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Cross-border voting the Naga way of life

Many Nagas with houses bang on the India-Myanmar border vote in the elections of both countries. But there is no doubt in their minds that they are Nagas first and last

Firstpost print Edition

As the sun sets on the green Patkai mountains that straddle India and Myanmar, Tonyei Phawang, the ‘Ang’ (Konyak Naga chief) looks at the two solar panels in the courtyard of his Lungwa village home in Nagaland’s Mon district. One has been given by Myanmar and the other by India. The Ang must choose which one to use as the darkness sets in over the undulating, high country that is his home.

The solar panels epitomise the duality of the Ang’s existence: he isn’t Indian or Myanmarese, he’s both. In the deep valleys of the Patkai, nationality is not a settled issue, and it’s only been made more complex by notions of Naga nationhood.

Built on a windy crest of the Patkai range, the Ang’s house is half in India and half inside Myanmar. His bedroom is inside India while most of his huge kitchen hall lies in Myanmar. And it’s more than just weird: Where, for instance, must the Ang vote?

Phawang does both. Like his predecessors, he votes in India as well as in Myanmar. With him vote the 35-odd households in his village. “In 2015, I voted for a Naga political party that supported the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) during the elections in Myanmar. And now in 2019, I voted in India,” says Nokkap Konyak of Lungwa village without revealing who he voted for during the Lok Sabha polls.

“It may appear strange but it is not so here. The Nagas are a divided nation. We even have so many of our lads working in the Myanmarese military and other government departments. After all, the people are the same. Even now, it is compulsory for his subjects in Myanmar to pay their regular tribute to the ‘Ang’.”

The ‘Ang’s domain of control extends across 42 villages, only four of which are inside India while 38 are in Myanmar.

About 20 lakh Nagas live in India, while about 1.5 lakh reside in Myanmar’s Sagaing Division. An arbitrary delineation of the Indo-Myanmar boundary divided the people into two swathes on the map during the British colonial era. These lines got set in stone after Independence in 1947.

The government knows all this, but can do precious little at this point in time. Says GK Pillai, former Union home secretary and a keen watcher of developments in the North-East: “We do know what is going on. Indian electoral rolls are decided on the basis of address proof and then voter cards are handed out. Everyone who has a valid voter card can vote in Indian elections. But on the Myanmar side, where there is lack of an effective administrative control, there is not much we can do if Indian voters go and vote.”

The stretch in Myanmar adjacent to the Indian border till the Chindwin river is considered to be lawless, a forbidden kingdom of sorts where Naypyitaw’s writ doesn’t run and where armed insurgent groups from both India and Myanmar operate with impunity.

Nor is such a state of affairs restricted to Naga territory. The same situation prevails in Manipur’s Chandel district too which is dominated by Kuki tribals who inhabit either sides of the border.

An eyewitness told Firstpost: “During a business trip to the Indo-Myanmar border area in Chandel district during the state Assembly polls in 2017, I saw a dozens of people crossing the India-Myanmar Friendship Highway to go to electoral booths. I learnt that they had come to vote in the Manipur state polls.”

With no provision of dual citizenship in either India or Myanmar, citizens can only belong to one country. But they don’t, at least not yet.

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