A deserted street in Dimapur during the general strike. Picture by UB Photos
Rise of a sleeping giant
Recent developments in Nagaland are instructive for political observers in the region. The strike called by the Action Committee Against Unabated Taxation comprising citizens of Dimapur and various business, transport and medical associations of the commercial hub of the state is an indicator that people are no longer willing to put up with the shenanigans of militant outfits.
For years, the underground cadres have done no work except keep a vigilant eye on who has bought a new vehicle, who is constructing a house, who is doing which business within their area of command.
Since 1997, when the NSCN (I-M) signed a truce with government of India, the cadres have been under-worked. They are indolent and only roam around the area with guns, serve extortion notices, eat, sleep and enjoy all the comforts of life that Dimapur has to offer. The duty of militants today is to keep track of and put a figure to the earnings/incomes of the business community and to extort a percentage of those earnings vide a note with the clichéd euphemism of “donation to the cause of Naga National Workers”.
The fact that schools, colleges, shops, transport system and offices, both government and private, with the exception of the media, power and medical services, were closed on June 18, tells how public opinion is gradually veering against rampant extortion by several underground outfits.
A fair deal
What the committee wants is that there should be only one tax payable to any underground group and I think that’s a fair deal. It is the groups that should decide among themselves who gets how much. For long, Naga traders have been under tremendous strain from the multiple taxes on goods imposed by underground groups. These include trade licence tax, ID tax, registration tax, calendar donations and Christmas and New Year donations, among others. The parallel government in Nagaland has existed without much fuss from any quarters. The constitutionally elected government has a tacit understanding with the underground outfits, allowing them to collect whatever taxes they want so long as they allow the government to collect theirs and so long as the government is allowed to complete its term in office.
The law in Nagaland is a zombie. It sleepwalks and is deaf and blind — an advantage lawless groups cash in on to have a free rein of the land.
What has angered those desiring a level playing field in the conduct of their businesses is the creation of the new system of “dealership” by underground groups whereby a dealer is identified by the outfits depending on how much he pays them. The outfit then makes sure that no one else is allowed to trade in the same item. They have, in short, created a monopolistic trade where the only victims would be the buyers.
Without competition in the market, whoever has monopoly in a particular trade will start quoting high and as a result, prices of these commodities skyrocket.
The committee pointed out there was only one poultry dealer/supplier in the whole of Dimapur district and no poultry could be sold in the open market without his consent. This is defying the rules of the market and extending the earlier diktat in other areas of Naga life into its economics as well. It was bound to reach the tipping point. People can take dictatorship in economics only up to a point. Beyond that they revolt and that they did on June 18.
What is gratifying to note here is that the Naga people, who had hitherto been at the receiving end of the militants’ diktats and had learned to live in a sort of totalitarian regime, where, state protection from criminal elements and rogues was absent, are now speaking up. But this attempt to reclaim their democratic spaces has come rather late in the day. For decades, the Nagas had suspended reason and paid heed to the elaborate deception spun around the creation of a Naga nation. This notion was sold to at least two generations of Nagas aspiring for a passport of their own — a Utopia. It forced people of that generation to restrain themselves from any criticism of the Naga movement and the direction in which it is headed. The septuagenarian of today would defend the indefensible in the 1960s to 1990s because they grew up and were conditioned by narratives about what India had done to them. They never felt the tinge of conscience to look inside themselves and to ask if the demand for freedom and liberty went with the caveat that “all means (violent and criminal) are justified in order to attain the ends.”
And by means here I mean killing in cold blood, individuals or groups who are “suspected” to have betrayed the Naga cause; the fratricidal massacres and abominable levels of extortion.
Those soul-searching exercises are seen as a weakening of the Naga resolve. And that was not allowed to happen. Hence, all wrongs were brushed under the carpet, all for the larger cause of Nagalim.
As a result, Nagas have done tremendous damage to their psyche by their conspiratorial silence on issues that needed internal debate. Whenever the itinerant militant leaders came to Nagaland they would summon the tribal leaders and allow them to spout rhetoric. At the end, Muivah would wax eloquent and hold forth, but would snipe at India/Delhi with his select, caustic vocabulary. That would bring the meeting to a close and people would head back home, more confused than they were when they first came.
Others who were more credulous would return with the happy feeling that they and those leaders who represented them at the much vaunted peace talks had achieved something. Over time, the Naga people have learnt that demagoguery is better than talking straight. Dissent comes at a price. People who spoke up were labelled traitors.
The NSCN would decree that they should be killed and that’s the final verdict. The next day the dissenter is dead. No questions asked, except for faint protests. Kangaroo courts continue to be the way the militants do business in Nagaland. Silence then was a way of escaping from the dreaded bullets of the NSCN and later the other factional entities.
The road ahead
The government of India is, of course, equally to be blamed for playing dilettante politics with the Naga issue for 16 years. These long years have castrated the idea of democracy in Nagaland. For nearly four decades, the state has been an example of what Paul Krugman calls “the strange triumph of failed ideas”. It was a playground that demonstrated the continuous hold of a failed doctrine over real-politik.
Though many have given their lives for the cause and members of their tribe lament the lack of closure which they believe should come in the form of apologies for the killing of one of their tribesmen, the “sorry” never came and closure still evades the tribes.
With such gaping wounds that are excoriated every now and again to remind tribe members that the hatchet is not yet buried, it is difficult to imagine that closure would come when government of India and the NSCN (I-M) and others arrive at some mutually agreed formula for peace.
(The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)