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Nehru and the Nagas: Minority Nationalism and the Post-Colonial State

The Naga problem presented the first major crisis of understanding and the understanding of crisis that confronted the post-colonial Indian state. Nehru believed that maximum autonomy could neutralise sovereignty aspirations but the Naga insistence on independence combined with armed opposition to the Indian state compelled him to send the army and hardened his stance. The non-resolution of the Naga issue made him introspect as to why he was unable to "win them over" and he admitted that he may have erred in his approach. Yet, despite his failure, Nehru's model of dealing with the Nagas has become the standard mode for dealing with minority nationalisms in south Asia.


Nehru and the Nagas: Minority Nationalism and the Post-Colonial State

Sajal Nag

The Naga problem presented the first major crisis of understanding and the understanding of crisis that confronted the post-colonial Indian state. Nehru believed that maximum autonomy could neutralise sovereignty aspirations but the Naga insistence on independence combined with armed opposition to the Indian state compelled him to send the army and hardened his stance. The non-resolution of the Naga issue made him introspect as to why he was unable to “win them over” and he admitted that he may have erred in his approach. Yet, despite his failure, Nehru’s model of dealing with the Nagas has become the standard mode for dealing with minority nationalisms in south Asia.

Sajal Nag ( teaches modern history at Assam University, Silchar.

ehru first came to know of the Nagas, as one of the myriad tribes inhabiting the north eastern frontier, during his trip of Assam in 1937. “Eight days are an all too short period for the Assam Valley…Many places I visited and saw… I met however many members of these tribes – Khasis, Kacharis, Ravas, Garos, Lalungs, Mikirs, Miris and Nagas – and was attracted by them and by the bright faces of their children. They deserve every help and sympathy from Congressmen and hope they will receive it.”1 As he moved on to the Surma Valley he met more Nagas of the Kabui tribe. Here he heard about a Naga girl who was jailed fighting against the British. “I heard about the Nagas as such about 25 years ago. I was rather attracted by what I heard.”2 The episode he was narrated made him remember the Nagas as a distinctive tribe. Nehru was influenced tremendously by the story of Guidiliu (Gindalo) which was evident from his report. Hearing of this brave unsung Naga freedom fighter, Nehru’s immediate thought was that she must be freed so that her youth was not spent in the darkness of a prison cell.3 He wrote,

Then, came the case of that lady, Rani Gindalo, who after suffering long period of imprisonment was released some years ago… It was a story of young women of their tribe belonging to the Koboi (Kabui) clan in the Naga Hills… Gindalo was her name and she was about nineteen six months ago when civil disobedience blazed over the length and breadth of India. News of Gandhi and Congress reached her in her hill abode and found an echo in her heart. She dreamed of freedom for her people and an ending of the galling restrictions they suffered from, and she raised the banner of independence and called her people to rally around it. Perhaps she thought rather prematurely, that the British Empire was fading out. But that Empire still functioned effectively and aggressively and it took vengeance on her and her people. Many villages were burnt and destroyed, this heroic girl was captured and sentenced to transportation for life. And now she lies in some prison in Assam wasting her bright young womanhood in dark cells and solitude…But her own people remember their Gindalo Rani and think of her with love and pride. And a day will come when India also will remember her and cherish her and bring her out of her prison cell. … [On his way back] I thought of Gindalo, the Rani, sitting in her prison cell. What thoughts were hers, what regrets, what dreams?4

Romancing the Hills

Tribes, tribal life were associated with the hills and forests. Nehru’s romance with the hills and his fascination for the pristine way of life of the hill people was not concealed.

The call of jungle and the mountains has always been strong within me, a dweller of cities and plains though I am and I gazed at these forests and jungles, fascinated, and wondered what myriad forms of

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life and what tragedy they hid in their darkness. Bountiful nature or nature in red in tooth and claw – was it much worse in these forest recesses than in the cities and the dwelling places of men and women? A wild animal kills for food to satisfy his hunger. He does not kill for sport or for the pleasure of killing. The fierce fights of the jungle are individual fights, not the mass murder that man calls war; there is no wholesale destruction by bomb and prison gas. The comparison seemed to be all in favour of forests and the wild animals.5

He was fascinated by the idea of living in the hills,

My own predilections are for the mountains rather than the plains; for the hill folk rather than the plain people… I would prefer being a nomad in the hills to being a member of the stock exchange where one is made to sit and listen to the noises that are ugly to a degree. Is that the civilisation we want the tribal people to have? I hope not. I am quite sure the tribal fold with their civilisation of song and dance will last till long after stock exchange has ceased to exist.6

His romanticism did not end with hills and streams but with tribal life as well, including their heady romanticism, “…I have always long before I became prime minister felt very strongly attracted to the tribal people of this country…I was attracted to them simply because I felt happy and at home with them. I liked them without any desire to do them good or to have good done to me.” He even found virtues in the practice of head hunting. “The tribal people of India are a virile people who naturally went astray sometimes. They quarrelled and occasionally cut off each other’s head…It is often better to cut off a hand or head than to crush and trample on a heart.”7

He then went on to define the tribal people,

Now who are these tribal folk? A way of describing them is that they are the people of the frontiers or those who live away from the interiors of this country. Just as the hills breed a somewhat different type of people from those who inhabit the plains so also the frontiers breed a different type of people from those who live away from the frontier...8

As far as tribes of north-east India was concerned Nehru’s education started much later.

I do not know what ideas most people in India have about tribal folk (of north-east India). My general impression bas been largely derived from such people as the Bhils, Santhals and Gonds, etc... During my visit to north-east frontier I had to change my conception of tribes. I found a great variety of them differing from each other very greatly. Some of them were undoubtedly rather primitive but many of them were remarkably developed and advanced. Indeed it is quite absurd to call them backward.9

Nehru immediately recognised that,

...the problem in these areas is to make the people feel that they have perfect freedom to live their lives and to develop according to their wishes and genius. India to them should signify not only a protecting force but a liberating one. Any conception that India is ruling them and that they are the ruled or that the custom and habits with which they are unfamiliar are going to be imposed on them, will alienate them and make our frontier problem more difficult.10

Countering Separatism

Nehru’s initial encounter with the hills of north-east India perfectly blended with his own predilection for the hills and nomadic life. He was protective about the tribals and their life and culture. He remained patronising towards the Nagas when he received a

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copy of the resolution of the Naga National Council (NNC) from T Sakhrie, its general secretary, which stated

(a) the Naga National Council stands for the solidarity of all Naga tribes including those in the unadministered areas; (b) this council strongly protests against the grouping of Assam with Bengal; (c) the Naga Hills should be constitutionally included in autonomous Assam, in a free India, with local autonomy and due safeguards for the interests of Nagas; and (d) the Naga tribes should have a separate electorate.11

It is significant that the NNC, at this stage, did not at all talk about a separate political existence. Nehru in his reply to this letter, reproduced below, not only promised the largest possible autonomy to the Nagas but even anticipated the Naga demand for independence which he asserted, was unviable both politically and economically.

It is obvious that the Naga territory in eastern Assam is much too small to stand by itself, politically or economically. It lies between two huge countries India and China and part of it consists of rather backward people who require considerable help. When India is independent, as it is bound to be soon, it will not be possible for the British government to hold on the Naga territory. It must form part of India and of Assam with which it has developed much close association. At the same time it is our policy that tribal areas should have as much freedom and autonomy as possible so that they can live their own lives according to their own customs and desires. […]The whole Naga territory should go together and should be controlled in a large measure by an elected Naga National Council. […]I agree entirely with your decision that the Naga Hills should constitutionally be included in an autonomous Assam in a free India, with local autonomy and due safeguards for the interest of the Nagas. […]I see no reason whatever why an extraneous judicial system should be enforced upon the Naga Hills. They should have perfect freedom to continue their village panchayats, tribal courts, etc, according to their own wishes. […]Certainly the people of the Naga Hills should not be exploited by others and their right to own and work on the soil should remain with them… I do not want them to be swamped by people from other parts of the country who might go there to exploit them to their own advantage.12

The Naga case awakened him, for the first time, to the possibility of minority nationalism within the Indian nation state but he felt it could be resolved by neutralising the aspirations for sovereignty by granting maximum autonomy. As can be seen in the lines quoted above, Nehru had not only responded to the resolution of the NNC but also enunciated the general policy towards Naga aspirations, hopes and apprehensions. Nehru’s reply was immediate and comprehensive as well as indicative of post-colonial India’s policy towards the Nagas. On the one hand, he pre-empted any secessionist idea by arguing that the Nagas are too small a people to sustain a sovereign political entity, sandwiched as they were between two giants like India and China. On the other, he tried to allay their apprehensions by promising an autonomy which would be as good as full sovereignty. In fact, the content of this letter embodied the crux of his subsequent tribal policy; these were so profound that it was actually used as the basis of what was later known as the fifth and sixth schedule of India’s Constitution. It is for this reason that this letter of Nehru to Sakhrie is a very important document, though it has not been given the importance it deserves. Unfortunately, some scholars have seen Sakhrie’s letter as a “negotiation of some moderate (non-secessionist) leaders”,13 while


others did not find it of any importance,14 except for one writer who asserted,

This letter, written before India became independent and much before Naga extremists thought in terms of independence, proves that all the autonomy and statehood demand attained by the Nagas were not through or as a result of the violent underground movement but what was their due as a part of India and was realised and planned by India’s great leaders. In fact the delay in achieving their aim was partly due to the violent upheaval in Naga areas itself.15

But by then, the Nagas had gone too far into the mode of secessionist politics. The success of the Pakistan movement and the declaration of the lapse of paramountcy in the princely states had encouraged a faction led by Angami Zapu Phizo to entertain similar thoughts about the Nagas. They constructed a separate nationhood for the Nagas, invented the idea that they were never a part of India, highlighted that it was the British, and not the Indians, who had conquered them, and hence argued that with the exit of the British they had the right to revert to their pre-British independent status. The Nagas started to “believe [that] their status (as Excluded Area) was akin to that of the princes and that like them they could reclaim their sovereignty once the British left”.16

The Nagas appealed to British to return to them their right to sovereignty, which was ignored. They next turned to the Indian leadership. When negotiations, in the form of a nine-point agreement, failed and the post-colonial Indian state refused to promise them complete sovereignty, they felt they should declare it unilaterally. After an initial round of petitioning and memorandum submission, the extremist leadership began to press harder.17 This faction was led by A Z Phizo, who became more insistent and militant after he was elected the president of NNC in 1950. In the last week of 1951 Phizo met Nehru who was campaigning in Assam for the elections of 1952. Nehru told the delegation,

I consider freedom very precious. I am sure that the Nagas are as free as I am; in fact more free in a number of ways. For while I am bound by all sorts of laws, the Nagas are not to the same extent bound down by such laws and are governed by their customary laws and usages. But the independence the Nagas are after is something quite different from individual or group freedom. In the present context of affairs, both in India and the world, it is impossible to consider even for a moment such an absurd demand for independence of the Nagas. It is doubtful whether the Nagas realise the consequence of what they are asking for. For their present demand would lead them to ruin.18

Nehru, by this time, had realised the necessity of being categorical in denying any possibility of the Nagas being allowed to be sovereign. He realised that talking philosophically had given the Nagas hope that, if pressurised, India was going to concede the Naga demand. But at the same time he promised the Nagas “a large measure of autonomy” in managing their own affairs. He promised that if Phizo submitted proposals for the extension of cultural, administrative and financial autonomy in their land it would be considered sympathetically and if necessary the Constitution could be changed. But independence was out of question.19 In March 1952, another meeting was held between Nehru and the Naga delegation. The insistence on independence again enraged Nehru so much that he lost his cool and said, “even if heaven falls or India went to pieces, Nagas would not be granted independence.”20 Later in the Parliament too Nehru reiterated, “…it is no good talking to me about independence for that area. I consider it fantastic for that little corner between China, Burma and India to be called an independent state. I was not prepared to discuss independence … I should be glad to meet them (Naga delegation) provided they made it clear that they did not demand independence.”21

Nehru tried to be reasonable with the Nagas because he realised that the Nagas were “a tough people who could give much trouble and there was danger in any hurried attempt to absorb their areas into standard administration”.22 The thrust of his Naga policy was to grant them the fullest autonomy so that their traditions, customs and culture should be protected and perpetuated, but at the same time, ensure their fullest development at par with the rest of India. Indian statesmen should not approach the Nagas “superciliously” but talk to them directly as the problem was more psychological than political. He felt any wellmeaning approach will be appreciated by the Nagas which is why he planned to talk to the Nagas himself.23 Despite the troubles he faced on other domestic issues post-independence, he met and talked to the Naga delegations repeatedly, even while they were campaigning internationally for independence.

Nehru understood that “the movement for independence among the Nagas is entirely based on the assumption that Indians are foreigners ruling over the tribe. Our policy must be aimed at removing this impression.”24 He was convinced that “if the government keeps its head cool and restrains its hand, the whole movement may gradually fizzle out”.25 Accordingly, he instructed the provincial government that the Naga demand for independence should be rejected categorically and it should be communicated that violence would not be tolerated under any circumstance.26

Then the Kohima incident happened. Nehru had gone to address the Nagas along with U Nu, the Burmese premier, at a public meeting in Kohima. The Nagas embarrassed him by walking out of the meeting and even reportedly showing their bare bottoms! It created a huge controversy. Soon after this incident the district administration cracked down on the NNC members as they were held responsible for the fiasco in Kohima. To cover the failure of the district administration in handling the prime minister’s visit, the NNC members were tracked down and arrested, which prompted a number of the Naga leaders to hide underground. The Nagas who went underground eventually took up arms, formed a Naga government in exile and began to attack the symbols of Indian presence in the Naga Hills. The army had to be called in to tackle this new challenge. Thus began the first insurgency and counter-insurgency of Independent India.

Confronting the Uprising

It was Nehru’s first encounter with violent revolt too. Nehru initially blamed the Assam chief minister Bishnuram Medhi27 and the local administration for mishandling the situation.28 The chief minister in turn sacked the deputy commissioner. Trained in constitutional politics and Gandhian methods of resistance Nehru had not expected such a turn to the Naga situation. Nehru was convinced that “if the government keeps its head

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cool and restrain its hand the whole movement may gradually fizzle out”. In fact, even after the Kohima incident, he still was sure that “the Naga situation would have been better if it had been handled a little more competently by the local officers and if some officers who were notoriously unpopular had not been kept there”.29 The sudden recourse to violence by the Naga leadership left Nehru with few options. He was against a military solution because he knew that “the Nagas were a tough and fine people and we may carry on [fighting] for a generation without solving the problem”.30 But confronted with an open armed rebellion in which Indian soldiers were regularly being killed, the government had to seek the assistance of the military to control the situation.31

As far as the allegation about the Kohima incident sparking off the armed uprising was concerned, Nehru clarified,

the facts are somewhat different. I went to Kohima. The prime minister of Burma had also come over flying across the border. We met at Manipur and were going to Burma a day or two later. I thought I might utilise that opportunity to visit Kohima. We went to Kohima and we relaxed. I suggested to the authorities there that some kind of welcome might be given to the Burmese prime minister. He was our guest and people gathered to say a few words. It was not a normal visit of mine to that place. What I found later was that Nagas there wanted to read out an address to me. The deputy commissioner told them you can hand it over to the Prime Minister afterward. I cannot allow your reading it out to him at a time when the prime minister of Burma and others have come. It is therefore not correct to say that I refused to take the address. As a matter of fact, on a previous occasion at Kohima I had actually met the Naga leaders, discussed the matter with them and had taken a long document from them. That was just a year earlier and so it is not true to say that I refused to receive an address or that the Deputy Commissioner came in the way. But he did come in the way of an address being read at the meeting. I did not know it at that time; I know it later. Then when U Nu and I arrived at the meeting place, the Nagas who were present got up and walked away. I was distressed, not on my own account but because the prime minister of Burma, an honoured guest of ours had been treated so discourteously.32

Although army was called in, Nehru was still very cautious. He issued instructions to the army to deal with the Nagas as “fellow Indians” and use “moderate force”.

You must remember that all the people of the area in which you are operating are fellow Indians. They may have a different religion, may pursue a different way of life but they are Indians and the very fact that they are different yet form a part of India, is a reflection of India’s greatness. Some of these people are misguided and have taken to arms against their people and are disrupting the peace of the area. You are to protect the mass of the people from these disruptive elements. You are not here to fight the people in the area but to protect them. You are fighting only those who threaten the people and who are a danger to the lives and properties of the people. You must therefore do everything possible to win their confidence and respect and help them feel that they belong to India.33

In fact Nehru vetoed a proposal to machine-gun Naga insurgents from the air.34 Nehru asked K S Thimayya, the senior army commander to take charge immediately. He urged the army to act “swiftly” but not “brutally”.35 The overall objective of the army should be to try and “win the hearts of the people, not to terrify or frighten them”. He also instructed the chief minister of Assam, who was the head of the administration in the Naga hills,

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that the military measure was only temporary, to be applied so

long as the rebels used arms, but there is something much more to it than merely a military approach. […]There can be no doubt that an armed revolt has to be met by force and suppressed. There are no two opinions about that and we shall set about it as efficiently and effectively as possible. But our whole past and present outlook is based on force by itself being no remedy. We have prepared this in regard to the greater problems of the world. Much more must we remember this when dealing with our countrymen who have to be won over and not merely suppressed.36

The failure of the army to tackle the insurgency did not really harden Nehru:

It must always be remembered that if the Nagas are made to feel that they have no alternative but to fight and die, they will prefer doing so”.37 Nehru’s understanding of the Naga situation proved prophetic. However, the crisis generated a lot of debate. Nehru’s use of military was also criticised. Nehru responded by saying “members have described it as a political problem and not a military problem. Well, if we had treated it as a military problem only, the result would probably have been different. It is because we have not treated it as a military problem and have issued instructions, restrictions, limitations and inhibitions to our army that from the military point of view, peace has not been made as fast as it could have been. I believe that if we had treated it in a merely military way we would not have won the goodwill and cooperation of the Nagas. …it was our desire not to go too far militarily. That is what led us to send our army in aid of civil power. It was easy enough to declare martial law and hand over the whole area to the military but we did not do so because we have always been against treating this as a purely military problem.38

Elsewhere Nehru stated that he was not aware of any instance

where a government had acted with such friendliness to win over

an insurrectionary group.39

Human Right Violations

On the allegations of human right violations Nehru admitted that “there have been incidents but very few”. One major incident that he cited took place in 1953 in Acaigmore, in the North East Frontier Agency, where in an ambush 70 army personnel were killed by the Naga militants. An angry Nehru stated,

seventy is a large number and an occurrence of this kind naturally produces strong reaction in any government. But I doubt if any government in the world would have dealt with the situation the way we did. I must say that when we first heard of this incident, it made us and our army rather angry. This was no battle but sheer cold blooded murder. However we immediately recovered from the first shock and surprise and anger. Of course we sent more forces there, but we told them to bear in mind that it was no good killing the hostiles and burning their village. The normal thing in British times was to go and burn the villages, since bombing would not be effective in any area where people live in a scattered manner. But we would not do that. The place was very much in the interior and it took our forces a good deal of time and trouble to get there. Many months were needed to deal with the situations. We dealt with it essentially in a peaceful way. Ultimately we captured the people who were suspected of being guilty and we handed them over to the tribal council to judge.40

Replying to some member of parliament on the issue of dealing

with the problem in a “human way and not send the army”,

he retorted,

What exactly is to be done when other people start killing? The population of that area sought our help. We have received appeals from villagers and government employees, teachers and others asking for


protection. Was it not our duty to give them protection? That is what happened in Tuensang area. We had to send some of our forces with rifles and we did it without fuss. It was easy enough for us to treat the situation differently. But we proceeded slowly because we had the object of winning them over and not merely crushing them. We had, of course, to shoot some because they shot at us.41

Nehru rejected the parallel drawn between army atrocities in the Naga Hills, with the events in Cyprus and Kenya. He, however, admitted,

I am not saying that wrong things are not being done there by an individual or groups, whether among the civil authorities or the military. But I do not wish to remove the impression that our army or anybody else there is playing fast and loose with lives and burning villages. It is true that many villages have been burnt but our information is that by far the greater part of the burning done by the Naga hostiles…there is a second reason for some of the burning that has taken place. After all, these people live in huts and thatched roofs. When any kind of firing takes place between our forces and Naga forces, the firing itself sets fire to the villages.42

One case of army excess which saddened Nehru was the killing of Dr Haralu, which he regretted publicly.43

As apprehended by Nehru himself, there were no signs of any settlement. Violence was spreading and Nehru realised, “we are in a deadlock and we should explore ways of getting out it”.44 He was even appreciative of the ways the Nagas had resisted the Indian state for a long period saying, “In the Naga Hills district they have non-cooperated for the last three and a half years and done so with great discipline and success”.45 He alerted his colleagues in the government that there was “a rather difficult problem in our tribal areas of north-east India…we have not succeeded in winning the people of these areas. In fact they have been drifting away”.46 He had realised that the extremist section led by Phizo, though a minority, was getting the upper hand and their anti-India campaign was gaining ground. Phizo interpreted Nehru’s willingness to meet them frequently as a sign of weakness and a step towards imminent independence. Nehru took steps to weaken Phizo’s support among the Nagas, while also initiating strong measures against violence. The grant of a large measure of autonomy was one way of winning over the moderate sections among the Naga leadership, while refusing to meet Phizo unless he gave up the demand for independence and publicly condemned violent activities was the other part of his strategy.47

During visits aboard Nehru also realised that the Kashmir and Naga problems were hurting India’s image internationally. The renewal of violence by Phizo prompted Nehru to order the arrest of Phizo. Since it was felt that the government’s moderate response and slow reaction was perceived as weakness, this approach was revised and a new thrust was initiated which saw the government hit hard and swiftly. It was decided that it should be indicated to the extremist Nagas that the government would not deal with Phizo, would not weaken as a result of their violence, nor could political or other changes be considered till complete calm had been restored.48 When a Naga delegation came to Delhi to meet Nehru, it was sent back saying talks can be had only after law and order was restored. He had, by this time, become emphatic, “not a yard of India is going out of India”.49 If confronted with an armed rebellion, the government would have no option but to deal with it purely as a military solution. There was no question of capitulation to a small group of rebels. “It is fantastic to imagine that the government of India is going to be terrorised into some action by Phizo and Company”.50

Nehru never made any personal remark about Phizo but found him unreliable. On the one hand “He issued statements more or less declaring his adherence to non-violence” and on the other, “was actually preparing for violence”.51 In fact, once Phizo started with the violence, Nehru refused to meet him even when Bertrand Russell conveyed Phizo’s offer to discuss a ceasefire; he was denied permission to even meet any Indian official at the Indian high commission in London.52 However, subsequently, in the hope of winning the Nagas over, he relented and allowed Phizo to have discussions with the government of Nagaland without the fear of arrest, even though he was wanted in cases of murder.

But all his expectations were belied. The army could neither demolish the insurgency nor win the heart of the Nagas. In fact, there were publicised allegations of large-scale human rights violations by the army and international opinion had started turning against India over its alleged oppression of the Naga minority. Then there were reports of Chinese incursions on the north-east frontier. There was a pressing need for peace in this frontier region without which the Chinese could take advantage of the situation. Given this context, the Naga trouble caused much worry to Nehru.53 The failure to tackle the Nagas disturbed him much, both as a statesman as well as personally. He wrote, “About the Nagas I am much worried. This worry is not due so much to the military or other situation but rather to a feeling of psychological defeat. Why should we not be able to win them over?”54

Narrating the Nation

The Naga demand for independence was backed by an organised campaign which legitimised their aspiration for a sovereign homeland based on their ethnicity and history. It constructed a separate identity for the Nagas, provided it with a past which had nothing to do with India and then celebrated their conquest saying that the British had the legitimacy to rule over them since they conquered the Nagas which was not true of the Indians. Hence with the withdrawal of the British they revert to their independent status.

The Naga construction of self vis-à-vis Indians was essentially based on the principle of “othering”. They argued that

(1) Ethnically Nagas are from a distinct stock, (2) They have a distinct social life, manner of living, laws and customs and even their method of governance of people was quite different, (3) In religion the great majority of the Nagas are animists but Christianity, which was introduced by the American Baptists long before the advent of British rule, is now speedily spreading.55

Borrowing heavily from colonial tropes, the Naga intelligentsia constructed their identity which was based mainly on “differentiation”. Since such narration found legitimacy not only with the common Nagas but also international communities, it was necessary to counter them at a discursive level too. This was done by the government in its publications and the speeches of its represenatatives.

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In his address to the Lok Sabha, Nehru gave a description of the Nagas saying,

The Nagas correctly speaking are not what might be called a tribe or a single group of tribes closely tied to one another. I don not know when the word Naga came to be used. I have an idea that it is a British word, that is, the word was used in the British times. I am not sure. But the tribes are named differently, Sema, Ao and Agami and so on. They do not call each other Nagas. This is a word which you and I may use and the British used. But the biggest tribes are the Sema, Ao and Agami. If you go to this area you will find that there is no common Naga language. The language or dialect changes every few miles, every half dozen villages. Some tribes among the Nagas are what might be called the dominant tribes, militarily stronger or tougher than the others. The tribes which dominated the others received some tribute from other tribes. Some of these strong tribes, if they did not get tributes, have all along in the past taken strong action against the defaulting tribes.56

This statement was meant to counter the assertion that the Nagas

were a single nation. In the “White Paper on the Naga Problem”,

issued by the government of India, Nagas were introduced as,

They had very little in common and were often at war indulging in headhunting raids against one another. Each tribe has its distinct culture and customs. In recent years however these tribes have adopted this term to identify themselves collectively from other neighbouring tribes, to emphasise their affinity with each other and distinctiveness from other tribes. This in course of time became a political rallying point and formed the basis of demand for a separate homeland for the Nagas. […]The Naga territory historically has always been a part of India. Before the British extended their control to this territory the Naga tribes inhabiting it carried on raids against one another and headhunting was a popular pastime. Each tribe exercised tribal authority over the people belonging to it but there was no central authority exercising control over all the tribes. The tribal rule as such was simple and governed the social and individual life of the community. There are many tribes similar to the Nagas inhabiting the north east frontier of India. Some of the tribal areas are controlled by the government of Assam and some form the part of a separate administration, the north-east frontier agency.57

The interdependence of the Nagas and Indians was also

stressed, “The Nagas are hard-working and disciplined people

and there is much in their way of life from which others can learn

with profit. We have for many years Nagas in the Indian army

and they have proved to be excellent soldiers”.58 There was a development discourse too.

The policy followed by the government of India since Independence has been to allow the people to develop on the lines of their own genius unlike other governments who treated tribals as museum pieces required for scientific studies. There is no system of land revenue or land tax in the Naga Hills. The only tax levied is house tax. On the other hand, the expenditure on development and administration alone is over four crores of rupees. Development plans in the Naga Hills have aimed at raising the standard of living of the people, to improve communications and agricultural production and to provide water supply and health and educational facilities. There were seven high schools, 49 middle schools, 411 lower primary schools, one basic training centre and one technical institution with 30,000 students on rosters in 1956-57. During 1959-60, 157 stipends and scholarships valued at Rs 1.25 lakhs were given to deserving Naga students. The people have themselves collected money to start a college and named it after the popular late governor of Assam, Shri Fazl Ali. Water has been one of the greatest needs for the villages. Over Rs 8 lakh was spent to bring water nearer homes in 135 villages out of 718 villages. There were

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24 hospitals and 23 dispensaries functioning in Naga Hills. By 1960 as many as 42 new dispensaries have been added at a cost of Rs 18.1 lakhs. In addition a 50-bedded TB hospital costing Rs 6 lakh and a leprosy colony costing Rs 8 lakhs were under construction. Three hundred miles of new roads was constructed, 1,000 miles of roads were widened and improved and 45 new bridges constructed. The government had taken up schemes for electrification of seven towns at a cost of Rs 21 lakhs. The expenditure on improvement of agriculture has been Rs 4.34 lakh.59

Alternative to Independence

Nehru was quite convinced of the inefficacy of military measures. A common Naga must be given an alternative to the concept of independence for him to be won over. “We must give them (Nagas) a better alternative (to independence)…This has not been done so far either by the Assam government or by our military”.60 Right from the beginning Nehru was willing to go an extra mile to pacify any aggrieved groups. This was not because he apprehended trouble from the Nagas in future, but because it matched his apprehensions, fears and hopes for the tribals. This was what Nehru’s advisor on tribal issues, Verrier Elwin, also recommended. Hence there was no conflict in his ideas and practices.

Despite the initial setbacks he insisted on the rapid progress of development work in these frontier hills. He wanted that there should be a gradual spread of administration which should adapt to local conditions.61 But his ideas of administration was not “enforcement of law and order”, but governance visible in the form of roads, dispensaries, schools and such modern amenities. He even wanted a separate, special cadre of administrative officers to be trained for posting in these areas. They should be carefully selected, trained and built up and their subordinates should be chosen from the local population itself. Nehru directed that a few able officers be posted in these areas with instructions to concentrate on communications, health and education, and the consequent creation of a climate in which the Nagas could develop self reliance and be integrated in mind and spirit with the rest of the country. But “over administration” should be avoided, he stressed and added, “A feeling should be created among the Nagas that responsibility would be cast increasingly on them and that the authorities regard them as partners in development”.62 He felt that the Naga independence movement was based on the assumption that Indians were foreigners ruling over the tribes. “Our policy must be aimed at removing this impression,”63 he stressed and added, “They should feel part of India and sharer in its destiny but free to live their own lives, with opportunities of advancement along their own lines”.64 As a political initiative Nehru had already decided on the considerable autonomy to the Nagas. Initially, of course, he thought of an autonomous district of Naga hills where “a sensation of self government” would be felt, prevent the influence of the dominant Assamese ruling class or control of its economy by outsiders.65 Community project schemes to tribal areas followed by positive actions would indicate a friendly and constructive approach.

But despite his well meaning approach when the Naga situation deteriorated he admitted,

I feel that we have not dealt with this question of the Nagas with wisdom in the past. We must not judge as we would others who are undoubtedly


part of India. The Nagas have no such background or sensation and we have to create that sensation among them by our goodwill and treatment. We shall have to think how can we produce this impression and what political steps were necessary.66

This was in conformity with his earlier position that the separatist movement emerged in Naga hills because the tribes were completely cut off from the rest of India during British rule.

They never experienced a sensation of being in a country called India and they were hardly influenced by the struggle for freedom or other movements. Their chief experience was that of the British officers and Christian missionaries who generally tried to make them anti-Indian.67

Original Approach

When the military measures showed no sign of any settlement, Nehru went back to his original approach. He authorised the governor of Assam to let it be privately known that the government of India would proclaim a general amnesty and was prepared to offer a separate administration for the Naga Hills. Nagas would be allowed to elect representatives to the Assam Assembly and a hope could be indicated at the same time that these central administered areas at a later stage might form part of a larger Assam.68 By 1957, a political settlement of Assam had become urgent. The cold war situation was worsened by the breach of peace on the Pakistan border due to which it became risky to engage portions of the army in the Naga Hills.69 The Naga crisis also had an adverse impact on other tribes of this frontier.70 Therefore, Nehru wanted the centre to take over the administration of Naga Hills. Such a gesture might have positive impact on the Nagas followed by a settlement. The idea of a separate administration for the Naga Hills was visualised. The governor of Assam felt it would be too soon while the chief minister opposed the idea of severing the Naga Hills district from Assam. An angry Nehru retorted to the chief minister Bimala Prasad Chaliha, “if gangrene sets in, it is better to amputate the affected limb immediately rather than risk the gangrene spreading over the whole body”.71 Nehru asserted, “It does not help in dealing with people to have weak nerves”.72 Nehru’s initiative bore fruits. The state of Nagaland was the result of this initiative.

The movement of the Indian army to suppress the rebellion and the consequent encounter between the underground Nagas and security forces continued bringing havoc to the Naga social fabric which activated the Naga civil society. A large body of the Naga people decided to rescue the Naga Hills from this devastation and bring some semblance of stability. This civil society group united under the umbrella of the Naga Peoples’ Convention negotiated with the government of India and brought about some kind of settlement, which included the unification of Tuensang with the Naga Hills and the creation of a Naga state under the Ministry of External Affairs. Prime Minister Nehru was willing to go to every extent, short of sovereignty, to resolve the Naga impasse. In July 1960, the terms were discussed by him with the leaders of the Naga Peoples’ Convention resulting in a “16-Point Agreement” whereby Nehru agreed to constitute Nagaland as the 16th state of India, even though he knew that it was “fantastic” and “completely unreal” for “an area the size of a standard Indian district…to be converted into a state”.73 Despite these reservations, he agreed to a distinct Nagaland simply because it would make “the Nagas [feel] a real part of India”.74

But Nehru faced opposition in this endeavour to grant statehood to the Naga Hills and even with the nomenclature, Nagaland. For the Nagas, the nomenclature “Nagaland” was vital for their identity and the identification of their habitat. During the parliamentary discussion some members objected to calling a part of India, Nagaland, others objected to the idea of it being placed under the Ministry of External Affairs while another objected to the idea of the government of India signing an “agreement” with a constituent part of India. Ram Subhag Singh, member of parliament from Sasaram, was perplexed by the nomenclature, and “...request[ed] the Prime Minister to carefully name that area. It may be named Naga State or Naga Pradesh. Nagaland is something bigger.”75 Raghunath Singh supported the area being named Naga Province or Naga state instead of Nagaland.76 C K Bhattacharjee from West Dinajpur even found the name “outlandish”.77 Members like Vidya Charan Shukla asked the rationale behind placing Nagaland under the Ministry of External Affairs rather than the Home Ministry. Members like Ashoka Mehta and M S Aney questioned the procedure of signing an “agreement” between the government of India and a group of people of India. Since there was never any agreement between the GOI and the people of Punjab or Uttar Pradesh (UP) they failed to understand the necessity of such a legal document with the Naga people. In fact, it was only the personality and stature of Nehru which was able to overcome such opposition and convince a hesitant Parliament of the importance of granting special treatment to the Nagas.

Statehood did not resolve the Naga problem. The other section of the Nagas, who had not been part of the Naga Peoples’ Convention, continued their struggle against the Indian state. A perturbed Nehru had to re-order the army back into Naga Hills. The central feature of Nehru’s Naga policy was to accord a high priority to the Naga problem and not ignore it, just because it involved a tiny population in a remote corner of India. But after Nehru, Indian statesmen failed to address the issue with the importance it demanded. They preferred to ignore it, left it to the army and when fatigue set in to the independence movement, initiated a process of dialogue. Despite being confronted with many crises of the Indian state, Nehru gave deep thought to the Naga issue, had frequent discussions with the Naga leaders and with his own colleagues in the party and government, was concerned about India’s image internationally due to the campaign by Phizo as well as human right activists that it was an oppressor of small nations, and was willing to go the extra mile to resolve the problem.

Against Independence

At the same time he was emphatic and categorical in asserting that the Naga Hills were a part of India and ruled out granting independence to them. Nehru refused to treat the Naga leaders as representatives of another country, as demanded, and enter into a treaty with them. Nehru stated that he was willing to talk with the Nagas if they did not talk of independence. He asserted

decEMBER 5, 2009 vol xliv no 49

that there was no question of prestige when dealing with his own reward the moderates and isolate the extremists. Nehru desired countrymen.78 While he was not apologetic about sending the to resolve the Naga question by “winning them over” but a soluarmy when the situation required a military measure, he was tion evaded him and this went on to become the longest crisis cautious of army excesses and regretted incidence of human that the Indian state faced after independence. His successors did right violations. He repeatedly asked the army officials not to not bring any major innovation in the Indian state’s Naga policy; treat the situation like a war but as a rescue effort of civilians rather they largely continued with his policy of the carrot of aufrom hostiles. The key word of his policy was to win over the tonomy with the stick of military measures. This, in fact, became Nagas who were not with “us”, and not who are with “us”. This a standard policy of dealing with such minority nationalisms in is again at odds with the policy of his successors who tried to India, as also other post-colonial states in south Asia too.

Notes 27 M Horam, Thirty Years of Naga Insurgency (Delhi: 52 Nehru to Vijaylakshmi Pandit, 16 July 1960 cited Cosmo), 1990, p 44. in S Gopal, op cit, Vol 3, p 179.

1 Jawaharlal Nehru, “In the Valley of the Brahmaputra” 9 December, 1937, in his Unity of India,

28 Jawaharlal Nehru, “A Note by the Prime Minister 53 Nehru to K N Katju, Defence Minister, 28 July 1956. Collected Writings, 1937-40, London, 1948, p 189. on His Tour of the North-Eastern Frontier Provinces”, 54 Nehru to S Fazl Ali, governor of Assam, 22 Janu18-25 October 1952, p 4. ary 1957.

2 Nehru’s speech during the Lok Sabha debate on the Naga hills situation, 23 August 1956. 29 ibid, p 12. 55 Memorandum of Naga National Council to His

3 “In the Valley of the Brahmaputra”, op cit. It is

30 Note by Nehru, 9 December 1953 cited in S Gopal, Majesty’s Government and the Government of remarkable that Nehru never forgot Gindalo.

Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, Vol 2, 1947-56 India, 20 February 1946. After 10 years, when India was independent, (Delhi: OUP), 1983, p 211.56 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, 1956 cited above.Nehru took up her case and freed her from prison. 31 ibid. 57 The Naga Problem, white paper published by the

4 ibid.32 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, New Delhi during government of India, New Delhi, 1960. 5 ibid. the debate on the Naga Hills situation, 23 August 58 Nehru’s statement in the Lok Sabha on the Naga 6 Speech by Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Tribal Folk”, 1956. Hills-Tuensang area on 1 August 1960.

delivered at the opening session of the Scheduled 33 Cited in Verrier Elwin, Nagaland, Shillong Gov-59 “Development Works” in The Naga Problem, white Tribes and Scheduled Areas Conference, New ernment of Assam, 1961, pp 60-61. paper published by the government of India, Delhi, 7 June 1952.34 Nehru to Defence Secretary, 19 June 1956 in Publicity Division, Ministry of External Affairs,

7 ibid.

S Gopal, op cit, p 212. New Delhi, 1960. 8 ibid. 35 S Gopal, op cit, p 212. 60 Nehru to K N Katju, Defence Minister, 28 July 1956.

9 Jawaharlal Nehru, “A Note by the Prime Minister 36 Nehru to Bishnuram Medhi 13 May 1956, Secret 61 S Gopal, op cit, p 210. on His Tour of the North-Eastern Frontier Prov-and Personal, no 1116-PMH/56, New Delhi. 62 M Horam, op cit. inces”, 18-25 October 1952, p 4. 37 Nehru to K N Katju, Defence Minister, 28 July 63 Nehru to J Daulatram, 4 April 1952.

10 “In the Valley of the Brahmaputra”, op cit. 1956, S Gopal, op cit, p 211. 64 S Gopal op cit, p 210. 11 NNC Resolution 19 June 1946; from T Sakhrie and 38 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, New Delhi during the 65 Nehru to Fazl Ali, Governor of Assam, 10 August Sashaimeren Aier to Jawaharlal Nehru. debate on the Naga Hills situation, 23 August 1956. 1954.

39 Nehru’s statement in Rajya Sabha debates, 28 August 1958, Vol 22, pp 1470-74.

12 Jawaharlal Nehru to Sakhrie, 6 August 1946.66 Nehru to Bishnuram Medhi, 13 May 1956, Secret

13 Ramchandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The and Personal, no 1116-PMH/56, New Delhi. History of World’s Largest Democracy (New Delhi: 40 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, New Delhi during 67 M Horam, op cit. the debate on the Naga Hills situation, 23 August

Picador), 2008, p 263. 68 Nehru to Fazl Ali, Governor of Assam 23 May 1957.


14 Bipan Chandra et al, India after Independence 69 M Horam, op cit. 1947-2000 (New Delhi: Penguin), 2000, pp 114-15;

41 ibid.

70 ibid.

Paul R Brass, The Politics of India since Independ-42 ibid.

71 N K Rustomji, “Jawaharlal Nehru and the Tribes: ence (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press), 43 ibid.

Romance and Compassion” in K S Singh, Jawaharlal

1992; Asoso Yonou, The Rising Nagas: A Political

44 Nehru to B R Medhi, from Bandung, 21 April Nehru, Tribes and Tribal Policy, Anthropological and Historical Study (Delhi: Vivek), 1974; 1955.

Survey of India, Calcutta, 1989, p 31.

M Horam, Thirty Years of Naga Insurgency (Delhi:

45 Nehru to his cabinet members, 9 March, 1955, 72 Nehru’s note 21 May 1956.

Cosmo), 1990.

T T Krishnamachari papers cited in Ramchandra

73 Nehru’s note to foreign secretary, 5 March 1959,

15 Murkot Ramunny, The World of Nagas (New Delhi: Guha, op cit, p 277.

in S Gopal, op cit, p 178.

Northern Book Centre), 1988, p 19.

46 ibid.

74 Nehru’s speech in the Lok Sabha debates on the

16 CAD, vol 4, pp 947-48, referenced in Ramchandra

47 Nehru to J Daulatram, 27 July 1955. Nagaland Statehood Bill, vol XLIV, 1-12 August Guha, op cit.

48 Nehru to J Daulatram, 8 and 9 March 1956. 1960.

17 See for details Sajal Nag, Contesting Marginality:

49 Speech in Shillong, 30 September, quoted in 75 Ram Subhag Singh in ibid.

Ethnicity, Insurgency and Subnationalism in North

The Hindu, 31 December 1957. 76 Raghunath Singh in ibid.

East India (New Delhi: Manohar), 2002.

50 Nehru to Fazl Ali, 9 September 1956. 77 C K Bhattacharjee in ibid

18 Nehru to NNC delegation led by Phizo aboard

51 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, 1956 cited above. 78 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, 1960 cited above.

S S Lusai (steamer) on river Brahmaputra, Silghat

Assam , 29 December 1951. 19 Times of India, 1 January 1952, news heading “No Independence for Nagas: Plain Speaking by Nehru”. 20 Nehru to NNC delegation led by Phizo, 11 March 1952, Delhi. 21 Nehru, speech in Lok Sabha, New Delhi during the debate on the Naga Hills situation, 23 August 1956. 22 S Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, vol 2, 1947-56 (Delhi: OUP), 1983, p 207. 23 Nehru to J Daulatram, governor of Assam and B Ram Medhi, Chief Minister of Assam, 2 February 1951 cited in S Gopal, op cit. Most of the correspondences of Nehru cited below are from this sources (volumes 2 and 3) unless otherwise mentioned.

24 Nehru to J Daulatram, 4 April 1952. 25 Nehru to B R Medhi, 25 May 1951.

26 Nehru to J Daulatram and Bishnuram Medhi, 2 February 1951.

EPW Archives (1966-1998)

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