Before we embark on a short journey of Naga history, let me point out that the Nagas are a proud people who might have differences with the Central government, but have never killed or attacked common Indians. They will be content with autonomy under Indian Constitution and unlike what a section of media paints, are not really looking for an independent country. With time, many Naga youth have taken advantage of reservations and have integrated into the Indian system. In this regard, there is a crucial difference between them and Kashmiri separatists. The latter, despite earning their bread and butter from India and sizeable financial support, consistently work against Indian interests.
Going back in history, the Britishers never really had an interest in North East (NE) beyond the tea gardens of Assam and their holiday town of Shillong. The entire region was categorized as a big one NEFA and was left to individual British military officers to launch armed campaigns. The Nagas were reputed as fierce fighters and were known as head hunters for a reason. In clashes with British troops, they routinely beheaded British officers and it was said that the heads were displayed proudly in the homes of the Naga Village heads.
But what arms could not do, Christ did. American Baptist missionaries risked malaria and beheadings to enter Naga areas and slowly converted them to Christianity. The Nagas were followers of indigenous religion like most tribals, but the missionaries brought one crucial aspect to Naga life who were hunters – agriculture.
Agriculture gave stable supply of rice as opposed to the Jhoom cultivation which they did before and animal rearing especially pigs which gave them fresh meat. Even during this period, when large swathes of Naga territory came under British influence, there were exception like Queen Gaidinlu, who fought the British. But gradually, almost all Nagas became Christians.
Things took a turn in WW2, where Nagas played a crucial role. Nagas as a community are spread over present day India and Myanmar (Burma). When the British war effort was floundering against the Axis Powers in the east till 1942, they desperately needed to support the Chinese Nationalists led by Chiang Kai Shek against the Japanese. The Japanese were in control of Thailand, Singapore, and also the French colonies of Vietnam and Kampuchea, who were supporting the Vichy puppet regime of Nazis.
The alternative was building a road known as the Stilwell road (Ledo road) through NE to Burma and to the Yunnan province of China. For that, the British needed labour and also protection. To achieve that, they promised money and also an independent state to Nagas in lieu of this support. Considering the poverty among Nagas and the prospect of good food and alcohol which generally flows during military campaigns, they supported the British Indian army whole heartedly. Even more crucial was the support that they gave during the Kohima battle with Indian National Army (INA). The campaign was successful, the Japanese retreated. and INA got finished.
The British forgot about the Nagas after 1945 but the Nagas declared themselves as different from India and declared themselves independent on 14 Aug 1947. What happened afterwards was another blunder by Jawaharlal Nehru.
Nagas were no different than Hyderabad, Junagadh, or Kashmir – states that declared independence during that period. While Sardar Patel used every tactic in the book to bring such states around with a great track record, he left some crucial regions to Nehru. NE was one of them.
Nehru, who was steeped in colonial education, perceived Nagas to be head hunters and uncivilized, and therefore ordered the Army to go in and grab Naga lands. Obviously, no campaign like this goes without brutality. The Nagas, who were peaceful till now, raised a banner of revolt. Their leaders went over to East Pakistan and got arms training and weapons. Pakistan was too happy to oblige.
Till Nehru died in 1964 there was no accord with the Nagas. With the coming of Indira Gandhi, better sense prevailed and there were talks with Nagas led by Phizo. It was helped by the fact that the earlier haven of East Pakistan got independence in 1971 and the underground groups lost major weapons and logistic support.
In 1975, the famous Shillong accord was signed with Phizo. But again, Indira erred at a crucial juncture in the endgame. She negotiated only with Phizo and not the young guns like Muivah and Khaplang. Consequently, these people formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and went over to Burma, which then under the army rule was not too friendly with India, particularly as Indira was close to Suu Kyi family.
While a small state of Nagaland was created, the major Naga tribes like Tangkhuls were still in Manipur. Indira played her political cards and encouraged formation of Congress governments in both Nagaland and Manipur. Oiled with Central Government funds that never reached the people, these politicians filled their coffers, and the militants also extorted money from the common man. NE was now in a mess, with the common citizen crushed by poverty and extortion.
Meanwhile, as NSCN proclaimed itself as a Christian militia it got support from the US and UK, and to some extent, even from the United Nations (UN). With this background, I K Gujral became the Prime Minister (PM) of India. Under him in 1997, the Naga accord was signed with Muivah, and crucially not with Kahplang. So, NSCN cadres could keep their arms and training in their camps, promising only not to attack the Indian army. They could still extort, which they did.
In 2001, under the NDA-1, the Khaplang faction was also finally brought under peace agreement. The following ten years of UPA were a waste as things stuck in limbo. The interlocutor Padmanabhan who was ex Intelligence Bureau (IB) director had agreed to certain demands from NSCN and it needed clearance from Prime Minister Office (PMO). However, Manmohan Singh, the then PM, had no authority and Sonia seemed to have no interest in bringing peace to the NE.
Finally, Modi took charge and with help of P N Ravi signed the accord in 2015. Importantly, the corruption trade in Nagaland finally waned, and for the first time since independence, people saw good roads and railway link. The NSCN did try to show its strength in Manipur and killed 18 of our Jawans. The Government promptly undertook a lesser-known surgical strike in Burma, where the camps of NSCN were all destroyed to pulp. The Burmese army was told not to interfere.
Now, there are a few minor demands of the Nagas which can be negotiated. For instance, they want a separate flag, which in my opinion can be given. They are not going to use it against us like the Kashmiris. Their demand for Naga majority areas in Manipur is also watered down. What needs to be checked however is the infiltration by Bangladeshis in Nagaland. But that is a story for another day.