| Their place in the sun
There are three kinds of concerns that are expressed about the Naga settlement being successful. The first is a fear expressed by the states adjoining Nagaland that they may lose some of their territory if all contiguous Naga areas are put under a single administrative unit. There is also a suspicion that the “hidden agenda” of the Nagas may be to secede. And lastly, there are some who feel that New Delhi would be emboldening other insurgent groups if it bows down to the Nagas.
The “territorial integrity” of any state of India cannot have primacy over the territorial integrity of India itself. Virtually all the northeastern states have been carved out of Assam. Instead of weakening India, this has strengthened the Union. When there was a dispute over the districts of Shahid Udham Singh Nagar and Hardwar going to Uttaranchal, giving way to the wishes of the local people neither weakened Uttar Pradesh nor the Union of India.
Although a settlement with the Nagas has to be in terms of Naga interests, it cannot be at the cost of creating disturbance in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal. Perhaps recognizing this, the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) have offered a dialogue to these states. There can be no doubt that at some point in the peace process, these states would have to be made a party to the settlement.
There is also a reservation among some sections of Manipur that the Nagas might have a hidden agenda of secession. When questions are asked whether the Nagas will settle with New Delhi within the Constitution of India or the Union of India, it is these fears which are being voiced. Some Meitei leaders openly express the fear of a Christian plot to create a separate state based on religion — straddling India’s Northeast and the bordering tribal areas of Bangladesh with a warm water port at Chittagong. Their concerns have a history.
The deputy commissioner for Naga Hills, J.H. Hutton, had proposed to the Simon Commission which toured India between 1928 and 1929, the creation of “self-governing communities, semi-independent in nature” in this region. Later, he was to develop this to suggest the creation of a northeastern province comprising “all the hill districts from Lushai land on the south to the Balipara Frontier tract on the north, embracing on the way the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bengal and the Nagas and Chins of Burma and perhaps the Shan states too.”
In 1941, Robert Reid, the then governor of Assam, supported this idea and suggested that the proposed province be made a Crown colony directly controlled by Whitehall. Subsequently, Reginald Coupland, advisor to the Cabinet mission and a constitutional expert from Nuffield College, Oxford, was to propose variants of such a Christian-tribal Crown colony. He wanted such an entity to have a destiny different from India’s. This proposal was shot down by the northeastern tribal leaders as well as Andrew Clow, the governor of Assam in 1945. The Naga leader, Zapu Phizo, openly said that this was not acceptable as “such an extension of British imperialism would go against the interests of other Eastern people.”
In the face of the opposition from the Naga leaders, the proposal was turned down by Whitehall. The idea was buried, with a government of India notification saying that the creation of a new province would require parliamentary legislation and no such proposal could be considered before the convening of the Constituent Assembly.
Today, more than ever, there is little chance of a new country being created in south Asia by changing the boundaries of the existing nations — not unless the sole superpower, the United States of America, backs such a move. Under the present circumstances, when the spectre of global terrorism haunts the US and the Western world, it is unlikely that they would back separatist struggles led by groups whose methods rely on terrorism.
Instead of destabilizing this region further, the US policy is to bring a semblance of governability. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka have learnt this lesson. The Kashmiri militants are being persuaded to see the light. At a time when the demand for sovereignty is giving way to greater autonomy in governance, the Naga insurgents would be swimming against the current if they seek separation.
Suspicion about the Nagas also comes from those who believe that Christianity is a force of separatism in India’s Northeast. Proselytization was indeed the aim of the missionaries who went to the Northeast. But in the process of winning the tribals to the flock, they gave them education, health facilities and in many cases, a language which they could call their own and compose local literature in it.
Christianity helped these communities rid themselves of slavery, opium and head-hunting, and created a sense of identity among them. Most importantly, it produced a modernizing elite. It is this elite which rejected the Coupland plan in the Forties and which, today, has forged strong links with the rest of India.
The church has been a peace-maker in the Northeast. It was through the efforts of the Nagaland Baptist Convention that a peace mission was organized to hold talks with New Delhi under the leadership of Reverend Michael Scott. This led to the first ceasefire with the Nagas in 1964. Even today, the council of Naga Baptist churches is trying to get various Naga groups together for peace. Christianity in the Northeast, especially in Nagaland, then, has been a cementing force of national integration. It is not a force of secession.
Finally, there are fears that if the government “succumbs” to the demand of the Nagas, then other insurgent groups would be emboldened to follow their example. If the other insurgencies in the Northeast were to learn from the Nagas, then there are two lessons for them: one, that if they are truly indigenous and have no links with hostile forces outside India, then New Delhi is willing to talk. And two, that India is willing to redefine its federal structure by providing adequate space to its different ethinicities to flourish and manage their own lives.
The NSCN (I-M) has learnt the hard way not to deal with countries inimical to India. It may be difficult to establish, but it is doubtful whether its general secretary, Thuingaleng Muivah, would have had to spend about eight months imprisoned in Thailand for travelling on a fake passport, if he had not boarded the flight to Bangkok from Karachi. Once the Pakistan link — even if it did not involve any material help — was broken, the peace process was resumed.
The outcome of the Naga peace process may also help other insurgent groups understand that the movement towards greater autonomy to the states in India is genuine. And that this is possible only through peaceful negotiations — the Naga peace process has come to the present level of a substantive political dialogue after five years of ceasefire.
New Delhi is not doing something which it ought not to do by listening to the Nagas or by considering devolution of power. A modern day paradox is that the more power a democratic government devolves, the more powerful it becomes. And this is what is happening through the Naga peace process.