middle class and the migrant middle class; (3) the control of the indigenous middle class over the apparatus of the State, including the bureaucracy and agriculture, and of the migrant middle class over industry and trade; and (4) the economic leverage commanded by outside business houses.

If ‘identity’ is to look different, to stand apart from others, the Nagas have a distinct identity in terms of physique, folklores, folktales and world-view. Times have changed them but still they are distinct. And yet at the same time they know interdependence. They have practiced tolerance towards others point of view. They view their future among a community of believers in different faiths and races. Vital fragments of the past still live on in dress, customs, ceremonies, festivals and in their attitudes towards women despite mass conversion to Christianity. The uniqueness of the Nagas lies in their institutions of governance – the villages, the gohtouls, methods and process of cultivation involving the community, their arts and crafts, their rituals and beliefs; and their lores and tales.

Identity movement should lead to re-creation of memories of tribal life. Unfortunately, not much work is done in this behalf. What is happening is domination of political issues over memories, over stories related to conservation of ecology, over traditional music and dance forms, over common ownership of natural resources.

There are two contradictory forces in operation in Nagaland. One is for democracy, peace and development; and the other for violence, insurgency and extortion. Increasingly the forces of peace are gaining strength and the conclusion of peace with major insurgency groups by the Government of India is bound to herald an era of constructive activity and say of the Nagas not only in their own affairs but in the affairs of the country as a whole.

Much would depend on political leadership. At the time of the drafting of the Constitution, the Founding Fathers found a way out and provided for the district councils in the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. The district councils constituted under the Sixth Schedule was an administrative innovation to meet political aspirations of the tribal people by giving them a decisive role in their economic development and political management. Similarly when the District Councils proved to be inadequate, the political leadership was bold enough to covert two districts (the Naga Hills District and Lushai Hills District) and two princely units (Manipur and Tripura) as 4 full-fledged States of the Indian Union.

There should be sincere and imaginative efforts to accord the people of Nagaland powers that could be given to a federating unit that is possible within the constitutional and parliamentary framework of empowerment. The Nagas have a great sense of realism and once it is clear to them that the Government of India is willing to give them all that they could within the framework of the constitution and powers of parliament, it should not be difficult for them to conclude an agreement to end this long period of strife and uncertainty. The empowerment of Naga people and their democratic institutions of governance would lead to peace and amity among the tribes and in its neighbourhood and unprecedented economic and cultural progress.

For a variety of reasons outlined earlier, Nagaland, the sixteenth State of the Indian Union, occupies a significant place in the national consciousness. The end of insurgency in Nagaland and heralding of peace process and launching of massive economic programmes in that State would release the energy of the people in a constructive manner. In the language of a Buddhist monk (infact of a song) “The snow has fallen, but don’t be sad, After the snowfall, comes the warmth of the sun.” The sun is bound to rise not in distant future but in our life-time and illuminate Nagaland and the whole region. The civilisational idea of and democratic realities in India allow regional or local identity to co-exist with national identity without any stress or animosity. A Naga serving in another State or living within Nagaland finds no conflict either of interest or of values in his being Naga and an Indian simultaneously.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati