‘If India thinks we are Indians because we are now using Indian passports that will not work’
India and Nagalim will exist side by side and have joint defence structure
For the past six months, 76-year-old Thuingaleng Muivah, General Secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, the NSCN(IM), has been flitting in and out of India in search of a solution to the decades-old Nagaland issue. On 14 August 1947, the Nagas declared themselves independent under the leadership of then Naga leader AZ Phizo. Since then, they have been fighting what they perceive as an Indian invasion. At the moment, Muivah is in India for talks with the Centre. Until now, New Delhi and the NSCN(IM) have been talking in locations outside India. Now, Muivah has agreed to talks within India. This is being seen as a positive sign. Also, NSCN(IM) Chairman Isak Chishi Swu has recently accepted an Indian passport. So, what’s cooking? In this interview in New Delhi, his first in over a year, Muivah tells Avalok Langer that the Nagas are open to a compromise solution to end the protracted battle. Edited excerpts of the interview:
On 23 January, on his return from Bangkok, Chairman Swu accepted an Indian passport for the first time. Is this a sign of a breakthrough?
Well, passports are not the number one issue on our agenda. Our main focus is the political problem and how to solve it. For Swu and myself, travelling in and out of the country on any other passport is not a problem and we have previously rejected Indian passports. But there is the question of expediency and respecting the sentiments of India. So the last time, on Swu’s return, we told them we won’t hesitate to use an Indian passport, but only under certain conditions. For example, allegiance to the Indian Constitution or to the Indian Government is not applicable in our case.
But doesn’t holding an Indian passport, directly or indirectly, signify that you are an Indian? Every passport has a section labelled ‘Nationality’. Doesn’t yours say Indian?
In our case it is ‘not applicable’. If India thinks we are Indians because we are now using Indian passports, that will not work. It is good that we respect each other; that is required for talks to progress. If the agenda is to show us as Indians, we will reject the passports even now. Sometimes, such confusion from a legal or political point of view can develop into something else. But this is not the issue. The main issue is how much we can appreciate each other. If there is a rational approach, it must be respected. That is number one and that should be the way to talk and handle the issue.
Starting in 1920, the Naga political struggle has had many milestones and demands, but today 13 years into ceasefire and talks with the Centre, what are the Naga demands at present?
It was made clear upfront that the Nagas are not demanding anything from India. Our history is clear, and right at the start of the talks we insisted on the recognition of the facts of Naga history by the Government of India because we cannot have talks without any basis. It will amount to us demanding from India, our independence and our sovereignty. But our independence and our sovereignty would be according to the facts of Naga history. Naga history is unique. It cannot be changed, it cannot be distorted.
The Nagas greatly respect Mahatma Gandhi because he respected the history of the Nagas. The father of the Indian nation had made it clear, “Nagas have the right to be independent. Why should you force the Nagas? I don’t believe in the use of force and the Nagas should have their independence.” We respect his wisdom. He knew that use of force solves nothing. But, unfortunately, after the untimely demise of Mahatma Gandhi the leadership changed, and so did the rules.
Nehru had no patience for Naga history. He proclaimed, “It would be a matter of only a few days for the Indian forces to crush the Nagas. Even if blood flows and the sky falls I will not let Nagas be independent”. Why? Nehru or his family, or the Gandhi family, did not make Nagalim. How can Indians think that the Nagas are subject to the whims of a family. That is not possible, we don’t accept that kind of philosophy. This attitude hurt us in the past, and it still hurts us. Until Indians, particularly the Indian leadership, understand the objective reality of the Nagas, there will be no solution.
It was only after five years of heated discussion, that the Government of India recognised the uniqueness of Naga history and the Naga situation. From there, we started respecting them. We live in a world where right to self-determination is an international practice and the Nagas are not an exception. So, to answer your question, we are demanding nothing from India. But if the term ‘demand’ is to be used, the Nagas are demanding that the Government of India be more rational in its approach to Naga politics.
Previously, the NSCN(IM) had suggested a federal structure as a solution. Could you please elaborate?
In this century, we know that no country is totally independent, and no nation is totally sovereign. interdependence has become critical. If this is so, the Nagas will also try to understand the needs of India. The Nagas should have a position from where they decide what is best for them and it should be the same for India. If federalism is preferable to India and the Nagas, it will be a federation of India on one side and Nagalim on the other. While the terms of relations will have to be worked out, under no circumstance should Nagalim be treated as a state in India. That, we cannot accept.
You are talking of a federal structure between two sovereigns, India and Nagalim. Won’t that lead to a clash of sovereignties? Who will compromise?
Sovereignty belongs to the people. Both sides have to accept this. Sovereignty of Nagalim belongs to the Naga people. Sovereignty of India belongs to the Indian people. this must be accepted, but in what way. When we say negotiations, it naturally involves sacrifices from both sides. But if India says we are so mighty and starts dismissing the Nagas, thinking that we will be satisfied with a political handout, that will not be acceptable.
So we have given in our proposals. One of them is this – according to the uniqueness of Naga history, Nagas must have the right to exercise what is best for them, but taking into consideration the necessity of India. That is the only way some kind of special relationship can be worked out.
The NSCN(IM) often talks of achieving an honourable solution. What do you mean by that?
I would say that when we talk of the type of solution we have been sitting for, we say politically we cannot subjugate ourselves to others. That is one of the most important issues, something that is indispensable to the Nagas. In short, if the Government of India asked us to be a part of the Indian unit, that is not possible for us. But then again if we are to be totally out of India, the government will not accept it. So we have to find a middle path. It will not be easy to outline it, but we have to. We want a solution that will last long, and honour it because it respects the wishes of both parties.
For example, we say, yes Nagalim can have a joint defence structure with India. Why? Because, if an external force were to raid and occupy Nagalim, it would naturally compromise India’s security. We know that interdependence is already there. The security of Nagalim will involve the readiness of India to defend herself. How can Nagalim be the base for an external force to attack India? So, we must be rational and in the same way the Government of India must be rational. That is our approach now. We have told them time and again, the Nagas are not your enemy.
‘If the Government of India is prepared, and if we are prepared, many things are possible’
But land, people and politics cannot be separated. That is our philosophy
When you talk of a special relationship, are you looking at something like Article 370?
We don’t think we would like to copy that. Something that suits the Naga situation would have to be worked out; something that is not dangerous to the free existence of the Nagas. I don’t mean complete independence, I don’t mean complete sovereignty. But this is to be worked out. India is also not completely independent, dependences are there. However, the question is does the Government of India have the will to work out a solution along those lines. I think it would be better if you put the questions you have put me, to them.
What system of governance would you follow in Nagalim?
Historically, most of the Nagas live in some form of a republic. For instance, village republics based on a federal clan and sub-clan structure. People in every village, in almost every tribe, will democratically decide what is best for them. So, right from the start, the Nagas have followed democracy and the people’s decision has always prevailed. That kind of system is the best and we would go for such a system.
Do you think an independent Nagalim would survive in a globalised world when Nagalim’s infrastructure is so poor?
Your question is prudent. One has to admit the actual realities around us. These are the problems that we would have to solve through negotiation. The Nagas will not be fanatics, the Nagas will be realists and that realism would have to be interpreted in rational terms. This is what we want.
You talk of being realistic, but central to your movement has been the idea of establishing Nagalim by bringing Naga-dominated areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Myanmar under a single administrative umbrella. With mounting opposition from Manipur, Assam and Arunachal, is it a realistic goal?
The basic point here is that the Nagas were never divided by themselves. This fact must be admitted. Who divided the Nagas? We were first divided by the British and then by India. Say another force comes, on a whim the Nagas will be divided again. We cannot accept that. The Nagas never decided to become a part of the Meiteis (Manipur), Assam, or Arunachal Pradesh. The Naga people are sovereign, so the Naga people must decide.
Land, people and politics cannot be separated. That is our philosophy and we are not demanding anything that doesn’t belong to us. We cannot accept an artificial division on a map. The Nagas will have what is theirs and there is nothing wrong in standing up for that.
Is it justice if Nagalim is created at the cost of three states and a country?
The Government of India is saying there should be consensus between the states, but where was the consensus when the Naga land was divided? Were the Naga people asked when they divided our land between Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh? They didn’t. How can they talk about consensus today?
Whatever we do, whatever we stand for, is seen as wrong; while they are always right. This is monster logic. The Nagas cannot accept monster logic. We will not take anything that belongs to other people. There was no Arunachal Pradesh until 1972 but a large chunk of Naga-dominated area has been given to them. The government wants to please everyone at the expense of the Nagas.
Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh cannot have feelings against us. They cannot deny that there are Nagas in those areas. They cannot deny that there is a Nagaland. We are not against them. If we demand Imphal, yes, they can feel bad and we will accept that we are wrong. But what is ours, give it to us. Let us not quarrel over these things. The Nagas must have their due share.
The movement has been on for so many years but despite popular support, development is close to zero. Corruption is huge. There are no facilities outside the towns – no schools, no hospitals, no roads. Why?
I appreciate these kinds of questions. In order to have the correct perspective, we have to go back to the so-called Indian policy makers. Different parties want to rule the so-called Nagaland state. That is the problem. Corruption has started from there. There was no corruption among the Nagas, but today there is corruption everywhere, along with the authority the Centre imposes on the Nagas. This is the problem. Give the Nagas the power to rule themselves. Let us see if the Nagas are really corrupt. Today, there is no doubt that corruption exists. Let the solution come. Let the Nagas look after themselves. If there is still corruption, then blame the Nagas.
It is believed that the NSCN(IM) collects taxes but is not part of development activities. Is it not part of your agenda?
At the moment we don’t have that. We have many programmes for the welfare of the people, but the situation affects our authority to implement them. The situation restricts our programmes. Once the problem is solved, we would be able to freely work on the welfare of the people.
Of all the Naga factions, you are the only group to have engaged with the Centre in talks. Wouldn’t a permanent solution need you to reconcile with the other factions?
One cannot say that. There is nothing wrong if we try to understand each other and if we try to forgive each other. But if there is no possibility, what to do? Though theoretically it sounds good, it is wise if we go down to the situation on the ground. The NSCN(IM) stood its ground through bitter days and several crises. The Khaplang group was on the Indian side, as were the Shillong Accordee group and the NNC. They did not fight against each other. All of them came together to fight us. Even the Burmese were with them. We were left alone. We fought furiously and by the grace of god, we were able to re-establish ourselves. When the time for talks came, the Centre realised that the real force is the NSCN(IM). So they approached us for negotiations. We did not approach them.
Where were the other groups, and what did they do? We have always fought for the Naga cause, while they have been working with the Indian Government. If they join in the talks, do you think a solution would emerge? Don’t you think it would allow these people to come in and wreck things for us? Are we to go in for that? Anyway, we want reconciliation. Because we are all Nagas, we can forgive each other. But first I must admit my mistakes. Are they prepared to admit their mistakes? If they don’t, reconciliation is not possible.
The NSCN(IM) is known as the mother of all insurgencies. You have supported and created most of the other insurgent groups. What was your reasoning?
It can be interpreted from different perspectives. Sometimes, it was not about ideology. Tactical or strategic necessities were there. At the same time, you have the moral obligation to help with problems faced by some people because if you don’t, they will be in danger. From the point of strategy, operations should not be left to the opposition alone. Right or wrong, we have to see that the field is not occupied by the opponent and I think that is expedient. It is not necessarily a question of right and wrong. It about what is needed.
Recent media reports spoke about Anthony Shimray, an arrested leader of your group, revealing that the NSCN(IM) is purchasing arms. Are you?
You cannot stop us from buying arms. The reason is that we cannot say what would eventually happen. Also, we need to protect ourselves against the groups the Government of India has used against us. But we have not brought those arms into the country, not even a bullet. After the ceasefire, we have not killed a single Indian solider. Show me the proof; give me one instance if you can. We have kept our word. We have returned all arms that we have captured, but the government has not honoured its ceasefire commitments. They continued to attack our camps, capture our arms and cadres.
How are we to understand the Government of India’s logic when they keep changing the rules to suit themselves? We cannot sit and wait for an opponent to kill us just because we have signed a ceasefire with the government. We have to defend ourselves. Anytime, anywhere. The Government of India must appreciate this.
Last year, you were prevented from entering Manipur en route to your home town. How did it affect you?
Is it not proper on my part to visit my birthplace and my native town? I had not been home for 38 years. When the Indian Government agreed to let me go, I was stopped at the Manipur–Nagaland border. People were not happy so they launched a rally. Then the Manipur commandos attacked and two innocent Nagas were killed. How am I to understand your government? Where is the sincerity? How can they back out when they have given their commitment? Are they under the control of Ibobi (Chief Minister of Manipur)? We don’t want to create problems, but the government keeps creating hurdles.
We have been patience. We have waited 13 years. We are not fearful of India. We don’t fear anyone but is this how you handle the situation? We believe India is taking matters seriously, and they will talk in a more serious way. If the government is prepared and if we are prepared, many things are possible. It is up to the wisdom of the Indian Government, how they treat the Nagas. If they treat us the same way Nehru did, it would be a blunder on their part.