When I was 18 and studying journalism in London, I received
an invitation to dinner from Angami Zapu Phizo, the leader
of Naga insurgency. As I stepped into his tiny study to
shake his hand, the first impression was, "How small he
is!" Yet, one could not but marvel at the passion, energy
and commitment which fired this slight figure.
that long evening, we -- the leader of the most powerful
rebellion to trouble India then, and now, and the scion
of a prominent Assamese political family -- spoke of India
and Indira Gandhi, of promises made and broken, of the
taste of Assamese food. We chatted in English and even
in Nagamese, a combination of Assamese and Naga dialects.
He treated me not as a teenager but as an adult, with
dignity and took my opinions seriously.
than a quarter century later, it is difficult to remember
his exact words as he said farewell but they were along
these lines: "The Assamese are our brothers. India too
will treat you as they have treated the Nagas. Only then
will you understand our struggle and speak my language."
smiled at the time, in the confidence of youth, thinking
how wrong he was. But Phizo was prophetic: he foresaw
the birth of the United Liberation Force of Asom, the
Bodo militant groups, the many fighting forces in Manipur
and Tripura. These movements, though waning in part, continue
to tie down large numbers of Indian security forces, including
the army, paramilitary and police with ambushes and occasional
I doubt whether he believed that, in his lifetime, his
own Naga movement would become as fractured and embittered
as it has. These days, Naga guns and bullets are not trained
on Indian troops but against fellow Nagas, on the basis
of ethnic, ideological and personal loyalties. It is especially
tragic among a deeply religious people who take the teachings
of the Church very seriously.
was a Phizo acolyte who tapped the China factor. The man
chosen for the job was a young graduate named Thuengelang
Muivah, then general secretary of the Naga National Council
(NNC). Muivah and General Thinsolie Keyho, on their own
version of the Long March, slogged through jungles and
hills in Myanmar (then Burma) to Yunnan Province. They
established contact with the Chinese leadership which
promised them training, logistical support and arms. In
addition, the Nagas established links with the Pakistanis
which continue to this day.
were Phizo's days of glory and power: this little man,
who slipped out of India and turned up in London on a
Peruvian passport, had let loose a prairie fire that engulfed
the Naga hills and stunned Delhi, forcing it to launch
a full-scale army operation, with the backing of military
aircraft, against the rebels. He had opened a Burma front
with S.S. Khaplang, a Konyak chief, heading the Eastern
Naga Revolutionary Council since the 1950s.
Nagas suffered terribly at the hands of the security forces:
entire villages were torched, their inhabitants forced
to flee into the jungle for safety, men taken prisoner,
women were raped and molested. The innocents wept and
were traumatised. There were no human-rights groups those
days, no National Human Rights Commission to run to, no
public-interest petition which has become so chic these
days. The story of those years of violence and brutality
have not been fully told. Yet, it would be foolish not
to acknowledge Phizo's role in inflicting this disaster
on his own people.
hold over his movement weakened after ethnic divisions
began surfacing in the mid-'60s. These divisions have
been the bane of the Nagas for long; until less than a
century ago, tribes fiercely protected their own lands
and aggressively led raids on others, to collect "heads"
and exact tribute as well as take slaves.
divisions have grown since 1975 when a faction of the
Naga movement signed a Peace Accord with the Government
of India at Shillong. The signatories included Phizo's
brother, Keviyalley. Muivah denounced the accord but Phizo,
while making known his disapproval of what had happened,
never publicly attacked the peacemakers.
and Issak Chishi Swu later broke away from the NNC to
form the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN)
which has also split -- between the Muivah-Swu faction
on one side and Khaplang on the other. Again the divide
is on ethnic lines.
violence continues in Nagaland though talks have opened
between the Indian Government and Phizo's successors in
the movement. The China connection is closed, the Pakistani
link is cracked but ties with other "liberation groups"
in the North-east continue. Indeed the NSCN(I-M) is described
as the "mother" of insurgencies in the North-east.
is remembered not simply because he maintained his prophetic
separateness till his death in 1992. He had an appeal
that transcended ethnic fissures and touched the hearts
of all Nagas.
Phizo's followers have muddled his legacy, that of Laldenga
in neighbouring Mizoram is intact. Laldenga, a bank clerk
in Aizawl, had followed Phizo's campaign closely. He too
advocated the view that the Mizos were not Indians since
they had been virtually left alone by the British.
demands for separation became popular after the great
famine of the late 1950s when starvation stalked the hills
following the mautham or the flowering of the bamboo,
an ill-omen that signals high fertility among rats which
then overwhelm standing crops and stored grain. Assam
failed to rush the needed supplies in time to its eastern
most district, creating both bitterness and the foundation
for Laldenga's Mizo National Front (MNF).
February 1966, the MNF launched an audacious attack on
the district's major towns, declared independence and
called on Mizos to rise against Delhi. The Indian Government
responded by sending troops and aircraft on bombing and
strafing missions. Villagers were uprooted from the hills
and sent to Regrouped Villages built along the highways.
The hardship and brutality faced by the Nagas was repeated
the next 20 years, violence continued in the Mizo hills
with the fighters camping in East Pakistan. With the fall
of East Pakistan in 1971, Laldenga's men scattered to
Myanmar while he moved to Pakistan. After secret meetings
in Europe with Indian officials, he returned seeking a
peaceful resolution of the problem.
talks stuttered alonguntil 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi hammered
out a deal that ended the fighting. Mizoram became a full
Indian state and Laldenga its interim chief minister before
his MNF won the first elections to the state legislature.
However, defections toppled him from office. He died soon
after but his state has an enviable record: it is among
the most peaceful areas in the country and has even pipped
Kerala as the state with the highest literacy rate in