Toward a Just-Peace: Respecting Naga Rights and Dignity

Nagas are not interested in repeating the violence of the past. We want peace.

Here is the full speech of Prof Paul Pimomo delivered at the 74th Commemoration of the Naga Independence Day in the webinar organized by the Global Naga Forum on August 14, 2020.

Prof Paul Pimomo

(To save time, I will focus my remarks on the three keywords of the topic I was asked to speak on about the Naga people’s relationship with India: Just-Peace, Rights, and Dignity. But I want to preface my remarks with a headliner on the political hurricane that has been sweeping through our lands regarding the Interlocutor of the Talks between NSCN (IM) and the Government of India).

Current Event Headliner: The one basic historical fact about the Indo-Naga conflict that even a 7th standard student must know is that it is a political issue, not a law and order problem. It was a military conflict too in the 1950s. B.N. Mullik, Central Intelligence Bureau Chief under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, called it “a war.” In his memoir My Years with Nehru, 1947-64, Mullik writes: “Up to this time it must be said to the credit of the Nagas that they were not thinking of any violence movement. They were hoping that the result of the plebiscite would sufficiently influence the [Indian] authorities to give a dispensation in their favor” (302). He goes on to report that “though there was nearly one security troop for every adult male Naga in the Naga Hills-Tuensang area, there never was a time when it could be claimed that the Naga guerrillas had been broken into submission” (314). Now to my talk on the three keywords: Just-Peace, Naga Rights, Naga Dignity.

Just-Peace for Nagas in our fractured political relationship with India has been so long coming, and never arriving, we’ve come not to expect its arrival ever. It has been coming for over seven decades, and the latest Talks with the Government of India (GOI) are stuck yet again, though now it seems the much awaited Final Settlement, which has been in gestation for 23 years, is headed for a forced still-birth next month, this September. If this image looks cynical and sounds too critical and pessimistic, let’s remember the Naga people have been consistently kept in the dark about what is being decided for us about our future.

We have been told only one thing: Not in as many words, but the reality behind the words is that there will be no Just- Peace — if by Just-Peace we mean the freedom to determine our political future from colonial rule and neocolonial impositions, to preserve and practice the best in our cultures and traditions without outside interference, to grow, evolve, and prosper as a people, to live in peace and in mutual respect among our neighbors in the region and with people of other countries of the world who are committed to a more peaceful, safer, and greener world than the one we are all being forced into, where what we ordinarily call human civilization and the future of the Planet itself are under sustained threats from the return of authoritarian regimes in the US, parts of Europe and Asia, including India, and the wanton exploitation of natural and human resources under global neoliberalism, which has morphed from the 1980s into what is now a heartless, mindless global juggernaut riding roughshod over the lives of the vast majority of the human race, including Nagas and the people of the North East. (By the way, there is no exaggeration at all in this long one-sentence paragraph I just read).     

Naga Rights: The fact about Naga rights, then, is this: Modern Nagas, especially since the Second World War, have been denied the basic human right of political self-determination, and other rights related to it, by Indian military force and political chicanery. GOI has categorically laid down the baseline for settlement of the Naga political question: No sovereignty, not Greater Nagalim.

OK. Let’s suppose for a moment that the Naga public have learned from experience and history, and evolved over the last 70-odd years and grown to appreciate the challenges of the fast-changing world of the 21st century. Believe it or not, most Nagas have in fact learned and evolved over the decades (These days we only go headhunting in our dreams). Suppose we had reasoned ourselves into doing two things: First, give up our original stance on the conventional nation-state sovereignty, which the vast majority of Nagas have in view of the globally interconnected world of the 21st century; and second, in the interest of pragmatic realpolitik, be open to negotiation on the issue of an integrated Naga homeland with the adjoining states in the region, with GOI providing impartial leadership. And suppose in the interest of Just-Peace for all, our neighbors and GOI agreed to address this historic human right’s violation in their midst, and came together with the Nagas to negotiate a substantive settlement of lasting benefit to the region as a whole and to Nagas in particular, given the history? If that were the case, we would no doubt be in a better place and time than where we are today. Instead, where we are now is the GOI saying, essentially, “To hell with the Nagas!” and the rest of the region and the country cheering it on, leaving the Nagas isolated in shameful disarray.

Let’s not forget though that the shame is not all on the Naga side. India, too, has made a spectacle of itself. She does not look pretty. We have one of the most illustrious ancient civilizations in history, a leader of the postcolonial revolution of the 20th century, and supposedly the largest democracy on the planet, double-talking and wrangling over a flag and a state constitution with a small indigenous group of people at its borders? Nagas already have a flag, thank you. And the only reason the world has heard about us is that our forebears had the courage and the foresight to stand up for their and our right to exist as a people, just as Indians had done for themselves against British rule. So what has India’s neocolonial oppression done to our dignity as a people?

Naga Dignity: Nagas have been consistently spurned, denigrated, lied to, and humiliated by the GOI for over seven decades. And it believes it’s in its right to do so because Nagas have become (let’s not forget by GOI’s design) economic dependents on India, ever since India came on the Naga scene. Nagas were doing all right before that, until GOI came in and broke our legs, then threw us a pair of crutches.And now we cannot do without those crippling hoppers. As Niketu Iralu has remarked, “India took the carrot-and-stick to the Nagas, and Nagas have learned to tolerate the stick but become pathetically addicted to the carrot.” He is right. The once resilient, independent, and proud communitarian Naga people have taken a crippling hit from India. Our self-respect and dignity are in shambles.

GOI’s Chicanery and Arrogance: Let’s be very clear about one thing. The current controversy and posturing around Mr. R. N. Ravi’s part as Interlocutor is nothing new to those familiar with the long history of India’s political chicanery and arrogance in its dealings with the Naga people. Mr. Ravi’s dismissal and debasement of the longest unresolved political feud on the continent as no more than a law-and-order problem, and his contempt for the NPGs, his directive for profiling government employees and their families, are all of a piece: the culmination of India’s patronizing and superior attitude toward the Nagas.

Here are some cases in point from history. The noted Indian historian Sarvepalli Gopal in his biography of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reports that in 1956 Nehru complained to Defense Minister Kailash Nath Katju that: “It is fantastic to imagine that the Government of India is going to be terrorized into some action (compromise) by Phizo and company.” He told the Defense Minister to act swiftly, because “It does not help in dealing with tough people to have weak nerves.” And Gopal goes on to comment on Nehru’s disdain for Nagas: “Weakness in dealing with such people appeared to him to be almost a sin.” And when the situation demanded his serious attention and he had decided on a separate statehood for the Nagas, Nehru reasoned with the then Assam government to let go of the “gangrenous” Naga Hills: “When a limb has become gangrenous, for God’s sake, cut it off at once before the whole body is infected.”  In Nehru’s mind, then, the Nagas were “terrorists” from the start for wanting to be a free people, as well as incurable disease on India’s body politic. Interestingly though, he did not take his own advice of cutting off the gangrenous Naga Hills from India. Coming to the late 1960s, B. K. Nehru, governor of Assam and Nagaland, and cousin of Prime Minister Nehru, told Bernard Nossiter, an American journalist, that “The Nagas are petulant and spoiled children….It is probably a good thing to prolong the fighting. Let those people get tired of it….You can’t run a government along Gandhian lines. I agree with Mao. Power comes out of the end of a gun” (Nossiter (1970), 154).  So within the first two decades or so of India’s independence from Britain, the Nagas went from a “backward” people needing to be civilized, to a “problem” and a disease requiring both “careful handling” and military repression, to “petulant and spoiled children” who must be disciplined by “power that comes out of the end of a gun.”  

Let’s recall, too, that the so-called “careful handling” was being done underhand by the Central Intelligence Bureau under bureau Chief B. N. Mullik, who I quoted earlier, and S.M. Dutt, Deputy Director of the bureau in Assam. Dutt was intimately involved in the creation of the Naga People’s Convention and Nagaland State within India, which started the splits and deadly divisions among the Naga national workewrs, and therefore disunity among the Naga public as well.

The point to mark at this moment of the controversy surrounding Interlocutor and Nagaland Governor R. N. Ravi is this: That he belongs in the same cadre of Indian Intelligence Bureau that Mullik and Dutt served on and engineered the fall of the Naga people’s aspirations for self-determination. Mr. R. N. Ravi is one of their luminaries in our time, which means his insults and arrogance are less personal than they are part and parcel of the GOI’s disregard for and duplicity with the Nagas. Mr. Ravi is playing by the book, a well-worn Indian script, to produce a familiar outcome from the Nagas, and even in our opposing stances about his trustworthiness as Interlocutor, Nagas have faithfully delivered the goods for Ravi and the GOI, yet again. In short, what he said and did at this time in the negotiations was calculated to precisely produce the contradictory stances from Nagas across the board. NPGs and civil society have failed to learn from past experience in this particular respect, sadly, to our extreme detriment. There’s no other way to describe the Naga response to Mr. Ravi’s intentional provocation than to call it for what it is: a disgraceful public display of our weakest instincts and our collective stupidity in front of the whole country and before the world.               

Nagas Going Forward: The question then is what next? Since the world isn’t probably going to end tomorrow or in September, with or without a permanent settlement of the Indo-Naga conflict.

Nagas are not interested in repeating the violence of the past. We want peace. What the GOI chooses to do is another question, but we are convinced that past wrongs can be righted, to a degree of healing, within the realities of the present context and toward a visionary future for mutual benefit. That may take yet more time.

Meanwhile, Nagas are left with one thing, ourselves, to start with. So we may as well ask ourselves: Who are the Nagas, really? By a rough estimate, less than 0.090% of today’s human race. We were much fewer 74 years ago. No one would have heard about us but for one thing. We stood up for our human right to self-determination and self-governance. That is our genius as a people. And in the course of our political conflict with the GOI, what have Nagas done for India? What is the Naga people’s contribution to India — a country with endless potential? Let me quote a young Naga scholar Venusa Tinyi’s answer when he was asked that question: “Nagas have been constantly reminding India for over six decades that in a democratic society, force of the colonial or imperial kind cannot be used to either govern the people or solve problems which are political in nature. This is our contribution.” This answer seems particularly urgent in today’s India.                            

To conclude, I return to the Naga people’s relentless pursuit for self-determination and our culture of self-reliance and the common good. Given the vibrant social energy and individual talents of our people, especially among the younger generation, the future holds truly exciting possibilities for the Naga society. The changed circumstances of the 21st century require us to be intentional and strategic about the future, and how we plan and work to realize it. As a people, we have a past and have inherited a difficult recent history. We must honor the good in our ancestors and in our history, including the generation that fought off the might of the Indian Army and earned the right to negotiate with the GOI; and we must meet our complicated current situation and needs.

I don’t know how young Nagas are planning to go about the future. The thoughtful and well-meaning among the older Nagas dreamed about building a democratic and communitarian society in the mid-20th century, and failed, for external and internal reasons, but are still hoping for it in the 21st century. That society would combine the best community values of traditional Naga life with modern, efficient governance structures. It would thrive on regional and national collaborations, and have global networks to grow and evolve from as individuals and as a society. We may yet have another chance above and beyond what the final Indo-Naga agreement may provide for. In any case, this seems to be the moment in our history for energetic and strategic young people (this time both women and men) to lead the way and for older Nagas of my generation to bring up the rear, like our ancestors used to do in important expeditions of another kind that required courage, skill, and thoughtfulness. As deeply invested Nagas around the world, our hope is that all NPGs, civil society, and the Naga public, especially the young people, will come together to seize this self-defining moment that will determine the future of our people — despite the odds. Thank you for your time and attention. Kuknalim!

Prof Paul Pimomo Central Washington University

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