Still searching for peace with honour in Nagaland

That the ‘Kashmir problem’ is both serious and long-standing is true. But the ‘Naga problem’ is as intense, and even older. It began even before Independence and Partition when, in 1946, a group of educated Nagas claimed sovereignty for the areas they lived in

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2017 07:36 IST
Rishang Keishing,Nagaland,Kashmir issue
Dimapur: A protest against state leaders, Dimapur, Nagaland (File Photo)(PTI)

When, some 20 years ago, I began research on a book on India’s journey since Independence, I quickly learned that history as it actually unfolded could be quite different from history as it was later represented. In the 1990s, as the country belatedly liberalised its economy, it was said that Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru alone, had kept Indian entrepreneurs in chains by imposing a system of State control over them. However, I found that when, in the 1950s, the Planning Commission consulted a panel of 24 independent economists on the model of development being proposed, 23 endorsed it.

Even more surprising was the discovery that India’s leading industrialists had eagerly embraced State planning. In the late 1940s, GD Birla, JRD Tata et al authored a document, known as the Bombay Plan, which argued that economic growth in a poor country like India required the State to ‘exercise a considerable measure of intervention and control’. These capitalists went so far as to claim that ‘the distinction between capitalism and socialism has lost much of its significance from a practical standpoint.’ As they put it: ‘In our view, no economic organization can function effectively or possess lasting qualities unless it accepts as its basis a judicious combination of the principles associated with each school of thought’.

Independent India’s economic history was more complex than was being represented; and so also its political history. When I began working on my book, the Valley of Kashmir was in the grip of a major insurgency. The flight of the Pandits had made Kashmir a burning question of national politics. In 1998, India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, bringing the question of Kashmir to international attention. Books and articles were pouring off the press describing Kashmir as the oldest and most worrying of all the problems the Indian nation-state had to face. They informed us that for a full 50 years, ever since Independence, the dispute over the Valley had festered and lingered.

That the ‘Kashmir problem’ was both serious and long-standing was true. But, as I soon found, the ‘Naga problem’ was as intense, and even older. It began even before Independence and Partition when, in 1946, a group of educated Nagas claimed sovereignty for the areas they lived in. The journal they published was significantly called The Naga Nation. Once the British left these hills, said the newly-formed Naga National Council (NNC), it should be replaced by ‘a government of the Nagas, for the Nagas, by the Nagas’.

Some members of the NNC wanted full and total sovereignty. Others wanted autonomy within the Indian Union. The radicals won the argument, and launched an armed struggle for independence, which provoked fierce reprisals from the State. Through the 1950s the Naga Hills witnessed bitter and bloody battles between insurgents of the NNC and the Indian Army. Hundreds of lives were lost, many of civilians unconnected with either rebels or government.

In 1956, the Naga issue was the subject of extended debate in the Lok Sabha, where the most eloquent interventions came from an MP named Rishang Keishing. Keishing was a Tangkhul Naga by birth, born and raised in the hills of the erstwhile princely state of Manipur. A socialist by conviction, he had cut his political teeth by struggling for representative government in his home state. Manipur was then ruled by bureaucrats from Delhi; in 1954, Keishing organised a major satyagraha demanding that they be replaced by an elected assembly instead.

Two years later, Keishing spoke several times in the Lok Sabha in favour of an honourable truce between Naga insurgents and the Indian state. He chastised Prime Minister Nehru for not meeting a delegation of Naga citizens who had recently visited Delhi. And he came down hard on the violence committed by soldiers in uniform. ‘The Army men’, he remarked, ‘have shown an utter disregard for the sentiments of the local Nagas, for, they have tried to terrify them by carrying the naked corpses of the Nagas killed by them…’. At the same time, he did not spare the rebels either, for they had terrorised villagers who did not support them, while assassinating Naga leaders who did not approve of violence.

Unlike the partisans of either side, Keishing saw clearly that excessive force had been used by both sides. ‘Who can boast of an untarnished record?’, he asked: ‘Who can dare fling the first stone and assert that they are not sinners? I ask this of the hostile Nagas as well as of the Government’. He recommended ‘an immediate declaration of general amnesty’, ‘because the continuation of hostilities means the ruins of innocent citizens’.

In later years, Keishing himself served four terms as chief minister of Manipur, a striking achievement, since the state’s political system is dominated by the Meiteis of the Imphal valley. He died last week, aged 96. Unfortunately, the obituaries, while paying attention to the posts he held and the elections he won, did not mention his remarkable and still relevant interventions on the question of Nagaland.

For 20 years now, an uneasy truce has prevailed between what is now the dominant Naga outfit, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, and the Government of India. But no resolution has been possible, because each side insists on seeing itself as blameless. However, as Rishang Keishing pointed out, neither the rebels nor the State can boast of an unvarnished record. Neither can fling the first stone. An acknowledgement of mutual responsibility, an admission of one’s own crimes and mistakes, is therefore a precondition for peace with honour in Nagaland — and, I might add, in Manipur and Kashmir too.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

Twitter: @Ram_Guha

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 26, 2017 17:13 IST