Divided Nagas and Their Search for Identity

Major Relengnao Khathing, MBE, MC popularly known as Bob Khathing is a legend in Manipur but almost no one has heard of him in the rest of India.

A student of Cotton College, Bob Khathing was given the King’s Commission and joined the Indian Army during World War 2.

He was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE) and awarded the Military Cross (MC) for his exploits behind Japanese lines with ‘V Force ’, a commando unit.

It was Major Khathing, who captured Tawang for India in 1951, even as China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was conquering the rest of Tibet. Backed by 100 bayonets of the 5th Assam Rifles, he evicted the Tibetan Dzongpons (governors) without firing a shot and planted the Indian flag on Tawang monastery. India made him Padma Shri (1957) and Ambassador to Burma (1972).

Major Khathing was from the Tangkhul Naga tribe of Ukhrul, Manipur. In 1965 another Tangkhul Naga, Thuingaleng Muivah, a post-graduate of Gauhati University, made the long march to Yunnan, China.

He was a member of the Naga National Council (NNC) whose leader, Angami Zapu Phizo, had launched the Naga freedom movement with his ‘Unilateral Declaration of Independence ‘on August 14, 1947. It began South Asia’s longest insurgency, now called ‘The Indo-Naga Political Problem.’

The movement was peaceful in the beginning but it turned violent and the Assam (Disturbed Areas) Act and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act were promulgated in the Naga Hills in 1955. The Indian Army marched in.

The insurgency has seen much iteration since. Periods of fighting between the Naga Federal Army – the military wing of the NNC – and the Indian Army were broken by ceasefires, talks, peace agreements and surrenders.  At the high point of the insurgency in the 1960s, the Naga Army had 15,000 guerrillas facing ten Brigades of troops.

Nagaland was made the 16th state of the Indian Union in 1963 to buy peace, splitting off the Naga Hills district and joining it with Tuensang area of NEFA (North East Frontier Agency), now Arunachal Pradesh. This was followed by the first elections to the Nagaland Legislative Assembly.

This satisfied a section of the Nagas who were sick of war and wanted to be left in peace. Then the Naga movement split on tribal lines, with the Sumi (Sema) tribe breaking away from the Angami-dominated NNC and surrendering.

Other followers of Phizo continued talking with the government of India and this led to the Shillong Accord (1975) which pacified another big section of Nagas. Phizo had no control over this as he had sought political asylum in London in 1960 and had taken British citizenship.

Muivah, then in China, rejected the accord. In 1980, with Isak Chishi Swu, a Sumi, and S.S. Khaplang, from the Hemi Naga tribe of Myanmar, he formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) whose motto was ‘Nagaland for Christ’ and ideology an odd mix of Evangelical Christianity and Revolutionary Socialism.

Based in Myanmar, NSCN guerrillas staged cross-border raids into Nagaland and Manipur till another split occurred in 1988 after Khaplang swallowed rumours planted by Indian intelligence that Isak Swu and Muivah were planning to sell out to India. In a pre-emptive strike, he wiped out most of the Indian Nagas, mostly Tangkhuls. Muivah, Swu and a few followers escaped and found refuge among their fellow tribesmen in India.

Muivah consolidated and established an underground government in Manipur. Khaplang’s India Naga followers – there were some – found a foothold in Nagaland. This was possible because both factions received patronage from political heavyweights of the State.

Muivah’s faction, NSCN (IM), emerged as hegemon of insurgent groups in Northeast India, mentoring the ULFA and the Bodo Liberation Tigers for payment. It collected huge revenues from other insurgent groups, extortion, gun-running, smuggling and looting development funds.

But time and age were catching up with Muivah and his cohorts. The government needed to pull out troops to use in Kashmir, where another, more dangerous insurgency had been growing since 1989.   So both sides signed yet another ceasefire, in 1997, pending talks for “a final settlement of the Indo-Naga political problem”.

These talks dragged through 18 years and the terms of five Prime Ministers – PV Narasimha Rao to Narendra Modi – in Paris, Zurich, Osaka and Bangkok. This resulted in a ‘Framework Agreement ‘signed by Muivah and the government on August 3, 2015. Swu was ill and would die in 2016. Nagas thought a “final solution” had arrived.

But in reality no such thing happened. The ‘Framework Agreement’ had been kept secret. Muihav wanted it so because he could not obtain either of the two main demands of the Naga insurgency – sovereignty and ‘Nagalim’, an integrated territory of the Naga inhabited areas created by breaking Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Khaplang died in Myanmar in 2017, leaving Muivah the last of the Naga insurgent leaders of stature. At age 84, aware the government was waiting for him to die; he played one last desperate card–calling a boycott of the elections. But the Naga people did not back him, and Nagaland goes to the poll on February 27. It would be the 13th assembly elections in Nagaland since 1964.

Major Bob Khathing and Thuingaleng Muivah represent two opposing forces at work in the Naga universe. Major Bob Khathing stood for the centripetal – “proceeding or acting in a direction towards a Centre”. Thuingaleng Muivah is a symbol of the centrifugal – “proceeding or acting in a direction away from a centre.”

In his novel Iyaruingam , which won the Sahitya Akademi award in 1961 and is considered a masterpiece of Indian literature, Jnanpith laureate Dr Birendra Kumar Bhattacharyya describes the Naga search for identity in a post-World War, newly-independent India.

Translated into English as Love in the Time of Insurgency , the novel is set in the Tangkhul Naga country where Dr Bhattacharyya spent many years as a school teacher at the invitation of his friend Rishang Keishing.

The novel has two protagonists. Vidashali is a Naga soldier who fights for independence from India – modeled on Phizo.  Rishang opposes Vidashali’s ideas and is modeled on Rishang Keishing, India’s longest serving parliamentarian; also Manipur’s longest serving Chief Minister, whose life-long political theme was integration.

The centrifugal and the centripetal forces are still tugging at the Nagas.

 Utpal Bordoloi is a senior journalist based in Guwahati. He can be reached at [email protected]

Source: NENow


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