Naga Nationalism and Naga Integration: An observation

Dr. Salikyu Sangtam *

Nationalism is one of the most misunderstood terms. Perhaps, it is no wonder that the terms "Nation" and "Nationalism" are rampantly used and abused by scholars, politicians, journalists, armed groups, government, and the mass multitude in general. The purpose of this article, however, is not to rectifying the follies of such abuses. Rather, I'd want to highlight two indelible nuances that are especially relevant to the context of Naga Framework Agreement or Naga 'Solution.'

It is essential to understand these nuances because without grasping such subtleties, one can only have an incomplete understanding of the political significance of nationalism. Most importantly, it will enable readers to better understand the realities of what we, 'Nagas' constituting in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, are demanding and expecting out of deals made with the Union Government of India. This is done primarily to clarify and differentiate between what is possible and what is not, which the prevailing narratives seem to, advertently or inadvertently, overlook.

The first is that 'nation' and 'nationalism' are human inventions and constructions. They can be either invented or constructed. They are not something that already exists prior to human existence. Certainly, people do invoke religion, as well as customs and traditions since 'time immemorial,' etc., to justify the existence of a 'unique nation' with 'unique history' along with its 'uniqueness.' Yet, this does not change the fact that concepts such as nation and nationalism are inventions/constructions—see the case of Scotland, Hungary, Wales, Switzerland, German, Nigeria, and even India.

If one is honest, one must admit that Naga 'nation' is itself an invention, since nowhere in the recorded Naga tribal history indicate that 'tribes' shared one identity and/or were unified under that specified distinctiveness. To invoke (as is habitually done by Naga politicians, Naga Nationalist armed groups, tribal apex bodies, and by a majority of Nagas in general) religion, customs and traditions since 'time immemorial,' etc., is to be insincere and disingenuous to one's own history and identity. Even the term 'Naga' (and its various derivatives) is foreign, a derogatory term intended to generalize and stereotype the tribal people (i.e. 'Nagas') habiting in the hills, between the valleys of Assam and Myanmar.

Thus, because 'nations' are inventions, one must also question the genuineness of those—such as a majority of Naga politicians, Naga nationalist armed groups, Naga activists, NGOs—who appeal to religion, traditions, customs, etc. as justifying factors for Naga nation and nationalism. No doubt, the inventions of traditions and customs for the purposes of nationalism are not new phenomena. Such inventions have served well for Hungary, Scotland, Germany, and so on. But, for some reason, we have managed to make a mess out of it.

Instead of uniting, we have managed to invent a nation that is riddled with divisions; and instead of inventing a unified and all-encompassing identity, we have tribes where our first and foremost loyalty go toward our own tribes. It is, therefore, not surprising that the issue of 'sovereign nation-state' (which is the fundamental basis of Naga Nationalism) has been sidelined, i.e. a subtle way of saying it has been 'given up,' as one of the essential preconditions for the ongoing Framework Agreement.

No doubt, those involved in the talks will be vague and duplicitous in their statements about 'sovereign nation-state' and would assert in public that the said matter is on the table. To openly declare that the issue of 'sovereign nation-state' has been ceded would mean the extinction of the copious Naga Nationalist armed groups whose existence is built on their demand for 'Sovereign Naga Nation-state.' So, why would they even bother to publically admit such inconvenient facts?

The second, which is an extension of the first, relates to the issue of 'Naga integration;' that is, integrating all the Naga inhabited areas (Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal, and Myanmar). With this regard, it is essential for us to admit that the creation of states from the then Assam state was a huge setback for Naga nationalism. What it did was to basically create artificial boundaries, thereby constructing new identities such as Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal.

These identities are intrinsically based on the Principle of Inclusion and Exclusion, the principle of division, and on the perception of 'us'/'them.' Hence, the 'Naga,' as a reality and identity, was robbed of its substance, its quality. Without such substance (that is, with the division of Naga population disbursed across several territories), the impetus and energy of Naga nationalism were subdued. This practically assured that Naga nationalist movement and its demand for an independent and sovereign nation-state, encompassing all the Naga inhabitant territories, will not come to pass. And it still has not.

The creation of states and its arbitrary boundaries constructed a new psyche, framed on the basis of inclusion and exclusion in which people in each respective state perceive and identify themselves as citizens of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal, or Myanmar (and not as Nagas). Regardless of what we claimed before the bifurcation, the division established new identities. This fact needs to be grasped. What these divisions did was to create not just physical and geographical barriers, but also emotional and spiritual "distance."

Perhaps this is what is most damaging to the idea of Naga nation-state and Naga integration. The spiritual (not to be confused with religion) and emotional "nearness" (as opposed to "distance"), is an essential element of the fruition of nationalism. Without emotional and spiritual connectedness and closeness, the bond of fellowship and brotherhood required for the sustenance and culmination of any nationalist movement is not conceivable. And without a sense of brotherhood and fellowship, no nationalist movement can succeed.

Such sense of separation, not just physical but also, most importantly, absence of emotional and spiritual nearness, created a sense of "otherness" and "distance" which was absorbed at the Subconscious level. The perception of distance and otherness is the manifestation of inclusion and exclusion, us/them, indigenous Naga/non-indigenous Naga, nationals/aliens. Once the notion of inclusion and exclusion, otherness, and distance is immersed into our subconscious, they become part and parcel of us as individuals and people.

In other words, they become part of our nature. This is important to assert because our subconscious influences our "real" feelings and actions. Our actions and feelings, in turn, are the manifestation of our nature. Such is substantiated by the fact that we now hear of 'Nagas of Nagaland,' 'Nagas of Manipur,' 'Nagas of Arunachal,' 'Nagas of Assam,' and 'Nagas of Myanmar.'

What this means is that at sub-conscious level, for instance, the majority of 'Nagas from Nagaland' do not/will not identify or perceive 'Nagas of Manipur, Arunachal, Assam, and Myanmar' as Nagas; otherwise, what's the point behind such categorizations or tones of 'Naga-ness.' In other words, sub-consciously, the separation has created shades of 'Naga-ness,' which is possible precisely due to the perceptions of inclusion and exclusion. This is validated by the fact that we still dispute over 'Indigenous' issues with regard to government quotas.

These characteristical facets, according to my observation, signify a profound change in the consciousness of the 'Nagas.' The abstract, arbitrary boundaries instituted a spiritual and emotional distance among Nagas scattered across five territories. And in this sense, the histories and memories of the common roots of the creation of the 'Naga' myth and nation is forgotten. And as the boundaries solidify, it brings about a collective amnesia or Forgetfulness to the Naga identity and nation.

Time hardens these distances and distinctions. With time, younger generations neither feel any sense of affinity nor share a sense of fellowship and brotherhood with its people scattered across the northeast and Myanmar. The younger generations are further emotionally and spiritually removed from the lived historical experiences of those, who shared a mutual sense of emotional and spiritual fellowship and brotherhood, that remained resolute in the idea of a Naga Nation.

Moreover, with the division of Naga population, vested material interests began to emerge especially within the ranks of those who were to administer the newly created states (by joining the state apparatus as politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs, activists) and those who allegedly claimed to be the legitimate representatives of the people (the Naga Nationalist Armed Groups). These vested interests have a stake in their own respective states.

To integrate all the Naga inhabitant areas would mean sharing political and socio-economic power and resources, which no tribe presently dominating in their respective states want. This is precisely because those who currently benefit from the fragmentation of the Naga population want power, in order to secure the future enjoyment of what they presently have.

Noting the fact that in any tribal societies, large tribes always dominate the social-economic and political processes, does anyone honestly believe that the large tribes in Nagaland would want to give up their supremacy for the sake of 'Naga Integration and Nation'? Or does anyone sincerely believe that Nagas settled in the Imphal valley or elsewhere will enthusiastically cede their properties for the sake of Naga Integration? The answer is quite obvious.

We must also take note of the fact that when we talk of 'Naga Integration,' we're naively assuming that the neighbouring states will enthusiastically relinquish part of their territories for the sake of Naga Integration. Holding such erroneous assumptions show how out of depth we are regarding the intricacies of the politics of Nationalism. Such is the unpleasant truth.

All these, in my observation, are the consequence of the division of Naga population that has more or less brought an end to the idea of Naga nation-state and Naga integration. Because inherent in the concept of boundaries is the Principle of Inclusion and Exclusion ('us'/'them'). And for these reasons, the idea of sovereign Naga nation is given up (this is the fact, whether one agrees with it or not) and the present talks on Naga integration will most probably come to not as well.

I can't help but be reminded of a poem by Rudyard Kipling that, for me, succinctly summarizes the present Naga conundrum: "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Likewise, the borders that divide the 'Nagas' never shall be integrated. I'd qualify my analysis on the issue raised here with the hopes that I may be proven wrong, for this is not the sort that one wish to be right about. But then again, an honest observation about the present conditions leads me think otherwise.

* Dr. Salikyu Sangtam wrote this article for
The writer is at Department of Political Science, St. Joseph University, Dimapur and can be reached at salikyu(DOT)sangtam(AT)gmail(DOT)com
This article was posted on June 26, 2018.

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