Awaiting nachiso

Time is known to be a great healer, but the injustice of some wounds cannot be forgotten. The Naga people had a land of their own until 1826, when the British colonialists, through the Treaty of Yandabo, drew the Indo-Burma boundary, thus arbitrarily dividing the Naga tribes and their lands between the two countries. The Naga resistance to British subjugation began in 1832, when the British army entered their 'homeland' for the first time. The Naga Hills, then part of Assam, were classified by the Indian Home Rule Act (1919) as 'Backward Areas' that were to remain outside the purview of the Assam Provincial Assembly. In 1929, the Naga leaders sent a memorandum to the Simon commission asserting that, after the British left, the Naga people wanted to be left as they were before the advent of colonialism – independent and free. There was some hope when the Government of India Act (1935) declared the Naga Hills as 'Excluded Areas' from both British India and British Burma.

In June 1946, the first agreement was signed between the Naga National Council (NNC, the first all-Naga political organisation, formed earlier that year) and the interim government of India. The agreement stated that a protected state would be formed in 'Nagalim' under the NNC, with India as 'the guardian power' for ten years, at the end of which the agreement would be reviewed. However, on 14 August 1947, the declaration of Naga independence by the NNC led to a dramatic volte-face, and the interim government deemed the previous agreement to be invalid. Thereafter, in May 1951, a Naga-organised plebiscite in all Naga-inhabited areas resulted in an overwhelming vote in favour of Naga independence. The Indian government responded by sending the Assam Rifles to the Naga Hills.

These circumstances led the Naga to take up arms, presenting the Indian state with a rationale to silence the insurgency with brute force. Security forces were sent in large numbers, and severe repression of both the underground cadres and ordinary Naga ensued. In 1962, the state of Nagaland was officially created, following a 16-point agreement between the Indian government and Naga leaders. These leaders were actually intermediaries between the government and the underground leaders, but the latter were excluded during the crucial negotiations. The Naga people thus became Indians by deception and force. Today, the Naga tribes and lands are divided between India and Burma, wherein they have been further sub-divided into four states in the former and two in the latter.

During 1956-57, the Indian state used 'strategic hamletting', a counterinsurgency strategy first employed by the British in Malaysia and the US in Vietnam, to isolate the Naga insurgents from the people. These forced amalgamation of villages, called 'groupings', proved to be one of the most trying experiences that civilians were subjected to, as elaborated upon in the following conversations with Naga elders.

The groupings

Tekayangshi (84) and his wife Tepdakyangla (79) live in Mangmetong village in Mokokchung district of Nagaland. Three years after their marriage, in 1953, Tekayangshi joined the underground, commonly called UG, as did many other 'volunteers' from their village. He remained underground for the next two decades. The Naga Hills were then part of undivided Assam, and the Assam police arrived in the area in 1953, based in Longkhum village of which Mangmetong is an offshoot. Although harassment of villagers and burning of granaries started soon, large-scale and systematic aggression began only after the arrival of the Indian military, in 1956.

The 'grouping' of villages began in earnest later that year and continued into 1957. This involved moving the entire population of adjacent villages to one village, typically close to a road or an army camp. In February 1957, the whole population of Mangmetong was taken to Longkhum. The thousand-odd families of Longkhum and Mangmetong were moved into an area enclosed by two bamboo fences; in certain places, spikes were installed between these fence lines. Families of individuals who had gone underground were further segregated from the general population (referred to as 'General'), with a third fence around them. Tepdakyangla said that they were given one-week advance warning before being made to move.

They had burnt our house and destroyed our granary stores before the grouping. We took whatever rice remained and slaughtered our biggest pig. Those days there were no shops, but I managed to buy a tin of rice later in Longkhum. We also collected leaves of the sura tree to make our shelter in the grouping.

Our daily lives were full of difficulties. We did not have enough food to cook. We did not even have clean drinking water. We were not allowed to collect firewood, and there was no space to store wood. We cooked in milk cans and everybody got only a small portion to eat. Toilet facilities were a major problem. In the absence of any open space, we had to defecate on leaves, which we then tied up and threw on the roof of our huts. Most of us slept on the floor, except some who were able to find enough material to make mats. The army gave us a few blankets, which we shared, and sometimes they surprised us by giving food and clothes.

My eldest daughter was born there on 30 July. My older son was with me, but I had kept him with my brother, who was in the General. My mother-in-law, who was very old, also stayed with my brother's family. When my daughter was born, the child had to be washed with drainage water. I sent word to my husband through some people who were allowed to go to their paddy fields. But it was impossible for him to come and see the child – he saw her only in March 1958, when we were allowed to return to our village. That year, three other babies were born in the grouping.

Every morning there would be a roll call. If we did not go, we were fined one rupee. The armed forces were there in large numbers. They would be there all the time, checking, questioning and so on. But the greatest difficulty of all was that those of us who were segregated were not allowed to go to the paddy fields. And even those who were allowed had fixed timings.

We were not beaten in the camp. Before the groupings, a lot of rapes were committed. The Assam police would come home and commit rapes. Even mentally unbalanced women were not spared in Longkhum. But during the grouping, no rape or sex work took place. After the grouping, however, the army came, and whenever they got a chance they continued to molest and rape women, up to 1974. The peace accord was signed in 1975, halting the atrocities. In those days, women would smear soot over their faces and act as though they were mad, so that they would not be raped. Here most will not admit it, but it was very common in those days.

During the grouping period, three people were shot dead by underground cadres on suspicion of being army informers. Before the grouping, two other members of the village had been shot by the Assam police. After the grouping, civilians were also shot, including one from this village, leading to the suspension of two army personnel. From this village, 20 of those who were in the underground were killed. Tepdakyangla continued:

All of us called this 'grouping' without knowing the meaning [of the term], because that is what the government called it. The younger generations now call these groupings 'concentration camps'. When we asked the security forces why they were troubling us like this, they would reply, 'Since you are demanding independence … So that you have no link with the underground … So you can't supply food to the underground.' The groupings were therefore done both to terrorise us and to cut off the supplies to the underground. One morning around 3 am, they came and started banging on the sides of our houses and told us that we could now go back. After returning, we rebuilt our houses. Even before the grouping our house had been burnt more than three times. After the first time we would make only temporary houses, but they would come and set fire even to these.

Tekayangshi's wife said she was happy that he was in the underground during the grouping period, as he was serving their community. Today, however, Tekayangshi expressed unhappiness at the state of the underground groups, saying that there were too many factions with no united aim. He also complained that some of the rebel leaders had been corrupted by money, others by power. He also said that he has hopes from the peace process, and said that India was a good friend.

How could he call India a 'friend' after all that had happened? Tekayangshi said that even though the Naga have suffered so much, 'Because we are neighbours, we will have to live together. Therefore we must live as good neighbours and friends.' However, this did not mean that he had forgotten the dream of an independent Nagaland, and continued to use the word Nagalim – the term for the historical, and hoped for, Naga homeland.

Internal autonomy

In Ungma, on 12 May 2010, I spoke with Bengangangshi, a Naga elder, leader and intellectual who used to be active in the underground. He told me:

1957 was the year of groupings in most parts of what is now Nagaland. The government's objective was to apprehend all those underground, and this was difficult without the groupings. By grouping the area of operation is reduced, and therefore the army can function effectively. People were allowed to go out only for farming. A single grouping covered a large distance [five or six km]. Because of this, the economic situation of the people was reduced to nothing. They could not cultivate like before. Medicine was also not available, but it was difficult for sick people to go to the hospitals, since there were no vehicles.

Even when the people went for cultivation, the army was in the jungle. If they saw anybody in the jungle, they could simply shoot – could kill a man for no reason. A hawaldar could shoot a man or two, and no one could question their authority. Women could be raped while in the fields or jungle, but again no one could question the army – even married women were not spared. They could just carry them away in their vehicles and keep them for days, weeks or months, and then release them. Nobody could question their authority. All these areas have witnessed all this.

Whenever we would go for cultivation, the army would detain women and also men whom they suspected had links with the UG. They were constantly looking for UG freedom fighters they could round up and kill. Whenever any incident took place, their argument always was that, 'You people have given them shelter and food' – as though this was a good reason to round them up and rape them.

The groupings did not have the desired effect, however, because the people were indeed supporting the UG. Wherever the cadres went, people would freely give them food. In those days, Bendangangshi was also in the UG. He and others would come to the grouping from the back, remove the fencing and put it back; in this way they would carry away the rations. He said:

The groupings did not weaken the UG. But it did cause immense suffering to the common people, just because they were supporting the UG. People would supply [arrowroot-like] puglashi, and they would themselves consume local vegetation and grasses in the absence of rice, meat or vegetables. Therefore, only due to poverty were the people unable to support the UG, as they did earlier during the grouping period.

When the army personnel would come, they would stay in the churches and carry away the women there. It was all very open. There was no shame at all. All this went on for one year – 1957 – from the beginning to the end.

In those days, the big leaders were trying to bring about a solution. Periodic meetings were held in Mokokchung, Kohima and Wokha. Through that initiative, the Naga People's Convention [NPC] was born. The aim of the NPC was to bring the underground and Indian leaders together. But during the final stages of negotiation, even though the Indian government had given assurances to the UG leaders that they would be involved, they cheated and called only the above-ground NPC leaders to Delhi, and signed the 16-point agreement with them.

In 1956, thousands of houses were burnt, including churches. People were shot and killed. Granaries were burnt to ashes. During this period, not only the freedom fighters but much of the general public also went underground, since they were all in any case without food or shelter. Schools had also been closed down. At that time there were only two high schools, and the army occupied their hostels. Therefore, many of the students went underground.

Bendangangshi joined the UG just after his matriculation exam, in 1956. He was there until 1958, when he was so badly wounded that he had to be admitted to the mission hospital in Jorhat. Before joining the UG, he had been an active supporter. He continued:

It is difficult to say what the strength of the UG was during 1956-57. Every tribe had its own collection of names, its own organisation and registration. But these papers could not be kept intact, because if they were written one day they would need to be burnt the next day. At that time all the tribes worked together, and there must have been a few thousand underground cadres.

UG action started in the Mokokchung area in 1956. It started in Tuensang in 1954, and there was heavy fighting there in 1955. Fighting continued until the ceasefire on 6 September 1964, even though an agreement was reached in 1960. The second ceasefire was in 1975. The third ceasefire started in 1997. It has now been 14 years, and nothing substantive has been achieved – it has continued without bearing any fruit.

The demand from the Naga side is very simple. We want freedom from India. It has been put in writing, and has been placed before India. But it is no longer rigid. Before, the demand was only sovereignty. But 'sovereignty' was never defined. Sovereignty in the present context is defined in other ways. We want an 'honourable settlement'. In the present context, it is like a give-and-take policy. We would like two constitutions, one for India and one for Nagas. We would like it to be as in a federal system, where there are certain rights that would be with the Nagas and there would be certain portfolios that would be given to the central government, such as external affairs. In short, we want internal autonomy.

A large number of Nagas are also in Burma, where we have ancestral lands. In 1953, Nehru allowed the Burmese government to occupy our land, even though the Burmese people never claimed that it was theirs. That land is also a part of the Naga Hills. The Indian government does not want to consider our demand for greater autonomy, because it would involve disintegration of some states as they are organised today. But our demand will be continued by the coming generations, because Nagas cannot forget their demand. The Naga people will never swallow the bitter pill that India wants us to swallow.

CIDs then, CIDs now

Chuchuyimpang is a village of 861 houses, 6 km from Mokokchung. On the way up, my companion points out the college and the church, which he says during the late 1990s was pockmarked with bullets due to intense factional fights between the two factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim – the Isak-Muivah (IM) and Khaplang (K) factions, which were created when the NSCN split in 1985, five years after its formation. The army did not intervene in this intense fighting.

The Chuchuyimpang forest was not burnt before or after the grouping. However, sexual assaults on women were fairly common, and men of the village were frequently asked to do labour for the army. The grouping in Chuchuyimpang brought four villages together, around 1150 houses in total. It started in March 1956 and continued for the following year. This grouping was fenced, with one gate at each end, but the UG families were not segregated. Still, no food (cooked or uncooked) was allowed to be taken when the farmers went to their fields, since the officials believed that this would be passed on to UG cadres. Thus, farmers were forced to go without food for the entire day. Elsewhere, people suffered every day in order to meet their basic needs of water, firewood and food – for everything, permission was mandatory. In one incident, a woman from Longmisa had gone home to get rice from the stores that her family had hidden without the army's permission, and was shot dead while returning. During that period many people chose to live in the jungle, even though they were not with the UG; many died there due to malnutrition and illness.

In Chuchuyimpang, we met with three elders who were also good friends, Soupongyanger (83, a retired school teacher), Nungsangtemjen (86, also retired school teacher) and C Aliba (85, a retired government employee). None of the three were ever in the UG. The story that follows was told collectively by these three:

The severity of the army action on a village depended on its relationship with the UG. Some villages were burnt many times. They could get all the necessary information about hide-outs, etc, from the CIDs [army informers]. When even this did not meet their objectives, they started the groupings. During that period, selected persons were also taken to the army camps, where many were tortured and killed. Before the grouping in a village, the army personnel would come and check the village. They would first group all the men in the open ground. Then they went for checking in the homes when only the women were there. Many women were raped during such checks, and household valuables were stolen.

In 1956, before the grouping, there was a major ambush in Chuchuyimpang in which seven army men and one UG were killed. After that, the army returned and took all the men aside and selected four suspects. C Aliba was one of them. Severe beatings followed, he said – on the soles of their feet, behind the ears, on the head and knees. With rifle butts they would prod and pound their bodies. Aliba said that he still felt dizzy sometimes due to the beatings he received on his head. He is the only one of the four who is still alive.

Soupongyanger recalled the story of Toshinungsang, the first man from their district to be shot by the Assam police, though he escaped death. The incident occurred on 27 February 1956. He was not in the UG, and was in the village when he was shot. Soupongyanger, who witnessed the shooting, was also taken into custody, along with one other witness. He said they were taken to the army camp, where they had needles inserted under their nails, and were beaten repeatedly. They were kept in a prison in Mokokchung for three months; he had to pay 500 rupees for his release. Even after his release, he had to report to the army every day for a month – punishment for refusing to divulge information on the location of the UG camp, details on the rebels' weapons, etc. Information about them had evidently been given to the army by informants, of which there were four in the village at the time. Indeed, 'The CID system continues till today,' said Soupongyanger. 'Since we have not gotten independence yet, they also need CIDs.'

These three elders believe that they will get independence one day.

Our ideology was simple. Phizo told us that we will take the full rupee coin. Not more, nor less. Even today we believe in this. For that one rupee coin we have struggled. If we do not get our sovereignty, then what use was our sacrifice? Even if we die we will get our independence. Our relationship with mainland India is only for political reasons – for all other reasons we are different.

And as I took leave and turned to go, one of them called out: 'When you write, do not forget our sovereignty!'

As I walked down the hill, I thought of Tareptsuba. It was late evening too like this one the other day when we were preparing to leave Longkhum when I was told that one other person wanted to meet me. Eighty-eight-year-old Tareptsuba had come after he learnt that an Indian had come to their village. An old shawl draped around his shoulders, leaning on his cane, he insisted on standing while speaking, as though making a formal deposition before a court of justice. I felt humbled and disturbed.

'We are still waiting for nachiso [independence],' he began.

In 1951, I put my thumb along with the rest of the Nagas for independence. Why is it that Nagas have still not got their independence? Right after that we were tortured – my teeth were smashed. Today, you are asking all these questions. Will you send the Indian Army? We might not be able to wield weapons against mighty India, but our willpower will win.

~ Bela Bhatia is an independent researcher and human rights activist currently based in Mumbai.

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