‘India listened to us only when we took up arms’

The Naga rebellion has spawned many groups in the past 60 years. NSCN-IM’s Maj Gen Phunthing Shimray tells AVALOK LANGER that his outfit wants to bring all Nagas under one administrative umbrella

Nestled in the dense jungles of the Naga Hills, the Naga people’s movement simmers, ignored and unresolved. Since 1946, the Naga National Council (NNC) had championed the cause, but today, a new generation of separatists hold the reins of the movement.

Dissatisfied and unwilling to accept the controversial Shillong Accord, by which members of the NNC came overground and surrendered, Isak Chisi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah and SS Khaplang broke away from the group and formed the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in 1980. With external support, the NSCN pushed towards self-reliance and sustainability. As it grew into a modern, organised and lethal movement, it lent support to other rebel outfits.

In 1988, the NSCN split into NSCN-IM (Isak Chisi Swu and Th. Muivah) and NSCN-K (SS Khaplang). Today, 10 years into the ceasefire, Nagaland’s demand for freedom remains intact. Excerpts from an interview with Maj Gen Phunthing Shimray, one of the new generation leaders, in Mokokchung:

What is keeping the Naga movement going?

When I go to India, they tell me, ‘You are a part of India, you should be happy that you have everything.’ But I want to be free, I want my right to choose. India’s claim to Nagaland is a legal one, because Nagaland was handed over to them by the British. But nations aren’t just born, they are created by people coming together. It is not about having a legal right, it is about the aspirations of the people and their right to choose. We never chose India. If the aspirations of a people are not met, there will always be conflict. For 200 years, the British ignored the aspirations of India and this gave rise to the Indian freedom struggle. Today, India is ignoring the aspirations of the Nagas and we are fighting for our right to self-determination.

The NSCN has been described as ‘the mother of insurgencies’ in the Northeast. Did it offer support to other movements?

If you are beaten up every now and then, won’t you raise your voice? Won’t you seek legal recourse? If the law fails you, then what, won’t you take it up yourself? It is not a question of helping them; it is about struggling people aspiring for their rights. India talks about 8 percent growth, but who is growing, my friend? Not the common man. India’s democracy is only benefiting the privileged few. Earlier, the Northeast was considered untouchable, it was ignored, a taboo of sorts. No one looked at us or heard our problems when we used the democratic process. But now that we have taken up arms, the Indians listen. We may have helped some of the organisations, but all of them have their own source: the people.

Rumour has it that the NSCN-IM actively helped the Naxal movement. Is there any truth in this?

Yes, we helped them, but not since the commencement of the ceasefire (10 years ago). For us, it is not about left, right, capitalist or communist. It is about the people, about their rights and aspirations.

What is your reply to those who believe that development will end the Naga insurgency?

It has been 60 years, if it had to, it would have died out by now. The Indian government pumps in crores every year but nationalism can’t be bought, it comes from the heart. Even if Dimapur and Kohima become like Kolkata, the movement will not die. Yes, there may be some who are taken in by development, but the numbers are with the movement. It is not about money, it is not about development. It is about our rights, our freedom and the uniqueness of the Naga people who can’t be bought.

The NSCN-IM leaders visited Delhi in March and submitted a list of 30 confidential demands. Some media reports said they had given up the demand for sovereignty and only want greater autonomy…

What does greater autonomy mean to you? To me, it means sovereignty. We cannot compromise on that, it is the right of the people, the will of the Nagas. In a democratic set-up, the will of the people is supreme. We also asked for separate passports. If I have a separate identity from you, wouldn’t I want my own passport? Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) has always been our goal, we have always wanted to bring all Nagas under one administrative umbrella. There is nothing new about that.

Like Jammu and Kashmir was given its own constitution, flag and special provisions, would you be willing to go down that path?

That is not an option. We don’t want a Naga version of Article 370. It has done nothing for the Kashmiris. It gave them all the power to run their state, but at the same time India took it all back. So, what’s the use? You need a home, a place you call your own, a place you can go back to. Once you have that, you can travel the world. Without that, you are a man without a country. For example, where do you originally come from? (I try to explain my confusing mixture of pre-Partition North West Frontier and Kashmiri lineage. He smiled and continued…) See, you didn’t fight for your homeland and now you have lost it. You are a man without a nation and that is a future we won’t settle for.

How do you react when people say that the Naga people’s movement is an insurgency? Does that bother you?

Bhagat Singh was called a terrorist once. People said he was just an angry man acting out of frustration, but he was not afraid to die for his beliefs. He was a one-man army battling the British, but he fought for his cause, his people. The British labelled him a terrorist, an underground element, but today, he is revered as a freedom fighter, a national hero.

When I was young, I saw my people struggling. That is why I wanted to help my people. I am pushed to lead my people by my conviction. I am who I am and you are who you are, but we must learn to accept each other for our differences. Then we can move forward, that is what I want.

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