Nagas of India

Alternative names: various tribal names, Angami, Sema, etc.
Location: Nagaland, north-eastern India
Population: 700,000
% of population: 0.1% of Indian population
Religion: Christian, indigenous beliefs
Language: Naga languages, English

The Nagas are a hill people numbering about 700,000 inhabiting the remote and mountainous country between the Indian state of Assam and Burma (Myanma). There are also Naga groups in Burma. The Nagas are divided into 16 main tribal groups, each with its own name and mutually unintelligible language, but their sense of national identity, forged during the years of British administration and reinforced by resistance to Indian government domination, now largely overrides the differences that separate them.

The Nagas traditionally are a tribally-organized people with a strong warrior tradition, with their villages sited on the hill tops, and making frequent raids onto the plains below. The British first came into contact with the Nagas when they took over Assam and the Brahmaputra Valley in the 1820s and moved into the hill areas in order to stop Naga raids, especially from the Angami tribe. In 1878 the Angamis rose as a tribe and were severely suppressed. After this the British gradually took over the whole area; however, in effect, British administration was limited in scope and effect. It was made a rule that no Indian official should be posted to the hills, that traders and speculators from the plains should be excluded and that most officials were drawn from the Nagas themselves. Missionaries converted many Nagas to Christianity and this facilitated literacy and the use of English, all of which encouraged a Naga sense of a separate identity.

In the run-up to Indian independence Nagas presented their own case for independence and when Assam (with other Indian provinces) was granted a large measure of self-rule in 1937, the Naga areas were under direct British administration. In World War II Nagas aided the British and harassed the Japanese. The Nagas set up the Naga National Council (NNC) to discuss matters of future status and in 1947 an NNC delegation led by Z. A. Phizo went to Delhi to press for Naga independence, a demand that was refused by Nehru, although he stated that autonomy for the Nagas would be considered. Therefore the NNC declared unilateral independence in August 1947 (at the time of Indian and Pakistani independence), although this was ignored by the outside world. However the Governor of Assam held talks with NNC leaders in 1948 and reached a nine-point agreement with them which recognized “the right of Nagas to develop themselves according to their freely elected wishes” although the agreement could be extended or negotiated after 10 years. The Nagas interpreted this as giving them the right to opt out of the Indian Union after 10 years. This was not the interpretation of the Indians however, and in practice they treated the nine-point agreement as a dead letter.

From 1948 the administration of the Naga areas began to change. Indians took over the administration and the posts which in the past had been held by Nagas. After the Chief Minister of Assam had been given a hostile reception by Nagas he ordered that a police force be placed in the hills. The Nagas again declared independence in January 1950 after they had conducted their own plebiscite which showed an almost unanimous vote in favour but this was not recognized by the Indian government which gave the Naga Hills the status of part of the tribal areas of Assam. In 1952 Nehru himself visited the Naga Hills but refused to meet the NCC while he was there or to receive their demands, and the Nagas were suspected of being manipulated by foreigners who wished to break up the Indian union. Soon after, the Baptist missionaries were expelled from the Naga areas.

The Nagas then launched a campaign of civil disobedience, similar to that used to achieve Indian independence, withdrawing from schools

North-East India

and the administration and refusing to pay taxes. The NNC leaders were arrested, the 16 tribal councils — all under the control of the NCC — were abolished and armed police and, later, the Indian army, were moved into the area. In 1956 the NCC proclaimed the establishment of a Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN) with its own constitution and Naga Home Guard. From 1956 to 1958 a bitter guerrilla war was conducted in the Naga Hills, with alleged atrocities on both sides. According to government figures 1,400 Nagas were killed against 162 Indians. Nagas and others have alleged that the Indian forces engaged in torture, rape and murder, burned villages and destroyed crops and while not all of these reports can be substantiated (because of restricted access to independent observers) it does appear that many violations did take place.

Divisions began to emerge in the Naga movement with the formation of the Naga People’s Convention led by Dr Imkongliba Ao, which favoured Indian statehood as a practical alternative to complete independence, and this received a more favourable response in Delhi, although the new state of Nagaland — at that time the smallest state in India with an area of 15,360 square kilometres and a population of 350,000 — came into being only in 1963. But the war continued with the Indian army using counter-insurgency tactics of rehousing villagers away from their villages in order to separate them from the insurgents. Phizo of the NNC had managed to reach London where his efforts on behalf of the Nagas began to attract world attention and sympathy, forcing the Indian government to let some journalists visit and report on Nagaland.

A breakthrough appeared to come with the appointment of a three-man Peace Commission, of the Rev. Michael Scott, B. P. Chaliha (the Chief Minister of Assam), and J. P. Narayan, which was able to negotiate a ceasefire beginning in May 1964. However efforts to bring about a permanent settlement failed as the two sides could not agree on a formula for settlement. The ceasefire continued in name until September 1972 when it was unilaterally terminated by the Indian government, but in practice fighting had continued and by the late 1960s the situation in Nagaland had reverted almost to what it had been before the ceasefire. Further allegations of brutalities were made against the Indian army. However it appeared that the Indian forces had been strengthened and the NCC guerrillas weakened during these years. There were divisions within the guerrilla forces, with one breakaway group in a much publicized surrender in August 1973, and perhaps more importantly a well entrenched Nagaland state government of the Naga National Organization (NNO) which had joined with the Indian government and which supported measures against the guerrillas. Many NCC guerrillas had taken refuge on the Burmese side of the border while Phizo remained in exile in London. A new state government in Nagaland, the United Democratic Front (UDF) elected in 1974, attempted to negotiate a ceasefire, but this was refused by the Indian government, which was now in a position finally to defeat the much depleted NCC forces, who by 1975 were surrendering in significant numbers.

Some Nagas, while supporting the ideal of independence, nevertheless argued that armed conflict against the full power of the Indian state could only lead to suffering for Nagas and ultimate defeat, and that resistance should be on the political plane, with the search for maximum autonomy within the Indian Union. The Naga Peace Council, a continuation of the body which had brought about the ceasefire of the 1960s, made contact with the underground forces. The result was the Shillong Accord signed between the governor and the representatives of the FGN in November 1975. The provisions of the Accord stated that the signatories accepted the binding extent of the Indian constitution, that weapons would be surrendered to the Peace Council, that security operations would be suspended and that the curfew would be lifted. This Accord reflected the strong desire for peace within Nagaland but it was not accepted by all of the Naga resistance; Phizo in London repudiated it as did the Chinese-influenced Alle command led by J. H. Muivah based in Burma, which introduced a new ideological note into the formerly heavily Christian Naga movement. This group became the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and carried on its struggle from Burma for many years, although heavily outnumbered by Indian forces.

By the 1980s most of Nagaland was at peace in contrast to the various insurgent movements active in the other Tribal States and Territories of the north-east and the growing conflict within Assam between Assamese and Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. The NSCN, however, was still active not only in Nagaland but among the Nagas of neighbouring Manipur, and there were continuing clashes between the NSCN based in Burma and the Indian army, and allegations of human rights violations by military forces. Within constitutional politics there had been growing dissidence in the ruling Congress I Party (the NNO had merged with the Congress Party in 1976) but its future appeared secure when it was re-elected in November 1987; however it lost its majority in August 1988 and, rather than allow the newly formed opposition group, the Joint Regional Legislature Party, form a government, the legislature was dismissed and the state was placed under President’s rule (i.e. direct rule from Delhi).

Notwithstanding the many problems that continuing insurgency has created, Nagaland’s future will depend on how well government can fulfil the expectations of its people — at 42% its literacy rate is higher than that of India as a whole yet jobs are scarce, especially outside the civil service. Nagas have successfully resisted the imposition of Hindi by the central government in favour of English, but a knowledge of Hindi is necessary to function in the north of India at least and this may limit opportunities outside the state.

(See also Adivasis of India; Chittagong Hill Tract Tribes of Bangladesh)