Homeland Security

The Naga Peace Accord: A Historical Context
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 05 Aug , 2015

It is often said that history is chronicle of follies of the past! The history of Nagaland conflict aptly fits that description. It is worthwhile to take a dispassionate look at the past so that we can learn from the past mistakes.

Unlike the Shillong Accord of 1970s, this was a full photo op with PM in attendance. The idea was to send a clear message to the Naga people that they are indeed hounoured members of the Indian union. It is ironic that the accord took so long when the Naga’s desire was merely for a peace with honour!

The accord signed by the NSCN (National Socialist Council of Nagaland) IM (IssackSwu and Muiva) with the Govt. of India is indeed a landmark event. The biggest remaining insurgent group has thus come into the national mainstream. Peace in North East is a- priori requirement for India’s Act East policy. It is only through a peaceful NE that India can connect with Myanmar and SE Asia. In addition, whole of NE has immense natural resources like oil and gas that lie un explored due to unstable conditions. All that could well change with this accord if a quick follow up is undertaken.

Unlike the Shillong Accord of 1970s, this was a full photo op with PM in attendance. The idea was to send a clear message to the Naga people that they are indeed hounoured members of the Indian union. It is ironic that the accord took so long when the Naga’s desire was merely for a peace with honour! The roots of cussedness of previous govt. go deep into history. Nagaland State in North-Eastern India, is bordered on the west by Assam, on the east by Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), on the north by Arunachal Pradesh and on the south by Manipur state. Nagaland is one of India’s smallest states, with a total area of 16,579 sq. km. The Naga Hills run through this small state, which has Saramati as its highest peak at a height of 12,600 ft. The main rivers that flow through Nagaland are Dhansiri, Doyang, Dikhu and Jhanji. The terrain is mountainous, thickly wooded, and cut by deep river valleys. There is a wide variety of plant and animal life. Nagaland has a monsoon climate with generally high humidity and receives an average rainfall of 1800 and 2500 mm a year. The population of Nagaland is entirely tribal. The Nagas belong to the Indo-Mongolian family. The fourteen major Naga tribes are the Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khemungan, Konyak, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sema, Yimchunger and Zeliang.

The Naga Hills and Tuensang district, as the area was called then, lay in the grey area where the British did not extend their administration. In 1929 the Simon Commission visited India to discuss the issue of self-government. The Commission also visited Kohima and here the Nagas presented a memorandum claiming that they were NOT Indians and wished to be treated as an independent state. Thus the roots of Naga separatism appear to go deep. But the Naga argument that they were ‘independent’ of India and had no connection with it is not borne out by history.

The starting point of the Naga argument was that they were not Indians, were never part of India nor ruled by the Indians. They only had some relationship with the British and now that the British were leaving, like India, Nagas should get their independence.

In the 13th century, King Sukhapa of Shan State (in present day Myanmar) invaded the area and subjugated the Nagas.  The Shan rule was brutal and the Nagas suffered privations. In the 14th century, the Ahom Kings of Assam defeated the Shan Chief and brought the Nagas under their influence. Initially the Nagas welcomed the Ahom rule and often paid tributes to them. Later there were frequent clashes between the Ahoms and Nagas and in 1620 King Gadadhar Singh took harsh action and forced the Naga chiefs to come to his capital and pay taxes. In early 19th century the British occupied Assam and the Naga areas were annexed The British however left the Nagas alone and had a policy of minimum interference. This changed in 1851 when in the wake of Naga attacks on the plains; the British took strong retaliatory action. In 1877, the Naga Hills district was created with its administrative headquarters at Kohima. The Naga’s welcomed British rule as it stabilised the area and brought an end to inter-tribal warfare. Nagas, though referred to as a common group, were actually divided into several tribes including the Angami, Ao, Sema, Konyak, Thankhuls and several other small tribes. Each tribe had its own language and communication between tribes was impossible.

There was constant pressure from Christian missionaries to be permitted to carry out their activities in these areas. The British were alarmed at the activities of Hindu missionaries in neighbouring Manipur, hence changed their policy and permitted the spread of Christianity in tribal areas. Sir Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpur (with a significant population of tribals) wrote that the wild tribes have no religion. “They want religion and were they Christians, they would be a great asset in times of trouble with the vast non-Christian population. “ It cannot be doubted that the large population of Christian hills men between Assam and Burma (now Myanmar) will be a valuable asset to the (British) state”. Sir Johnston, Commissioner of Manipur, strongly echoed his views and advocated the induction of clergymen from the Church of England.

The words of Sir Dalton were to prove prophetic. In 1944-45 Japan invaded Burma and reached the gates of India. The British 14th Army suffered a humiliating defeat. For a moment it seemed that the Japanese would reach Calcutta and shake up the British Empire in India. But in the epic battle of Kohima in March 1944, the Japanese advance was checked. The Nagas played a stellar role in these battles as guides, porters and spies to help the British defeat the Japanese. A monument was erected in Kohima to honour two Nagas who, disguised as mess waiters, stole the Japanese plans of advance! The Nagas got training in guerrilla war and were hailed as saviours by the British. The end of the war saw huge caches of arms and ammunition abandoned in the jungles. Thus here was a tailor-made situation for insurgency-well trained guerrilla fighters, plenty of arms and ammunition, heightened self-esteem as victors over the Japanese, a sense of separateness due to geography, British policy and nudging from the missionaries.  At the time of independence in 1947 there was also a genuine apprehension about the fate of ‘Christian Nagas’ in a predominantly Hindu India. All that a separatist insurgency needed was charismatic leadership. This void was filled by ZaputoAngamiPhizo, an active and educated Naga who had been assiduously building his contacts across the tribal divide.  The Naga Club at Kohima was founded in 1918 and was a regular meeting place for the Naga intellectuals. This formed the nucleus of leadership of the insurgency when it broke out in the late 1950s.

…as the meeting started, the entire lot of Nagas present got up and walked out! It was an insult such as Nehru had never expected! A furious Nehru vowed that he would never visit Nagaland, a vow that he kept till his death in 1964.

Right from the beginning the Naga movement was a purely political one in the sense that the Nagas did not put forward any economic demands nor claim economic grievances. The starting point of the Naga argument was that they were not Indians, were never part of India nor ruled by the Indians. They only had some relationship with the British and now that the British were leaving, like India, Nagas should get their independence.

Mr. Y. D. Gundevia, an officer of the Indian Foreign Service who dealt with the Naga problem sums up the Naga attitude as, “Naga movement is a political one with suspicion and fear as a superstructure and an unworthy feeling of racial separation and superiority as the basis.”

So convinced were the Nagas of the justness of their cause that they expected the Indian leadership to accept their demands. The Naga National Council (NNC) made several attempts to meet the national leadership in Delhi. But beset as it was with a far bigger challenge of refugees from Pakistan, the Kashmir war and communal rioting all over India, the Nagas did not receive a favourable response. The Governor of Assam, Sir Akbar Hydari  was asked to deal with the issue. Hydari, a civil servant with vast experience and knowledge of the North East, devised a nine- point plan. The salient points of this were the control over the natural resources and land was handed over to the Nagas and their tribal customs were given a legal protection. The agreement had a 10-year life within which the two sides were expected to work out a permanent arrangement.  While the talks between the two sides went on, the Nagas collected signatures on a petition demanding independence and sent it to the President in August 1951.

It is difficult to pin point the event that led to the break between India and the Nagas but the refusal of the President to meet a Naga delegation in December 1953 could be one. Even earlier, irrespective of the Naga impasse, the Constitution making exercise went on full steam and a General Election was announced in 1952 and held all over the country. The NNC announced a boycott of elections. The boycott was 100 % successful and there were no candidates and no voters in entire Nagaland. Phizo staged his own elections and referendum and formed a Naga national government. Frustrated with the lack of response to their demands from Delhi, the Nagas launched a Civil Disobedience movement in 1953. While the Nagas continued preparations for an eventual armed clash with India, the movement was peaceful right till 1956.

The Naga’s rightly felt betrayed by Nehru and GOI. In the accord signing ceremony, the NSCN leader was careful to mention Mr.NarasinhaRao, Vajpayee and ofcourse Modi, but avoided any mention of the Nehru-Gandhi’s.

The Naga leadership made several attempts to meet the Prime Minister Nehru, but failed. An incident that particularly shocked Nehru took place in May 1953. Aware of the Naga population in Burma (the Hemi Nagas) Nehru was keen to involve Burma in the pacification of the frontier areas. Nehru and Burmese Prime Minister U Nu paid a joint visit to Kohima in May 1953. A public meeting was organised where the two leaders were to address. But just as the meeting started, the entire lot of Nagas present got up and walked out! It was an insult such as Nehru had never expected! A furious Nehru vowed that he would never visit Nagaland, a vow that he kept till his death in 1964. Nehru was not an ordinary politician. He had a virtually absolute sway over the nation and a break between him and the Naga leadership had tragic consequences for the people of Nagaland.

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The Government and the Nagas differed on the interpretation of Hydari’s nine point plan. The Nagas expected that the arrangement was purely temporary and for ten years only after which they expected the Indians to grant them independence! As the ten year period got over, the Nagas started an armed struggle and established their own rule over most of the area. In reaction, India sent in the Assam rifles as well as a division of the regular army to re-take the area from the Nagas and establish control up to the Burmese border. A full-blown guerrilla war began.

Postscript.

The Naga’s rightly felt betrayed by Nehru and GOI. In the accord signing ceremony, the NSCN leader was careful to mention Mr.NarasinhaRao, Vajpayee and ofcourse Modi, but avoided any mention of the Nehru-Gandhi’s. He also stressed that Nagas believe in honouring their word, a backhanded response to the past.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

former Joint Director War History Division, Min of Defence. Currently co-ordinator of Pune based think tank 'Inpad' that is affiliated with Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

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3 thoughts on “The Naga Peace Accord: A Historical Context

  1. Col Anil Athale,Nagas were never under any rulers nor we paid any taxes to any foreign rulers until the british came into the playground.What you have written about naga tribes being invaded by King Sukhapa of Shan State or nagas being subjugated by the ahoms is entirely inaccurate.

  2. Dear Sir, Nagaland insurgency is strangest case where it was started by INA veterans who had fought for indian independence till 1945. Betrayal of Nagas by Congress leadership will remain mystery till correspondence of Phizo with delhi is declassified and published. I hope you will use your column for pressing for such declassification.

  3. Y D Gundevia was Pandit Nehru’s Foreign Secretary….. he was my Uncle ….. said that the only process to save the NE was inclusive politics….

    My Father was Brig (later Maj-Gen R Z Kabraji)…. He quelled the Mizo rebellion in 1964-65 and stayed in Nagaland with 61 Mtn Bde…. Even as part of the CI forces, he was of the opinion that one had bring the Nagas and Mizos into mainstream India. He attempted to do his bit even as head of the CI Force in the area at that time……..

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