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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 23, New Delhi, May 23, 2020

The ‘Naga’ Contestation, Ethnicity and Christianity

Saturday 23 May 2020

by Bhawesh Pant

Amidst the processes of Independence of India, there existed the Naga Movement for self-determination or Independence. The inception of this interaction from the Naga populace was initiated in June 1947 through an agreement between the Naga National Council (NNC) and Governor of Assam. The agreement was unable to stretch to the expected end, thereafter Naga National Council voiced for independence and made a claim for plebiscite in the region. This strong demand for independence was hard for the newly formed Government of India to receive. “The Government of India rejected such claims on the grounds that India is the legal heir of the British and hence has legitimate political authority over the Nagas.” (Singh, 2012) For the key proponents of Indian Nation-building project, the stirred situation among Naga’s was a great impediment, they were eyeing to envelop the Naga cosmologies under the greater Indian political realm. The Government of India forwarded a provision of ‘limited autonomy’ to the Naga people over their land as enshrined in the Indian Constitution. This offer was not well received by the Nagas, in response, they boycotted the first parliamentary election of 1951. The chaotic situation among Nagas made the Government of India to have the intervention of security forces in the Naga areas. Later in 1959, the resolution for the separate state was adopted by the Naga People’s Convention. By the adoption of the resolution, the Naga People’s Convention and Government of India signed the Sixteen-Point Agreement to have the Naga Hills Tuensang area as a state of Nagaland. The new statehood of Nagaland was against the claims of the pro-independence (of Nagaland) actors, hence frequent uprisings and unrest prevailed in Nagaland. In the year of 1975, another agreement famously called the ‘Shillong Accord’ was signed between the “Representative of the Underground Organisations” and the Government of India. This accord was another peace-building effort, to hold down the significant uprisings within the Indigenous populace. The ‘Shillong Accord’ can be termed as a watershed moment during Naga political assertion. This accord was not smoothly received by the all stakeholders of Naga National Council (NNC), this subtle fragmentation later resulted in the formation of another faction called the National Socialist Council of Nagaland from its parent organization i.e. Naga National Council (NNC). The consecutive years also witnessed a split and intense factional politics within the contentious politics among Naga political interactors with the Government of India. Underlying this brief narration of the Naga movement resides intertwined complexities which we will try to touch upon in the coming sections.

                         Major Claims of the Movement

For an independent homeland: The cardinal concern for Naga was the prolonged division of Naga’s country by the colonial actors and the same they had anticipated from the newly formed India state. It was the Naga Club, who tried to build a political entity with the Naga people to carry forward their claim(s) effectively. Later on, it was Naga National Council (NNC) who ultimately took the cause in a more structured way. The signing of the Nine-Point agreement didn’t provide any satiation to Naga’s assertion, thus doors for the armed struggle were open. This time Naga’s assertion witnessed the factional politics, where on one hand there were pro-independence groups who were indulged in the armed struggle; contrast to them were groups that were pro- Indian State. It was the effort of a pro- Indian faction, a politico-administrative unit, to be constituted as Naga Hills- Tuensang Area. The Naga Hills- Tuensang Area was subsequently elevated to the state of Nagaland in 1963.

For ‘Rightful’ Homeland: The integration of ‘Naga Areas’ into a singular administrative unit was an added demand that Naga’s were voicing for. The demand for unification was advocated by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah group, a persuasive armed organization. They forwarded to call the declared homeland as ‘Nagalim’ with 120,000 sq km area. The ‘Nagalim’ constitutes the Nagaland and areas which have been occupied by the Naga population of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Manipur. The Naga-populated area of Myanmar is also included in the ‘Nagalim.’ For the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak-Muivah group, the then-existing state of Nagaland was an ‘Indian Imposed Entity’ which does not cater to all needs of the agitating group.

Situating ‘Naga’ Movement Theoretically

Seldomly it become hard to fit the particular movement in the existing concepts or categories. This reveals the incapacity of the extant vocabulary on Social Movements to capture the intricacies of the varied social movements. The Naga Movement remains a kind of movement which is hard to categorize. The ‘Naga’ movement being an ‘ethno-national’ movement comes up with complexities where the claimants get factionalized, resulting in claims turning subtle at one time and radical at another instance. The methodology to interact remained ambivalent within themselves, one faction when trying to conclude an agreement for peacebuilding then it was not well received by another radical faction. The movement remained disoriented within itself, which subsequently visiblised itself at macro-level political interaction.

The author will try to deal with the intricacy latched with the ‘Naga’ Movement using two approaches. The ‘Demographic Explanation of Primordialist’ view will try to make sense of the Naga Ethnicity’s accumulation as a political tool of assertion. Next to this the ‘Instrumentalist Explanation’ will assist in understanding the way Naga’s mobilization process to insist on their claims.

The Demographic Explanation of Primordialist view claims that the population of one homogenous group in a geographical area results in greater solidarity and more tendency for fierce action if inherent angst exists in the population. A section of scholars that are indulged in writing on the theme of Nation formation and Nationalism, opines that nation is revolutionized form of “common cultural heritage and language” (Smith, 1989) In the same tenor Joanne Nagel reiterated that “ethnic identities are simply, constructed out of the material of language, religion, culture, appearance or locality and the meaning of particular ethnic boundaries are continuously negotiated, revised or revitalized ” (Nagel, 1994) The Naga’s were speculating a potent threat to their indigeneity after their inclusion in the Indian mainland. Thus processes of Independence of India witnessed ‘ethno-national’ revival among the Naga populace. Thus the demand for a separate independent homeland comprising all Naga majority areas was forwarded. For the idea of nationalism, ‘cultural cohesion’ is cardinal (Gellner, 2008) the same was followed in Naga assertion too. The colonial ‘imagination’ of India which later was advanced by the nation builders of independent India catalyzed the Naga contention, it was the colonial episteme of India that was daunting Naga’s consciousness. They were alarmed with the adventing uncertainties that they will face if they get included in independent India. In the same line, Benedict Anderson opines that the ‘classificatory grid’ constructed by the colonists in the form of “colonial census, museums, construction of national memories, biographies, and maps” helps in identity formation. (Anderson, 1991) This pan Indianized ‘classificatory grid’ was dithering the major section of Naga populace as they were speculating a compromised Naga cosmology within the independent Indian state.

The prior section was dedicated to the deliberation on the ‘why’ question of identity amassing within the Naga community. The leading part will try to delve into the use of ethnicity as a mobilization tool to magnify their claim in the Naga Movement. Here the author will take the aid of Instrumentalist school. The scholarship hailing from this episteme focuses on the “the causes of heightened or diminished ethnic identification and ethnic mobilization” (Brass 1996) This school of thought will help us to situate the role of religion within the Naga Movement and the international intervention on the contention. The Instrumentalist School stays strong with their claim that spiritual, religious, and social linkages do not abruptly happen, instead they are nurtured especially for political mobilization. Religion always had an influential role in the age of nationalism, Snyder (1954) aptly writes, “religion helped to give peoples that close sense of unity and cohesiveness implied in the idea of a nation.” Here we are not arguing that the Naga Movement for the separate nation was due to the introduction of Christianity, instead, the author holds a belief that there existed the traits of ‘sovereignty’ and ‘nationalistic’ in Naga’s traditional cosmologies. It was in the 1850s Christianity ingressed in the Naga fold by the American Missionary Associations. Christianity became the foundational recognition on which political interacting organization ‘Naga Club’ was created in 1928. The persistent cry of “The Nagas convert the Nagas’’ was very common in the contentious field; this missionary strategy was articulate enough to make a staunching claim that Naga’s will not be ruled by Hindus or Muslim and therefore not by the Indian state. The imperative location of Christianity within the movement can be traced by the request of A.Z. Phizo to the nations in the west with dominant Christian religion for the solidarity in their struggle. Even NNC sent Phizo to London to have their gregariousness with their assertion. Few have also hinted that the introduction of western education in the wake of missionary activities also played a persuasive role in the movement, Mishra (1978) stated: “Christianity and western education brought a section of Naga youth into contact with the liberal ideas of the West and, in the process, helped the growth of nationalistic forces by reducing to a great extent the rivalry among the various tribes.” The fear being ruled by someone coming from different theistic episteme can be viewed from a memorandum forwarded to the British delegates by the representatives in 1929 which reads “There were no social affinities between the Nagas and the Hindus or the Muslims. One looked down upon Nagas for eating beef and the other for eating pork” (Luithui & Nandita, 1984) The Baptist leaders were also very active in the political interactions and negotiations, which revealed their tenacious position in the movement. The ‘Three Man Peace Commission’ was established in 1964, this was initiated by the Church council. The visibility of Religion was also there in the Yehzabo (Constitution of Nagaland adopted by NNC) whose preamble reads “We the people of Nagaland, solemnly acknowledging that the sovereignty over this earth and the entire universe belongs to Almighty God alone, and the authority of the people to be exercised on the territory is a Sacred trust from God.” (Luithui & Nandita, 1984) Protestant Christianity was also recognized as a religion under Article 136 of Yehzabo. Later NSCN in its manifesto made a celebrated declaration of “Nagaland for Christ”. These instances made it very clear that Christianity was an important constituent of the movement.

Government of India, 70 years struggle has a question, give us a political answer” the placard read which was raised in a rally organized in Dimapur, Nagaland on 8th March, 2020. The rally was organized jointly by different organizations that wanted a solution to this contention at the earliest. The people need a proper solution which should contain their ‘say’. Next to this subtle stand, there exists a Naga rebel group National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) which is exploring the option of setting up a base in Myanmar as there seems to be no breakthrough in the discussions. The rebel group and Government of India are unable to come on board on the issue of separate flag and Constitution of Nagaland. The other groups such as Naga National Political Groups (NNPG) are in velvet negotiation with the interlocutor appointed by GOI.

It seems that this movement still holds ample spark to keep the Government on its toes because NSCN still stands strong with its demand. With the advent of neoliberalism, the global order witnessed the rise of ‘identity’ politics. The author speculates that this resurgence of ‘identity’ will provide enough fuel to the Naga movement.


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Author: Bhawesh Pant is a Research Scholar at Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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