How much longer must the Nagas wait for the country’s oldest armed struggle to end ?
I grew up in the small town of Senapati in north Manipur. This was in the 1980s. The busy shops on a 200-yard stretch parallel to National Highway 39 (now renamed NH 2) were all that marked it as a town. But Senapati was abuzz, and was even made district headquarters in 1983.
Change was fast-paced then. Looking back, life was like flipping through the pages of one of the magazines my uncle subscribed to. As they came from some faraway city, the news was quite stale by the time it reached us. But he would nevertheless enjoy reading the magazines. The enigma of Uganda’s Idi Amin and the notoriety of Cambodia’s Pol Pot fascinated the media, even though their stories were from the previous decade. I still recall the cover of one mag that had Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq with a forced smile à la Mona Lisa! One day, all the sensational international news was suddenly overshadowed by the assassination of Indira Gandhi. I scanned the pages for news on the Delhi riots. But such stories still seemed very distant to me — after all, the Centre was very far away.
Closer to home, harsher realities were beginning to unsettle the normality of life. The long shadow of the conflict between the Naga underground forces and the Indian armed forces kept common people on the edge. A shadow that continues to haunt us today, as we still wait for that elusive peace to arrive.
In this chequered pattern of unease and calm that we lived through, a sudden twist would sometimes shake it all up. One such deeply troubling occurrence that I encountered at close quarters was the Oinam incident, or the infamous Operation Bluebird.
Fear of the Army
Launched by the Assam Rifles as a counter-insurgency operation to recover the arms and ammunition they had lost when the Naga Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) raided their Oinam Hill camp on July 9, 1987, Operation Bluebird took an ugly turn when civilians came into the firing line. For the next three months, some 30 villages close to Oinam Hill village were cordoned off for a combing operation. Even the district administration and political representatives were barred from reaching the people. Churches and community halls became makeshift interrogation camps. Men were questioned and torture was alleged, as were rape and molestation. The fear was such that crying children would be hushed with just the word ‘soldiers’. Indeed, even today, just uttering the words ‘soldiers are coming’ is enough to quieten a child.
The events of the 80s and 90s made me seriously question the impunity that is allowed to the armed forces, especially by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act of 1958. AFSPA gives them the licence to arrest without warrants, and deaths and injuries don’t have to be explained; they are able to exercise brute force. The irony is that they were there to provide the people ‘security’, but that was the last thing we experienced. Their patrols and speeding convoys leaving behind giant dust trails only further distorted the discomforting realities of my home town. I’ve tried to capture those years in my debut novel, Waiting for the Dust to Settle (Speaking Tiger, 2020).
AFSPA’s shadow was darkest in the early years of the insurgency. In the 1960s, when socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan, along with British missionary Michael Scott, helped broker the first peace deal, JP referred to the Government’s handling of the Naga problem as ‘India’s Vietnam’. He was referring to the ruthlessness and widespread violation of human rights perpetrated on the Naga people. The horrifying scenes of entire villages burnt down, the humiliation of people running for cover in their own land, the pain of living in the jungles during the torrential rains, the trauma of seeing loved ones dying before one’s eyes—these have largely gone undocumented. But these experiences live on in the memories of the people. It is no wonder that these generations are affected with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The enemy within
Unfortunately, the Naga struggle took an ugly turn when the people found themselves up against each other. The ideological differences that had cropped up along the way led to factionalism among the nationalist underground groups. And, once again, the common people bore the brunt. This time in the form of factional fights that brought more bloodshed and trauma. While the early years saw the enemy as an outside force, midway through the movement, the enemy within grew terrifyingly large.
Today, this protracted conflict has not only become an impediment to progress in the region, it has extracted a huge human cost. While the Centre is pushing the Government’s agenda in the North East, including its much-hyped ‘Look East Policy’ and its sequel ‘Act East Policy’, without political peace the economic packages will remain merely a gimmick to enrich the rising gangs of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. And one of the biggest obstacles to arriving at a political solution is the continuing enforcement of AFSPA. As long as a sense of political injustice pervades the psyche of the people, comfort and peace will remain distant dreams.
I would like to believe that it is in this light that the Government has taken initiatives to bring about an ‘honourable solution’. In 2015, when the Framework Agreement was signed with the NSCN, it heightened expectations of a possible end to the Naga problem. The media flashed photographs of Prime Minister Modi and Thuingaleng Muivah, the NSCN leader, both smiling after signing what was called a ‘historic peace deal’. The Government issued a press release saying it hoped to “end the oldest insurgency in the country”. The Government’s keenness to arrive at a solution was driven by the understanding that peace in the North East is not quite imaginable without the NSCN on board. The 2015 accord was seen as a culmination of the ceasefire agreement brokered in 1997.
But it’s been five years now, and peace is as elusive as ever. In fact, the 2015 agreement is on the verge of breaking down, with the negotiating parties again at loggerheads. After several missed deadlines, we now await yet another. And again, the question looming in the minds of many is this: will the agreement really end one of South Asia’s longest armed struggles ? Or will it turn out to be just another agreement that fails the test of time ? After all, over the past several decades, many such accords have been signed and have since bitten the dust.
When things come to a standstill like this, I feel sorry most of all for the older generations, the ones who have waited so long for a lasting resolution. I belong to the third generation. I too wait for an ‘honourable solution’. Far too many lives have been lost, too much blood shed. How much longer must we wait ?
There is a persistent yearning for peace among Nagas. Civil organisations and the Church are actively involved in bringing rapport among the various Naga groups. But the wounds run deep and healing will take time. The emergence of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation and its call for forgiveness and unity among all Naga factions under the banner ‘A Journey of Common Hope’ is one positive sign. Another is the Naga Mothers’ Association, whose campaign ‘Shed No More Blood’ is also brokering peace among Nagas. Such movements are the real ‘peacemakers’.
I want to see harmony again in the land I grew up in. The people and the place, both need healing. The small town of Senapati has transformed in geography and population. The old photographs are unrecognisable today. I feel like a stranger every time I visit. Even the old highway has been buried to make way for an elevated road. The old rickety metal bridge across the Barak river no longer exists.
Does this modernity mean peace ? A closer look tells me that the expansion of the town has happened because of the displacement of thousands of people from the various ethnic conflicts that flared up in the 1990s and at the turn of the millennium. These people certainly seek an end to the bitter past. I join them in their quest. And in their hope that peace will not forever elude us.
The writer teaches in the Department of English, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College, University of Delhi.
Courtesy The Hindu