The above image of the proud marching figure of India’s first Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, adorned with a traditional head gear and spear leading on a group of visibly ‘tribal’ Nagas, is from a special postage stamp. On the 1st December, 1967 the Posts and Telegraphs Department of india had issued it to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the inauguration of the State of Nagaland.
The theme selected was "Nehru and Nagaland”, which claimed to highlight “the need for emotional integration of India- the principle which was dearest to the heart of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.” The message was clear : Indian state ‘respects’ and even finds fascinating the ‘tribal customs and lifestyles’ but let there be no confusion as to who is in power! The state will ‘lead’ (read ‘command’) the way in their (compulsory) journey towards ‘integration’ and ‘modernisation’.! !
This image of Nehru, the benevolent patriarch, however belied most of the recent history of the period. After all, only few years back in 1953, in a stadium in Kohima, Nehru accompanied by daughter Indira Gandhi and Burmese Premier U Nu were left stunned when the Naga public had walked out of the venue smacking their bottoms at him as a gesture of Naga contempt. A year earlier in New Delhi Nehru had thundered down at the Naga Delegation led by Phizo with dire consequences of “heaven falling down or blood running red in the country”, if issue of Naga independence was pursued. Nehru kept his promise and rivers of blood indeed ran down the Naga hills. Rest is history, and like all history about people and land, a living and unfinished one
And in 2014, another Indian Premiere Narendra Modi dressed up as a Naga warrior and in a majestic headgear inaugurated the Hornbill festival. The contrast between two visits, of the first Prime minister and the present one hints at the long way things have developed between the two ‘entities’, the ‘Indian State’ and the ‘Naga people’ (by now often represented by the ‘state of Nagaland’). Known as the ‘oldest running insurgency movement of the region’, the struggle for a ‘separate sovereign Nagalim’ by sections of the Naga people spans across states and tribes in the Northeast Indian region. A long running truce between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM), the biggest of the Naga insurgent groups, has been hailed as a remarkable success of the Indian statecraft and ‘peace making.’ But how durable and tenable is this peace, especially in the light of few recent incidents followed by irresponsible statements?
Deaths in Meluri :
On the evening of July 16, just after the dark, two minors were killed and a woman was injured in a shooting at Wuzu village, near Meluri sub-division under Phek district of Nagaland. According to sources, the Assam Rifles led by an officer in the rank of a Major were transporting the body of some slain NSCN cadres to Meluri via Wuzu, where they were reportedly stopped by the villagers asking for the dead bodies to be handed over, which reportedly prompted the AR personnel to open “blind fire” to make way for the convoy. However, as per Assam Rifles sources from Nagaland, gun shots were fired from the direction of the village. The AR maintained that they did not retaliate immediately.
The killings have predictably generated strong resentments across the state, with Naga Mother’s Association asking “if Government of India and its armed forces declared war on innocent children and unarmed civilians?” And Naga Student’s Federation slamming the incident as “direct threat to the security of the Nagas by the Indian Security Forces.”
The battle to win hearts and minds in the ‘hinterland’?
Following the uproar across Nagaland over these deaths, a press release came on the 17th July from the Indian Army which has carried the message that Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General Dalbir Singh has directed that “all operations in the hinterland must be people friendly and troops must be sensitized to uphold human rights and operate within the rules of engagement.” The press release informed that the Army Chief said this while visiting the Spear Corps at Rangapahar Dimapur on July 17 to review the prevailing situation in the North East.
The use of the word ‘hinterland’ here needs to be treated seriously, for it has come from none lesser than the chief of the army. In it’s history of origin and more so in usage, the term 'hinterland' has an essentially colonialist undertone and refers to an area where the state has primarily economic interests and dealings, and which otherwise is considered outside it’s main areas or the ‘mainland.’ So was the army chief is being insensitive, naive here or worse still, just too blunt and candid? What makes head of organisations repeatedly make such disturbing and potentially damaging statements? Unfortunately in the case of Northeast these damaging and insensitive statements has a long history to it.
Mainstream accounts of counterinsurgency in postcolonial India maintain that Indian state’s counterinsurgency capacity has matured over time. Sanjib Baruah cites an illustrative account by a retired Indian military brigadier : “From the earlier ‘jungle bashing’, routine searches, which produced little results . . . , the abysmal ignorance of the tribal culture, looking at the Mongoloid faces with a sense of bewilderment to more focussed operations against insurgents, refinement of basic infantry tactics, which resulted in the opening of the CounterInsurgency and Jungle Warfare School, realisation of the centrality of winning the hearts and minds of the people, and yet, ensuring ascendancy over the hostile population, for it is in nature of things to align with the winning side – the army has travelled a long way in its fight against insurgents.”
Thus essentially the colonialist faith on the “beneficial” or the “moral” effect of “frequent displays of armed might”, remains. Draconian laws like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Acts (AFSPA) therefore is considered essential. Thus Northeast India falls under ‘the Shadow Nation’ that historian Perry Anderson talks about , “The ‘shadow nation’ is not where democracy is denied, but where it is practised. What is hidden within India is Hindustan. It is that which tacitly shapes the state and determines the frontiers between freedom and repression, what is all allowed and what is forbidden.”
No eloquence on ‘internal’ hinterlands?
The irony became even more intense to me as I came across this statement of the Army chief come around the same time when the internet was buzzing with frenzied circulation of the video of Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor’s speech at Oxford University Debating society. In the video Tharoor with much eloquence had denounced British colonialism for treating India essentially as an hinterland meant for resource extraction and exploitation! Is Tharoor aware of Sing’s take on the Northeast or vice versa?
What the leaders, top bureaucrats and politicians needs to understand is that the good vibes generated by ‘ceremonial’ gestures like the return of the Kangla fort to ‘general public’ in Manipur from the much resented ‘occupation’ of Indian army, gets substantially undone by these repeated irresponsible remarks at the highest level. Prime Minister Modi has managed to garner the acceptance, at least the ‘political’ one, to wear the traditional headgear. Time will tell how he deals with it. Else the Prime Minister, along with the army chief will join the long list of ‘leaders’ who have ‘contributed’ to the making of the region into a tragic loop, where, the more things change, the more it remains the same.
(Dr. Kaustubh Deka teaches Political Science at the Indraprastha College for Women, Delhi University and is a former fellow with the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai)