Naga Issue: Internal Indian Ethnic Conflict or a Conflict Between Teo Nations?


    By Kaka D. Iralu
    As far as the national identities of the Nagas and the Indians are concerned, they are worlds apart. What I mean is that the “Naganess” of a Naga is totally different from the “Indianness” of an Indian. What I am talking about here is the national identity differences of different nations. These differences are an undeniable universal fact.

    It is true that at the human level, irrespective of our different nationalities, there are many common human factors that bind all human beings together into a common humanity. These common human factors are factors like a common sense of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice etc. At this level we are all citizens of the world and the UNO is a symbol of that common humanity.

    However, at the level of our ethnic and national identities, there are undeniable differences. These differences are based on historical, political, racial, cultural and religious factors. To deny their existence is to imperil our own peaceful co-existence as nations. In the case of Nagaland and India, various attempts have been made to deny the existence of these truths. Not to talk of a denial of its existence, even military force had been used to impose the Indian national identity on the Naga identity. Hence there is political conflict between the two nations.

    Now, the Indo-Naga ethnic and national identities are different because of the following facts:

    1. While racially, the Indian people mostly belong to the Dravidian and Aryan races, the Nagas in contrast belong to the Mongolian race.

    2. Religion-wise, except for a very small minority of Christians and other faiths, the bulk of India’s millions belong either to the Muslim faith or the Hindu faith with its multifarious offshoots like Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism etc. By contrast, the Nagas were all formerly Animists but are now mostly Christians. There is not a single Naga Hindu or Muslim to date.

    3. In the Linguistic category too, the Indian languages belong to the Indo-European group of languages with Urdu and Sanskrit as its main languages. In contrast the great variety of Naga languages belong to the Tibeto-Burman group of languages.

    Because of these striking differences in race, religion, and language, the cultural by-products and the national identities of both countries are strikingly different. Now, nobody can deny that the cultural ethos of a nation is the visible and practical expressions of a nation’s “worldview.” A nation’s worldview is in turn based on the nation’s religious or philosophical beliefs. To put it in mathematical equation, it will be Religious and Philosophical beliefs + Worldview of a Nation = Cultural Ethos of a Nation. The laws of a nation and the character of a nation are all influenced and shaped by this formula. Keeping this formula in the back of our minds, let us now briefly summarise the Indian worldview and the Naga worldview.

    Indian World View and Naga World View
    The Indian worldview: The Indian worldview has been deeply influenced by Hinduism and Islam. Islam has its different sects with slightly different theologies. On the other hand, Hinduism, besides its pantheon of gods and goddesses, also has its many offshoots like Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism etc. In all these offshoots, there are myriads of Gurus, Monks etc. Now, nobody can deny that these religions have influenced and shaped the Indian national identity. The cultural history of India as a result of these influences has a history of Kings with divine right to rule; and a cast system controlling their society.

    The Naga worldview: The Naga worldview, on the contrary, was devoid of any such religious so called divine rights to dominate or rule. Prior to the coming of Christianity in the late 19th century, Naga conscience was the only Naga religion. In fact prior to 1875 there was not a single religious or historical manuscript in the possession of any of the Naga tribes! However, solely on the basis of the dictates of their conscience, the Naga forefathers evolved a very pure form of democracy that could put to shame many religion-influenced Democracies or Monarchies in the world. Captain Butler, the British anthropologist and soldier wrote in 1875 that the purest form of democracy exists among the Nagas. In Naga history no one has ever ruled over any other one.

    As a result of these totally different worldviews, Nagas and Indians not only think differently and live differently, but they even eat differently and smell differently! (The Naga definition of meat, by the way, is “anything that moves!”)To stretch the difference to its logical conclusion is this: An Indian culture can never produce a Naga mind neither can a Naga mind ever produce an Indian culture. What I am talking about here is not racism but the simple yet undeniable fact of racial differences. These racial differences are a global phenomenon. It is also a biological and anthropological fact. It is therefore both a social and scientific truth. To superimpose the Indian national identity on the Naga identity and say that they are one and the same thing is unthinkable and therefore utterly unacceptable as far as the Nagas are concerned. No nation on earth can even imagine that such an experiment could ever be possible. “Hindustani bhai, bhai” (all Indians are brothers) may make sense to a Gujarati or a Marathi or a Punjabi because whatever their differences they all share a common racial, lingual, and religious background. But “Hindustani bhai, bhai” is total nonsense to the Nagas.

    Some arrogant Indian Hindu politicians and social thinkers think that the Hindu Pantheistic umbrella can swallow up even other nations into the Indian belly. I often argued with Hindu intellectuals who just cannot understand why I refuse to be swallowed into what they call the Indian mainstream. They would argue “after all the Indian nation is a multi diverse nation of various ethnic groups, linguistic groups and religious groups.” The fact is, whatever the multi diversity of the Indian polity maybe I simply do not belong to any of them historically, politically, religiously or culturally.

    To conclude this section, allow me to describe in a few words my political and economic status as a citizen of Nagaland. I am from Khonoma village of the Angami tribe. My political status and identity as a Naga starts from that village level. As stated earlier, here the reader must remember that every Naga village is a sovereign democratic republic with its own sets of laws governing the village. Now within the village, I belong to the Iralu clan. The Iralu clan in turn belongs to the wider clan group called the Meyasetsu clan. (The Meyasetsu clan is comprised of five minor clans). The Meyasetsu clan in turn belongs to the still wider and larger clan group called the Merhüma Khel. (The Merhüma Khel is comprised of three major clans). The Merhüma Khel in turn is one of the three major Khels that make up Khonoma village (The other two major Khels are Semoma and Thevoma). The Khonoma village in turn belongs to the Angami tribe and the Angami tribe in turn belongs to the Naga nation. My sense of political identity therefore, starts from the Iralu level to the Meyasetsu to the Merhüma to the Khonoma to the Angami and ultimately to the Naga national level. At every level of my political identity I have hundreds of my clansmen, khelmen, village men, tribesmen and fellow Nagas who have the obligation to protect me as a Naga. I, in turn owe the same obligation and allegiance to all these levels of my political identity. This is how the Nagas, though they are a very small nation, had defied the mighty British Empire for over a century and India for over half a century. In actual political reality, no Naga stands alone. Hence if any foreigner harms a Naga, they will find themselves pursued by hundreds of the victim’s clansmen crying for their blood! Land ownership of an individual also spreads across all these various levels of clan, Khel, village and tribal lands. The Naga sense of both political and economic sovereignty exists and functions in this way. Every Naga therefore, is a man with many clansmen and many lands.

    As far as I am concerned, these ethnic and national identities are precious to me. They in fact define my political existence as a man with a country to call his own. As such I can never surrender this birthright to India or any other nation on earth.

    Modern nations and Nagas
    Prior to 1947, neither Nagaland nor India were independent sovereign states in the pattern of modern nation states. Nagaland was then a country of more than fifty-four tribes with the British having suzerainty over only eight tribes. India, on the other hand, was then a sub-continent of five hundred sixty two autonomous princely states besides the provinces under British rule.

    The spirit of nationalism that swept across Asia and Africa in the 20th century affected Nagaland and India only in the earlier half of the 20th century. This spirit of nationalism took some concrete shape and direction for both Nagaland and India only in the 1920’s. Now some Indian historians would argue that the Indian independence movement started from the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. This assertion is disputed as exaggeration of actual historical facts by historians, many of them Indian. We will come to these details later on. For the moment, we will separate the two country’s historical developments. In the case of Nagaland, we will begin with a brief account of Naga history.

    Ethnicity to Nationality in Naga History
    Ancient Naga history – The Nagas are an ancient people whose forefathers migrated into their present habitat somewhere before the Christian era of AD 1. Their forefathers belonged to the Sino-Mongoloid race that came in waves from South East Asia towards the end of the BC era. Their entry points to their present lands were through the Himalayan region and the Burmese corridor. Whether in historical records or oral traditions passed from one generation to the other through word of mouth, there is no mention whatsoever of the Nagas driving away some former inhabitants of the land to make the lands their own. The fact is one where their forefathers, like any other nations in the world, at some specific time in history migrated from more populated regions of the Asian continent and settled down in their present lands and made it their land. Their continuity as a people inhabiting their present lands is an established historical fact. In historical records, the first mention of the Nagas as a people inhabiting their present lands was made by Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek historian and geographer in AD 150. In his records Ptolemy mentions the Nagas as Nagaloi (Claudius Ptolemy, Geographia, Vol V11, (ii)p.18). They were again mentioned by Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese traveller who spent 15 years in India between AD 629-645. Hiuen Tsang visited Kamrup the capital of the Varman King, Bhaskar Varman in AD 643. From Kamrup in Assam, in his accounts “Si-Yu-Ki” he writes about the Nagas saying: The east of this country is bounded by a line of hills so that there is no great city to the kingdom. The frontiers are contiguous to the barbarians of Southwest China. These tribes are in fact akin to those of the Man people in their customs.

    (Thomas Watters, On Yuan Chwang’s travel in India, Vol.III, Part II, Varanasi, 1903, p.11)

    Besides these records, the Nagas are also mentioned in the Royal chronicles of the Manipur kingdom in records like Chietharol Kumbabu and Ningthourol Kumbabu (AD 663-763 and AD 906-996). They are also mentioned in the chronicles of the Ahom kings who came from upper Burma and the western Unan provinces of China and settled and ruled in Assam for 600 years beginning from the 13th century. Naga resistance against intrusions and raids from these two neighbouring kingdoms and also other kingdoms like the Burmese, Tripuris, Dimashas and the Cachar kingdoms from the 13th century to the 18th centuries are all there in recorded history. As for their encounter with the British in the 19th century and their resistance against British rule for one hundred fifteen years (1832 – 1947), numerous accounts are found in the British colonial records. It is said that the battles the British fought with the Naga tribes in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries far outnumber all the frontier battles fought with the Indians in the great Indian sub-continent. Even in spite of all these battles, the British were able to subjugate only thirty per cent of actual Naga territory. (The actual Naga ancestral domain would be around 120,000 sq. km). In British colonial accounts, the unconquered 70% territories of the Nagas were recorded as unadministered territories or excluded areas. Even in the thirty per cent lands that the British administered, they never laid any claims to the lands they were administering. In fact C.V.Aitchinson in Treaties, Engagements and Sanads clearly records that: No written treaties or agreements have been made with any of the Naga tribes. (Vol.XII, 1931, p.91). Also following the submission of the Naga memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929, where the Nagas had refused to be included in the reformed scheme of India, the British Government, in recognition of their demands put the Naga Hills under excluded area in the Government of India Act, 1935.

    Paramilitary Forces like the Assam Rifles had started killing innocent Naga civilians. This was followed by full-fledged Indian military troops moving into Nagaland by October 1955.  

    These Indian troops (fifty four thousand in total) between 1955 to 1956, burnt down to ashes six hundred forty five Naga villages out of eight hundred sixty one Naga villages existing in those days. All the village granaries were also burned to ashes and within one year over one lakh Nagas died from bullets, aerial bombardments, rape, torture, murder, starvation and disease.

    What happened afterwards is a story of blood and tears, sacrifices and heroism as a small nation fought against overwhelming odds for over half a century. As for A.Z.Phizo who wrote all the above words, he was first offered the Chief Ministership of Assam. When he refused, he was next offered to become a Minister in the Central Cabinet. This was followed by another offer to become the Ambassador to Malaya. He was next offered to ask anything from the Indian government including any amount of money. This offer was brought by Shri Prakasa, the then Minister of Natural Resources and Scientific Research. Phizo in his letter to S.C.Jamir from London dated October 31, 1963 wrote that he declined all these offers because he loved the Naga people more than anything else in the world. (S.C.Jamir, Reminiscences of Correspondences with A.Z.Phizo, p.21). When all these efforts to buy the Nagas with money failed, the Indian Government tried to militarily impose Indian nationality on the Nagas. When even this failed, the Indian Government again offered Phizo to become the next President of India in the early 1960s. Full details and a systematically chronicled account of many of the above stated facts can be found in the afore-mentioned book written by the author of the present article.

    Some Interesting Observations In The Naga and Indian Journeys from Ethnicity to Nationality

    1. Both Nagas and Indians were ruled by the British imperial power in modern history. The national souls of both the nations were awakened by this British rule. In the case of Nagaland, their first encounter with the British imperial might was in 1832, when Captain Jenkins and Pemberton marched across Naga country from the Manipur kingdom to the Assam kingdom via Zeliangrong and Angami regions. The British came with seven hundred troops and eight hundred coolies. This first British expedition into Naga country was met with fierce resistance from the Angamis and Zeliangrongs and the British lost several soldiers and many were injured. The Angamis and Zeliangrongs too suffered heavy casualties in this, their first encounter with guns. After this initial survey expedition, many other military excursions were undertaken by the British to subdue the Nagas. But in all these excursions, all the various Naga tribes relentlessly fought the British intrusion from 1832 to 1881. Khonoma village alone fought the British for thirty-five intermittent years (1845 – 1880). After the verbal peace treaty of Khonoma on 27th March 1880, the British were able to control about thirty per cent of Naga territory from 1880 – 1947. This sixty-seven years of British suzerainty over thirty per cent of Naga territories, was however interspersed with many confrontations against the British administration. As for the seventy per cent Naga territories that remained outside the British administered area, they continued hostile activities against British administrators up to 1947. Many punitive raids also had to be carried out by the British into these unadministered areas throughout their suzerainty over the thirty per cent Naga territories for sixty-seven years. In the light of these facts, it can be said that the Nagas defied British rule for one hundred fifteen years in the 19th and 20th centuries (1832 – 1947). The primary concern of the British throughout their many years of Anglo-Naga association was to protect their subjects in Manipur and Assam from the marauding raids of the Nagas.

    In the case of India, the British entered the Indian sub-continent from the early part of the 17th century (1611). In the first British victory, Bombay surrendered to the British East India Company in 1668. By 1757, in the battle of Plassey, Robert Clive with nine hundred British soldiers backed by one thousand five hundred Indian mercenaries routed the Nawab’s Army of over sixty thousand soldiers. Following this victory, Robert Clive colonised a population that was larger than England. From the battle of Plassey the British went on to rule the whole of India for over two hundred years.

    2. The first Naga defence of their land against British intrusion was in 1832. This preceded the Indian Mutiny of 1857 by twenty five years. Anywhere the British stepped into Naga territory, they were consistently met with Naga hostility and defence until 1880 (or as stated earlier up to 1947).

    3. The Naga Club was formed in 1920, after the 1st World War. This was done solely on Naga initiative alone. In 1929, the Club submitted the important Naga memorandum to the British Simon Commission. In April 1946 C.R.Pawsey, the Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills, established the Naga Hills District Tribal Council (NHDTC) to help the Nagas to rebuild their 2nd World War devastated economy and villages. Within nine months, on February 2, 1946, the members of the NHDTC had transformed themselves into the Naga National Council (NNC). The NNC, besides, the numerous important memorandums submitted to the outgoing British Government and the incoming Indian Government, went on to declare Naga independence on 14th August 1947, and also conducted the Naga Plebiscite on 16th May 1951. By July 26, 1960, its President A.Z.Phizo, after escaping the Indian dragnet was addressing the world press in London on the atrocities committed by the Indian Army on sovereign independent Nagaland.

    On the part of India, though as early as 1885, A.O.Hume had established the Indian National Congress in order to train Indian intellectuals to give them political and administrative training in self-governance, it took until 1931 (forty five years later) for Mahatma Gandhi to finally reach London to attend the Second Round Table Conference. In fact there were many opportunities for India to have gotten her independence even as early as the end of the 1st World War. The British Government’s post – 1st World War intentions had been clearly stated by Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu on August 20, 1917. This was followed by the Government of India Act 1919. Had India seized these opportunities in a united way, she could have gotten her independence three decades earlier then August 1947.

    At the risk of blowing our own trumpet too loudly and also at the risk of offending some of my genuine Indian friends, I have made these comparative observations. However, I have done it because I have met too many arrogant Indians who think their own history is glorious as compared to ours.


    In this solution-seeking section, I want to state the Naga position regarding their right to sovereignty and independence very clearly. The two nations – Nagaland and India – though incomparable in size and population awoke to their respective national destinies at more or less the same period of history. It took both the nations many years to evolve from ethnic backgrounds into multi-ethnic nations. However, the tragedy for Nagaland was that, India, that giant nation on receiving her freedom after two hundred years of humiliation, turned and trampled her tiny neighbour Nagaland into the dust. Today Nagaland’s cry for freedom and Nagaland’s rainbow and star (national flag) lies crumpled and blood soaked in the battlefields of the fifty-four year Indo-Naga war. Compared to India’s national martyrs of a few thousands, more than two hundred thousand Naga martyrs lie fallen in the various battlefields stretching to over half a century. But Nagaland has not suffered alone. India too has paid a terrible price both in loss of human lives and financial expenditures. This war must end, but it will never end as long as India refuses to recognise Nagaland’s right to her own sovereignty. So here then is a summary of what Nagas believe to be their national and geographical rights which can never be surrendered.

    The Naga Lands and the Naga Rights

    No nation on earth, no individual in human history has come into existence without a concrete geographical reference point. This is to say no nation on earth, no individual in the world has fallen into earth from outer space. All political histories of every nation have their origin from some concrete geographical lands. Within the boundaries of this geographical land the people of the land develop their national identity, their cultural identity and their political identity. The inhabitants of the land call the land their land. The Nagas, like any other nations on earth, call their geographical land Nagaland. Corresponding to this fact, there is a geographical land called Britain for the British, a geographical Russia for the Russians and a geographical India for the Indians. The Nagas on their part are not covetous of even an inch of anybody else’s lands.

    But by a tragic twist of history, Nagaland in the 20th century was severed in two through a treacherous betrayal by the British Government. Burma was gifted with half, and the other half fell under Indian dominion. Those areas that fell under Indian territory were further subdivided into four fragments, namely – Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. Thus, within the Indian territory, large chunks of Naga lands and Naga people were put into three other states against the wishes of the Nagas. This was done to reduce the Naga political issue to the smallest possible geographical area. The present Indian State of Nagaland is comprised of only 16,557 sq. kms with a population of hardly over two million people.

    However, in actual fact, the greater Nagaland including those areas in Myanmar is comprised of over 1,20,000 sq. kms. This area is located at 25º 60’ and 27º 40’latitude North of equator and between the longitudinal lines 93º 20’E and 95º 15’E. The total population of the entire Naga people of the actual Nagaland would be about four million. Thus, the actual Naga territory for which all Nagas have been fighting for, for all these fifty years is almost five times the size of Israel with a population of about four million people.

    Throughout their history the Nagas had defended their lands against foreign invaders and aggressors. As far as her relationship with her neighbour India is concerned, prior to 1947, not to talk of Indian Kings or Princes having ruled the Nagas, no Indian King or Prince had ever even set foot on Naga territories. Also, prior to 1947, Nagas had no affinity with India whether racially, historically, politically, culturally, religiously or any other wise. Therefore Nagaland is not part of Indian territory neither are Nagas Indians.

    Another point to be noted in this connection is that since all Naga territories never came under British suzerainty, the British had absolutely no right to hand over such territories to India or Burma after their departure from their South Asian empire in 1947. Similarly, India or Burma also has absolutely no legal right to claim these territories as their territories.

    Even Jawaharlal Nehru understood this fact very clearly. On August 19,1946, in connection with the proposed British Crown Colony plan, he described the Naga territories as:

    The tribal areas are defined as being those long frontiers of India which are neither part of India nor Burma, nor of Indian States nor of any foreign power.

    (Quoted from Phizo’s letter to Rajiv Gandhi, May 10,1986, p. 6)

    How these long stretches of frontiers (which were neither Burmese nor Indian territories) could simply disappear into India and Burma after 1947 is the issue that has caused the fifty four year Indo-Naga war. What Nagas have been asserting and fighting for, for fifty years is exactly what Nehru had described. When we say we are Nagas and not Indians, we also mean we are neither Burmese nor Russians nor Africans; for our people and our land had never belonged to India or Burma or any “other foreign power.”

    As far as the Nagas under Indian dominion are concerned, Nagaland is not in India, but India is presently in Nagaland by invasion and subjugation. All these historical and political facts showing that Nagas were not Indians and would not join the Indian Union were conveyed to India, Britain and the world by the Nagas long before the emergence of the present Indian Union in 1947. Also when India and Britain did not take notice of these communications, the Nagas declared their independence on 14th August 1947 – one day prior to India’s declaration of her own independence.

    The Nagas have been waging a war of self-defence for their geographical land for the past fifty-four years with India and Myanmar. This is because this land is their land and they want to live in their land without fear or domination as free citizens of a free country. The Nagas are fighting for their lands because they have no other lands on the whole face of the earth besides these 1,20,000 sq. kms. Therefore the question of surrender or retreat or migration to another country does not arise simply because they have no other land on the whole face of this planet earth. To retreat or run away from their land and occupy another land would be to claim other people’s land as their own. Hence the Nagas have no alternative but to stand and fight, even if to do so, could mean sure death. They have been fighting against India and Myanmar with courage born of desperation and against overwhelming odds for half a century.

    Nagas not secessionist:

    Contrary to India’s allegations, the Nagas neither consider it criminal nor their actions unlawful activities when they fight in self-defence for their sovereignty. The Nagas had never volitionally joined the Indian Union when it was offered to them prior to 1947. Their acts of self-defence are therefore not acts of secession. They are also neither guilty of breaking any Indian laws and thus deserving to be branded as perpetrators of unlawful activities by the Indian Government. As far as the Nagas are concerned the defence of their motherland is a moral and political duty. They owe it to themselves and their children and all future generations of Nagas to defend their God apportioned land with all their strength and might.

    For them not to do so is tantamount to reducing themselves to refugees without a country to call as their own.

    Hence they can never surrender their lands to India or Myanmar or any other nations on earth. India on her part must understand that Nagas are not secessionists or terrorists. The Nagas have absolutely no ill intentions of trying to destabilise India or create any problems for India. On their part they want to live in Peace with India as the most friendly neighbour.


    Please enter your comment!
    Please enter your name here