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The Naga Ethnic Movement for a Separate HomelandStories from the Field$

Namrata Goswami

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780190121174

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: August 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190121174.001.0001

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To Listen Is to Heal

To Listen Is to Heal

The Hohos and This Land

(p.109) 6 To Listen Is to Heal
The Naga Ethnic Movement for a Separate Homeland

Namrata Goswami

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The sixth chapter introduces you to the life of the Naga Hoho (the apex Naga tribal body) as well as other tribal Hohos like the Ao Senden, the Sumi Hoho, etc; their vision and mission and their impact on the framing of the Naga conflict. The Naga social groups have predated the armed groups, and have been influential in how narratives are formed and impact life on a daily basis. Their voice is legitimate and societal depth.

Keywords:   Naga Hoho, Dialogue, Conflict Resolution, Social bodies, legitimacy

‘You have to listen, carefully … there will be many with an opinion, and you may talk a bit about conflict resolution theories’, winked my Naga friend, as he took me over to the Ao Senden (traditional tribal body meeting), taking place in Camp Hebron. The year was 2007 and the issue being discussed, with a certain measure of seriousness, was whether the extension of ceasefire between the NSCN (IM) and the Government of India be extended for a year as was the usual practice, or should it be extended indefinitely. There were younger Nagas in the meeting who stated angrily that it did not matter if the ceasefire was not extended; they were willing to take up arms and fight. Some advocated that this ceasefire has achieved nothing, and that the Indian government interlocutors were not really interested in resolving the conflict. The elders in the group listened calmly to the angry voices amongst them but said nothing. We were all huddled around the table, discussing the future of the Naga conflict, and I knew that what the (p.110) Ao Senden would endorse would have significant impact on the decision to be taken by the NSCN (IM) on extension of the ceasefire.

The Aos are a significant number in Nagaland, dominating the political landscape, as well as representation in the state bureaucracy. Amongst the 16 major Naga tribes in Nagaland, Aos form a strong constituency and amongst the most active in determining the policies of the state. They are a major constituency in the commercial town of Dimapur, Nagaland.1 As I travelled from my hotel to Camp Hebron that morning to take part in the People’s Consultative Meeting organized by the NSCN (IM), I had wondered what the impact of these consultative meetings was on the leadership decisions and choices of the NSCN (IM). On one hand, Muivah and Swu claimed to represent the Naga people. On the other hand, they were not elected but self-styled leaders of a rebel movement. How much would they be influenced by the choices that people offer their way. Looking out at the paddy fields as we sped on our way that morning, I was stuck with the thought as to how important these decisions were to the people living here, amidst a conflict that has been ongoing since 1918, and that has shaped the public discourses and many a young life.

My life in Delhi was a blur, as I looked out at the hills approaching Camp Hebron. I realized how alien and distant these local discourses were in a city like Delhi or Mumbai, and many would fail to understand the deep societal connections that rebel cadres had with the villages living around them.2 The eating of a meal together; the wonderful pork and rice that a young man from the Naga army served me, laughing at my shock to see the Naga chillies enmeshed with my pork. As we ate together outside in the sun in the camp surrounded by thatched houses, I felt an emotion akin to wonder. The label of rebel pinned to this young man who served me, giving him an identity that dominates all else; he is also the son of someone, the brother of someone, he surely loves someone; and how he fitted in so well in the landscape. I also realized that this community, dressed in their traditional finery, laughter ringing out in the air, simply (p.111) hoped that they are useful in their insights to an armed group capable of deadly violence working hard towards establishing peace.3

It is in this backdrop that the sixth chapter introduces the reader to the life of the Naga Hoho (the apex Naga tribal body) as well as other tribal Hohos and bodies like the Ao Senden, the Sumi Hoho, etc.; their vision and mission, and their impact on the framing of the Naga conflict.

The Men with Designer Glasses

As I was walking amongst the villagers closest to Camp Hebron in the Dhansiripar subdivision of Dimapur district, a few days after that meeting, I came across a group of young boys and girls playing in a puddle of water near a field. They darted with laughter as I approached them, peeping out of the huts they had ran into. The village road I was on, was not gravelled yet, but was neat and the houses beside it had a warm welcoming air, with flower pots on the veranda, and curtains floating from the windows, in the afternoon breeze under that hot and sultry July sun. I had a local friend with me, and as we walked and talked, a Maruti Gypsy, carrying some NSCN (IM) cadres passed us on their way to Camp Hebron. The sky was blue that day and I felt at home, despite being in rebel territory. Suddenly, I saw a shadow behind me. A group of young boys and girls, ages between six and nine had started following us. Whenever I turned to look at them, they would run and hide, shrieking in laughter. I had some candy bars with me and told them in Nagamese that I would love sharing it with them. They came running towards us, and as we were sharing the treats, one of the parents of the children invited us into his house for a drink. It is not uncommon in a Naga village to offer such hospitality to strangers, especially on a hot afternoon. As we sat around talking, and my friend, who was from the area introduced us, I asked one of the kids what she thought of the NSCN (IM) or does she even know they exist. ‘Oh yes’, all the kids cried in the unison. ‘You mean the young men in designer glasses. They look so smart. We want to grow up and (p.112) be like that’, they shouted as their astonished father shooed them off to another room sighing, ‘children!’.

Not very different from the tales of conflict I have read across the world, be it in the former Yugoslavia, or Columbia, or the Shining Path in Peru. Michael Ignatieff, in his book, Blood and Belonging,4 tells us about young men, between the ages of 15 and 25, dressed in designer leather jackets wielding semiautomatics along the Croatian-Serbian border, checking his United Nations Protection Force in Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) papers, as he travelled collecting data for his book. I had a similar experience once I was at the gate of Camp Hebron, where young men in fatigues wearing stylish sunglasses waived me in after they checked me like in an airport security. Yet these men and women in their designer glasses and smartly turned out in their uniforms formed the core of the Naga rebel movement for a separate homeland. For, while it may be grievances, ethnic nationalism, and popular support that are important to sustain a movement, it is these gun-wielding youths from the rebel army with a capability to do violence that catches the eye of the state forces and channels loyalty, either normative or coerced, from the local population.

Let’s Have Arms but Not Use Them

Days before I went to the meeting to discuss the ceasefire extension, I had gone to one of the main markets in Dimapur, called Hongkong market, famous for cheap clothes from Southeast Asia, especially Thailand and Myanmar, and China. As you walk in these bustling markets with fashionable clothes for sale, little would you feel the presence of rebel groups in this area. But stick around a bit longer and start a conversation with the local shopkeepers and you get to know more. I spoke with Marie (name changed) who owned a shoe store. As I looked through her shoes, we started talking. She has been in business for more than five years and seemed to enjoy it though she laments the fact that armed groups like the NSCN (IM) demand taxes, out of her profit, in the name of ‘taxation for representation’. It is not that she does not believe that the cause of Naga self-determination is not worthy, ‘Indians never see us as part of their ethnic kin. When I go to Delhi, people treat me like I am someone (p.113) inferior to them, simple in my thinking and from China’.5 She, however, does not see it as fair that a group under ceasefire with state authorities around, can come to her and demand money, when she does not give it to them voluntarily. She definitely resents that part. I would too, if someone walked into my office in New Delhi and demanded money, as an elderly Naga gentleman once did, stating that since I had got a US academic fellowship, I should be having loads of money and should give him some.6 I resented that deeply and requested him to leave my office immediately reporting the issue to my office management. I imagined myself in Marie’s shoes, being forced to part with my hard-earned money. Its as Marie said, ‘lets sign the cease-fire, but keep the arms is the motto’, as that creates an aura of power in the local context. And it is regarding this issue of ceasefire and bringing down taxes for the Naga cause that the Naga Hoho and other civil society bodies have played a significant role.

All Armed Groups Sign a Ceasefire

The body that stepped in to encourage an indefinite ceasefire was the Joint Forum for Gaonburahs (village headmen) and Doabashis (elders). In every Naga village, the ancestral tradition of electing or selecting men to positions of power has been around for several centuries. In some clans like the Sumi, it is hereditary, while in others, a village council elects an older village man to that position. In one of the villages in Zunhebeto district, one village elder, regaled me with tales of how they lived independent lives in the village, over his cup of locally made rice beer, his teeth stained from years of betel nut chewing. Now, he said with that famous humour, ‘we have to bow down to the local politicians, the military and our Naga rebel brothers, while they assert that their fight is to get back to the old days when each village was an independent unit’. He laughs again and I see the ironic humour. As he speaks, his daughter calls us to the kitchen for some food, rice and beans, and as I look around the simple home, I realized how much an impact this conflict has had on people’s lives; yet, families carry on, with the daily drudgery of life, men (p.114) sit around the fire, smoking bidis (locally made cigarettes), and women hustle around preparing the evening supper. In October 2018, the Public Action Committee of the Naga Council, Dimapur, organized a rally protesting extortions by armed groups. In a statement, the Committee stated that ‘the state government must immediately stop all illegal taxation … it must also ban the syndicate and lease system and unauthorised collection centres run in and around Dimapur by unions and organisations, including Naga political groups [extremist groups] and government agencies, causing uncontrolled inflation’.7 The National Investigation Agency (NIA) is examining funding from state governments that flow into the exchequers of the Naga armed groups. The NIA has termed this as ‘terror funding’. Interestingly, after the NIA conducted raids and arrested persons accused of channelling government money to armed groups, the Confederation of All Nagaland State Services Employees’ Association (CANSSEA) then turned around and protested against the action, as I suspect it might involve thousands being accused of such actions as corruption is rampant in the state.8 The CANSSEA, however, claimed in a memorandum to the Governor of the state that ‘the undisputed reality is that payments of tax to the NNPGs (naga national political groups or separatist groups) are made not voluntarily or willingly but under duress and fear of life and limb. The state government is the living witness to the fact of the many instances where life has been taken because of resistance to such taxation and demands’.9 This is classic ‘Catch 22’ where on the (p.115) one hand, there are rampant accusations that the state agencies are corrupt and siphon off money to armed groups taking huge cuts themselves. On the other hand, when action is taken, then there are huge protests as there are ingrained vested interests in ensuring the status quo continues as some benefit from it.

To Listen Is to HealThe Hohos and This Land

Image 6.1 Naga Hoho meeting with author, Nagaland, July 2007

Source: Author.

Note: Picture taken by Hoho member for author in her camera.

In 2007, as discussions on whether the ceasefire between the Union government and the NSCN (IM) should be extended indefinitely was discussed in the local press, and in Camp Hebron, I travelled to Kohima to get a sense of how the conflict is viewed in the capital of Nagaland. It was a cool July morning and the streets of Dimapur were still empty as my taxi proceeded to make the three hours or so journey to Kohima. Shops on the highway were not opened yet and owners were sweeping the streets in front of their shops, as is the daily ritual. There were the local buses trying to attract passengers by pressing on the accelerator with the call, ‘we are leaving now’, which made passengers scramble only to realize it’s a lure to get them board quickly (the bus would be hanging around for another (p.116) hour or so till all its seats get occupied). I could see school children dressed in their uniforms, their hair tied back neatly in ribbons, walking to their schools. The landscape was starting to come alive, as we started our climb onto Kohima, and the weather got more chilly and cooler. I could feel the thrill inside as we ascended into the mountain territory and could hear the stillness as a gentle wind rustled the leaves on a break to grab some ‘macoi’ (maize) roasted over the fire by a charming Ao woman in her late twenties. As she handed over the steaming maize flavoured with some black salt and lemon, she said, ‘you should not be traveling alone here. Its not safe. The armed men ahead will stop you and ask for money to pass their check gate’. I got curious and asked, ‘do you mean the police or the Indian army? I do not think I will have a problem as I have the “Inner Line Permit” with me’.10 She laughed nervously and said nothing but started to roast a new maize. As I climbed onto the taxi, I told my driver what I had heard. He turned around and said, ‘oh, I thought you know!’ I may have to shell out 500 rupees. (The taxi had charged me 2000 rupees for a one-way trip between Dimapur and Kohima). I understood then that he was referring to the Naga rebel group, either the NSCN (IM) or NSCN (K) who may have authority over that piece of territory. As I looked out at the picturesque landscape, I felt this feeling of suffocation, of having to worry about what lies ahead, whether I would be safe, with the realization that this is the everyday life of people here. The words of Karl Marx, that ‘every-day life is a drudgery’11 rang in my ears as we came to a grinding halt and my driver whispered, ‘madam, I think you may have to give money to these people’. I saw a young man of about 20 approach the driver and ask about me in Nagamese, a language I understood and spoke. He wanted to know why I am in Nagaland, and where am I going to. The driver told him that I was a tourist and interested in the Naga culture. The young man retorted saying that she has to pay for us to let the taxi through. It was a road tax. All the while they spoke and negotiated, I kept quiet as I realized that I am not the one the young man is interested in. He had been doing this with taxi drivers all along and it’s the usual fare here on this road. (p.117)

My research instinct got the better of me, and I addressed the young man, in Nagamese, asking after his health, and why he had stopped us. He appeared startled that I knew the local language, grinned and told me not to worry. He did not appear armed. I pulled out my Inner Line Permit and said, ‘but I already have the official pass’. He replied, ‘sister, this is Naga homeland, we do not recognize Indian pass’. I laughed, he joined in, and as my perplexed taxi driver looked on, the young man says with grandeur, ‘sister, you are our Northeast people. I let you pass without money’.

You Are Our Sister

To be called a sister by a Naga young man, who has taken up arms against the state, gave me an identity in this conflict-affected areas. I had a bond, a feeling of security or was it just a figure of speech. The fact that he let my taxi pass without paying was interesting; perhaps, he felt sorry for me, a tourist, and that too a woman travelling alone, risking a lot, to see his culture and homeland. Perhaps, he did not want bad propaganda. What if I told tales later to my family? My taxi driver told me he was a NSCN (IM) member. Perhaps, he was instructed not to harass outsiders as that could result in bad publicity; locals have to pay because they keep quiet as they have to live in Nagaland and usually do not write about their difficulties with the rebel group for fear of being socially ostracized. Who knows why he let me go? I believe it was that moment when I laughed about his opinion on the Inner Line Permit, that he felt a kinship. I believe it was humour that saved the day for me.

Because in reality, the fight for land and resources has taken many lives and has historically led to conflict amongst the Naga tribes. Heads had been taken, a ritual, that can be seen in the remains of enemy skulls in Mon district of Nagaland, where the descendants of the Konyak tribes would offer you folk tales of those headhunting days and the rituals that were wrapped around it. The practice of headhunting amongst the Naga tribes has been reproduced in British anthropological literature especially during British occupation of Naga lands during the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Given the discourse of civilizing the so-called savage, this practice has been instrumentally utilized to give credit to the story of the dark primitive savage used by colonial anthropologists, who themselves drew on administrative notes of British civil servants and viewed village societies through their preconceived notions. Mostly, tribal (p.118) societies were written off as primitive, headen, uneducated, backward, with little reference to context and traditions, and to whether such traditions persist. Several works on headhunting point out that, by the time the British colonized the Naga areas, the practise of ‘headhunting’ had stopped, and was now the lore of literature and western anthropologists, who found it a fascinating study. Moreover, most colonial anthropologies were written with an attempt to make the societies coming under British rule accessible to these foreign administrators. Usually, the monographs were of high order but the othering of ‘humans’ as inferior to the ruling class, thereby justifying British colonialism was never absent. Hence, one could not claim, with some measure of surety that these studies were true to the tradition of academic objectivity. An anthropologist’s romanticizing of traditions is best expressed in Christopher von-Furer Haimendorf, who lamented the loss of ancient traditions and cultures during his visit to the Naga areas between 1936 and 1937.

What I saw in 1936 and 1937 is now a page in India’s history, to be remembered and recorded but never to be observed again …. The knowledge that the scenes described in the pages of this book will never be re-enacted adds poignancy to the memories of a rich and aesthetically satisfying cultural pattern, which is now rapidly fading. There is in human nature an instinctive tenderness for that which is doomed.12

Significantly, in my conversations across Nagaland, especially with Konyaks, this sense of a ‘headhunting’ past is retold, sometimes with pride or simply because it is such a draw for outsiders, it is hard to tell. In my visit to Zurich and Basel, Switzerland, in 2010, for a talk on the Naga conflict, I realized that museums use terms like ‘headhunting’ to draw crowds as we humans are drawn to such advertising, somehow channelling a fascination for the macabre. Think of our fascination for the Mayan ruins, in Chechen Itza, Mexico or Xunantunich, Belize; places believed to have conducted human sacrifice. No Mayan, today, practises anything like their ancestors and yet their identity comes to be determined overtime by an overemphasis on some parts of their ancestral stories, to draw in more and more visitors. Tell it repeatedly and local people start appropriating (p.119) that language as well to tell stories to visitors they know have drawn them to their ancestral homes in the first place. Consequently, the anthropological pictures and stories of a Konyak Naga chieftain, living with several wives and with skull necklaces around his neck reliving the glories of the past headhunting days or of finding a slab with 200 skulls in Mon district, remnants of a wild past, a representation of ethnography in its wildest terms, and such iterations have entered the consciousness of present anthropology.13 It creates a particular allure to have a museum exhibits advertised as the ‘Naga headhunters’ creating a mystic draw, like a Hollywood movie of the Wild West of glamorous cowboys with magical gun-drawing skills, and the native Apache on his horse, adorned with all the finery of a warrior. It creates a certain quickening of the pulse to be in the presence and memory of war-like tribes, and their capability to do violence. Such discourses are abound in the meeting of the English tea-planter and the warlike Naga tribes, savage, unpredictable, untameable. Sometimes, such headhunting raids were pure figment of one’s imagination in many an anthropological retelling.

The Naga past is not as independent or romantic as anthropologist tell us. It consisted of the drudgery of everyday life, the toiling in the fields, the fetching of firewood for meals, the long climbs over hills carrying water, the quarrels over fertile land, the violent battles for domination between tribes, and all that is not unknown in other areas of the world. Think of the overt violent struggles in Europe over nationalism and land, and the annihilation of millions of people in its wake. Ethnic nationalism has been the opium of years of wars and the dream of an ethnic homeland has been the precursor of several genocides, most infamous being Adolf Hitler’s notion of a German state based on pure Aryan creed.

This notion that all Northeasters are our sisters belies the violence that has been meted out by one tribe against another, the battle for land, and a homogenous nation.14 The Naga nation, conceived by the NSCN (IM), (p.120) NNC, and NSCN (K) is based on the idea that we have nothing common with the other, and wish to live as in ancient times, meaning with little contact with others. Yet in the larger context of India, I become the sister, given I come from the imagined commonality of Northeast, at least in terms of geographies, its several movements for ethnically pure states, and its ‘othering’ of anyone outside one’s tribe or clan, thereby, questioning the very idea of pluralism, so cherished by the liberal discourses on democratic nationhood. I, however, entered Kohima, feeling this sense of emotional attachment to the land and its people. After all, I was privileged with the idea incepted into my mind by a NSCN (IM) member on NH-29 that I was his sister.

You Are Responsible for Our Backwardness

Kohima came upon me suddenly. The roads were broken, the houses clustered very close to each other, as they jutted out from the side of the hills, and the majestic mountains surrounding it, made it a unique setting. Kohima had played in my imagination since my father told me about the events of the Second World War that took place there and recited those memorable words that were inscribed on the World War II memorial located here, where thousands of British soldiers were buried. The battle of Kohima of 1944 was seen as a game changer, in British-Indian success in turning back the Japanese troops fighting for the Axis powers from then British India. In 2013, the battle for Kohima, was chosen as Britain’s greatest battle by the National Army Museum, beating out the D-Day and Waterloo battles. Historian Robert Lyman stated that ‘Great things were at stake in a war with the toughest enemy any British army has had to fight … if Lieutenant General William Slim’s army of British, Indian, Gurkha and African troops had lost, the consequences for the allied cause would have been catastrophic’.15 (p.121)

‘When you Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say. For Their Tomorrow, We gave our Today’, believed to be inspired by a Greek epithet,16 and attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds, an English Classicist, are the words that greeted me as I arrived at the war memorial, The eternal timelessness of that saying brings out a certain emotion in you. I felt my eyes growing moist imagining the difficulties on both sides as they battled each other, in these mountainous terrains of Kohima. The day was misty with soft rain and as I went through the cemetery, my mind transported back to the 1940s, and how it must have been then.

As I came out and walked back along the streets of Kohima on that rained drenched, yet fresh morning, I watched people as they went about their lives, an old woman selling oranges from her basket, young school children neatly dressed in their uniforms heading to school, shops bustling with buyers, and people standing on sidewalks, enjoying a smoke under an umbrella. It made me contemplate on the conflict and the role that civil society organizations like the Naga Hoho and the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) have played in addressing differences. When I met Niketu Iralu in Shillong in 2007, he, despite, the failure of some of his peace efforts was optimistic about the role that pacifists, like him, could play in bringing about reconciliation between different Naga communities. There have been commitments made to ‘Journey of a Common Hope’, and signing a Naga concordant in 2011 pledging to work towards the establishment of a common Naga nation.17 The desire for peace is deep and Naga legislators have even agreed to step down from the Assembly seats if there is a final resolution in the making. (p.122)

The role of the Naga Hoho, has been effective to the extent possible, in bringing about a peaceful atmosphere, especially by holding consultations with the armed groups on a regular basis by addressing local concerns, being a social body for redressal, and calling out government counterinsurgency accesses. Through the years, the Naga Hoho led by its President, Kevileito Kiewhuo has supported the peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the Government.18 Interestingly, in my conversations with Hoho members during my field visits, I always came away with the impression that they were keen on treading a middle path, cautioning people against expecting the impossible, both from the Government and the armed group, stating that peace and representation can be accomplished through a middle ground that is amenable to both. In an article I had published in 2010 titled ‘The Naga Intra-Community Dialogue: Preventing and Managing Violent Ethnic Conflict’, I had specified that such community dialogues have been in place in Naga areas since 1956 and its legitimacy is tied to the fact that social support for such public consultations, beyond the official negotiations, have deep-seated support and legitimacy.19 In fact, on 20 May 2008, for the very first time, several thousand Nagas took to the streets to peacefully support a ceasefire, declared by the Joint Forum for Gaon-Burahs and Doabashis (JFGBDB), that called upon the armed groups to withdraw from civilian areas.20 This does not detract from the fact that most Nagas support the armed groups agenda for secession despite realizing that they may never succeed in meeting that goal. This aspect has been well explained by Edward Azar, in his book Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases.21 (p.123) Azar believes that individual loyalties, motivations, and support for armed groups is not as straightforward, as it may appear; especially that in support of the group’s secessionist violence. More often than not, individuals get their own societal needs met—security, identity, recognition, economic fulfilment, by joining or supporting an armed group that represents them, especially in a context where they do not view the state and its institutions as representing them honestly.22 While interacting with the Naga Hoho, it is rather obvious that they do not see Naga independence as a feasible project, especially in the context of a rising India. They thereby support a ‘Special Federal Relationship or SFR’, between India and Nagalim, to include a Naga army and flag, within India.23 This differs from what Muivah, the leader of the NSCN (IM) views as SFR, which to him is a special relationship with India but not within the Indian Constitution.24

The Naga Hoho has been instrumental in creating conditions for an intra-community dialogue, as it aims to reconcile the differences of 32 different Naga Tribes. The length of the Naga conflict, the differences amongst different tribes like the Angami and the Tangkhul over land, village boundaries, issue of authentic representation, etc., have been deep. For instance, Muivah has been accused of being more representative of Tangkhuls from Manipur, he himself hailing from Manipur and not Nagaland. The Naga public sphere attempts to offer a common public platform, though there are ‘hidden’ dos and don’ts. For instance, while the space for ‘dialogue’ is inclusive and is genuinely geared towards including all Naga tribes, the atmosphere of us verus them is everywhere. For instance, I was once told in a conference on Northeast India in Delhi by a Naga gentleman that while I write beautiful words, I can never understand the conflict reality, a patriarchal bias, to say the least, first, given I am a woman (my male colleagues on the panel who were not Nagas, said (p.124) similar things, but I was the only one with beautiful words), and that how can I, who have lived in Dimapur, and grew up in Haflong, Assam, understand communities that are different. This intolerance to so-called outsiders is evident especially in academic settings, with one local academic claiming the original knowledge over others. To my surprise, Naga and Bodo female students of the university, where the panel was held, came up to me later and said, ‘Ma’am, at least you still have a platform. For us, when we speak up, we are shouted down with statements like don’t try to be too smart. Women know nothing, keep to your womanly duties of household chores’.25 This attitude was evident in Nagaland, when in 2017, there was violent opposition to implementation of the 33 per cent reservation for women in local elections by Naga men, including the Hohos. The local Naga bodies argue that insisting on women representation goes against Naga customary law, protected by Art 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution. The Naga Hohos, filled by men, argue that only they have the right to interpret Naga customary laws, and women have been traditionally assigned a social role but not a political one. As Naga scholar, Dolly Kekon puts it,

The denial of rights to Naga women by citing Article 371(A) is not new and has nothing to do with upholding the customary law and culture of the Naga people. It is a way to propagate male hegemony and authority in Naga society, cloaked in the language of justice. This pattern can be seen even in Naga history and its nationalist movement, where only Naga men became martyrs while women were always projected as victims.26

The Naga Mother’s Association (NMA) demands that Naga women be represented as per Art 243 (T) of the Indian Constitution, but this was rejected by Naga male bodies, including the Hoho. Women are excluded from all traditional bodies, and hence the argument that if there (p.125) is mandatory 33 per cent representation for Naga women, it violates the customary laws that privileges Naga men.27 I remember in conversation with academics from Nagaland or Manipur, as well as conversations in Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland, that somehow working in Delhi, ‘you are responsible for our backwardness’. It was rather odd to be rudely told something you are not responsible for, to have to prove that you are sincerely interested in research and offering suggestions, and that you have no interest in representing anyone, besides your work.

The Naga Intra-Community Dialogue

Given all that social complexity and gender issues, it is remarkable that men and women participate in large numbers in intercommunity dialogues for peace. I had a group of women in Dimapur, take me aside and say that they were very proud of my work, and that I was an inspiration for them to do more. Only today, once the fissures over women representation burst out into the open do I realize where all that animosity towards a woman researcher was coming from. Sadly, in the 2018 Nagaland assembly elections, not a single woman was elected;28 there were only five women contesting and some women candidates were threatened with excommunication from their villages if they did not withdraw their names from the elections.29 The social fissures over women representation (p.126) is visible in the representatives of the Naga Hoho (all men), as well as the top leadership of the NSCN (IM), all men again. As a result, it is rather laudable when I observed several hundreds of women take part in the people’s consultation meetings on ceasefire and peace process in Nagaland. I can imagine the odds they had to overcome to just be there. As one kind Naga gentleman told me as I was proceeding to interview Phunthing Simrang, the commander of the NSCN’s Naga army in Diphupar, ‘why don’t you go and find a man and get married. This is not your work. Leave it to the men’.30

The Naga Intra-community dialogue is a sacred process, in place for several decades now, starting in 1950s when the Naga movement for a separate homeland became violent. The dialogue is yet to transcend the intracommunity dialogue stage as the animosity between the Nagas and tribes like, Meiteis, is raw. Both communities suffer from a classic security dilemma, given they occupy overlapping land spaces, and the arming of one lead to the rearmament of the other, propelled by fear and the need for security in conditions where state presence is weak.31 For example, the Nagas in Manipur offer their support to the NSCN (IM), whereas the Meiteis offer their support to the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur. Given the Nagalim map includes four districts of Manipur, the conflict is felt everyday for those who live there.32 Disputes over land have been one of the most enduring for humankind and the bloodiest.

The word dialogue is defined as ‘a sense of creating meaning through talking and reasoning together’.33 Dialogue has to deal with the challenges (p.127) of addressing differences in perceptions, worldviews, and ambiguity regarding the future. According to Hal Sanders of the International Institute of Sustained Dialogue and the Kettering Foundation,

Dialogue is a process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. Each makes a serious effort to take others’ concern into her or his own picture, even when disagreements persists. No participants gives up his or her identity, but each recognizes enough of the other’s valid claims that he or she will act differently towards the other.34

The components of dialogue that are recognized across the field are: inclusiveness; joint ownership; listening, learning and adapting; empathy and humanity; notions of ‘self’ and the ‘other; understanding of context; transparency; and a vision for the future. By inclusiveness is meant the inclusion of all, especially peace-spoilers, thereby undercutting their ability to sabotage a peace process.35 Joint ownership implies that no one actor should hijack the process, but that all stakeholders should feel they have a say; listening, learning and understanding other perspectives for what they are without judgement; empathy and humanity involves something beyond the simple understanding but empathy of a conflicting actor’s point of view, usually hard in circumstances when so much is at stake from a conflict; Notions of ‘self’ and ‘other’ means that instead of negating out others who are different, one constructs their identity by focusing on commonalities; participants in dialogue should have a firm grasp of context; transparency with regard to discourses is critical in conflict-affected societies that suffer from a trust deficit; and there has to be a general sense of where the future lay; or that which is most optimal for human well-being.36

In this light, the Naga intracommunity is inclusive of traditional structures, to include the Tribal Hohos, the Gaon Burahs, or Village (p.128) headmen (both hereditary and elected), Doabashis (village elders), and there are sincere efforts at joint ownership of the process. People are deeply involved. That is why, when Isak Chisi Swu died, the entire state was in mourning and thousands of people lined up to receive his body as it flew from Delhi to Dimapur, people feel deeply connected to a rebel leader who spent his entire life advocating their cause. This is in sharp contrast to the rest of India, where a Naga leader’s passing away did not evoke the same response, mostly limited to newspaper articles and op-eds on his life. This aspect of joint ownership is visible since the 1950s when around 1750 Nagas took part in the 1957 Naga Consultative Meeting (NCM) and the number rose to 3,000 in the third NCM held in 1958. The third NCM was significant as it came up with the idea of a Nagaland state after the 16-point agreement was penned in 1960.37 While Phizo, who was leader of NNC at that time, refused to take part, a Nagaland Peace Mission (NPM) was constituted in 1964 with Assam Chief Minister, Bimala Prasad Chaliha, Jaya Prakash Narayan, leader of the Sarvodaya and Shanti Sena, and Rev. Michael Scott of the Baptist Mission of Nagaland as members.38 Both Jayaprakash Narayan and Michael Scott came to the conclusion at that time that the geographical location of Nagaland risked a direct threat from China and that Nagas should work out an accommodation with the Federal Government of India. This view was, however, rejected by the NNC who wanted complete independence. On 13 April 1965, the Naga Hoho issued a statement ‘Nagaland Declaration for Peace’, in which it acknowledged the role of the NPM and expressed its commitment to resolve the Naga conflict through dialogue.39 This was critical due to tribal differences within the NNC, between Kughato Sumi, chief negotiator with the government, accused of resisting an open dialogue. There were accusations that Phizo was partial to his own tribe, the Angami, in the NNC elevating them to higher leadership positions. The Naga Church, led by (p.129) Rev. Longri Ao, rejected Phizo’s extremism, and opted for a community-based dialogue process.40 It was in this context that the Shillong Accord was signed in 1975 that created further divisions within the rebel movement with Muivah, Swu, and Khaplang, breaking away from the NNC and forming the NSCN in 1980.

The inter-factional killing between Naga rebel members intensified after the NSCN spilt to form the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) in 1988. Given this, the stress on meetings for reconciliation intensified. In March 2009, a ‘Naga Convention for Reconciliation and Peace’ was held in Kohima in order to send across a message of ‘peace and an end to bloodshed and violence’.41 The involvement of organizations like the Naga Hoho and JFGBDB lends credit to the dialogue process as well as creates a counterculture of legitimacy for the purpose of peace. The NSCN (IM) cannot then claim to be the sole representative; there are other, unarmed social representatives. The issue of religion also creates differences as not all Nagas are Christian, and the NSCN (IM) slogan, ‘Nagaland for Christ’ aimed at the majority can create a dissonance from those who follow the Heraka faith. In this, Naga Hoho President Keviloto argues that NSCN (IM) should refrain from using religion as a legitimizing tool for their politics.42 In this process of listening and adapting, it is rather significant to realize that conversations include youths, militant actors, academics, and tribal councils, as well as NMA, and the prolonged process encourages understanding the context, the issues, the biases, as well as those issues that should receive priority. The dialogue was viewed as a (p.130) cooperative rather than a competitive platform aimed at bringing change from conflict. Empathy and humanity can be perceived as well, in terms of hardships felt, and rebel leaders like Isak Chisi Swu have even apologized for the conduct of NSCN (IM) cadres that broke codes of civility when dealing with the local population. In addressing issues of conflict based on ‘self’ and the ‘other’, the Naga dialogue process has utilized face-to-face meetings, common platforms, music, and sports to come together. For instance, in October 2008, cadres of the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) played a football match, specified by Zhapu Terhuja, of the Nagaland Christian Forum as ‘it’s an event which conveys a message to the people that something is taking place, which never has before’, specifically aimed at reconciliation.43

Over the years, the Naga dialogue has increased in scope and reached beyond official representation, limited to politicians and church leaders, rebel groups, and the government, to have an attentive audience, monitoring the process. In this process, women organizations, like Thangkhul Shanao Long (Thangkhul Women’s Organization) have played major roles in averting violence, like in 2009, between the Assam Rifles and the NSCN (IM) in Shirui Village, Ukhrul district of Manipur.44 Such attitudes to include all, can be dependent on social power structures, who to include and who to exclude, buttressed by a very centralized structure that is followed by the NSCN (IM), NNC, and NSCN (K). That said, the deep involvement of Naga communities in the peace process, the amount of space accorded to the conflict in local newspapers, the conversations over tea and coffee, matter. This, in turn, offers local people with a realistic perspective of the conflict at hand, and strive to resolve it or for some to stimulate it further.

As I left Kohima that July morning in 2007, I looked back at all the hopes, and dialogues, the conversations over Naga pork and smoked fish over several fires of both hope and despair on what the future held for this (p.131) beautiful but damaged land, suffering from both armed conflict and the presence of Indian military in large numbers. As I was walking to the taxi waiting to take me back to Dimapur, I saw a small boy in military fatigues smile at me. I smiled back wondering whether he realized what that kind of clothing encourages—violence or dialogue.


(1) Wangshimenla Jamir, The Aos of Nagaland (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2014).

(2) Brain Reed, ‘A Social Network Approach to Understanding an Insurgency’, Parameters (Summer 2007), at https://ssi.armywarcollege.edu/pubs/parameters/articles/07summer/reed.pdf (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(3) Mamudu A. Akudugu and Edward S. Mahama, ‘Promoting Community-Based Conflict Management and Resolution Mechanisms in the Bawku Traditional Area of Ghana’, Peace Research 43/1(2011): 80–103, at https://www.jstor.org/stable/23607864?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(4) Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism (New Delhi: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1993).

(5) Author Conversations in Hongkong Market, Dimapur 2007. All names have been changed to protect people interviewed.

(6) Author office at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, 2013.

(7) The Hindu Special Correspondent, ‘Protests against Extortion by Extremists Hits Life in Dimapur’, The Hindu, 31 October 2018, at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/protest-against-extortion-by-extremists-hits-life-in-dimapur/article25383819.ece (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(8) Sudeep Chakravarti, ‘Nagaland’s ACAUT Display Immense Courage Against a Corrupt State Machinery’, First Post, 20 June 2017, at https://www.firstpost.com/india/nagalands-acaut-displays-immense-courage-against-a-corrupt-state-machinery-3713161.html (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(9) Kallol Dey, ‘Illegal Taxation Continues to Haunt Nagaland, Government Employees Deride National Investigation Agency’, The Indian Express, 7 January 2018, at https://indianexpress.com/article/north-east-india/nagaland/illegal-taxation-continues-to-haunt-nagaland-government-employees-deride-national-investigation-agency-4951172/ (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(10) For understanding the Inner Line Permit, please visit ‘Inner Line Permit’, at http://www.arunachalipr.gov.in/?page_id=55 (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(11) Francis Wheen, Karl Marx: A Life (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001). Also see Marshall Berman, Adventures in Marxism (London & New York: Verso, 1999).

(12) Christopher Von Furer-Haimendorf, The Naked Nagas (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1962), p. ii.

(13) David Vumlallian Zu, ‘Riding the Dreaded Past: Representation of Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North-east India’, Contributions to Indian Sociology, 39/1 (2005), at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (Accessed on 27 April 2018), p. 79.

(14) Namrata Goswami, ‘A Way Out of Naga Factional Violence’, IDSA Strategic Comment, 23 July 2008, at https://idsa.in/idsastrategiccomments/AWayOutofNagaFactionalViolence_NGoswami_230708 (Accessed on 2 November 2018). Namrata Panwar, ‘From Nationalism to Factionalism: Faultlines in the Naga Insurgency’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 28/1 (2017), at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09592318.2016.1233642?scroll=top&needAccess=true&journalCode=fswi20 (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(16) Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos (556–468 BC) who wrote after the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC:

  • Go tell the Spartans, thou that passest by,
  • That faithful to their precepts here we lie.’

For more, see Sid Harrison, ‘Kohima Epithet’, Burma Star Association, 18 March 2001, at https://www.burmastar.org.uk/memorials/kohima-epitaph/ (Accessed on 27 April 2018).

(17) John Humtsoe, ‘Forum for Naga Reconciliation: An Appraisal’, 5 April 2013 at https://nagalandjournal.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/forum-for-naga-reconciliation-an-appraisal/ (Accessed on 1 May 2018).

(18) The Telegraph Correspondent, ‘Naga Hoho Backs Peace Talks’, The Telegraph, 30 October 2012, at https://www.telegraphindia.com/1121031/jsp/northeast/story_16139589.jsp (Accessed on 1 May 2018).

(19) Namrata Goswami, ‘The Naga Intra-Community Dialogue: Preventing and Managing Violent Ethnic Conflict’, Global Change, Peace & Security 22/1 (2010): 93–120.

(20) Namrata Goswami, ‘Behind the Surge in Naga Violence’, The Hindu, 13 June 2008, at https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/Behind-the-surge-in-Naga-violence/article15240612.ece (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(21) Edward Azar, Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1990).

(23) Author conversations with Hoho members, 2007 and 2013, Nagaland. By Our Correspondent, ‘Muivah Talks of “Special Federal Relationship” with India’, The Hindu, 29 April 2005, at https://www.thehindu.com/2005/04/29/stories/2005042904201200.htm (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(24) ‘BBC Hard Talk: Th.Muivah, Part I’, YouTube, 29 April 2018, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D4k0PgL1Kok (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(25) Student interaction with author, Delhi University, 2015.

(26) Dolly Kekon, ‘What Kind of Nagaland Are We Moving Towards? A Naga Feminist Reflects on the Row Over Women Quota’, The Wire, 2 March 2017, at https://scroll.in/article/830065/what-kind-of-nagaland-are-we-moving-towards-a-naga-feminist-reflects-on-the-row-over-womens-quota (Accessed on 2 May 2018).

(27) Lianboi Vaiphei, ‘Equality and Tradition Clash as Naga Women in India’s Northeast Fight for Political Representation’, The Conversation, 2 March 2017, at https://theconversation.com/equality-and-tradition-clash-as-naga-women-in-indias-northeast-fight-for-political-representation-73804 (Accessed on 2 May 2018).

(28) Utpal Parashar, ‘Assembly Elections: Once Again, Nagaland Fails to Elect a Woman Legislator’, The Hindustan Times, 4 March 2018, at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/assembly-election-results-once-again-nagaland-fails-to-elect-a-woman-legislator/story-KsHAmFZLVKXSKaiWVczuoK.html (Accessed on 2 May 2018).

(29) Makepeace Sitlhou, ‘Threatened, Excommunicated and Banished: Where Do Women Candidates in Nagaland Stand Today?’, Scroll.in, 23 December 2017, at https://scroll.in/magazine/859390/threatened-excommunicated-and-banished-where-do-women-candidates-in-nagaland-stand-today (Accessed on 2 May 2018).

(30) Author interaction in Diphupar, Nagaland, 2007.

(31) This is a classic security dilemma as described by Barry R. Posen, ‘The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict’, Survival 35/1 (1993): 27–47, at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396339308442672 (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(32) For more on dialogues, please see Goswami, ‘The Naga Intra-community Dialogue’, pp. 93–120. Prasenjit Biswas and Chandan Sukhalabaidya, Ethnic Life-Worlds in North-East India An Analysis (New Delhi: Sage, 2008).

(33) Benjamin J. Broone and Ann-Sofi Jakobsson Hatay, ‘Building Peace in Divided Societies: The Role of Intergroup Dialogue’, in Sage Handbook of Conflict Communication Integrating Theory, Research and Practise, John G. Oetzel and Stella Ting-Toomey (eds) (London: Sage, 2006), p. 630.

(34) Bettye Pruitt and Philip Thomas, Democratic Dialogue: A Handbook for Practitioners (Washington, DC and New York: GS/OAS, IDEA, UNDP: 2007), pp. 20–1.

(35) Stephen John Stedman, ‘Spoiler Problems in Peace Processes’, International Security, 22/2 (1997): 553.

(37) V.K. Nuh and Wetshokhrolo Lasuh, The Naga Chronicle (New Delhi: Regency Publications, 2002).

(38) Gordon P. Means, ‘Ceasefire Politics in Nagaland’, Asian Survey 11/10 (1971): 1005–28.

(39) Tatar Hoho, ‘Naga Declaration of Peace’, 3 April 1965; Nuh and Lasuh, The Naga Chronicle, pp. 223–5.

(40) A.S. Shimray, Let Freedom Ring: Story of Naga Nationalism (New Delhi: Promilla, 2005), p. 86.

(41) Vibhou Ganguly, ‘Peace and Reconciliation Convention Held in Nagaland’, Thaindian News, 3 June 2009, at http://www.thaindian.com/newsportal/india-news/peace-and-reconciliation-convention-held-in-nagaland_100163818.html (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(42) Speech by Keviloto, Secretary, Naga Hoho, Camp Hebron, Near Dimapur, Nagaland, 27 July 2007, where I was present as a researcher studying conflict. Author participation in the NSCN (IM) People’s Consultative Meeting (PGM), Camp Hebron, Nagaland, 27 July 2007. For more information, see Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organization, ‘Nagalim towards an Extension of the Truce’, 30 July 2007, https://unpo.org/article/7004 (Accessed on 30 October 2019).

(43) Nagalim News, ‘Historical Football Match Played by Warring factions of Naga Underground Groups’, Nagalim News, October 2008, at http://www.nagalim.nl/news/archive-102008.html (Accessed on 2 November 2018).

(44) Nandita Haskar, ‘Machiavelli’s Cease-fire and the Indo-Naga Peace Process’, Mainstream Weekly XL VII/16 (April 2009), at http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article1276.html (Accessed on 2 November 2018).