Fear rules polls in India’s Christian Nagaland State

Fear rules polls in India’s Christian Nagaland State

Utpal Bordoloi,
A palpable fear hangs over India’s tiny Christian tribal state of Nagaland. It is fear of the gun.

Elections to the 60-member state legislative assembly are scheduled for February 27. Under pressure from insurgent groups, a collection of tribal and civil society organizations had forced political parties to announce on January 29 that they would not take part unless the long-running insurgency called the ‘Indo-Naga Political problem’ was solved first.

The political parties included the state unit of India’s ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). But the central leaders of the party in Delhi forced it to backtrack. “Elections are a Constitutional necessity. A solution can come later,” said Kiren Rijiju, India’s junior minister for Home Affairs, who is in charge of the BJP’s election campaign for Nagaland.

The BJP’s decision forced the other parties into the contest. They did not want a repeat of 1998, when a similar poll boycott gave a walkover to the Congress which won 53 of the 60 seats. A total of 253 candidates from nine political parties filed nominations. Only five were women. Monday (February 12) is the deadline for withdrawals.

Nagaland, bordering Myanmar, is India’s 16th state, created in 1963 by splitting the Naga Hills district from Assam and joining it with Tuensang, then a frontier region only nominally under India’s administration. Its population was 1.9 million during the 2011 census, divided into 16 tribes. Myanmar has five Naga tribes, and the neighbouring states of Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam seven, three and one respectively. The Naga tribes are 96 per cent Christian, mostly of the fundamentalist Baptist denomination, and were converted by American Missionaries in the 19th century (In the USA, the Baptist Church is to the political far right and is part of Donald Trump’s core constituency).

English-speaking middle-class Baptists under the banner of the ‘Naga National Council (NNC)’ started their struggle for freedom from India with a ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence’ on August 14, 1947, the same day as Pakistan and one day before India. It is South Asia’s oldest insurgency.

They were led by Angami Zapu Phizo, who fought on the side of the Japanese and Indian National Army forces in the Second World War, hoping they would recognize an independent and sovereign Naga nation including all the tribes in India and (then) Burma after their victory.

The movement was largely peaceful, on the model of India’s freedom struggle, till 1955, when the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was promulgated and the Indian Army sent in. This Draconian legislation gives the Indian Army unshackled power to kill and destroy, and is still in force in parts of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and the entire Kashmir valley.

The insurgency had several iterations, with fighting interrupted by ceasefires, talks and peace agreements. The NNC had an ‘underground’ ‘Naga Federal Government’ and ‘Naga Federal Army’ (hence the rebels were called UGs). At the height of the insurgency in the 1960s, the Naga Army had about 15,000 guerrillas, initially armed with Japanese and British weapons left over from World War-II. They faced 10 Infantry Brigades, more than a standard Indian Army Corps. The Indian forces came under command of the famed 8 Mountain Division, raised as a specialist counter-insurgency formation in 1965 at Zakhama, near Nagaland’s state capital Kohima. The Pakistan Army was to protest hotly when the Division was transferred to Kashmir in the 1990s.

The NNC asked Pakistan for help to fight India. Pakistan, wanting to draw the Indian Army away from Kashmir, trained and armed several thousand guerrillas in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Phizo, the ‘most-wanted’ man in the Naga Hills, escaped to East Pakistan in 1956 from where he was to remote control the insurgency for three years. In 1960, Pakistan’s Military Intelligence helped him to shift base to London, from where he appealed to the United Nations condemning India’s ‘genocide’ of Nagas and seeking intervention of the Christian West.

He quickly won the support of the British and American press by comparing the situation in Nagaland with the European Holocaust, with Nagas in the role of the Jews and India as the Nazis. The United Kingdom had several thousand veterans of the 14th Army (which was largely Indian) who had fought in the Naga Hills. Kohima, called the ‘Stalingrad of the East’ for an epic Japanese siege in 1944, had a romantic attachment for these British veterans. But the reason why India – Jawaharlal Nehru in particular – got a bad press internationally was that it was a secret war. India had enforced British-era laws barring outsiders from entering Naga territory. The press in India and the wider world thus had no chance of reporting the factual situation. It was also a dirty war, with both sides committing atrocities.

In 1965 Phizo appealed to China for help, and hundreds of Nagas started marching to Yunnan, through Burma. The UGs, however, kept the China connection secret till 1968, when the Indian Army captured Chinese weapons and documents. This was because the Baptist Church opposed communism as a godless doctrine, and the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, first elected in 1964, condemned Communist China as a “threat to democracy, the Church and the Naga way of life.”

The UGs split along tribal lines in 1968, when members of the Sumi (Sema) tribe parted ways with Phizo’s Angamis and formed the ‘Revolutionary Government of Nagaland.” More than 1,000 East Pakistan trained Sumi guerrillas laid down arms. This weakened the Naga independence struggle. Peace talks continued till most of Phizo’s followers agreed to accept the Indian Constitution and signed the ‘Shillong Accord’ in November 1975. A notable exception was Phizo’s own Khonoma village which long had a “no-surrender” reputation for having fought the British to a stand-still in 1871. Phizo continued to cry defiance from London, where he had taken British citizenship.

UGs then in China rejected the Accord, the NNC and Phizo and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in Myanmar in 1980. Its leaders were Isak Chishi Swu, a Sumi, Thuingaleng Muivah, from the Tangkhul tribe of Manipur, and S.S. Khaplang, from the Hemi tribe of Myanmar. These three would dominate the insurgency scene in Northeast India till 1988 when Khaplang, NSCN Vice-Chairman, swallowed rumours planted by Indian Intelligence that Swu and Muivah were planning to sell out to India. His men launched a pre-emptive strike and all but wiped out Muivah’s men, mostly Tangkhuls. Swu, Muivah and a handful of followers managed to reach safety among their tribesmen in India. This was the third split in the Naga independence struggle.

The Isak–Muivah (IM) faction recovered and formed a ‘Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Nagaland (GPRN)’ with the motto “Nagaland for Christ.” This was to become the de facto authority in Nagaland and Manipur, in place of the de jure elected state governments. A major reason for this was political patronage from the Congress party, especially after Rajiv Gandhi succeeded Indira Gandhi. The Khaplang (K) faction also found shelter in Nagaland with political patronage, notably from former Congress Chief Minister S.C. Jamir, who used it as his private and personal bodyguard.

The NSCN factions would never pose a serious challenge to the Indian Army – which started de-inducting battalions and sending them to fight insurgency in Kashmir – after the split of 1988 – but was like a thorn in the flesh of the Indian establishment, particularly big business. Indian capital had grown deep roots among the Nagas, forming a Comprador class which has a strong vested interest in Nagaland remaining with the Indian Union. “Rich Nagas don’t want India to break up. They know where their interests lie” says a Marwari businessman whose family has been trading for three generations in Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial capital.

It was Indian Capital and its Naga compradors that urged New Delhi to continue talking with the NSCN’s dominant IM faction till yet another ‘ceasefire’ was announced in 1997, pending continued “negotiations” towards a “final solution of the Naga political problem.” These “talks” were an elaborate charade lasting through 18 years and five Prime ministers from P.V. Narasimha Rao through Narendra Modi, and staged in exotic locales like Paris, Zurich, Bangkok and Osaka, besides New Delhi.

On August 3, 2015, Muivah and the Government of India announced in New Delhi (Swu was seriously ill and was to die in Delhi in June 2016, aged 87) that they had signed a “Framework Agreement” for a final solution of the Indo-Naga problem. Thirty months later this agreement came back to haunt the elections, which would be the 13th since Nagaland became a state of the Indian Union. Because no details of the agreement have been released till today.

S.S. Khaplang died in Myanmar in June 2017, aged 77. Muivah, at 84, is the last of the Naga insurgent leaders with a following. No other living Naga has his name-recognition or following. Time and age are running out for Muivah. It was this that forced the Naga insurgents – now broken into seven factions which are little more than tribal militias – into one more gamble: “No election without solution”.

“People were reluctant to stand by the demand for a solution before election without knowing what the solution is,” said. T.R. Zeliang, the Nagaland Chief Minister who belongs to the Naga People’s Front (NPF) party. But he admitted that candidates and political party workers are living in fear of their lives. The NSCN has already threatened that those who take part in the elections would be treated as “Anti-Naga.” This implies punishment that could range from expulsion from Naga society to assassination. With India’s security forces on high alert, and more pouring in each day, the common man is also living in fear of being caught in a cross-fire.

“Elections will be held. But there will be violence,” says Dr. Visier Sanyü Meyasetsu, former Head of the Department of History and Archaeology, Nagaland University. He has worked for peace and reconciliation in Nagaland for 40 years and is uniquely qualified to talk. He belongs to Merhüma khel – Phizo’s clan and was six years old in 1956 when his family fled to the jungle to escape the Indian Army. They suffered two years of privation and hardship before they could emerge. Much later, Dr. Meyasetsu migrated to Australia where he became a University professor. His fascinating journey from Khonoma to Australia is documented in his book “A Naga Odessey” (Monash University, Australia, 2017).