To be or not to be an Indian…The Naga Issue

My interactions with various people within Nagaland woke me up to a completely new side of India. An India that is fiercely fought for on maps, but remains a part of India merely on maps. An India that feels different, looks different and brings to my mind the essential question of what does it mean to be an Indian? Faced with the ground realities of the North East, this is a difficult question to answer.

While I prided myself on being able to count all the North eastern states and name all their capitals, my recent trip to Nagaland made me realise just how little I knew about this part of India. The leisurely pace of my holiday, the time spent with the local Nagas around many a bonfire and many glasses of rice beer and the innate friendliness of the people meant that the sensitive topics of politics and nationhood were not taboo topics for our conversations. My ingrained training to not bring up controversial topics was deep-rooted, but the open-ness of the Nagas soon made me much more vocal as well. I heard about the history of their people and saw for myself their tremendous pride in their tribal life well-demonstrated through the Hornbill Festival. I was surprised to learn that the Nagas were never a part of India historically. They were always an independent people – in fact never even a nation by themselves. Rather, like most tribal communities, their loyalty belongs to their tribes or clans and the sense of a larger statehood is also alien, forget about being a part of a large, diverse nation like India. The 17 odd dominant tribes of Nagaland had their own laws, customs, languages, costumes and culture. While their lands shared a border with the erstwhile British India, they were never fully a part of British India (though they were forced to adopt the Indian Rupee as the currency as well as permit some administrative rights to the British). Instead, like the self-governing Tibet or Nepal, they formed a buffer state for the British borders. The need for this buffer state was established conclusively during the World War II in the now legendary “Battle of Kohima”. The significant role played by the Nagas in this Battle helped turn the tide in favour of the British Indian Army and against the Japanese Imperial Army. The Battle is celebrated in history as one of the major turning points of the War.

However, despite a large number of Nagas sacrificing their lives for a British cause, ultimately, they were dealt a hard blow by British hands which re-drew India’s borders during its independence to include what’s now called Nagaland. In the years that had preceded India’s independence, the Naga people had repeatedly asked for the Naga Hills to be recognised as an autonomous region within an autonomous Assam and with due safeguards and a separate electorate for the Naga tribes and had even declared themselves independent on 14th August, 1947. Even post-independence, this negotiation continued with the Indian Government, culminating in the formation of the state of Nagaland in 1963. But a large part of the Nagas, remain unsatisfied with the degree of autonomy that their state enjoys under the Indian federal structure. To stoke fires further, a lot of separatist groups (variously named “nationalists”, “rebels” or “militants” based on who you talk to) continue to seek independence from India and reject the pro-India group’s legitimacy to represent the Naga people. The number of separatist groups has multiplied in the last few years – each faction representing its own agenda, its own clan or tribe, none representing the cause of the common man. There is significant distrust between various warring factions and tribes who are pursuing their own objectives of power and money – there is no nationalist any more in the cause! I heard several stories of the separatist groups running extortion and illegal taxation schemes at gunpoint, under the guise of collecting “revolutionary taxes” for the so-called “independence” movement.

Equally disappointing has been the Indian Government’s response which, despite several “historic” accords, has failed to align the Nagas into the mainstream. Despite failing to fulfil repeated assurances on solving this Naga problem, it’s easy for the Indian Government to excuse itself with the reasoning that the Nagas themselves don’t speak in one voice – who can they negotiate with? To add to the mess, the Indian Army is accused of abusing its sweeping powers in the state under Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (“AFSPA”) and of terrorising the local population. Rather than being viewed as a protector (as the army is by me), I could see the locals cringe upon seeing the army-men.

The one shining beacon in all of this is the common people who come across as being politically enlightened and willing to now take charge of their own political destinies. Civil society and the Church seemed to be willingly playing the role of a peace broker between the government, the under-ground rebels and the “over-ground” separatist groups. I met a rather knowledgeable young man, Philip, who spoke about how social media is now being used by the young Nagas to come together and speak as one voice – for peace. He shared the example of a civil society group, Association against Corruption and Unabated Taxation (“ACAUT”), which had humble beginnings as a small group of people who connected over facebook, but today is a large, powerful group with members from all parts of Nagaland and is leading the fight against illegal taxation by multiple separatist groups.

Most youth I spoke to were fully appraised of the political situation of their state. They also seemed to be taking a more rational view of the situation. The feeling that peace should be the first priority was omnipresent. Also, equally important was the creation of jobs & the setting up of industries so that there was no need to move to other Indian cities and run the risk of being discriminated against. What was clear was that the youth share the same aspirations that Young India has, but what was different was that the young Nagas were willing to commit their time and effort to the challenging task of nation-building.

Time and again, the locals rationalised their need for independence by emphasising how different they were from the rest of India – racially and culturally. I tried to argue that India is a diverse country with over 1,500 dialects and people from multiple cultural backgrounds coexisting – this is the very essence of being Indian. My husband and I speak different languages and come from different states – yet there is no doubt that we are Indian. I received the retort that most Indians don’t appreciate this diversity. Understandably, there was significant anger against Delhi and the series of hate crimes against North Eastern people. I rationalised this by saying that Delhi is not safe for women either and that the hate crimes were a result of a few people’s ignorance and not a benchmark for all Indians. I was then asked why the educated civil society in Delhi doesn’t take to the streets against the hooligans? Why are they not interested in making their city safer and reclaiming it from the hooligans? I had no answer to this.

I then changed tack and argued over the economic benefits of being a part of India – access to education and jobs in larger Indian cities, central funding of infrastructure, protection of international borders, etc. After all, what success could a small, landlocked geography achieve with an antiquated agricultural sector, no industry and limited natural resources? Can it survive with a large, hostile neighbour? But again, I silently play a Devil’s Advocate to my own arguments – what about the economic refugees from Bangladesh and Nepal who enjoy the financial dividends of India’s growth story? They didn’t need to be citizens of India to benefit from its growth or to get election cards! I struggle to find strong arguments to make the Nagas want to stay in India. I certainly want them to stay. The well-educated, English-speaking, friendly Nagas can fit very well into India’s fast-growing service sector and it is sad that we are unable to provide more jobs for them.

I struggle to define even to myself what does it mean to be an Indian? Am I a part-time Indian – only during the India-Pakistan world cup matches, or when I see the surge of crowds at our PM’s Madison Garden speech, or when I travel abroad and brandish an Indian passport, or when there is a terror attack on Indian soil? What makes me feel Indian when I am living my day-to-day life? Am I adequately a part of civil society and is my civil society adequately politically active? This is a question to be asked by all of us.

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