Naga independence day is not normally a big event in India. This year, however, thousands of ethnic Nagas flocked to the nation’s northeastern states of Nagaland and Manipur to commemorate the Naga nationalist movement’s declaration of independence from colonial Britain.

One of the biggest celebrations was held in Senapati in an Naga-inhabited area of Manipur, where revelers hoisted the Naga flag, a blue banner with a white star in the upper left corner and a red, yellow and green band across it. Those assembled later sang in unison the Naga national anthem.

The Naga declaration of independence was made on August 14, 1947, a day ahead of India’s, and was spearheaded by Angami Zapu Phizo, the founder of the Naga nationalist movement. But this year the Naga’s event had special meaning in view of New Delhi’s recent scrapping of the special semi-autonomous status long-given to Jammu and Kashmir, and the division of the state into two union territories.

Several states in India’s tribal northeast enjoy privileges similar to those Jammu and Kashmir had previously enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which barred other Indians from settling and buying land in the now dissolved state.

According to an August 14 report in the Indian Express, Neingulo Krome, secretary-general of the Naga People’s Movement for Human Rights, attributed this year’s large independence day turnout to the situation in Kashmir, which he said “has triggered a sense of wariness of the government’s policy.”

Immediately after the decision to reorganize Jammu and Kashmir was announced in New Delhi on August 5, Lal Thanhawla tweeted: “RED ALERT to the people of the NE. It has become a threat to states like Mizoram, Nagaland & Arunachal which are protected by the constitution.”

NSCN-IM cadres stand in formation during the 73rd Naga Independence Day celebration at Camp Hebron in Nagaland, August 14, 2019. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Caisii Mao

Many in India’s northeast now fear they may also lose their special rights, which, in some cases, are even stricter than those prescribed by Article 370. For instance, any Indian citizen who is not from Nagaland, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh require a so-called “Inner Line Permit” even to enter those states.

That rule dates back to the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation, which was promulgated by the British colonial power in 1873 and is still in force today.

Originally meant to safeguard the commercial interests of the British by keeping Indian lowlanders out of northeastern frontier areas, it has been sustained in independent India, officially to protect local tribal cultures.
The Indian constitution includes provisions that govern settlement by outsiders, ownership and transfer of land and use of resources for those three states.

The Inner Line Permit regulation does not apply to Manipur, another of the region’s so-called “Seven Sister” states, but there too other Indians, including people from the state’s majority Meitei population, are barred from buying land in tribal districts.

It is thus hardly surprising that Indian officials have gone out of their way to assure people in the northeast that nothing is going to change in the wake of the Jammu and Kashmir’s re-designation as union territories.

R N Ravi, the newly appointed governor of Nagaland, said in an official statement on August 6: “Some people have expressed apprehension over the implications of the development in Jammu and Kashmir. I would like to categorically assure you that you do not have to worry at all.”

Before he took office on August 1, Ravi, a former deputy national security adviser, served for years as New Delhi’s main negotiator in peace talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), or NSCN-IM, the major faction among the fractured Naga insurgent movement.

In the mid-1950s, a rebellion first supported by Pakistan and then by China broke out among the Nagas against the Indian state. Hundreds of Naga fighters were trained in China’s southern Yunnan province and armed by China’s security services in the 1960s.

Source: Pinterest/Maps of India

Some of them, including a young firebrand named Thuingaleng Muivah, returned to his Naga homeland with ideas inspired by China’s Cultural Revolution. This led to a split in the movement, then led by the Naga National Council (NNC), and the breakaway NSCN was formed in 1980.

Muivah managed to solicit the support of Isak Chishi Swu, an NNC veteran, and the new rebel outfit set up bases in northwestern Myanmar, beyond the reach of the Indian army. But Isak and Muivah soon fell out with their Myanmar Naga ally, Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang, and were forced out of his area in 1988. Deprived of their cross-border sanctuaries in Myanmar, the NSCN(IM) entered into peace talks with the Indian government in 1997.

Since then about 100 rounds of talks have been held, resulting in an inconclusive framework agreement signed on August 3, 2015, that aims to end Nagaland’s decades-long insurgency.

The NSCN(IM) has submitted a list of eight points to India, including calls for a separate constitution for Nagaland, a separate flag, their own passport and currency, a joint defense agreement with New Delhi, a permanent representative to the United Nations and, most contentious, the creation of a larger Naga entity which the rebels call “Nagalim.”

The proposal, in effect the creation of a sovereign state in India’s northeast, would consist not only of the state of Nagaland but also areas in Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and large tracts of northwestern Myanmar which have Naga populations.

In June this year, local press reports in India’s northeast said that New Delhi had agreed to those demands, but that was soon rubbished by Ravi: “These are all mischievous rumors. There is nothing to it,” he said according to The People’s Chronicle and other local media.

In fact, and given what’s just happened in Jammu and Kashmir, it would be astonishing if the central government in New Delhi agreed to any, let alone all, of the rebels’ demands. There is also strong opposition to the NSCN(IM)’s demands for a greater state in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal, where local politicians do not want to see their states carved up.

Nagas make up about 20% of Manipur’s population of nearly three million people, but are reportedly demanding 70% of the territory because they “live there.” In Assam, there are only small pockets of Naga populations, while Nagas are confined to a small southeastern corner of Arunachal.

As early as August 2015, Tarun Gogoi, then- chief minister of Assam, accused the center of violating the “spirit of cooperative federalism and parliamentary democracy” by not consulting himself and his Arunachal and Manipur counterparts before discussing a “greater Nagalim” with the NSCN(IM).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is advancing a ‘neighborhood first’ policy to counter China’s rising Influence in South Asia. Photo: AFP

On the other hand, Ravi said in a statement quoted by India Today on August 17 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants the talks with NSCN(IM), which also includes interactions with other Naga groups, to conclude “in three months.”

Considering the NSCN(IM)’s demands, that seems unrealistic, and if no final agreement is reached some fear it could result in renewed hostilities in Nagaland and adjacent areas. Mizoram also saw a tribal insurgency in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, but peace has prevailed there since an accord was reached in 1986.

In Manipur, which is not covered by the ceasefire agreement between the government and the NSCN(IM), there is sporadic fighting and other violence involving Naga as well as Meitei rebels. Meanwhile, there is no love lost between those different ethnic insurgents.

Revoking any of the special rights currently granted to the northeastern states would almost inevitably provoke a backlash, and, judging from what Ravi and other observers have said, Modi’s government is acutely aware of this.

But the absence of any final peace accord with the NSCN(IM) after 22 years of talks, and with the excessive demands of the Naga rebels, the region could soon turn into a new flashpoint, not only between the center and armed groups, but also between different ethnic communities.