India’s Nagaland Descends into Chaos

The absence of a credible state in India's Nagaland state has created a power vacuum that is being filled by chaotic sub-nationalist forces often at war with one another

Posted on 01/25/14
By R. N. Ravi | Via The Hindu
(Photo by by Preshit, Creative Commons License)
(Photo by by Preshit, Creative Commons License)

The reckless ‘ceasefire’ between the Government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN-IM), a militia predominantly of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur, for the last 17 years is pushing the Nagas into a state of civil war. While the protagonists of the ‘ceasefire,’ New Delhi and the NSCN (I-M), are in mutual comfort capering about the mulberry bush without a stopwatch, the process has landed the Nagas in an orbit of self-destruction. They are far more fragmented and fractious than before.


The Naga society is seething with multiple tensions intermittently erupting into morbid fratricidal violence. The wars in Zunheboto between the local Sema Nagas and the NSCN (I-M) that left several dead and scores injured on both sides, the discovery of mass graves in and around Dimapur, and the closing of ranks by six tribes of eastern Nagaland — Chang, Konyak, Phom, Khaimniungan, Yimchunger and Sangtan — for a protracted fight for political and administrative separation from other tribes of Nagaland are some of the latest grim portents of their fraught predicament.


Over 1,800 Nagas have been killed in some 3,000 fratricidal clashes since the beginning of the ‘ceasefire’ (1997-2013). Contrast it with the violence during the 17 years preceding the ‘ceasefire’ (1980-96) that took a toll of some 940 Naga lives in 1,125 clashes mostly with the security forces. The irony is underscored by the fact that while the security forces and the NSCN (I-M) have been at mutual ‘peace’ during the ‘ceasefire,’ twice as many Nagas have died, killing one another in some 300 per cent escalation in fratricidal violence. The vector of violence has turned inward with a vengeance, from between the security forces and the Naga militias to the one among the Nagas themselves. Some in New Delhi gleefully chuckle at their remarkable feat of trapping the ‘belligerent’ Nagas in this vicious cycle of fratricidal killings.


The term ‘Naga’ is a rubric for a host of over 25 distinct tribes inhabiting the Nagaland State and adjoining areas of north-eastern India and Myanmar. Their mutual differences far outnumber their commonness. Each tribe is culturally distinct and linguistically unintelligible to the others. In the not so distant past, contacts between two tribes were, more often than not, marred by bloodshed. Modern state, modern education and the Gospel have had a somewhat sobering influence on their world view.


Secession bid

The Naga National Council, the first credible political entity of the Nagas with pan-Naga political ambitions, born just before the British left India, sought to engender a shared political consciousness among the disparate tribes. Under the stewardship of A.Z. Phizo, an Angami Naga, it launched an armed campaign to secede the Nagas from India. The NNC’s campaign for secession and the counter-campaign of the Indian state were much too violent.


The NNC’s enterprise to forge a politically conscious and socially united Naga society was largely anchored in its projection of a common enemy — post-British India. It challenged the Indian state with the gun. The conflict was grossly asymmetric. The Indian state had far superior guns in far superior numbers. A gun-inspired political enterprise to forge a collective political identity on a disparate sociological base merely on the fiction of a common enemy was fraught and foredoomed.


The Naga tribes have refused to be subdued and they often strike back with a vengeance
The Nagaland State created in December 1963 with enhanced autonomy on matters, including the customary laws of the tribes, administration of civil and criminal justice and ownership and transfer of land and its resources, offered unprecedented democratic space to the Nagas of Nagaland to fulfil their aspirations and allay their apprehensions. The Nagaland State as a democratic polity took the wind out of the NNC’s sails and unleashed forces and interests that were incompatible with and antithetical to the kind of politics being prosecuted by the militant Nagas. The NNC got splintered and eventually faded into political irrelevance although, thanks to the failure of the Nagaland State to deliver on its promises, its motto still tugs at the Nagas’ hearts and minds.


The dynamic of democratic politics within the special framework, howsoever imperfect in the eyes of the Nagas, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, created imperatives for peaceful co-existence and co-mingling of the Naga tribes. Several ultra radical Naga nationalists joined the new constitutional order and helped in weakening the centrifugal politics of their erstwhile colleagues. Although the weakened ultra radical strain did not die and sporadically asserted itself with a vengeance marked by mayhem and bloodshed, it increasingly ceased to be the mainstream politics. By the 1980s, ultra-radical nationalists were pushed to the margins of the Naga political space. Their capability to influence Naga politics was grossly eroded. Violence — 105 killed in 10 years (1981-90) — was the lowest in Nagaland’s history. The Naga issue began inching towards a sort of Chekhovian resolution. Unlike a Shakespearean tragedy where, at the end, the stage is splashed with blood and strewn with corpses, a tragedy by Anton Chekhov ends with the characters unhappy, disillusioned, even bitter but alive, bracing themselves for a new beginning.


The process of a slow yet steady political reconciliation and social assimilation of the Nagas got perverted with New Delhi’s cynical engagement with the NSCN (I-M) since August 1, 1997. The ‘ceasefire’ with the outfit was in utter disregard for the logic of the prevailing situation. The crucial stakeholders — the popularly elected State government, the traditional Naga bodies that wield wide and deep influence on their respective tribes and other active militias in the fray — were excluded from the process. New Delhi missed the vital fact that the NSCN (I-M), notwithstanding its pan-Naga pretensions, is essentially a militia of the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur with little resonance with the broad Naga family. A deal cut with it would not be acceptable to the Naga society.


Not only the deal itself was a nostrum ab initio, New Delhi’s emasculation of the institutions of the state such as stripping the police of their statutory obligations to enforce the laws and maintain the public order against unlawful activities of the NSCN (I-M) further worsened the situation. The NSCN (I-M) has been unrestrained in demonstrative use of brutal force. Dressed in battle fatigues and armed with sophisticated combat weapons, its cadres freely roam the streets of towns and villages. In the teeth of popular opposition, New Delhi allowed it to set up multiple garrisons, almost in every district to help expand its reach in the State. In the guise of giving the NSCN (I-M) a secure political space for building a workable consensus on the fractious Naga issues, New Delhi has given the militia a free military run of the Naga inhabited areas.


Fragmented society

The secessionist politics that was profoundly circumscribed by the politics of expanded democracy is seeking to regain centre stage
The NSCN (I-M) leadership has, however, failed to grasp the fragility of the fiction of a Naga nation imagined on the base of an ethnically fragmented society riddled with historical contradictions. Instead of building a workable resonance with the Naga society, it used the ‘ceasefire,’ under the tacit patronage of New Delhi, to augment its weapons inventories, its promiscuous killing-machine to terrorise people into submission and establish its military hegemony over all tribes.


However, true to their martial character, the Naga tribes have refused to be subdued and they often strike back with a vengeance. The violent clashes in Zunheboto during the last Christmas week — in which some 10,000 Sema Nagas from over 100 villages armed with traditional weapons attacked a local NSCN (I-M) garrison in a fight that lasted three days and claimed over a dozen lives — are a pointer to the popular resistance to the outfit. The Semas, who were resentful of the NSCN (I-M)’s garrison in their land, were provoked by molestation of their women by the armed cadres of the outfit some days earlier. They dismantled the garrison and chased away, at least temporarily, the armed NSCN (I-M) cadres.


The ‘ceasefire’ with the NSCN (I-M) has resulted in the retreat of the state from the crucial areas of governance and subversion of democratic politics. It is undoing the political and social gains achieved since the creation of the Nagaland State that has been rendered tentative in its aftermath. The absence of a credible state has created a power vacuum that is being filled in by chaotic sub-nationalist forces often at war with one another. The powerful traditional tribal bodies are alienated and, in their eagerness to flout New Delhi’s dalliance with the NSCN (I-M), are fostering the other Naga militias. The secessionist politics that was profoundly circumscribed by the politics of expanded democracy is seeking to regain centre stage.


Thanks to New Delhi’s cavalier policies, the Nagas are in a dystopia and the grapes of wrath against India are ripening for the vintage.


The writer is a retired Special Director, Intelligence Bureau. This article first appeared in The Hindu, a leading newspaper of India.

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