Uneasy peace in the Naga Hills
Will recent cooperation between armies of India and Myanmar break the Naga movement?
Most of the insurgent groups from India’s Northeast operate from bases located across a virtually ungoverned and inaccessible 60,000 sq km tract in western Myanmar
For the last three years, once every month, the Tatmadaw and the Indian security forces meet here and talk before having food and liquor
Artificial boundaries created by people seated in faraway lands and positions of power have determined the destiny of the Nagas
If only walls could talk, the smoke-stained bricks of the royal kitchen hall would have had so many tales to tell. For it is here, across the thick wooden table in the room of the ‘Ang’ (chief) of Lungwa that many gun-toting Naga, the Assamese or the Manipuri insurgents would speak to him and among themselves before slipping across into Myanmar headed for their training camps or before setting foot in Indian territory on way from the Patkai hills of Myanmar, as also officers of the Indian and the Myanmar army (called the Tatmadaw) who would drop in for that unusually strong cup of tea boiled in a bamboo tube over the fire.
Lungwa village, known to be a much favoured route among insurgents for movement of men and weapons due to its remoteness and porous border, is straddled across the crest of a mountain that overlooks India on one side and Myanmar on the other. It is about three hours of arduous and dizzy mountain driving away from the Mon district headquarters in eastern Nagaland.
Most of the insurgent groups from India’s Northeast operate from bases located across a virtually ungoverned and inaccessible 60,000 sq km tract in western Myanmar that skirts Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur, where Longwa is one of the hotspots.
Stretching about 1,300 km in length from Arunachal Pradesh in the north to Manipur in the south, and an average of about 50 km in width till the Chindwin river in Myanmar, it is in this area where insurgent cadres are trained in warfare and ideologically indoctrinated. These groups are organised under a single platform called United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) that was formed in April 2015.
The Ang of Longwa, Tonyei Phawang, a wiry and slightly built man of 42, lords over a swath of mountains inhabited by the till-recently ‘headhunting’ Konyaks from 42 villages, 38 of which are in Myanmar and four inside Nagaland’s Mon district. He has two wives while his father, the Ang who passed away in 2015, had 14 wives. Konyak is one of the biggest of the about 40 Naga tribes.
“Now for the last three years, once every month, the Tatmadaw and the Indian security forces meet here and talk before having food and liquor. They seem to be friendly now. In the past, Burmese soldiers would snatch our fowls and pigs and force our men to carry their baggage and equipment. Now there is much politeness and decency,” he says in Nagamese, a creole that is the lingua franca in Nagaland where each tribe has its own distinctive dialect.
“Let us be in peace. We do not want any trouble here, be it the Indian soldier or the insurgent, everyone is welcome here, but no one will create any trouble. There is no one big or small here because the bullet is the same for all,” he says underlining the fact that the Naga customary law is what rules in these parts.
When the skilled Konyak Naga hunters make a kill—a bear, a deer or any other creature of the wild—it is to be shared with the Ang. “It is the force of tradition. It is what it was and will be so. The head of the ‘kill’ and the right thigh is always for the royal kitchen as is ripe rice,” he says, seated across the kitchen table where the large fireplace falls inside Myanmar territory while the place of the kitchen utensils neatly arrayed against the wall falls in Indian territory.
The Mon district commissioner, Thavaseelan K, from Tamil Nadu, is happy with the peaceful turn in what was till recently the ‘Wild Wild East’. “Mon district is safer than many metro cities. Nagas do have certain genuine grievances but from the administration’s side we are doing our best to assuage concerns. Of course, the problem of drug addiction, especially of opium, is a huge issue.” But then of course, that is the young IAS officer’s polite ‘officialese’.
The Ang may be oblivious of the numerous meetings between the representatives of the Indian and Myanmarese governments in New Delhi and in Naypyidaw in the recent past or of the increasing frequency of meetings between top Indian army generals and their counterparts in the Tatmadaw.
In the past, the Tatmadaw was loath to effectively act on the information furnished by India of numerous insurgent training camps in Myanmar. There were several reasons for this besides the problems due to geographical remoteness.
Already the Myanmarese forces are engaged in several active military conflicts with the Kachin, Shan and Arakan rebels and are hard pressed for resources and fighting equipment and hence reluctant to open up another front with the Nagas.
“This was despite supplying the Tatmadaw with sizeable quantities of weapons like hundreds of 105 mm guns taken from old Indian army battle tanks, Carl Gustaf rocket launchers and other weapons,” said a serving top government official with vast experience of devising counter-insurgency strategies against insurgents from India’s Northeast.
Understandably, the official did not want to be identified as a few years ago, the Swedish government had sought a response from the Indian government as to how Swedish-made Carl Gustafs supplied to India had found their way onto the Tatmadaw’s hands, which, if true, would have violated ‘end-user’ agreements.
But the recent growing proximity between the two armies fructified into a significant tactical development which took place between January 29 and February 1, 2019, when in a sudden surprise move, about 400 soldiers led by the Hkamti district tactical commander under the Tatmadaw’s North-West Command drove into the NSCN (Khaplang faction) headquarters at Taga in the Hukawng valley, throwing the insurgent camps into total disarray.
Interestingly, according to a security establishment source, the Tatmadaw was accompanied by a small contingent of Indian soldiers from the 21 Para based in Assam’s Jorhat from where they were flown in helicopters to join the operation against the insurgents.
“So this time Myanmar had to act because we ‘pro-actively’ aided the Tatmadaw against the Arakanese rebels along the Mizoram-Myanmar border who maintain safe havens in Mizoram. It was a ‘we help you in the south, you help us in the north’. It has been a huge tactical success for the security establishment,” the official added.
Reports say while the Manipuri insurgents have moved towards the south, ULFA guerrillas moved towards the Pangsau pass in the north even as many NSCN (K) leaders were taken into custody. Several surrenders by ULFA cadres have been reported since then.
The incident at Taga is just the latest of a series of moves that has substantially altered equations and has taken Naga nationalism back to where it all started.
More than a hundred years ago, beginning from 1917, thousands of able-bodied Naga men between 18-35 years of age were sent as labour to France by the British government to help the First World War effort by building houses and barracks, clearing the roads and rails from snow, digging trenches, etc.
These men from different Naga tribes—used to violent internecine tribal conflicts characterised by head-hunting till then—went to France with very little knowledge but came back with an altered world vision and a definitive idea about their own place in history. There was a realisation of a shared tradition and heritage. Relatively isolated from the others in foreign shores, a sense of unity developed. These men on their return set up the Naga Club in 1918 which became the bedrock of Naga nationalism. The next major step was in 1929 when the Naga Club submitted to the Simon Commission seeking the right to self-determination as and when the British exited from India.
The movement assumed a mature political character under the leadership of the legendary Angami Zapu Phizo who steered Naga nationalism towards a demand for total sovereignty along with a justification for violent means if need be. The call to arms was easy for an angry people aided by the easy availability of weapons left behind by the overpowered Japanese army during the Second World War.
Many decades later now, the Naga movement has changed beyond recognition. The ideal of unity stands punctured by an extant divided house of many factions, each being defined largely by tribe loyalties. The NSCN itself has many factions and the government has used these divisions to its advantage during the animated negotiations.
Even the August 2015 ‘Framework Agreement’ with the Isak-Muivah faction of the NSCN announced amid much fanfare was a statement on the division among the Nagas.
The next important development was after the death of SS Khaplang, who headed the UNLFWSEA, which paved the way for a split between Nagas from India and those from Myanmar.
“We have lost count of the number of factions that the Naga movement has divided itself into. Nagas are not happy with these divisions. It is always better to stand as one,” says Nokkap Konyak, a resident of Longwa, in an apparent reference to the blow to Naga nationalism.
A few days ago, underscoring the apparent internal divisions, Isak Sumi, a top leader of the Khango Konyak faction of the Naga underground, wrote: “No matter where we are placed, designated, occupied, dominated, abused and undermined, just remember that we are all from the same womb....The Nagas, no boundaries can divide us.”
In a nutshell, it is as if things have gone back to the pre-1918 days.
Says Prof Kumar Sanjay Singh, a keen follower of the Naga movement and who teaches history at Delhi University: “The present form of Naga nationalism is a much compromised form of what Phizo had visualised. One, Naga nationalism straddled across present-day geographies in Nagaland, parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar. Now it has been cornered to a much smaller area largely because of the stringent opposition in the neighbouring states.”
“Secondly, Naga nationalism emerged as an authentic expression of anti-colonialism among the people of north-east India. While rejecting the British proposal to grant Hong Kong-like status to the Nagas, Phizo asserted that it would amount to a betrayal of the anti-colonial stand of Naga nationalism. Nagas could not been seen to gain at the expense of other peoples’ struggles.”
However, says Prof Singh, now Naga nationalists seem to have opted for their own solitary path of negotiations and resolution with total unconcern of the fate of other people of the Northeast. “All Naga organisations had organic links with the movements of other people of the Northeast. By opting for a solitary path, this inherent multilateralism has been lost.”
In a way, history has been unkind to the Nagas. Artificial boundaries created by people seated in faraway lands and positions of power have determined the destiny of the Nagas.
“We have heard about a proposal to fence the Indo-Myanmar international border. That will divide families, brothers and sisters. That is something we will never agree to. If that is done, Nagas will rise again,” says the Ang, Phawang, leaving no doubt that Nagas are loyal just to themselves. It is also indicative of the fact that absence of conflict doesn’t necessarily mean the finality of peace, more so in the Naga hills —where the disquiet in the quiet is but obvious.
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