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How cultural history shaped politics in Nagaland | Tushar Singh

To someone who does not follow the Nagaland political scenario regularly, it would have been hard to believe that the Nagaland State Assembly elections, that concluded with much pomp and show with a neck-and-neck finish between the ruling NPF (Naga People’s Front) and BJP ally NDPP (Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party), were on the verge of being boycotted by all parties only a month ago.

One will also find it hard to believe that the two camps (NPF and NDA), vying for a majority in the assembly, were coalition partners in the previous one; and it will be no surprise if the two camps re-unite to run a parliament with virtually no opposition.

The political history of Nagaland

In reality, Nagaland’s political question is much more complicated than ‘who will form the government’ or ‘who won the elections’. Herein is an analysis of the factors that shaped the present Nagaland and what can be the expectations in a state historically affected by insurgency.

While Article 370, which gives special status to Jammu & Kashmir, is much debated in the public discourse, a similar article, 371(A), which gives special rights to Nagaland, is not that well known. Nagaland consists of 16 distinct tribes living in 11 districts, collectively called Nagas in everyday language, who have a ‘distinct’ identity. Therefore, article 371(A) prohibits the Indian Parliament from making laws that meddle with the Naga customary law and practices, without the permission of the Nagaland State Assembly.

Given the ethnic diversity in India, one might wonder: “Why specific provisions for Nagas?”. This is because unlike most parts of India, Naga National Council (NNC), which under the leadership of Angami Zapu Phizo, declared its independence one day before India gained independence—on 14th August 1947, and communicated the same to the United Nations. This was in sync with another Naga interest group asking the Simon Commission in 1929 to consider Nagas a separate identity from Indians. The rest of the story seems pretty obvious—Indian government refused the demand of a separate Nagalim state (which would include Naga-dominated areas of Nagaland, Assam, Manipur and also Myanmar). This fuelled an insurgency in the state, which compelled India to introduce AFSPA to neutralise the hardliners and article 371(A) to appease the separatist tendencies when Nagaland became a state in 1963.

Prime Ministers’ attention

Ever since the past 50 years, Nagaland has seen several Indian Prime Ministers famously brokering peace agreements and then those agreements being violated. The most famous of them being the Shillong Accord in 1975, signed during the emergency when several rebel leaders had been jailed without a warrant. Shillong Accord failed to satisfy many stakeholders, and this led to the creation of a separatist outfit: the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980 (which is now broken up into many factions like NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K)).

The 1990s saw PV Narasimha Rao and HD Deve Gowda holding meetings in a neutral country (not India or proposed Nagalim) with NSCN bigwigs. PM IK Gujral in 1997 announced of a ceasefire which seemed like a big deal during its announcement in the Lok Sabha but it failed to lead to a permanent solution.  PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee is probably the most loved Indian PM ever since after holding talks with NSCN members in Paris, he went to Kohima to deliver a speech for which he is remembered fondly.  PM Vajpayee recognised Nagas to have a ‘unique history’ and admitted that mistakes had been committed in the past. “Ami laga bhai aru boyni-khan. Aami Nagaland-te matiye karone besi khusi paise dei. (My dear brothers and sisters. I am very happy to be amid you on the soil of Nagaland),” he famously thundered.

Unique history

Nagaland’s ‘unique history’ has led to the formation of an apex body of 18 tribal organisations to protect their interests, called Naga Hoho. Naga Hoho is an organisation that called for a “solution” to the Naga Peace Process before the elections and hence asked all political parties to boycott the assembly elections till a final solution was in place. While most parties did not heed to Naga Hoho’s call this time, when a similar boycott had been called in 1997 by the same organisation for the same reason, all parties except the Indian National Congress boycotted the elections (Congress won unopposed). What is more interesting is the change in slogan over the past two decades. In 1997, it was “Nagas want solution, not election”. In 2018, it was “Solution before election”. Notice the accommodative change in tone of the two slogans.

Another aspect of Nagaland politics is that personal cults matter more than ideology. This explains how a Hindutva party, BJP, has been able to break through the ranks in a state where approximately 90% of the electorate is Christian. Add to it how the Naga Baptist Church Council issued statements cautioning against the rise of BJP in Nagaland. BJP, in alliance with NDPP, has Neiphiu Rio as its CM face, who has already served as CM several times and is a popular figure (and was elected unopposed to the assembly). How former CM Keyezhe L. Chishi quit the Congress to join BJP this January is a testimony to how individual names matter more than party symbols on the EVM in Nagaland. To win over the Christian vote bank, the Congress manifesto offered subsidised pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the state’s Christians while the BJP offered free trips to Jerusalem for 50 senior citizens every year.

Women representation

The last and often overlooked aspect of Naga politics is the underrepresentation of women. Nagaland has seen no woman MLA being elected and has provided only one woman MP, that also back in 1977. Nagaland hasn’t witnessed local body elections for more than a decade now because the judiciary has mandated 33 percent reservation for women in the municipal councils. Last year, when the cabinet decided to conduct municipal elections with reservation for women, the outrage forced the CM (TR Zeliang) to resign. The outrage was a result of many interpreting the reservation for women as an attack on the Tribal Customary Law protected under article 371 (A).

Therefore, even after the 2018 assembly elections, Nagaland has no woman MLA, no stable government and more importantly, no solution. In 2015, the Centre and NSCN (IM) signed a Framework Agreement to end insurgency, the details of which have never been released. Whether the Framework Agreement brings long-lasting peace or fails like every other deal before, is yet to be seen. Nagaland should enjoy the limelight it is getting from national media before it is replaced by Karnataka and Rajasthan in the headlines, and its long-pending peace solution forgotten again, till the next elections.


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