The Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, Delhi organised the 18th Morung Dialogue on 19th September, on the topic ‘To Freedom: A human story’, where V.S Atem, Gen. (Retd.), former Longvibu, of the Naga Army and now Member, Collective Leadership, NSCN/GPRN narrated his story of serving in the Naga movement, leading up to his views on the current negotiations.
The chair, Prof. Paul Pimomo, Washington University set the tone of the dialogue, posing how life could be post-settlement. Would the settlement answer the dreams of the people? Will the parallel negotiations reconcile into an agreement? Many have passed away without witnessing it.
Gen. Atem started by paying tribute and respect to the Nagas – both living and dead – who have sacrificed for the Naga cause. He made special mention of Naga women who have suffered great humiliation and hardships in the hands of the enemy but is hopeful that a solution will emerge as the people have been praying and fasting ceaselessly for God’s intervention.
Gen. Atem shared about his childhood and life in the Naga movement. Born into a Christian family, with both his father and grandfather serving as pastors; he believes his path in the national movement was prepared by the deeds of his parents and grandparents. He expressed his deep faith in the quote in the Bible, “a good name is to be desired than great riches”. Despite many personal hardships and sufferings endured in his journey, he has no regrets of his 47 years dedicated to the Naga national movement.
The Naga national struggle was at its height in the 1950s and 60s and Gen Atem recalled the heavy operations by the Indian army conducted in his village during his childhood. He narrated a humorous but telling formative memory when as a boy, a rifle was pointed at him by an Indian army personnel, who menacingly demanded where the ‘Naga hostiles’ were located. He said he had never heard the word ‘hostile’ before and so innocently pointed towards the hostel in the village instead as it sounded similar. The army slapped him and for a long time he could not understand why he was slapped.
It was in 1966, that he first experienced the ‘thrill’ of war, and a sense of retribution when, himself as a youth volunteer and alongwith the Naga army, they looted arms and ammunition of the Indian Army. Early on, he tried to make sense of the Indian Army: when he was in the 9th standard, he read MK Gandhi’s autobiography, “My Experiment with Truth” many times wondering and admiring how a feeble person like Gandhi could be so strong and brave. On the other hand, he could only see the Indian army looking down on the Nagas from the barrel of loaded guns; so he believed that Gandhi’s ideals were not passed on to the Indian army and that they had never respected the Ahimsa of Gandhiji.
Gen. Atem also narrated an incident from his college days in Shillong where he had been pursuing his B.Sc. Hons (Chemistry). The Naga student leaders were put behind bars for protesting against the screening of the movie ‘Yeh Gulistan Hamara’, because of its racist and demeaning portrayal of the Nagas. While the protest started as a peaceful procession, a fight broke out between the Naga students and the police. The police were easily overpowered by the Naga boys, but later the student leaders including him were arrested. The then education minister of Nagaland had to be sent to Shillong to release the student leaders from jail. The incident was the turning point for Atem. He realised Indians do not believe in sensible arguments but only in force. He destroyed his degree certificates, left everything, and went straight to the jungles to join the Naga National Movement in May of 1973.
He said that he has not looked back since then and believes that the Lord has preserved and sustained him despite the road being filled with thorns. Gen. Atem attributed his success in leading the Naga Army to his commanders. The commanders were the ones who executed their plans and brought victory. Timing was vital and their strategy was to move fast, strike fast and retreat fast. His commanders were instructed to be always on guard and were exhorted “we are fighting in our own land. Strike at random but only when we are sure of success.” Gen. Atem said ‘compared to the Indian army, the Naga army was too small and therefore there was no room for mistakes.’ Covering 40-50 kms on foot in a day was normal and a necessity for survival. “We were committed. We succeeded. The people supported us. They were the backbone and source of information.” According to him, everyone joined together in the Naga cause. There was full understanding, support and oneness of the Naga army. This was why there were not many casualties prior to the ceasefire.
Regarding the current scenario, Gen. Atem expressed disappointment with the long-drawn peace process with the Government of India (GOI). He had thought that the peace talks would find resolution within 4 to 5 years. The reason for this delay, he said, was that the GOI under UPA was not for solution and they were just trying to manage the conflict. R.S Pandey, the interlocutor of the Naga peace talk during the UPA wanted to push forward the process to its logical conclusion but was apparently discouraged from doing so and was asked to instead manage the situation and so Pandey eventually resigned. The NDA government under the leadership of Vajpayee was not a stable one as he was leading a minority government. Therefore, the talks could not progress well. According to Gen. Atem, the current NDA government has everything to conclude the long-drawn negotiation, but after 5 long years since signing of the Framework Agreement (FA), the Nagas have been patiently holding on. He is not sure on what pretext the GOI might try to prolong the peace talks.
In response to a question, Gen. Atem expressed his opinion that no one is a fence sitter and no one is a front runner for the Naga cause. It is a team effort like football where there is no difference between the scorer and goalkeeper. Every Naga is equally playing for the team. He said, “whatever can be done at present should be done.” Gen. Atem truly believes in the unity of Nagas. To him, unless the Nagas are united, there cannot be a solution. He clearly stated, “there are no two issues of the Naga cause but only one, and therefore there can be only one solution.” To a query on the way forward in the worst-case scenario, Gen. Atem replied “For men, there may be no way but for God, there is no dearth of ways for solution.” The Nagas may need to continue to fight, and not only with guns but with whatever we have.
Respected Naga elder, Neiketu Iralu, who called the dialogue an honest conversation, commented that the Naga people have become a people and a nation and we should be thankful to God for what we have achieved so far. According to him we cannot keep on ‘blaming each other for not achieving what we have not achieved yet’. He further commented that the Nagas believe and try to act on what is right and good, but according to him, the problem with the Nagas is we have all along ‘done things our way and not God’s way’. Therefore, destructiveness and damage have crept into the struggle. Neiketu suggested that the ‘advanced’ Naga tribes should take the first step and ask the other tribes to identify where they had done wrong to the Naga people and say that they’re sorry. Thereafter, the other tribes can be given the same opportunity. This to him is the way forward to peace.
Gen. Atem agreed and responded to Neiketu’s comments by quoting from the Psalms: “Mercy and truth and have met: Righteousness and Peace have kissed.” He said that the Nagas are superficial and are not truthful to ourselves, to each other and to God. We only see the wrong in others. Therefore, there is no righteousness in life but self-righteousness. We need to re-evaluate ourselves. We must continue to speak and act on the truth. He requested the people to point out the things which one is not able to see.
Gen. Atem is hopeful that the different Naga political groups will one day unite even though this unity has been elusive so far. He also informed the discussants that they have been continuously sending people on this very mission. The Covenant of Naga Reconciliation that was signed in June of 2009 stated that the Naga reconciliation will be based on the historical and political rights of the Nagas. The collective leadership, according to him, hopes that the covenant will be respected by all. He also appealed to the Civil Society Organizations to stand united for the Naga causes and also to recognise the need to understand each other. Nation-building is a collective affair and not a one-sided project, he asserted.
Gen. Atem ended the dialogue asking the Nagas to be prepared for the worst. “We cannot be caught unprepared,” he said. “We will be unable to stand up to the challenges if we are not prepared.” According to him, the present generation should not be scared of suffering and hardship and that we must accept every challenge that comes our way and be guided by wisdom from God.
The Morung Dialogue is a talk series organized by NPMHR, Delhi with the objective to strengthen the power of conversation, sharpen and share ideas and views on issues that affect our lives and contribute to democracy, Justpeace and social justice.