‘Gandhi supported the Naga desire for independence’

From Tehelka Magazine Vol 7, Issue 43, Dated October 30, 2010

For more than six decades, a section of the Naga community has been fighting for freedom. Naga National Council veteran Thinoselie Keyho tells AVALOK LANGER why the battle is not over yet


Tucked away in the Northeast, a 60-year-old insurgency festers unresolved. Exposed to the nationalistic fervour that gripped Europe during World War I, Naga workers returning from France took the first step towards creating a unified identity by forming the Naga Club (NC) in 1918. As cohesiveness grew among the 16 Naga tribes, the NC gave way to the Naga National Council, under whose leadership, the struggle for freedom started.

Citing religious, historical and cultural differences with India, the Nagas wanted their own state. The tribes, who were conquered and ruled by the British, felt they should be left as they were: independent. On 14 August 1947, as the British Raj crumbled, Nagaland celebrated its independence day. The failure of talks and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s aggressive policy propelled a strategic shift from political to military, and the Naga insurgency was born.

Lt Gen Thinoselie M Keyho, 80, has been one of the driving forces of the Naga National Council. Excerpts from an interview with one of the outfit’s senior most leaders:

Why did the initial talks with the Indian government fail?
Nehru pounded the table and said that even if the sky falls, he or any other Indian PM will not give Nagas independence. Sometimes, I wonder if it was an outburst or a prophecy. Everything changed after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. He loved and encouraged us. He supported our decision to be independent. If he hadn’t been assassinated, well who knows…

What made you join the NNC?
I was asked the same question in Delhi.

Did you like Delhi?
Well, I spent four years in Delhi, all of them in Tihar Jail. I didn’t get to see much of the city. I was a political prisoner in the 1970s. I have lived through what the Indian government has done to the Nagas. I have seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears. The Assam Rifles came to our village and killed two Gaon Buras (village leaders). They tied them and put them on display at the village square. The troop leader mocked them as they lay there dead, tied to a bamboo pole. He warned us that we would suffer the same fate.

We weren’t scared. Instead of discouraging us, it angered us. We are tribals, we had to avenge their deaths, so we joined the movement. If violence begets violence, it was started by the Indian government. They started with the ballot war, but when it failed (the first national election was boycotted by the Nagas), India started the bullet war.

This recurring trend of “anger over fear” was explained to me by Kaka Iralu, the custodian of Naga history. It stems from the strong sense of our tribal identity. A Naga is never alone; we know our obligation, our duty to the tribe. If a Naga is killed by an outsider, it is our duty to avenge his death. Maybe fear by example was not such a good idea.

There are rumours that the NNC received training and support from the Chinese. Are they true?
If you want peace, prepare for war. The Indian government used peace talks (it offered general amnesty in 1957-58) to buy time to close in on us. But before they did, we went to China (in 1967-68). People still wonder how we managed that. Was it by car, bike, plane or train? they ask. With old maps and a compass, we walked. It was tough, we weren’t experts at using a compass and villages on the map weren’t on the ground and vice versa. All we had was our faith in God that we would make it. We received food and shelter from the locals as we moved from one village to another. Hunted by the Indian and Burmese army, we posed as a Christian peace mission to get by. When we reached near the Hokan Valley in Burma, the Kachin Independence Army took us under their wing and guided us to China.


What happened when you reached China?
The Chinese were not aware that we were coming. They were surprised when we crossed into the country and walked right up to their border camp. We were forced to stay at the camp for 10 days, waiting for the translators to arrive. It was tough to communicate before that because no one spoke English. Once the translators came and we explained our situation, everything was alright.

Then they took our boys to the barracks and trained them in combat, while Thuingaleng Muivah and I were taken to see some of the important places in China. The Chinese believe that “seeing is believing” and they wanted to show us how they were successfully building their nation.

We learnt a lot more from the Chinese than we did in Pakistan (East Pakistan 1962-63). While the Pakistanis had given us basic training and some weapons, the Chinese not only trained our boys to fight but also taught us military strategy and gave us political and psychosocial training.

What happened after that?
While Muivah stayed behind, I led half of the group back and we managed to sneak back into India undetected. Armed with AKs given by the Chinese (the NNC was the first to have AKs in India) our morale was high as our boys, who were better trained and equipped, inflicted heavy losses on the Indian Army. All India Radio announced that both sides had suffered 300 casualties. It was then I knew that the Indian Army had suffered heavy losses. We were a group of 60 Nagas surrounded by 2,000 Indian soldiers. If Muivah had made it back from China, the situation in Nagaland would be very different today.

Having been a part of the Naga people’s movement from the start, what do you feel when you see Nagaland today?
Earlier, the Nagas were described as sincere, hardworking and honest people. Where are those qualities today? Nagaland has become a spoilt child; corruption and laziness are rampant and the Indian government supports this. When officials come from India, they are bluffed by the local officials. Even if 50 percent of what the Indian government gives to Nagaland is utilised effectively, we would be one of the most developed states in the country. Instead, we have 300-400 crorepatis awash in corrupt money. Corruption is not restricted to government officials and politicians, but it has crept into our boys as well.

What is the next step for Nagaland?
We can only move forward once the different factions (NSCN-IM, NSCN-K, NNC and FGN) resolve their differences. The summit for reconciliation held on 18 September is misleading. It was not inclusive and the groups are now voicing their reservations. I don’t know if this unity will last. We all need to sit together and have a face-to-face talk. A lot of blood has been shed and a lot of ill will has been created. We can never forget, but we have to forgive, whether we like it or not. India will take us seriously only if we are united and sincere. If the Indian government sees Nagaland as a political problem, then please send politicians, not the military. The army is taught to fight, kill and destroy, not to build. India has to be sincere in its efforts. The Nagas may be confused, but Delhi is even worse.

Is sovereignty still your demand?
Are you willing to compromise? We have fought for it and bled for it. We want independence. We are not worried about our economy. Our land is rich and our soil is fertile, our economy will grow. If India recognises our rights and our independence, Nagaland will be a good neighbour. As for compromise, I want 100 percent. But if the Naga people agree to 90 percent, who am I to argue otherwise.

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