FOR 64 YEARS, the Naga struggle for sovereignty has been based on the idea of ‘urra uvie (our land belongs to us)’. Over the years, a sense of a collective Naga identity has been instilled and the idea of sovereignty based on their historical rights and cultural identity has become real. Warring factions created a sovereignty hyperbole, something akin to the idea of Kashmir’s azadi, where the fight for independence was about “all or nothing” and the cause that justified the violence was sovereignty. However, at the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) meeting on 29 February in Dimapur, Nagaland, addressing thousands of Nagas from all walks of life and all Naga-inhabited areas (Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Myanmar), National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Kitovi-Khole) Chairman Gen Khole Konyak explained that independence for Nagas in the present international context was not possible nor was Greater Nagaland. “It is a practical reality, necessitated not because of the aggressive posture of the Government of India but a realisation that Naga nationalism must be evoked in the right spirit through practical wisdom as opposed to idealist views on sovereignty and independence,” he said.
A statement that, for the first time, touched on the issue of sovereignty in a public forum and gave an inkling of what the future might hold.
“Sovereignty, or the denial of it, has been a bone of contention between the Nagas and the Government of India since 1947,” says Father Abraham Lotha, a Naga intellectual. But what has resulted in this changing definition? A change that is being seen as a progressive and positive step.
Over the past six decades, there has been a paradigm shift and the idea of globalisation and inter-dependence has taken root not only in India but among the Nagas as well. Exposed to the idea of a global village, young Nagas aped the hairstyles of their favourite Korean movie stars and political stands of the ‘underground’ softened. Sovereignty underwent an adjustment.
“How we defined sovereignty 50 years ago does not fit into today’s context,” explains a Naga rebel. “Both sovereignty and self-determination are still key, but we will adjust our demands to the needs of a modern world.”
‘Shared sovereignty’ is the new catch-phrase in Nagaland, says Father Lotha. “We aren’t very sure what ‘shared sovereignty’ means. We don’t know what we will give to India and what India will give us. But what we do know is that no country is sovereign in the old understanding of the word; we are all inter-dependent.”
Another contributing factor was the military stalemate. As the decades passed, the death toll mounted. The Indian government’s military response to a political problem created a deadlock. While it contained the ‘insurgency’, sporadic violence continued. “The harsh and sad reality of India is that for every soldier killed, there are a hundred waiting to take his place,” explains a senior army officer. “Yes, you can create an irritant, but you cannot win in a battle of attrition.”
The implication of this mindset is that violence cannot provide any solution. Whether it is in Kashmir or the Northeast, the Centre has shown its willingness to take on losses and bide its time for an opportune moment.
But the protracted violence in Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast has created ‘conflict fatigue’. The local population — the support base of the movements — has grown wary of the violence, extortion, lack of normalcy and development. They are stuck between the cause: sovereignty, which is close to their heart, and the reality, which falls horribly short of what was promised.
“The demand for complete sovereignty has vanished from the younger generation and the Naga intellectuals,” says businessman Zakie, 28. “Complete sovereignty is neither possible nor will it be to our advantage. Though there is a sense of optimism after the recent FNR meeting, many people are jaded. We have heard these promises before.”
Former Union Home Secretary GK Pillai believes that, “When the Naga groups came to the negotiation table, the understanding was that sovereignty is something that the Indian government cannot give. However, the negotiation must result in a win-win situation, an honourable solution. The first step is for the Naga groups to go back to the people and explain to them, we were fighting for X, but we are getting Y, which is an honourable solution and in the best interest of both parties. They need to get the people to support the agreement. Then we will have a lasting solution.”
A young member of the Naga underground very candidly expresses, “This political struggle has been on for many years now, but there is a growing feeling that if we don’t do something now and seize the moment, it will not be wise on our part. We will talk to the people, understand what they want and then go ahead with the negotiations.”
The FNR meeting, in which four resolutions were passed and a desire expressed to create a common platform, is being seen as the ‘first step’. Though there are still hurdles, the progressive approach provides hope that the contours of a lasting peace could be seen by the end of this year.
KASHMIR TOO has reached a military stalemate and life in the Valley is anything but normal. Azadi is the war cry and various separatist leaders rally around the cause to assert their dominance. Does the Naga movement hold a lesson for India’s other longstanding dispute?
Pillai feels that though the Pakistan factor makes Kashmir a different ballgame, “the idea of globalisation, soft borders and being exposed to what is happening in Pakistan has resulted in a shift”. “Pakistan is no longer an option; the options are azadi and India. This shift has taken 50 years. You have to give it time,” he says.
The longer the movement lasts, the graver the consequences are for the local populace. So, is a shift in mindset required from both sides?
Dilip Padgaonkar, one of the interlocutors sent to Kashmir last year, believes that the solution lies within the idea of India itself. “In the Valley, sovereignty is co-equal to a ‘State’. When that is the understanding, in a region where people feel oppressed, the demand for sovereignty comes up. Realpolitik or armed conflict is a nonstarter. The idea of India allows for people to follow their political aspirations. We have seen that the Constitution of India has proven to be very flexible and allowed space for this kind of aspiration. The most recent example of this space is the creation of Gorkhaland, a purely constitutional solution to people’s aspirations.”
Hurriyat (G) leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s visit to New Delhi and interactions with different civil society members are being seen as a softening of his otherwise hardline stand. Could this be a step in a new direction?
Over the years, there has been one constant, the Indian government will not give complete sovereignty. This is the stark reality facing the rebel outfits: Is prolonged conflict in pursuit of an outdated idea of sovereignty worth it, especially when New Delhi is comfortable with protracted deployment? Maybe there is a lesson to be learnt from the Naga rebel outfits — to stay relevant, you must evolve.
At the end of the day, the groups have to realise that in a people’s movement, the mandate is in the hands of the people.
Avalok Langer is a Correspondent with Tehelka. firstname.lastname@example.org