The Naga, sandwiched between Burma and India, have had a tough lot.
If geo-politics and geo-strategy can be labeled academically as “frontiers”, then the military and political histories and realities of South Asia’s oldest insurgency—by the fiercely independent Naga of India and Burma—definitely have a long way to go.
The Naga ethnic minority of almost four million people inhabit a 48,000 square mile contiguous frontier area of Burma, China and India.
They have a long history of asserting their rights—as long ago as the mid-19th century they were contesting British colonial interests in oil and mineral resources, tea, timber and control of south-to-east Asian trade routes. Since the late 1940s their struggle has been directed at Burmese and Indian “neo-colonialism”—a struggle that has cost around 200,000 Naga lives in five decades of conflict. It’s a struggle that cries out for international support.
For 19th century Western anthropologists and explorers, the Naga were wild, savage headhunters. In today’s tourist parlance, the Naga comprise one of the last tribes in Asia to be discovered, an exotic people who speak a Tibeto-Burman derived language and renowned for their proud sense of independence, integrity and community spirit.
History left them divided between arbitrarily drawn political boundaries: the 1826 Treaty of Peace at Yandaboo, the Pemberton Line of 1934, the Government of Burma Act of 1935 and the 1978 Indo-Burma Border Agreement.
In India, the Naga occupy Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Nagaland. In Burma, 17 Naga tribes are found in Sagaing Division.
In the early 1990s, the Indian government organized the nomadic Kuki tribes in an armed campaign against the Naga, during which the Naga lost control of Moreh, one of their important centers. Another setback came with the signing of the India-Myanmar Border Trade Agreement in January 1995, which led to the creation of a formal trading center at the Moreh-Tamu border point. The hoped-for boost to trade between India and Burma, a consequence of the “look East policy”, is likely soon to have severe consequences if the Indian government and Indian traders try to control the markets and routes in Naga territories.
Successive ceasefire agreements between India and the Naga (the most recent one in 2001), at least gave hope of a let-up in military confrontations, despite several incidents resulting in Naga deaths and arrests.
The ceasefires were accompanied by political talks, which produced their own series of setbacks. In July 1999 the chief Indian negotiator, Swaraj Kushal, resigned, accusing the Indian Prime Minister of breaking his word. Six months later, the NSCN negotiator, Thuingaleng Muivah, was arrested and imprisoned in Thailand.
In January 2003, again a free man, Muivah headed the first official visit to New Delhi by the NSCN, and promised the Naga there would be no question of compromise on the issue of sovereignty.
Much skepticism remains, however, and even the Naga negotiating position has come in for criticism in neutral circles. A leading human rights advocate has said neither the Indian government nor the Naga had shown the “vision” necessary to break the deadlock. Successive changes of government in New Delhi also don’t help the negotiating process, despite the latest pledge by the newly-elected Indian administration that political talks with the Naga will continue.
Skepticism within the Naga community arises from many broken Indian promises and failed policies. The Naga cite such enduring draconian laws as the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958, which allows even a non-commissioned officer to shoot and kill on mere suspicion. The controversial law was extended in July 2003 to cover all Naga areas, which were loosely designated as “disturbed”.
Hopes for movement in the negotiating process did, however harden with the replacement in 2003 of the Indian-backed puppet administration by a “people’s government”. The NSCN-IM has undoubtedly emerged as the most important Naga movement, both politically and militarily—its power reinforced by the reorganization of the Naga army into four political groups.
On the so-called Eastern front, three Naga villages in northern Sagaing Division were destroyed in 2001 following attacks by the Burma Army and Indian paramilitary forces on a NSCN headquarters. About 3,000 of the region’s half million Naga inhabitants fled across the frontier.
In order to document and highlight such incidents and the general plight of the Naga inhabitants of Burma, a Naga Youth Organization of Burma was established in New Delhi this year.