IPCS Discussion

Who Sets the Table: Negotiated Sovereignty and the Indo-Naga Relationship

06 May, 2016    ·   5024

Angshuman Choudhury reports on the proceedings of the discussion held on 2 May 2016

On 2 May 2016, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) conducted a round-table discussion, titled ‘Who Sets the Table: Negotiated Sovereignty and the Indo-Naga Relationship’. This is a report of the proceedings.

Lydia Walker
PhD candidate, Department of History, Harvard University, & affiliated scholar, IPCS

This period of study covers the pivotal years of the Naga Peace Mission between 1963-1966. The mobilisation for the Naga nationalist cause – unlike in the case of Namibia or Katanga (southeastern Congo) – was more of an attempted objective than one that was fully realised.

The years 1964-66 witnessed sporadic and intermittent negotiations between the Indian Government and Naga nationalists. While the core negotiating parties were the Government of India (GOI), the State Government of Nagaland (GON), and the Federal Government of Nagaland (FGN), the principal figures involved were Bimala Prasad Chaliha (the then Chief Minister of Assam), JP Narayan (Congress leader), and Michael Scott (an Anglican Minister).

These individual figures did not represent any particular organisation but were asked to join the Peace Mission owing to specific allegiances. While JP and Chaliha were asked to join the Mission because they were followers of Mahatma Gandhi, Scott was invited on board by the Naga Baptist Church because of his religious leanings. Scott got involved essentially because Naga nationalist leader Angami Zapu Phizo had heard of his tremendous work in Namibia from his nephew in Chicago. Although Scott was an outsider in the Northeast, he was not new to anti-colonial decolonisation in the post-colonial world.

Scott was not participating in the Mission as a Baptist missionary but rather as an interlocutor. Like the other politically conservative American Baptist missionaries working in Nagaland, he never explicitly supported the idea of an independent Nagaland; he was more concerned about issues of human rights. Even BP Chaliha - despite being the Chief Minister of Assam – was not there to directly represent the Assamese people but as an instrumental negotiator who happened to govern Nagaland’s parent state. JP played the role of a conduit between the Naga nationalists and New Delhi even after officially resigning from the Peace Mission after the February 1966 train bomb blast.

Given that a set of negotiations serves to legitimise certain parties and their perceptions, it becomes crucial to understand not just what is on the table but also who sets the table. In this context, the negotiating parties could be categorised under the following functional labels:

1. At the table: Government of India, State Government of Nagaland, and the Federal Government of Nagaland;
2. Supporting the table: J.P. Narayan, B.P. Chaliha, and Michael Scott;
3. Behind the table: Naga Baptist Church Convention (convener and logistical support), and the Naga underground.

The Naga nationalist groups could be placed under the normative category of ‘States-in-Waiting’. While the GOI and GON formed the ‘State’ party, individual figures like Chaliha, JP and Scott constituted the ‘civil society’. Although the Peace Mission did not achieve anything substantial, it did serve as the first formal recognition of the FGN; in a way ascertaining the identity of the Naga people as separate and distinct from the rest of India. While New Delhi was using the negotiations to legitimise the 'Indian state of Nagaland', the FGN was using them to legitimise itself vis-à-vis other Naga groups. Furthermore, neither the Baptist Church nor Phizo were present at the table.

What the Peace Mission really aimed to achieve was the idea of 'negotiated sovereignty'. It was not an abstract ideal, but rather something that the Naga people wanted to realise without becoming an independent state. This was perhaps an endeavour to amalgamate political theory and political praxis through the talks. But, the ambiguity of terms like 'shared sovereignty' and 'autonomy' was employed by both sides to attain some kind of vested legitimacy. Such terms are often innately ambiguous and gain currency only through the negotiation process.

It is crucial to highlight that the insurgent groups fighting for Naga sovereignty did not bear a democratic character within their own operational domains, where no elections were held and the only plebiscite lacked popular credibility. This is also precisely why the 'unifying factors' within the Naga nationalist paradigm cannot be assessed. For most, 'democracy' was merely primordial history from which the Naga nationalists drew legitimacy but failed to actualise in practice at the table.

Prof Sanjoy Hazarika
Director, C-NES, & Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair, Jamia Milia Islamia

BP Chaliha played a far more central role in the Peace Mission than Scott or even JP. He was heard and respected in New Delhi, and thus directly represented the GOI, not just Assam. JP did represent an incipient civil society, but lacked Chaliha’s political strength. Scott, by the end of the Mission, lost credibility in the eyes of the Indian Government as he came to be seen as the face of the FGN. He lost standing as a neutral interlocutor.

The question, ‘who represents whom?’, is of great importance. A group may claim to represent a certain set of people, but they may not ever have been democratically elected. How does a nation deal with a set of people who see themselves as ‘separate’? How could the Indian state legitimise the ‘Indianisation’ of such communities without making it obvious? The Peace Mission was a way to do that.

The Naga situation must not be seen as a standalone political situation but rather as part of a wider regional context (for example, the Mizo insurgency). An important development through the evolution of ‘Indo-Naga’ relations was the coming of a new generation of young people who appeared to be engaging – although not embracing – the idea of ‘India’ rather than ‘Naga sovereignty’. Even the older league of Naga leaders were aware of the generational change in perceptions. Eight years before Naga National Day, Isak had said, “There is nothing called ‘absolute sovereignty’. Even America is not truly sovereign, and is dependent on other economies.”

The Peace Mission sent out an important message that the government (or parts of the government) was ready to talk about the challenging issues. However, the last phase of the Mission was extremely frustrating as the government did nothing much beyond protracting the negotiations. It had adopted a play-for-time approach, wishing to exhaust the other side and allow the coming of a new generation of Nagas who would be opposed to sovereignty. These new groups of young people later began questioning the tax policies of insurgent outfits in the absence of a negotiated settlement. Nevertheless, what the Peace Mission conclusively did was establish the Nagas as a distinct, unique set of people. Whether they were pro or anti-government were for observers to decide.

Charles Pawsey – a colonial administrator – expressed in a note after India attained independence about how he wished they had “a little more time to solve the Naga problem.” Today, the Nagas are politically weaker than ever before because of diminished support for the nationalist cause and armed struggle. Every single family in Nagaland has suffered in the ensuing violence.

In the present day context, the Pan-Naga Hoho merely entails a ‘sense of separation without real separation’. It only has titular or advisory powers, and can be compared to the Sami Parliament in Norway, in which the Samis have negligible decision-making authority.

GK Pillai
Former Home Secretary of India

One blunder that the Government of India committed was providing full statehood to the Nagas in 1963 because there was nothing beyond this that could then be offered. Although Nehru opposed this move, the Northeast Frontier Group convinced him that it was the best solution to the Naga issue. Later, the Nagas too committed a big blunder by turning down Indira Gandhi’s one-time offer for greater autonomy.

Michael Scott did lose his legitimacy in front of the Indian Government when, by the end, he started parroting the views of the FGN. The negotiations, however, were not so much about legitimising the ‘Indian State of Nagaland’, because its position was already constitutionally guaranteed. Currently, what is on the table is ‘shared sovereignty’, and not ‘negotiated sovereignty’.

The 1947-50 period was a lost opportunity as overt focus on the resettlement of post-partition refugees diverted attention from the impending Naga issue. But in the 1964-66 period, some very serious negotiations on critical issues took place - offers were made and accepted. From the GOI’s point of view, though, there was really no one on the Naga side to accept things affirmatively and conclusively. The earlier perception of the GON being a puppet administration of the GOI is changing now – the former now wields more politico-economic influence.

One crucial unifying factor for the Nagas was the strong self-consciousness of being a distinct and separate set of people. But, within that, some Naga groups see themselves as superior to other groups. In such a scenario, equal power-sharing becomes a challenge. Nevertheless, making every Naga chief an MLA could have been a more sustainable devolutionary approach.

PP Shrivastav
Former Indian Administrative Service officer, & former member, NEC, Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region 

The events in the Peace Mission were not isolated, but rather part of a sequence of developments. World War II had a major impact on the Northeast, especially the eastern frontier, as some major battles were fought there. The British had left social services in these peripheral tribal areas in the hands of Christian missionaries, a highly dedicated group who managed to win the hearts and minds of the local population. Even the idea of local independence was supported by the missionaries who helped develop the idea of a separate homeland in the minds of these communities.

The people in Nagaland were not ready for full statehood. Eventually, a ‘creamy layer’ emerged in the region, which absorbed most of the benefits of Delhi’s developmental agenda in the Northeast. This did not permit the percolation of profits down to the common masses. Such concentration of wealth negated the egalitarian nature of tribal societies. Tribes by definition are inward-looking, tradition-bound, and suspicious of outsiders. But, because of their geopolitical isolation, they have developed certain unique socio-moral qualities within a single tribe. Five main values (‘Panchsheel’) may be highlighted – honesty, transparency, social equality, paramountcy of community interests, and unanimous decision-making. However, these values differ between different groups.

The generational change in the Nagas had a substantial impact on the nationalist movement. The cosmopolitan and progressive worldview of the newer generations – who see the world as ‘one village’ – has diminished the constituency for a sovereign Nagaland. This generation wishes for social, political, and economic progress and this, they believe, cannot be achieved in isolation.

Rapporteured by Angshuman Choudhury, Research Intern, IReS, IPCS