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Nagas residing in Tamenglong district of Manipur taking part in a candlelight vigil over the Naga peace talks
Nagas residing in Tamenglong district of Manipur taking part in a candlelight vigil over the Naga peace talks|File image
OPINION

Of peace talks, constructed narratives and distorted histories

There are several questions and loose ends that need to be tied up before the two negotiating parties arrive at a common ground

Patricia Mukhim

Patricia Mukhim

There is palpable tension in Imphal, not Manipur. Chief minister N Biren Singh has been camping in New Delhi to understand the contentious portions of the peace parleys between the NSCN-IM and the government of India. Assam is dealing with too many internal problems and the fall-out of the NRC at the moment to have time to cogitate on the peace decathlon. Nagas in Arunachal Pradesh are uncannily silent. So too the government of that state, perhaps because they have not thought through as to the outcomes of the talks on their territory.

In Nagaland, people are in a state of suspended animation waiting for the outcome of the 22-year-old Naga peace talks, christened the Framework Agreement on August 3, 2015. The parleys have seen many interlocutors come and go. The latest, RN Ravi, who is currently also the governor of Nagaland, seems to view things from a more holistic prism and sees the forthcoming settlement as one that will benefit not the power holders but the Naga people on all sides of the divide who have suffered on account of the bloodshed and violence, the internecine killings and the extortion and sleaze which are outcomes of running parallel governments both underground and over-ground.

The talks have ostensibly arrived at a final phase on October 31 but the fine print is yet to emerge. Until then, we will have to read tea leaves and assume a lot of stuff. And to be fair to all concerned, it is not easy to ink a deal where demands range from a separate flag to a separate Constitution. How do we know that similar claims will not be made by other ethnic groups like the Khasis that will go back to their histories and claim that they too were coerced to sign the Instrument of Accession (IoA) in 1948 and that the government of India never honoured the Standstill Agreement signed between the Khasi chieftains and the Sardar Patel, the first home minister of India, which gives the Khasis time to think as to whether they wish to annex themselves to India or not.

The IoA was signed by some and not by others. One of those who disagreed very vehemently with the IoA was Wickliffe Syiem who passed his Masters in Structural Engineering way back in 1937 and was the younger Syiem (chieftain) of Nongstoin chieftainship. He left India for East Pakistan saying he would return only if his land became free from Indian domination. It never became free so Wickliffe lived in erstwhile East Pakistan now Bangladesh and died there on October 21, 1988. Every ethnic group in the Northeast has equal claims to a unique history which on closer analysis is a story of how tribes lived and conducted themselves at a particular point in time. Oral history has a habit of being selectively narrated to the younger generation with the inglorious parts left out either because they are too bitter to recall or because the elders don’t want the next generation to know their faults and failures. Hence what we as humans remember are always pleasant memories because we shut out the unpleasant.

Oral history remembered in the present can be very problematic because it deletes out the unpleasant parts. Human memory is also not very reliable. Oral history is story telling where people don’t ask for evidence. And it is difficult to seek evidence from a narrator who lived at a different point in history or to make him/her narrate the more murky parts of that history especially if that involves killing and violence. Although narrators usually speak for themselves, they often believe they are speaking on behalf of their tribes as wise elders.

Ironically, oral history's very concreteness, its very immediacy, seduces us into taking it literally, an approach historian Michael Frisch has criticised as "anti-history". By this, he means viewing "oral historical evidence because of its immediacy and emotional resonance, as something almost beyond interpretation or accountability, as a direct window on the feelings and... on the meaning of past experience".

Frisch says as with any source, historians must exercise critical judgment when using interviews. Just because someone says something is true, however colourfully or convincingly they say it, doesn't mean it is true. Just because someone "was there" doesn't mean they fully understand "what happened".

The first step in assessing an interview which is later construed as history is to consider the reliability of the narrator and the verifiability of the account. The narrator's relationship to the events under discussion, and the personal stake in presenting a particular version of events, the physical and mental state at the time of the events under discussion and at the moment of the interview, as well as the overall attention and care the narrator brings to the interview and the internal consistency of the account itself all figure into the narrator's reliability as a source.

The veracity of what is said in an interview can be gauged by comparing it both with other interviews on the same subject and with related documentary evidence. Hence the very claims to a unique history are at best untenable. The Nagas, of course, presented their demands to the Simon Commission saying that when the British leave India, they should allow the Nagas to decide their fate. But India was then a fledgling democracy and the rulers then little understood what it is to deal with what they considered were obscure tribes from the periphery of the country, who were not only racially different but whose cultural practices were completely different from that of the mainstream Indian way of life. And it still is if one considers food habits and other cultural traits.

That India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, relied heavily on Verrier Elwin (a Christian priest of the All Saints Congregation and one who studied the tribes of central India and of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) presently Arunachal Pradesh and was designated an anthropologist), meant he had very little idea about the tribes of this country. When push came to shove, Nehru did what Sardar Patel advised him which is to send the Indian army to crush the Naga rebels who made it clear that they wanted no part of India and wanted to be a sovereign country.

The problem is that even the Nagas themselves were not melded as one people. They were tribes that connected to each other through their clans. The tribes fought among themselves to defend their lands. It must have taken decades for these different tribes to come under the umbrella of ‘Naga’ and to learn to present their case as a people desirous of living together but not within the Indian dispensation.

The Naga Club formed in Kohima on October 31, 1918 was the first pan-Naga organisation and if oral history is to be relied on then the Naga Club comprised representatives of the Angami, Lotha, Sema, Rengma tribes and included a Kuki interpreter. They submitted the first memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 which in many ways is seen as the collective angst to be recognised as people who are different from India and even from other communities in the Northeast. Their aspiration even then was to be allowed to decide their own fate outside British India and after the British left India that they should be allowed to decide their own fates.

Not all tribes from Nagaland were represented in the Naga Club and certainly none from Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh or Assam although the Nagas inhabit two districts in Arunachal Pradesh, one district in Assam and four districts in Manipur. Hence the very idea of a united Naga voice is still ephemeral. There are several Naga voices and discordant ones at that. Such discordance is more than visible on social media where voices from the so-called Southern Nagaland don’t seems to synchronise with that of the Naga people of Nagaland. Sadly, the Nagas consider this an internal conundrum and believe that political observers read “outsiders” have no right to comment on their internal squabbles.

October 31 last was tension ridden even as the final touches were given to the Framework Agreement of which the only remaining points of contention are the flag and the Constitution. One has not seen what or read the Naga Constitution and one wonders therefore whether it will be completely incongruous from that of the Indian Constitution – a document on which many a sane mind with political acuity spent precious hours to craft out. Since sovereignty is no longer a demand perhaps the Naga Constitution would only underline the terms of engagement between the Naga people living in different states. However, whether the Naga people across different states have arrived at a consensus on the tone and tenor of the Constitution is also unclear.

Nagaland chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and his deputy who are camped in New Delhi also want to know what their status would be post the settlement. This is a valid question. Would Rio have to step down and a new government formed by actors that will ensure that the Naga Framework Agreement is executed in letter and spirit; and who those new actors will be.

Indeed, there are several questions and loose ends that need to be tied up before the two negotiating parties arrive at a common ground. In all this, however, what has emerged is the sincere commitment of the interlocutor, RN Ravi who is now also the governor of Nagaland. He has spared no pains to consult all stakeholders who have anything at all to say on this contentious issue that has taken 22 years of their lives to come to this point. Whatever be the outcome, Nagas will remember him as an honourable man who sought to give them whatever is possible under the Indian Constitution, including autonomy for Naga inhabited areas in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The next high point will be when Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Nagaland in early December for the Hornbill Festival and unfurls what promises to be a new future for the Naga people.

(Patricia Mukhim is a social activist, writer, journalist and the editor of The Shillong Times. Recipient of various honours of national and international repute, she was also bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2000 by the government of India. She tweets at @meipat. Views expressed above are her own)