One late afternoon tweet by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 3, asking citizens to await a historic development later in the day set the cats among the pigeons. The day ended with the government of India committing to a framework agreement to bring peace to a state that has suffered from violence for nearly six decades.
At the earliest available opportunity, I took off for Dimapur, the dusty, commercial valley which has the state’s only functional airport.
For the uninitiated, several sections of the Naga society celebrate “Independence Day” on August 14, a tradition followed since 1947 when Angami Zapu Phizo, the man who fought side by side with Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) against the British, declared so. He was then leading the Naga National Council (NNC), a body formed in the days preceding British withdrawal from the sub-continent.
On August 14, I saw for myself the “69th Independence Day” function of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) (NSCN(IM)) at its Council HQ or Camp Hebron. It is with this group, said to be the most powerful insurgent outfit in the state, that the government has signed the framework. No wonder there was enthusiasm. Young men in army fatigues sported the look most in their age would crave for, women turned up in their traditional best and many expatriates too were present.
Among them was Rachunliu Kamei, a PhD fellow with the London-based Natural History Museum. Thanks to the shadow of conflict, her father had to shift her to Nagaland from Manipur. She then had to shift out of there too so she could get to where she was today. “I do desire for a day when our young can focus on development, away from conflict which forced a challenged childhood upon people of my generation,” she said. In Kohima, I met Akhala, a young girl from the northern Naga district of Mokokchung. She was staying away from her parents to study so that she could become an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer and “repair” her society. Even in Khonoma, Phizo’s village and the hub of resistance, be it against the Indian Army or the British in the bygone era, it was not too difficult to find youngsters wanting to diversify into eco-tourism, conservation and the like.
As noted human rights activist Neingulo Krome put it, 18 years of relative peace in the post-ceasefire era following 1997 have offered a glimpse of the possibilities that could materialise provided peace prevailed.
Would it be right to say the Nagas have been tired into submission? Well, nothing could be further from the truth.
Young or old, Nagas value their past – their identity. Work towards obliterating that and there will be a rebound. As Thino Selie, a self-styled “General” of the “Naga Army” who underwent training in East Pakistan and China in the early days of the insurgency, said, “Our movement in the early 50s was political till we saw killings and rapes. It was the youth who grew agitated and forced upon the movement the need to raise a fighting arm with which began the insurgency.”
A solution has to be found where peace and honour arrive, hand in hand. We’ve been there before and the temptation to give into the shorter route can seldom vanish. The failed Shillong Accord of 1975, creation of the Nagaland state in 1963 and even before so the creation of Naga Hills district to somehow calm things down hasn’t helped.
While we are still exploring avenues, it may not be a bad idea to look back, deeper into history, into the periods of relative peace that the Nagas enjoyed.
One such instance was in the 13th century when the Ahoms, who entered the Naga Hills from the Patkai range of Myanmar in search of salt mines, ran into a savage conflict with the original inhabitants there. History records calm prevailed after a political settlement was arrived at – one which saw a degree of self rule and respect for either side. Similarly, the British too, after having burnt their fingers fighting the Nagas in the late 19th century, vowed to pursue the policy of “non-intervention”. While that turned into a “Forward Policy” of incrementally gaining ground with time, it came at the cost of precious lives and yet most of the territory remained un-administered.
A time-tested principle of yesteryears coupled with the economic integration of today will be welcomed at least by the young, if no one else.
Standing in front of a closed door in his ancestral village of Khonoma, Mhesie Khate made to me perhaps the most important symbolic argument in my tour of Nagaland.
“When I was a child, August 14 used to be a very important day. All shops would be closed because families would meet and there would be feasts in almost every household,” he said. In his mid-30s now, Mhesie who owns a fleet of cars for rent, zoomed onto the present: “Now, no such thing happens on August 14 and on August 15, people prefer to close shops and relax at home. It is slipping away, that feeling is.”