As decades-long peace talks between the Nagas and India’s central government came close to some sort of fruition, they hit a bump again three months ago when Nagaland Governor R N Ravi wrote to Nagaland CM Neiphiu Rio criticising the law and order situation of the state and stating his decision to exert greater control. In the weeks that followed, Ravi upset several rebel factions within the state, including theNational Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), known as the NSCN- IM, who vociferously demanded his removal from the Central Government-Naga negotiations, and now, the negotiations seem to have reached a dead-end.

While I watched the events with growing trepidation, I found myself wondering time and again about the fundamentals of the entire issue. Why is “shared sovereignty” such a huge deal for the Nagas? Why are they so insistent on the uniqueness of their identity? I surmised the answers must lie in their history, but then, what has been the course of their history, and how does it impact today?

I took up the topic of Naga history with Dr N. Venuh, Professor of History at Nagaland University. Apart from being an academician, Dr N. Venuh was also the secretary general of Naga People Movement for Human Rights and continues to be their executive member. Excerpts from our conversation:

Please give us a quick overview of the pre-colonial history of Nagaland.

There were no written records before the British came; Naga history passed on from generation to generation through storytelling, that’s our oral history. Our folksongs depict how we lived, how we developed as a society. Some say that the Nagas originally migrated from Mongolia and other places in Asia, but that’s how the history of migration is, people migrate all the time, but there is no scientific research done on this aspect, at least not fully.

All these theories of Naga migration are part of our oral history. One key feature of our oral history is ‘Morung’, an institution in which young, unmarried members of our community are housed together and taught the ways of Naga life by the elders. Our traditional village administration structure looks after all of the social, political, social, and economic functions of the Naga community. Historically, it has been democratic, representing each clan, and as this setup is scaled up and replicated in all villages, no two villages interfere in each other’s work.

There are various tribes within Nagaland. Historically, did they arrive and settle in and around Nagaland at the same time? Or did they arrive and settle separately, but eventually, with evolution, identify themselves collectively as Nagas?

There are different theories of how the Nagas evolved into the current community that they are, but no scientific research has been conducted on this subject yet. From whatever data is available, it does seem that migration to Nagaland happened mainly in two phases. As far as the collective identity is concerned, it is similar to India as a whole; various tribes migrated at different points of time, but they are now assimilated and denote themselves as one stock. Similarly, various Naga tribes may also have migrated and settled during different periods, but now consider themselves as Nagas. We don’t know if there were any indigenous Nagas already living here [in Nagaland] historically as the theory is still being debated and no conclusive evidence pointing either way has unfolded yet.

The earliest known history of Nagas is found in the Ahom Burranji records from the 13th century AD. Are their earlier records of supporting history about Nagas?

Yes, the state of Ahom was founded in the 13th century AD and its records do state that the Nagas were already living in that region when the Ahoms settled down. However, there wasn’t much interaction between the Ahom kings and Naga tribes in terms of administration. We largely had trade relations, that too through barter system.

Could you give us a glimpse of Naga history from the colonial period?

It was only after the British and the Burmese signed the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 that the British started colonializing Assam and intruding the Naga Hills (present day Nagaland). It was in 1832 that the Nagas first came in contact with the British, thanks to Captain Jenkins and Lt. Pemberton.

This is quite interesting because originally, the British wanted to go to Manipur, but that wasn’t possible without crossing the Naga hills. Nagas had started to resist their movement through their territory, so the British had to come up with a policy to deal with the Nagas as well. Till 1851, the British adopted a non-interference policy with the Nagas, except collecting taxes from them when they visited villages which were under the British.

The British did formally annex some parts of the Naga hills after 1876, and then they made three distinct policies for three distinct regions of the annexed parts – Administrative Areas, where the British themselves maintained law and order; Areas of Control, where they intervened only when there was some disturbance; and Areas Beyond Control, where they simply had no administrative or legal control.

All this while, we Nagas were confined to our tribes and villages but colonial rule brought all Nagas together. This eventually led to sharing of our cultures, ideas, and thoughts within ourselves. During the First World War, Nagas, who otherwise had not been to any part of India, were suddenly taken to France to fight. Those Nagas brought our communities a view of the world. After the First World War, nationalism picked up across Asia; we were no exception, and this surge put in us the thought of protecting our identity.

‘Submission of Naga Chiefs’ painting, depicting the British colonisers among Nagas. Source: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

According to the 1951 census shortly after Independence, 41% of the population of Nagaland was Christian. Nagas are considered to be very culturally sensitive, and they have always portrayed themselves as distinct people who are proud of their culture, then how did it happen that they embraced a comparatively foreign religion such as Christianity?

Throughout history, neither Hindus nor Muslims came to Nagaland to propagate their respective religions. The nature of Nagas was such that they were actually considered enemies. But with the British rule, Christian missionaries came to the Naga hills and started preaching Christianity.

Now originally, Nagas were not atheists, but the nature of worship was such that Nagas believed in “Living God” [a supernatural living entity which controls all aspects of nature]. So, when the missionaries came and spoke to Nagas, there must have been some connect or similarity between their preaching and Naga faith that made Nagas accept Christianity. But I’ll be clear – this is my personal theory, after all faith is personal to every individual.

The Christian missionaries though introduced Western education to us, which changed our attitudes and made us adapt to the modern world. They also changed the culture and lifestyle of Naga people and all these changes contributed to our political awakening as well.

(Read Part II of the two-part series here)

Mark Kinra

Mark Kinra is a corporate lawyer by profession and geopolitical analyst at heart. He primarily works on South Asia, specializing in Pakistan.


The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.


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