The Nagas' Tree of Unity

Published: Nov 04, 2019, 04:58 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Amid the mist of the Naga peace accord swirls a legend that reminds the community of a Golden Age and exhorts them to recreate it in the future

The Constitution-flag demands by the NSCN (I-M) are symbols of Naga nationalism, which we are conditioned to identify as inimical to India's unity. File pic
The Constitution-flag demands by the NSCN (I-M) are symbols of Naga nationalism, which we are conditioned to identify as inimical to India's unity. File pic

AjazThe Bharatiya Janata Party's obsession with oneness manifests in slogans like One Nation, One Constitution or One Nation, One Civil Code. Oneness, however, often implies steamrolling differences, fanning anxieties and triggering countervailing reactions. This was perhaps why the Centre's decision to annul Kashmir's special status goaded the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) into demanding a separate Constitution and flag before signing a final peace accord, which couldn't, therefore, be done by the October 31 deadline.

The sudden voicing of the Constitution-flag demands by the NSCN (I-M) was interpreted as its opposition to the BJP's idea of oneness. These are symbols of Naga nationalism, which we are conditioned to identify as inimical to India's unity. Yet identities are reconfigured in response to changing times. This is as true of Naga nationalism, which began as a quest to unite Nagas spread across present-day Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar into an independent country.

Over time, after much bloodshed, that quest transmuted into melding Naga territory under one administration within India. But even this encountered obstacles as each new Northeast State became zealous of its territorial integrity, which the Centre guaranteed. And to think Ladakh was hived off from Kashmir without the latter's consent!

Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray's magisterial work, Kuknalim: Naga Armed Resistance, portrays the Nagas' quest for unity through a little-known legend of a tree. It is said the Nagas came from Yunnan, in China, and settled in Makhel village of Manipur's Senapati district. Soon, the population multiplied. Before the Nagas dispersed from Makhel, they planted a pear tree called Chütebu and pledged to come together again. At the site where the tree still stands, a monolith was erected, in 1992, with the inscription: "This tree still stands as a symbol of unity and oneness of the whole Naga tribes...'

Legends constitute every social group's memory, signifying an idealised past, a Golden Age, for its members who are exhorted to recreate it in the future. It's Ram Rajya's harmonious Hindu society for many; it is unity under an administrative unit for the Nagas. However, the proponents of oneness can imagine only one idealised past, which makes it imperative for them to obliterate all other memories. A conflict of memories consequently arises in an extremely diverse nation such as India.

Kuknalim subliminally recounts the influence of memory on those who resisted, often violently, the assimilation of Nagas into India. These are funny and magical, as also revolting for the blood spilled by the nationalists, even as they endured tremendous hardship of living underground, in their endeavour to forge their idealised unity. This quest had Angami Zapu Phizo, the father of Naga nationalism, conduct a plebiscite incognito, declare that 99.9 per cent of Nagas wanted independence and announce the formation of the People's Sovereign Republic of Free Nagaland in 1954.

That year, Phizo visited one Hongkin, a village headman, dressed him in a suit and tie, clicked his photograph and declared him as President. This was because Hongkin means "Foreigner Out", thus tellingly cocking a snook at Delhi. Hongkin later complained that Phizo did not even "leave behind the tie." Phizo's audacity was displayed when he arrived in London without a travel document. He told a British official, "When you came to my Nagaland, you did not carry any passport. Why can't I visit your land without a passport?"

Phizo's silence on the 1975 Shillong Accord, which required the underground Nagas to accept the Indian Constitution and surrender their arms, led Isac Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah to split from him to form the NSCN in 1980. A bloody phase to achieve Naga unity began again. We fathom the pull of Naga unity through the testimonies of Swu and Muivah, among others, in Kuknalim, who speak of their humiliation by 'outsiders' and horrifying experience of Army operations.

But the hounded were also hunters, ambushing security forces and engaging in bloody feuds, particularly after their comrade SS Khaplang broke away from the NSCN in 1988. We have accounts of their treks through the jungles to reach China, which armed them; their miraculous escapes because of the guidance of the "Spirit"; and how their memory was woven with Christianity to which an overwhelming number of Nagas had converted. What sustained Muivah was the belief that the "government will have to admit that a military solution is not possible."

Swu died in 2016; Muivah is 84. He was 63 when the peace process began in 1997. The peace accord is reportedly ready for inking, with the Constitution-flag demands to be pursued later. Hopefully, the grand compromise has not been worked out under duress, for who can tell in what ways the Nagas' tree of unity could symbolically inspire a challenge to oneness.

The writer is a senior journalist

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