Every effort at resolving the Naga imbroglio has been embroiled in a challenging quagmire of unending and conflicting demands. While most commentaries on the recent consensual framework for a long-term agreement between the Centre and the NSCN(I-M) have focused on the here and now and sought to define the long road to peace, I will focus on the critical pre- and post-World War II years that have had a significant impact on both the Naga movement and India’s responses.
The Nagas, one of the most robust, reflective and remarkable communities in south Asia, have challenged every Indian government since Independence through a war of weapons, ideas and words. The gauntlet was laid down in 1918 with the formation of the first political association among the Nagas, the Naga Club, followed by a presentation on January 10, 1929, to the Indian Statutory Commission, commonly referred to as the Simon Commission.
The Commission was looking at future constitutional structures under a possible reforms package. Members of the Naga delegation included a range of government employees: Interpreters and teachers as well as a doctor, an overseer and a clerk. It demanded that the Nagas be placed under direct British rule and rejected the reforms plan which sought to bracket them with the rest of India.
The memorandum’s closing paragraph has been at the core of Naga political mobilisation since: “ … we pray that the British Government will continue to safeguard our rights against all encroachment from other people who are more advanced than us by withdrawing our country that we should not be thrust to the mercy of other people who could never be subjected; but to leave us alone to determine ourselves as in ancient times”.
A member of that commission from the British Parliament was the Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, who succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister after World War II and played a key role in India’s Independence.
The impact of the visit to Kohima, then little more than a village and not the bustling town that it is today, on the MPs, especially on the future premier of Britain, has not been documented. But it was substantial enough for the Commission to propose that the Nagas, along with other hill tribes such as the Mizos, Garos, Khasis, Jaintias and parts of Lakhimpur and what is today’s Arunachal Pradesh, be placed in the Excluded Area category, which would be directly administered by British officers who were responsible to the governor and not the chief minister of the province (Assam).
“Nowhere in India is the difference between the life and outlook of the … hill-men and the totally distinct civilisation of the plains more visible,” the report said. Referring to the need for change, it prophesied: “If progress is to benefit and not to destroy these people, then it must come about gradually and the adjustment of their needs with the interests of the immigrant will provide a problem of great complexity and importance for many generations to come.”
Then came a sentence which was drowned out in the tumult of the anti-colonial sentiment sweeping the subcontinent: “It is a matter for the most serious consideration that whether the British Government which found the hill tribes independent can leave them dependent.”
The scholar Marcus Franda says that when the Commission’s report was debated in the British Parliament in 1935, its members said that they were advocating protection, not independence, for the hill groups.
Over a decade later, political conditions were dramatically different. World War II was over and the British were preparing to leave. But how were they to leave the backward and excluded areas? There was serious consideration of a Crown Colony plan, devised by Sir Robert Reid, who served as Assam governor, which would have ensured direct British rule of a large swathe of territory from parts of western Burma across the Chittagong Hill Tracts till the Tibet border. Naturally, this was unacceptable to the Congress and the plan fell through.
Attlee himself was to tell Parliament in 1947 that as far as the “hills in the Northeast Frontier are concerned, they come into the Province of Assam and will be dealt with by the constitutional assembly of which Assam forms a part”.
In between there were more complex moves and counter moves including the accord of July 1947 between the first Indian governor of Assam, Mohammed Saleh Akbar Hydari, and the Naga National Council, where the Nagas were given the option of reconsidering their relationship with India after 10 years. Hydari’s interpretation was that they had acceded to India for they had agreed in the interim to be with New Delhi.
Charles Pawsey, the knowledgeable administrator of the Nagas hills, who had been through the critical war years, foresaw trouble. (The battle for Kohima, celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest battles and a key to the outcome of World War II, was fought on the tennis courts of his official bungalow.)
In a note to a junior officer on the eve of Independence, Pawsey remarked pensively: “I don’t know what the eventual fate of the Nagas will be, there’s nothing more to help them that we haven’t already done. But it seems a pity that we couldn’t have had a few more years to get things straight.”
Sanjoy Hazarika is director, Centre for Northeast studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University. The views expressed are personal.