Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Naga People

The Naga people live in the North East of India and North West of Burma. Consisting of more than 50 distinct tribes, they are proud care-takers of a wealth of cultural heritage and knowledge. Since the 19th century, Naga areas have been colonised, first by the British, and then by the Indians and Burmese. In the face of oppression, Naga people have struggled fiercely for independence, and to protect their lands, tradition and heritage.

The Nagas are a group of tribal people inhabiting the Indian state of Nagaland, parts of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and the northwestern hill tracks of Myanmar such as the Sagaing Division. The numerous Naga languages (sometimes classified as dialects) belong to the Tibeto-Burman languages group of the Sino-Tibetan languages family. Nagas traditionally are tribally organized, with a strong warrior tradition. Their villages are sited on hilltops and till the later part of the 19th century, they make frequent armed raids on the plains below. Although the tribes do not form a homogeneous group considering the diversity in their language and traditions, they have many similarities in their culture which set them apart from the neighboring occupants of the region. The Nagas today number around 4 million in population.

Nagaland and Nagalim
Technically, they are the same; lim is simply a Naga word for land. However, in 1963 India created a state called ‘Nagaland’ covering a small portion of Nagaland. To avoid confusion, ‘Nagalim’ is now used to refer to the entire Naga homeland currently bifurcated between India and Burma (Myanmar).

The greater Nagaland(Nagalim)
The greater Nagaland is called Nagalim by the nationalists of Naga people. Nagaland (Nagalim) is a nation occupying an area of 120,000 sq. km of the Patkai Range at the tri-junction of China, India and Burma. Nagalim was apportioned between India and Burma. The part which India claims is subdivided and placed under four different administrative units: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland states. The eastern part which Burma claims is placed under two administrative units: Kachin State and Sagaing Division (formerly known as the Naga Hills). The area inhabited by the Naga tribes is bounded by the Hukawng Valley in the northeast, the plains of the Brahmaputra Valley in the northwest, Cachar in the southwest and the Chindwin River in the east. In the south, the Manipur Valley marks the point of contact between the Naga tribes and the Kuki tribes.

Early history

There is no scholarly consensus regarding the early origins of the Nagas and very little is known of the Mongoloid groups whose southwesterly migration brought them to the sub Himalayan region of north-eastern India and north-western Myanmar.These tribes speak Tibeto-Burman dialects and it is probable that their original homeland was in the region between the Huang Ho and Yangtze (Ch'ang) rivers in northwestern China and that they came in successive waves of migration spreading over centuries.

Oral traditions abound among the many tribes regarding how they came, dispersed etc. but such accounts are steeped in myth and superstition and hence no concrete facts about their arrival to the region can emerge.

Although the presence of mongoloid groups in the region had been attested as early as 10 B.C. the Nagas had maintained little outside contact till the later part of the 13th century. Their existence was mentioned by Ptolemy in about 15O A.D. The word 'Nagaloi' was penned by Claudius Ptolemy a Greek Philosopher and historian in his Geographia Volume (ii) page 18.

After settlement in the mountains and after Ptolemy's mention, there is an ominous silence of nearly five centuries. They suddenly reappeared in historical records when the Chinese pilgrim Huang Tsang mentions about them in AD 645 when he visited Assam. He wrote:

" …the frontiers are contagious to the barbarians of South West China. These tribes are in fact akin to those of the main people in their custom."

After this, there was another silence of another six centuries before they reappear again in the pages of written history. These accounts were found in the historical records of the Ahom Kings (Borungis) who came from Thailand under their King Sukhapa and settled down in the plains of Assam in the 13th century. The route they took to enter the Assam plains was through the Patkai range of Naga territory and their records show that they had many fierce battles with the Naga’s. The Naga’s were then already settled in their lands before the migration of the Ahoms. In recorded history Naga’s had inhabited their lands since AD l50.

Curious coincidences of culture and language through the Pacific led some scholars to suggest that the Nagas were an off-shoot of groups which had originally descended from the central Asian plateau. Their burial customs, ornamentation, agricultural practices and even games and crafts, linked them strongly to the tribal peoples of Borneo and the Philippines.

Contact with the outside world

Apart from cultural contacts with the neighbouring Ahoms, the rulers of Assam from 1228, the Nagas had little or no contact with the outside world. Real exposure to the outside world came with the British annexation of Assam in 1828 following the Treaty of Yandabo.

The Nagas first came into contact with the British in 1832 when Captain Jenkins and Pamberton along with 700 soldiers and 800 coolies marched across Angami and Zeliangrong areas in their attempt to find a route from Manipur to Assam. They fought many fierce battles with the Naga tribes along their way into Assam. There were many casualties on both sides.

Following their first encounter many expeditions were sent into the Naga Hills to tame and control these turbulent tribesmen. The reasons for sending these expeditions was to control and prevent them from their marauding forays into the plains of Assam and Manipur which were then already under British protectorate.

Many major and minor encounters were fought with many villages and tribes. In many of these battles there were times when the casualties on both sides rose over three hundred; e.g. the battle of Kekruma, Khonoma, etc. In these battles the British used canons and muskets whereas the Naga’s fought back with their spears, daos, arrows and stones. The British advantage of modern weaponry finally subdued the Naga’s and the British presence and administration in the Naga Hills was finally achieved in 1881.

In the 1830s the British sent expeditionary forces and in 1845 the colonial power succeeded in concluding a non-aggression pact with Naga Chiefs who used to attack the bordering areas in Assam. But the Nagas violated the agreement time and again and their war and peace tactics continued.

Since the 1830s, the attempts by the British to annex the region were met with sustained and effective guerrilla resistance from Naga groups, particularly the Angami Naga tribe. The British followed up with many military expedition till 1851 amidst continuing guerrilla warfare by the tribals and they succeeded in setting up military posts in some areas. The conflict culminated in 1878 when the Angamis mounted raids on British camps. The response was brutal with the burning of several rebel villages by the British forces. The resistance met with failure and eventually the region became administered by the British

The advent of Christianity

An important landmark in the history of the Nagas with considerable social, cultural and political ramifications is the arrival of missionaries and the spread of Christianity among the Nagas. The acceptance of Christianity marks a departure from their many tribal customs and traditions, and along with the spread of English education, heralds the arrival of modernity in the Naga hills. The first missionary to arrive the Naga hills is believed to be Rev. Miles Bronson in 1841 although he stayed only for a short period. In the 1870s, Dr. & Mrs. E.W. Clark worked among the Ao people and with the help of Mr.Godhula, an Assamese Christian, established the first Church in Molungkimong in 1872.
Rev. William Pettigrew, a Scottish missionary arrived in Ukhrul in 1895 and got the permission to open a mission school from Raihao, the chief of Hunphun. Pettigrew's efforts included translating the Bible and Christian hymnals into the Hunphun dialect which resulted in the dialect becoming the lingua franca among the Tangkhuls. Likewise the missionaries served as an agent in forging a greater "Naga" identity which is a radical departure from the age old set up of warring village republics. The dreaded custom of head hunting slowly declined and disappeared as more and more Nagas embraced Christianity in the early 20th century. Today, more than 95% of Nagas claim to be Christians. Christianity has changed the Naga society entirely and it bears little semblance to the tribal society that it was a century ago. The Christian missionaries interfered in the social and cultural practices to a far greater extent than the government. The new educational system and religion disrupted the indigenous pattern of life as both the British administration and the Christian missionaries made the Nagas discard their age old social patterns, cultural practices and traditional political setup without providing functional substitutes

Resistance and struggle for identity

From the arrival of the British till date, the Naga hills have been an area of constant strife and turmoil. The Nagas are a fiercely independent people and they have resisted any incursions into their territories using brute force. The dawn of a spirit of nationalism and a common identity, however, are relatively new concepts among the Nagas. This is because, to the Nagas, every village is a republic, free from all outside domination and their desire had been to preserve the status quo. With the coming of modern education, the politicization of Naga ethnicity began. The first instance was the formation of the Naga Club in 1918 by a group of educated Nagas. The club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 with the demand that "Nagas should not be included within the Reformed Scheme of India"

Before the British left their South Asian Empire in 1947 beginning from 1929 (Simon Commission) upto six memorandums were submitted to the British not to abandon the Naga’s into the hands of the newly emerging democratic republics of India and Burma. This was pleaded on the grounds that prior to the British era, the Naga’s had had no affinity with either Burma or India.

After India's independence from the British rule, the Nagas were the first ethnic group from north east India to rise up against accession to India. The legendary Naga leader Zapu Phizo spearheaded the initial movement with the Naga National Council (NNC). In the dying days of the British, hectic parleys were led by him for a sovereign Naga nation. Consequently, in June 1947, a 9 point agreement was signed which promised bringing the Nagas under a single administrative unit and the Nagas' right to self determination after 10 years. However, disputes arose over the interpretation of the agreement, and many in the NNC opposed it. Under Phizo, the Nagas declared their independence from the British on the 14th August, 1947, a day before India.

Several memorandum and agreements were also signed with India through Nehru and the Governor of Assam to the effect that Nagas would not a part of India but remain independent. Talks were also held with Mahatma Gandhi and with his blessings Nagaland declared her independence on 14th August 1947 -one day prior to India's. This declaration was even submitted to the United Nations and an acknowledgment received.

In May 1951, the NNC claimed that 99 per cent of the Nagas supported a referendum to secede from India which was summarily rejected by New Delhi. By 1952, the NNC led a guerilla movement which resulted in a violent crackdown by India's armed forces. Phizo escaped from region through East Pakistan and went on an exile to London where he inspired the movement till his death in 1990.

In all these attempts, all that the Naga People were asking from Britain, India and the world was that throughout their history the Nagas had never had any affinity with India or Burma whether racially, politically, religiously, culturally or any other wise. All that they were saying was: " We are Naga’s , We are not Indians And therefore we will not join the Indian union of 1947.” In other words the Indo-Naga conflict can be just summed up in these words -
"Leave us alone"

The whole 53 (1947-2000) years of the Indo-Naga conflict has been fought over the refusal to leave us alone.

Statehood, factions and ceasefires

The Naga’s boycotted the first Indian election of 1954. All the ballot boxes were send back to India -empty.

In the same year thousands of Assam Armed Police and Assam Rifles were deployed in the Tuensang areas who went on a mad rampage of burning villages torturing, raping and murdering the innocent villagers.

By October 1955, Martial law was declared and thousands of regular army and Paramilitary forces marched into Nagaland. These soldiers were armed with the Assam Maintenance of public order Act 1953, Assam Disturbed Area Act 1955, Armed Forces Special Powers Regulation 1958 etc. As these forces went into operation, Nagaland was ravaged and desecrated under the rifles butts and boots of the Indian Army.

By March 1956, out of approximately 861 Naga villages existing in those days, more than 645 were burned to ashes along with all their granaries. As the Indian Army went on a mad rampage of rape, torture and murder, a thousand voices of agony rented the air and reverberated across the mountains and valleys of Nagaland, but no one heard their cries because the Indian Government had clamped in the tight censorship of the press by utilizing acts like the Inner line Permit and Prevention of Undesirable Persons Regulations 1955 etc.

Next followed the forced dispersion of an entire nation fleeing into the mountains and gorges of Nagaland. Parents fled with their infants on their backs holding on to toddlers and aged parents; all along pursued by a artillery bombardments, mortar bombardments, and even Aerial bombardments. Over one hundred thousand Naga’s would die from starvation and disease as they hid in the jungles, feeding on tender leaves and wild fruits for their survival.

Kaka D. Iralu quotes from a letter of appeal to the Prime Minister of India (Nehru) by the federal authority of Nagaland dated June 30, 1956 :

"...we wanted to part in a most friendly atmosphere with your good will, but failed. ...Firstly, Naga’s are not Indians, and we do not want to become Indians. Secondly, Naga territory is not and has never been a part of the Indian territory. And we cannot give you our country. This is the actual position. ...we are wholly and absolutely at your mercy. And, in the name of humanity, we submit this appeal to you to stop tears and bloodshed. The rest is History".
(Above is an extract from Kaka D. Iralu’s writing at

In 1960, the Naga People's Convention (formed in 1957 supposedly as a people's forum but dubbed by Naga groups as India's creation) signed a 16 point agreement with the Indian Government through which statehood was granted to Nagaland in 1963. The agreement was condemned as the greatest betrayal in Naga history as through it the Indian Government declared that the Naga political issue had been amicably settled. The formation of Nagaland effectively divided the Nagas into four administrative states within India.

A ceasefire was signed between the NNC and the Indian Government and they had six rounds of talks till 1972 with no real progress. The first ceasefire and talks broke down in 1972 when an assassination attempt was made on the Chief Minister of the state. In November 1975, a delegation of the NNC signed the infamous Shillong Accord through which the revolutionaries agreed to unconditional acceptance of the Indian Constitution and surrender of arms. The accord was condemned by many Nagas and it marked the beginning of factionalism among the revolutionaries. An immediate repercussion was the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in the late 1970s by Thuingaleng Muivah, Isaac Swu and S.Khaplang. The NSCN later splintered into two with the breaking away of Khaplang. The 1990s was marked by fratricidal violence between the revolutionary groups. The mid 1990s was a time of turmoil in the Naga hills especially around Manipur as ethnic violence erupted between the Nagas and Kukis resulting in scores of villages being burned, inflicting hundreds of casualties on both sides.

On January 23 1993, the NSCN(IM) was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which was seen then as a step towards gaining more international attention to the Naga issue. In 1997, the NSCN(IM) signed a ceasefire with the Indian Government and negotiations continue till date. Recent trends in talks indicate that the NSCN(IM) have mellowed on their demand for sovereignty and instead strengthened the demand for autonomy and unification of all Naga areas in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh with Nagaland[12] which triggered strong protests in Manipur. According to the UNPO, the biggest impediment in the peace process, as the NSCN sees it, is the refusal of the Government of India to officialy extend the ceasefire to all Naga-inhabited areas outside of Nagaland. The Indian Government has shown little enthusiasm in solving the Naga issue considering the fact that little progress has been made in the last 12 years of talks. On the other hand, there have been allegations of the Indian Army's continuing high handedness upon civilians.

Today the Naga’s possess Indian passports when traveling abroad and are Indian citizens but the sad thing is there are still so many mainland Indians who don’t even know that there exists a state called Nagaland and think of the Naga’s as foreigners. There is also another group of Indians who think that Naga’s are tribals and therefore good for nothing who cannot survive without them.


1. Language
There s no common language but rather 60 different dialects; in some areas dialects vary from village to village. Inter tribal communication is carried out in Nagamese. Many Naga’s also speak Hindi and English. English is the official language of the state.

2. Headhunting

One of the most striking social characteristics of the Nagas was the practice of headhunting. Alva Bowers described the Naga hills as the "paradise of headhunters" Most villages had a skull house and each man in the village is expected to contribute to the collection. The taking of a head is symbolic of courage and men who could not were dubbed as women or cows. There is nothing more glorious for a Naga than victory in battle by bringing home the severed head of an enemy.[18] There is however, no indication of cannibalism among the Nagas. This practice is now entirely eradicated with the spread of modern education and Christianity in the region.

3.The Morung system

The Morung or the bachelor dormitory system used to be an essential part of Naga life. Apart from the family, it was the most important educational set up of the Nagas. The Morungs are grant buildings, constructed at the village entrance or a spot from where the village can be guarded most effectively. On attaining the age of puberty, young boys and girls were admitted to their respective dormitories. The Naga culture, customs and traditions which were transmitted from generation to generation through folk music and dance, folk tales and oral tradition, wood carving and weaving, were conveyed to the young in the Morungs.[16] Announcements of meetings, death of a villager, warnings of impending dangers etc. are made from the morungs with the beating of log drums. With the onset of modernity, the morung system is no longer in practice among the Nagas.

The Naga society is undergoing tremendous transformation. The spread of Christianity, the growth of education and developmental programmes undertaken by the government have all unleashed forces which are churning up the tribal society and rapidly changing its complexion and character. The modern set up of detached nuclear families is fast catching up with the Nagas as they have greater intercourse with the modern world. This is leading to the erosion of the role of the clan and the village as agents of social control.

The Nagas were never dominated by any Indian or other power. Some British colonial control was established in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but when the British left, the Nagas declared independence one day before India. Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged the right of Nagaland to an independent existence. The government of India even administered Nagaland through its Ministry of External Affairs until 1976. Recently, the Government of India acknowledged the “unique history” of the Nagas as a legitimate basis for ongoing peace talks.

That the Nagas were never conquered by any outside power, that they declared themselves a modern, independent nation on August 14, 1947, one day prior to the creation of independent India, and that they never consented to be part of the Indian union. This contrast with other ethnic groups in India that were either historically integrated into what is today India, or willingly joined the union upon independence from Britain – even though some of them today are unhappy and wish to separate from India.

Human Right Violation against Naga people
The most egregious one is the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) - a law passed by the Indian parliament giving Indian armed personnel extensive powers, including the right to shoot to kill with full legal immunity. This law was passed expressly to fight the Nagas, and is only valid in Northeastern India, where Naga populations reside. Despite domestic and international criticism, the Indian government refuses to retire or even amend this act to limit human rights violations. There are also other laws and promulgations which permit activities that would never be tolerated in the United States or any true democracy.

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