Since its birth, the Indian nation-state has been challenged by rebellion and insurgency. In the late forties it was the Communist Party of India, who launched a countrywide insurrection claiming that the freedom we got from the British was false (in their evocatively pernicious slogan, ‘Ye Azadi Jhoota Hai!’). In the fifties, it was the Dravidians of the South, who threatened to secede in protest against Aryan domination. In the sixties it was the Naxalites, who thought they could do in India what Mao and his colleagues had done in China. In the seventies it was the JP Andolan, which brought social life to a standstill in many states and compelled the most drastic of repressive measures, namely, the Emergency. In the eighties it was the Assamese and the Sikhs, both of whom sought (like the Tamils) freedom from exploitation by Delhi. In the nineties it was the Kashmiris, large sections of whom have showed their disaffection with Indian rule through the use of arson and assassination.
At their peak these movements all enjoyed widespread popular support. They dominated the front pages of newspapers, and were each considered a threat to the ‘unity and integrity’ of India. But in the end the state’s patience and armed strength prevailed. The Communist revolutionaries of the forties forsook the gun for the ballot. The Tamils and Sikhs were in time reconciled to being part of India. Whether the Kashmiris will also follow this route remains to be seen.
In this column I wish to talk of an insurgency that has been us since the time of Indian independence. Yet because of its geographical location it has never quite got the attention it deserves.
I refer, of course, to the Naga rebellion. Strictly speaking, this predates independence. In 1946 was formed a Naga National Council. This urged the British not to hand them over to the Indians when they left. The next year, a Naga delegation signed an agreement with the Governor of Assam which protected their lands and customs while agreeing to be part of India. The agreement would run for ten years; the assumption, at any rate on the Naga side, was that they would be free to decide afresh whether they wished the agreement to continue, or whether they would instead choose to become a separate nation-state.
From the beginning, militant sections among the Nagas wanted nothing to do with India. They organized a boycott of the 1952 General Elections, as well as a boycott of a trip to the Naga Hills by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The radical leader, A. N. Phizo, came to New Delhi, but his talks failed on the question of independence (which he claimed) versus autonomy (which the Government was willing to grant). Phizo went underground, and the insurgency began. For the next decade there were bitter battles between the security forces and the Naga rebels. There were heavy casualties on both sides, and much loss of civilian life.
In 1960 Phizo escaped to London, and made an impression on the British press. Stories were printed about Indian ‘atrocities’. These alarmed Nehru, who sought now to negotiate with the moderate Nagas. An agreement was signed to establish a full-fledged state of Nagaland—this a significant concession, since there were less than half-a-million Nagas, whereas other states had populations of twenty million and more. The compromise, however, was resented and opposed by the extremists. And so the civil war restarted, and, in fits and starts, has continued to this day.
The course of the Naga rebellion has been deeply shaped by tribal loyalties. Many of the early insurgents, like Phizo himself, were Angamis. The Aos, on the other hand, were always more ready to talk to the Indians. The Semas were divided—they had both radicals and reformists in their ranks. More recently, the movement has been taken over by Thangkul Nagas from Manipur.
In the nineteen sixties Jayaprakash Narayan travelled extensively in Nagaland. In 1965 he published a pamphlet called Nagaland mein Shanti ka Prayas (The Prospects for Peace in Nagaland) which bears re-reading today. JP argued that there was a civilizational unity in India which antedates its political unity. Even East and West Pakistasn shared in this unity—as he put it, ‘wahan ke Islam par bhi bharatiyata ka rang chad gaya hai’—their Islam is tinged with the colour of Indian-ness. But the Nagas had not been influenced in the least by Indian culture. They had a marked sense of separate-ness, this reinforced by their recent conversion to Christianity.
JP’s investigations revealed that it was the rebels who had fired the first shot back in 1954. But the army were not slow to retaliate. And the counter-insurgency operations had imposed great sufferings on innocent Nagas. To build a road, or a barrack, or a landing strip, villages upon villages were uprooted by the state.
While recognizing the cultural distinctiveness of the Nagas, JP nonetheless urged them to be part of India. He met leaders of the Underground, and advised them to shed their arms and contest elections, and thus take over the administration by peaceful means. For in the federal system the States were free to design and mould their own future. Foreign affairs and defence were in the hands of the Centre, but the things that most mattered—education, health, economic development—were in the control of the States.
The rebels chose not to hear JP. The dream of an independent Nagaland continued to animate them. In the next three decades bouts of war were interspersed with rounds of talks. In the late eighties the Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner travelled in the Naga borderlands. ‘India may have its shortcomings and flaws’, observed Lintner, these ‘often easy to detect and easier still to ridicule. But it remains a strong democracy where criticism as a concept is officially tolerated and the government flexible when a situation demands it. The Nagaland press possesses an extraordinary freedom which has no equivalent in any other Asian war zone. The local press contained detailed reports of rebel ambushes and even underground statements from both the NNC and the NSCN… such things would be unthinkable in Burma…’
Lintner gave the rebels the same advice as JP: to accept and deepen provincial autonomy. As he put it, ‘the Nagas in India have managed to get from the Indian government exactly what Rangoon denies its national minorities: a separate state with a high degree of self-government, aid from the centre and the right to preserve their own customs and culture’.
JP could be seen simply as an Indian do-gooder; but Lintner was an authority on insurgency in South-east Asia. His words carried weight; and, at last, they have apparently been listened to. For a couple of years ago, the main rebel group, the NSCN (I-M), declared a cease-fire, and commenced talks with New Delhi. No final agreement has yet been arrived at, but there have been some significant attempts at reconciliation. One such was the visit to India of the self-exiled leaders of the movement, Isaac Swu and T. Muivah. Another was the recent visit to Nagaland of the Indian Prime Minister.
Speaking at a public meeting in Kohima, Mr Vajpayee offered the Nagas money, and work. The Centre, he said, would spend Rs 500 crores in the state over the next two years, thus creating 25,000 new jobs. This is welcome, but more than money the Nagas want honour. One suggestion, offered by the respected columnist B. G. Verghese, is for the Indian Government to recognize the state’s unique culture and history, by issuing passports to ‘Naga Indians’. Some such gesture is called for, if only to assure the young that the struggle and sacrifice of their elders has not wholly been in vain.