Confronting Constructionism: Ending Indiaís Naga War

by Sanjib Baruah

[Journal of Peace Research
(International Peace Research Institute, Olso, Norway)
Vol 40 (3) May 2003, pp. 321-338.]

Abstract: One of the worldís oldest continuing armed conflicts is also one of the least known: the conflict between the Government of India and the Nagas. Since 1997 there has been a cease-fire between the Indian government and Naga militants and there has been intermittent talks to end the conflict. Naga leaders appear to be willing to make concessions on their main demand of independence. But the peace process has stumbled on an unexpected hurdle: the Naga aspiration to the unification of all Naga-inhabited areas. Whether or not some people included in the Naga category should indeed be considered Nagas is in fact a highly contested matter. Since it is impossible to agree on who is a Naga and who is not, it has been difficult to decide what the Naga inhabited areas are. The issue has generated some new conflicts in the region. As in all ethno-national conflicts, the politics of recognition is an underlying theme in the Naga conflict. But projects about recognition are also projects about constructing identities. The notion of bounded collectivities living in national homelands relies on a very different spatial discourse than the one of overlapping frontiers and hierarchical polities that precedes it. The article argues that the historical relations between hill peoples and the lowland states in this frontier region were premised on an especially complex spatial, cultural and political dynamic. Saving the faltering Naga peace process will require confronting the constructionism of modern identities by the political actors themselves.

The Naga Conflict and a Faltering Peace Process

For the last five years the Government of India and the leading political organization fighting for Naga independence ó a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleh Muivah and Isaak Chisi Swu) [hereafter NSCN-IM]-- have had a cease fire and there have been intermittent talks to end one of the worldís least known longest-running and bloody armed conflicts that has cost thousands of lives. The Naga conflict began with Indiaís independence in 1947: Naga leaders rejected the idea that their land, which was under a special dispensation during British colonial rule, could simply pass on to Indian hands at the end of British colonial rule. In the 1950s it turned into an armed conflict. In 1963 the government of India created the state of Nagaland as a full-fledged state of the Indian Union. The territory of the new state coincided with what was then the centrally administered Naga Hills Tuensang Area. As an administrative unit the Naga Hills Tuensang Area was formed in 1957 bringing together the Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang district of North East Frontier Agency. Since the formation of Nagaland many Nagas have participated in the Indian political process while the independentists have remained opposed to it. But the line between the independentist and the integrationist factions in Naga politics have remained blurred, and the armed conflict has persisted with two interruptions prior to the current one: a failed peace process in the mid 1960s and an accord signed in 1975 -- between the Indian government and a few individual leaders --which was interpreted as a sell-out by many and as a result, it re-energized the rebellion.

The Nagas live on both sides of the hilly border region between India and Burma -- in the northeast Indian states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh -- and in Burmaís Sagaing Division and Kachin state. Their total population is estimated to be between three-and-a-half and four million people. There are no precise official figures, not only because there is no good census data on Burma, but also because the Indian census data do not correspond with the category `Nagaí and, as we shall see, whether or not some of these groups are to be considered Naga is a highly contested matter. The Indian census uses the names of particular tribes (communities) and not the category Naga, which is an amalgamation of various tribes; the official names of only some tribes have the appelative Naga attached to them. For instance, Manipur has a large population that considers itself Naga. But the largest of the group, the Tangkhuls -- the tribe to which rebel leader T. Muivah belongs ó is simply referred to as Tangkhuls in Indian census. Among the Naga tribes of Manipur, only the Katcha Naga has the name`Nagaí appended to their official name. Yet the pan-Naga organization, Naga Hoho lists 16 tribes in Manipur as Naga. Since ëNagaí is not a linguistic category, the census data on language are not very helpful. Nagas speak as many as thirty different languages that linguists classify as falling into ìat least two, and possibly several, completely distinct branches of Tibeto-Burmanî (Burling, 0000: 0).

The expression Naga, wrote John Henry Hutton in his introduction to J.P. Millsí classic ethnographic account of the Lhota Nagas published in 1922, `is useful as an arbitrary term to denote the tribes living in certain parts of the Assam hills, which may be roughly defined as bounded by the Hokong valley in the north-east, the plain of the Brahmaputra Valley to the north-west, of Cachar to the south-west and of the Chindwin to east. In the south of the Manipur Valley roughly marks the point of contact between the ìNagaî tribes and the very much more closely interrelated group of Kuki tribes ó Thao, Lushei, Chin etc.í (Hutton, 1922: xv-xvi). The website of the NSCN-IM quotes the passage from Hutton to introduce the Naga people and their territories without the qualifications that Hutton had added to his formulation eighty years ago. Rather than calling the expression Naga a `usefulí but `arbitraryí term, and saying that they lived `in certain parts of the Assam hillsí that Hutton ventured to describe only `roughlyí, the NSCN-IMís website makes Hutton sound very precise about the Nagas and their lands. `Mr. Hutton defines the land of the Naga people thusí, it says, and then it goes on to describe `the area inhabited by the Naga tribesí quoting Hutton. Indeed the quotation forms part of a paragraph that begins with a precise geographical description of the territory belonging to, what the NSCN-IM calls the Naga Nation:

Nagaland (Nagalim) has always been a sovereign nation occupying a compact area of 120,000 sq. km of the Patkai Range in between the longitude 93º E and 97º E and the latitude 23.5º N and 28.3º N. It lies at the tri-junction of China, India and Burma. Nagalim, without the knowledge and consent of the Naga people, was apportioned between India and Burma after their respective declaration of independence. The part, which India illegally claims is subdivided and placed under four different administrative units, viz., Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland states. The eastern part, which Burma unlawfully claims, is placed under two administrative units, viz., Kachin State and Sagaing Division (formerly known as the Naga Hills). Nagalim, however, transcends all these arbitrary demarcations of boundary (NSCN-IM, 2002).

All Nagas may not fully share this view of Naga history and territoriality. Yet there is little doubt that in the eight decades since Hutton wrote his essay Nagas have developed a strong sense of themselves as a collectivity. Most students of ethnic and national conflicts are familiar with the tension between the constructivist understanding of identities among most contemporary theorists and the practice of nationalists or ethnic activists who engage in the construction of such identities (Suny, 2001). While constructivism is the common sense of contemporary theorists of ethno-nationalism, when people talk about their own identities, they are unlikely to include a sense of the `historical construction or provisionalityí about them (Suny, 2001, 6). Instead they assume that the identities of today have been fixed and bounded since time immemorial.

Confronting the constructivism that these days, theorists of nationalism typically emphasize and its practioners deny is at the core of what needs to be done to save the faltering Naga peace process today. Whether or not a large segment of the tribes of Manipur are Nagas has become a highly charged issue. Arguably, in matters of identity the only thing that should matter is how a group itself wishes to be known and there is little doubt that most of the communities in question consider themselves Nagas. But the question is not merely whether the Tangkhuls and fifteen other communities of Manipur that consider themselves Naga should be recognized as Naga, it is complicated by the territorial politics in which the Naga politics of recognition is embedded. The goal of creating a single political unit out of all Naga-inhabited areas puts the Naga project of nationhood in collision course with a parallel Manipuri project.

Indeed the issue is so sensitive that until June 2001, the Indian government left the territorial scope of the 1997 ceasefire deliberately vague. Since the NSCN-IM is active in Manipur and other parts of the northeast, apart from the state of Nagaland, it would have made sense for the cease-fire to apply to all those areas. But given the sub-text that could be read into the territorial scope of the ceasefire, it was not that simple. The government and the NSCN-IM took conflicting positions on whether the ceasefire held only in the state of Nagaland or in other parts of the northeast, and the Indian governmentís public statements were contradictory. Eventually things came to a head when the NSCN-IM insisted on a clarification and in June 2001 a joint statement confirmed that the cease-fire was `between the Government of India and the NSCN-IM as two entities without territorial limitsí. The announcement led to a veritable political explosion in Manipur and significant expression of anger in the other affected states. Seeking guarantees from the Indian government that Manipurís territorial integrity would not be sacrificed in the altar of Naga peace has now become a major theme in Manipuri politics. In order to take the peace process further it is now essential to directly address that concern.

The politics of recognition is often an underlying theme in ethno-national conflicts. Identities, as Charles Taylor puts it, are `partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of othersí (Taylor, 1994: 25). Since recognition or misrecognition causes harm, groups seeking recognition, whether in the form of the demand for self-government or for cultural rights deserve our sympathy. But projects about recognition are also simultaneously projects that involve constructing identities. Thus in our era, the projects of nationhood frequently rely on censuses and other modern forms of enumeration and classification and a modern technology of representation -- the map --, in order to connect territoriality and collective selfhood (See Winichakul, 1994). The notion of territorially rooted collectivities living in their supposedly traditional national homelands relies on a very different spatial discourse than the one of overlapping frontiers and hierarchical polities that precedes it. In northeast India, I would argue, the historical relations between hill peoples and the lowland states had an especially complex spatial, cultural and political dynamic. As a result there is a serious collision between competing projects of identity assertion today (See Baruah, 2003). Only a constructivist understanding of identities can make promoters and supporters of such projects aware of the dangers of these colliding projects. Even when the rhetoric of identity projects is civic and pluralistic, such projects can be on a disastrous road to ethnic violence and ethnic cleansing unless they confront their constructedness.

The Naga desire for a homeland that would bring together all Nagas into one political unit can come into being only at the expense of Manipur, as well as Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. But if the summer of 2001 is any guide, another phase of bloody ethnic conflict may not be far off and it is inconceivable that a solution to the Naga conflict on these lines can be found in the face of the opposition in the region. Key to a political settlement is the recognition on the part of all parties that there is an inherent crisis of territoriality in northeast India. Such recognition, of course, will have to occur within a framework of a process that the Nagas can see as reconciliation, among themselves, with their neighbors and with the Indian government.

Strange Multiplicity: Hill Peoples and Lowland States

In order to understand the collision between the Naga and the Manipuri projects, it is necessary to consider the relatively recent history of a profound transformation of identities and of political ideas and structures in the region. The Naga hills, where a multiplicity of cultural forms had historically reigned supreme are best seen as, what James C. Scott terms, a non-state space -- an `illegible spaceí from the perspective of the states in the lowlands. Scottís argument, developed in the context of southeast Asia is eminently applicable to northeast India ó a region that is an extension of southeast Asia in terms of this dynamic of large groups of culturally diverse minority hill peoples living in uneasy coexistence with culturally different neighbors in the lowlands. The ethnic landscape of the hills, writes Scott, has always confused outsiders -- states as well as ethnographers. The taxonomies about the hill peoples have been almost always wrong, groups identified as distinct were later found to be not `uniform, coherent, or stable through timeí. The ethnic landscape has had a `bewildering and intercalated ìgradientsî of cultural traitsí. Whether it was linguistic practice, dress, rituals, diet or body decoration, neat boundary lines had been impossible to draw. Tri-lingualism, for example, is fairly common (Scott, 2000: 21-22). Thus in the case of the Nagas, ethnographers and missionaries engaged in what Julian Jacobs and his colleagues describe as a struggle `to make sense of the ethnographic chaos they perceived around them: hundreds, if not thousands, of small villages seemed to be somewhat similar to each other but also very different, by no means always sharing the same customs, political system, art or even languageí (Jacobs et al., 1990: 23).

Such an unfamiliar and confusing ethnic landscape, Scott suggests, fits well with slash and burn agriculture ó the common mode of livelihood in these hills ó, which means dispersed and mobile populations that could not be captured for corvee labor and military service by the labor-starved states of the plains; nor could tax-collectors monitor either the number of potential subjects or their holdings and income. It is from the perspective of the surveillance systems of states that the ethnic landscape of the hills appears so non-transparent. Of course, not all hill peoples had been shifting cultivators, just as the lowlanders were not all exclusively settled agriculturalists. The Angami Nagas, for instance, are well known for having transformed steep hills into rice fields through terracing and irrigation. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that sedentarization, fixing such population in space ó `in settlements in which they can be easily monitoredí ó has been the state project par-excellence and why the state, in Scottís words, have always been the `enemy of the people who move aroundí (Scott, 2000: 2).

At the same time the non-state spaces in the hills and the state spaces in the lowlands had been anything but separate. Indeed the categories `hill tribesí and `valley peoplesí, says Scott, are `leaky vesselsí. People had continually moved from the hills to the plains and from the plains to the hills. Since manpower was always in short supply, wars in this region were not about territory, but about capturing slaves. If wars produced movements in either direction, the attractions of commerce and what the lowlanders call civilization may have generated a flow of hill peoples downwards. On the other hand, the extortionist labor demands of the lowland states and, the vulnerability of wet-rice cultivation to crop failure, epidemics and famines produced flight to the hills where there were more subsistence alternatives. While in other parts of the world, such movements may have produced broader cultural formations, here the `lived essentialismí between hill `tribesí and valley civilizations ó- their stereotypes about each other -- remained powerful organizer of peoples lives and thoughts. The cultural distance between lowlanders and highlanders were thus reproduced over time, even though this has always been a continuum rather than a sharp line of demarcation (Scott, 2000: 3-4).

Northeast India came under the control as the British East India Company in 1826 at the end of the Anglo-Burmese war, when, according to the Yandabo Treaty, the king of Ava (Burma) renounced `all claims uponí and agreed to `abstain from all future interferences with, the principality of Assam and its dependencies, and also with the contiguous petty states of Cachar and Jyntea (Jaintia)í and to recognize British-supported Gambhir Singh as the king of Manipur (Bose, 1979: 61-62). When the lands in the valleys and the foothills were found suitable for the large-scale commercial production of tea, a mad scramble for land ó by entrepreneurs and speculators alike ó followed, and the British came in direct confrontation with the Nagas. The land grab profoundly disrupted the hunting and gathering activities and the exchange networks of the Naga people. The Nagas resisted the land grab with numerous raids on the newly established tea plantations and other valley settlements, and the British responded with relentless brutality. The Naga-British encounter was one of the most violent chapters in the history of British conquest of the sub-continent. There were ten violent ëpunitive expeditionsí against Nagas between 1835 and 1851. After a period of relative quiet, there was an uprising by Angami Nagas in 1879, when they seized the British military base in Kohima, leading to the last major military encounter.

The lowland states and principalities that became part of the British East India Company at the end of the Anglo-Burmese war eventually all became territories of British India. Manipur retained its status as a kingdom under British protection, even though its autonomy eroded over time and Manipuri kings were constantly anxious about the possibility of direct annexation. In their early encounter colonial officials recognized the complex relationship between the Nagas and the lowland states. An early colonial pronouncement described them as having been under the authority of the lowland states, and the treaty with the Burmese, according to this understanding, had made the British successor to those relationships. `The wild tribes who inhabit the southern slopes of those ranges are subject to Burmah (Burma) and Manipurí, said the pronouncement, and `those who inhabit the northern slopes are subject to the British governmentí (cited in Mackenzie, 2001: 119). Among those Nagas, early colonial officials observed that those occupying the low hills were at times `claimedí as subjects by the Tai-Ahom state of Assam. The Ahom king Purandar Singha `asserted successfully his right to share with the Nagas the produce of the salt manufacturing of the low hills. The hill chiefs, when the Native Government was strong, came down annually bringing gifts that may perhaps have been considered a tribute. . . . (I)t is certain that several of the chiefs had received grants of khats or lands, and of bheels or fishing waters on the plains and enjoyed assignment of paiks (corvee labor) like the ordinary Assamese nobilityí (Mackenzie, 2001: 91).

Over the southern parts of the Naga Hills, the period immediately following the conquest, `it came to be supposed in a general kind of way that Manipur exercised some sort of authorityí (Mackenzie, 2001: 102). Since the Government was not prepared to take over the Naga country, it was `inclined to regard the Manipuris as the de facto masters of the hillsí. Only in 1837 after the Company rejected the policy of `making over to Manipur fresh tracts of mountain country for conquest or managementí, a European officer was ordered to occupy a post in Naga country (Mackenzie, 2001: 103-04). The hills of Manipur, like those of the rest of todayís northeast India, however, remained much less administered than the plains through much of the colonial period. The weak presence of the state is a major factor in the outbreak of the Naga rebellion.

Initially when the British came in direct contact with the Nagas in the course of their expeditions, they were met with many surprises about the workings of the Naga polities and their relationship with the lowland states. First, any notion of establishing treaty-like relationship with the Nagas had to be given up; for their political systems so confused colonial officials they could not figure out whom to negotiate with and whether chiefs could deliver on their promises. Thus in 1845 when Captain Butler traveled to the Naga Hills with an armed force, he made his way through the country `conciliating the tribes and mapping the countryí. The chiefs came and met him, and even `paid up their tribute in ivory, cloth and spearsí. But they also told Butler that `they had no real control over their people, and had absolute authority only on the war-pathí. A number of villages eagerly sought British protection, but it was only to `induce us to exterminate their neighboursí. As soon as Butlerís expedition left the hills, `the tribes recommenced their raids on the plains and on one anotherí (Mackenzie, 2001: 108-09). The nature of Naga relations with Manipur was an endless source of confusion to colonial officials. In 1840 one officer in marching toward Manipur found to his astonishment that in one area Nagas were `avowedly hostile to Manipur and not tributary as had been given out by that Stateí (Mackenzie, 2001: 106). In 1844 another expedition found that Manipur was `helping one Naga clan to attack anotherí and that it was `impossible to get Manipur to carry out honestly the orders of the Governmentí (Mackenzie, 2001: 108). After two expeditions to the Angami Naga country, Lieutenant Vincent reported in 1850 that `in every Angami village, there were two parties, one attached to the interests of Manipur and the other to the British, but each only working for an alliance to get aid in crushing the opposite factioní (Mackenzie, 2001: 112). Nevertheless, the British, laid down a boundary between their territory and Manipur in 1842 and reasserted it in 1867, but it was `little regarded by Manipurí (Mackenzie, 2001: 122).

As colonial officials came to know Manipur, they speculated on the relations between the Nagas and the Manipuris. The political rituals of the Manipuri court pointed to ties that were close, but difficult to fathom. For example, James Johnstone observed that the installation ceremony of the Manipuri kings called for the queen to appear in Naga costume; the royal palace always had a house built in Naga style; and when the king traveled, two or three Manipuris with Naga arms, dress and ornaments accompanied him. It is not clear why Johnstone assumed that they were Manipuris, dressed as Nagas for these occasions rather than being Nagas themselves. In any case, he took them as evidence that like the Manchus of China, the Manipuri kings may have been Nagas who adopted the civilization of Manipur (Johnstone, 1971: 82). While early colonial officials were far from successful in decoding a political system of militarized villages with apparently random ties among them and with the lowland states, they tried hard to make sense of the clear evidence of cultural, political and ethnic ties across these divides.

Colonial Transformation and the Naga Construction of Collective Selfhood

The story of the emergence of Nagas as a people ó the Naga nation in the words of the independentists ó is one of the most remarkable 20th century stories of a radical transformation of political structures and world-views within a relatively short period of time. In the early part of the century most Nagas continued to live in mountain top villages with signs of fortification still intact and head-hunting -- an institutionalized form of inter-village warfare ó was occasionally still taking place, even though it was criminalized by the colonial state. Neighboring villages spoke `dialects or languages totally incomprehensible to one anotherí, and in their communications involving war-making or alliance-building, they relied on sign language, which `reached a high state of developmentí (Hutton, 1921: 291). As anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf, who studied the Nagas in the 1930s, puts it, `a Naga village could not even ideally remain at peace as long as there prevailed the belief that the occasional capture of a human head was essential for maintaining the fertility of the crops and the well being of the communityí (cited in Eaton, 1997: 249n).

Reading colonial accounts against the grain, one can see how the resistance to colonial conquest produced some of the early alliances. One of the most violent military operations was against Khonoma and allied villages in 1879 and 1880 after a British officer and a large group of accompanying soldiers and policemen were killed. After the operations were over, it was discovered that `the punishment inflicted by our troops had been far more severe in its results than was at first supposedí. The dispossessed villagers lived as `houseless wanderers, dependent to a great extent on the charity of their neighbours, and living in temporary huts in the junglesí. The British policy was to get the `dispossessed clansí to settle either in Manipur or on fresh land in the Naga Hills. But the Nagas could not be persuaded to settle anywhere else, nor were other Nagas willing to take up the `confiscated landsí (Mackenzie, 2001: 139). The colonial interpretation of these difficulties was that those Nagas feared retribution, but a more plausible reading is that they were gestures of solidarity. In 1880 there was a `daring raidí on a tea plantation. The men, who were from Khonoma, had `marched down the bed of the Barak through Manipuri territory, . . . requisitioned food from some of the Katcha Naga villages on the wayí. These villages, wrote Mackenzie, `though in Manipuri territory are so profoundly dominated by the terror of the Angamis that no resistance was to be expected from themí (Mackenzie, 2001: 138). Here again it is hard to miss the evidence of Naga solidarity and coordinated resistance.

The road to Naga nationhood, however, did not open up till the twentieth century. It perhaps began when during the First World War a Labor Corps of 4,000 Nagas, were sent to France, where they saw great `civilized nationsí fighting for `their ends and interests while Nagas were condemned as barbarous for their head hunting waysí (Yunuo, 1974: 125; cited in Eaton, 1997: 256). Twenty Nagas came together to form the Naga Club and in 1929, they submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission that was considering political reforms in India to respond to rising Indian anti-colonial mobilization. The signatories claimed to `represent all those tribes to which we belong ó Angamis, Katcha Nagas, Kukis, Semas, Lothas and Rangmasí (Simon Memorandum, 1999: 166). The memorandum asked that the Nagas not be included in any reform scheme because they were not unified as a group, educational levels were poor, and because given their small numbers, in any electoral system based on numbers their interests were sure to be overwhelmed. The memorandum interpreted the pre-colonial past of the Nagas as that of an unvanquished people. `Before the British Government conquered our country in 1879-80í, said the memorandum, `we were living in a state of intermittent warfare with Assamese of the Assam valley to the North and West of our country and the Manipuris to the South. They never conquered us, nor were we ever subjected to their ruleí (Simon Memorandum, 1999: 165-166).

In April 1945, the Naga Hills District Tribal Council was established at the initiative of the British Deputy Commissioner. In February 1946 the council renamed itself the Naga National Council -- organized as a federation of several tribal councils ó and brought out a small newspaper called the Naga Nation.

The single most important development that made the imagining of Nagas as a collectivity possible was their conversion to Christianity -- `the most massive movement to Christianity in all of Asia, second only to that of the Philippinesí, in the words of historian Richard Eaton (Eaton, 1997: 245). Today Christianity is an essential part of Naga identity. Except for the Zeilongrong Nagas, most Nagas are Christians. Eaton estimates the percentage of Christians to be 90% (though his study is limited to the state of Nagaland) and the NSCN-IM puts the figure at 95%. It was the American Baptist Mission that accounted for most of the proselytizing among Nagas; but the conversions of a number of Naga communities happened after the end of colonial rule and even after the Indian government expelled foreign missionaries from India. The profound destabilization of traditional Naga institutions during colonial rule, however, had set the stage for this profound cultural transformation. The village chiefs were the leaders of the community when Naga society was organized on a war footing. But when head-hunting was criminalized by colonial rulers and inter-village warfare ended, the traditional leaders lost their hold over younger warriors and it was these `would-be warriorsí who, according to Richard Eaton, responded most readily to Christian teachings (Eaton, 1997: 256).

Missionaries printed the Bible in selected Naga dialects such as Ao, Angami and Sema and in the process gave those dialects a written form using the Roman script. This meant a simplification of the Naga linguistic landscape ó for while the chosen dialects became recognized as standard, many other dialects disappeared. As literacy and education became a key to social mobility, Nagas realized the advantage of learning those standard dialects (Eaton, 1997: 252). Hundreds of young men from different areas, who were trained in the secondary schools and missionary training schools run by missionaries were able to communicate with each other (Jacobs et al. 1990:156). To this generation, the idea of Nagas as a single community of fate became real.

The Naga conflict helped make Christianity a part of Naga identity. It is not accidental that nearly half the conversions among Nagas happened after Indiaís independence. The Christian identity which marks the Nagas apart from the mostly Hindu and Muslim population of the Indian heartland has been partly an act of cultural resistance that parallel the political and armed resistance.

An astonishing number of marginalized hill peoples in northeast India today want to be included in the Naga fold; partly because they find the five-decade-old Naga struggle for recognition inspiring. In a recent article on the languages of northeast India, anthropologist Robbins Burling had to take the trouble to separate the political project of Naga unity from the languages spoken by the people who call themselves Naga. `Today, the people known as ìNagasî certainly recognize some common ìNagaî ethnicityí, Burling writes, `but this recognition may have come only after the British gave them the name ìNagaî. Most of the indigenous people of Nagaland, together with some ethnic groups in the bordering areas of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar are, by general consensus, now accepted as ìNagas,î but this term should not fool us into believing that they must have some linguistic unityí. Naga, Burling emphasized, `is not a linguistic labelí (Burling, 0000:0). Particularly striking to Burling was that some groups, `whose language a linguist would, without hesitation, classify as ìKukiî, have declared themselves to be ìNagasîí. Yet, adds Burling, `everyone agrees that Nagas and Kukis are sharply distinct ethnically. Indeed, they have been killing each other from time to timeí (Burling, 0000: 00).

When anthropologist Fürer-Haimendorf returned to the Konyak Nagas in the 1970s after three decades, he saw elections taking place in Naga villages and a new breed of ambitious Naga politicians looking beyond their villages for support. His observations graphically capture the transformation of the Naga world. `Only those who have experienced traditional Naga societyí, Fürer-Haimendorf wrote, `can appreciate the magnitude of the transformationí. To an older generation of Nagas mankind was `divided between a small inner circle of co-villagers, clansmen, and allied villages, on whose support he could depend and to whom he owed assistance in emergenciesí. The entire outside world, consisting not only of people belonging to other tribes, but even Konyaks living in other villages, were all potential enemies and legitimate targets of head-hunting. A category such as `allies from among communities outside the narrow circle of the in-groupí, he recalled, `had no place in the Nagaís picture of the worldí. The notion of `cooperation between formerly hostile village and even across tribal boundariesí could not have been more alien to the world of the Nagas he knew (Fürer-Haimendorf, 1976: 251).

If the Naga conversion to Christianity was the result of their incorporation into a larger political, economic and cultural universe, so was their journey on the road to nationhood. Paying close attention to Naga cosmologies and to the translation strategies of the Bible into Naga languages, Richard Eaton finds that the particular local gods that missionaries translated as the Christian god, along with the pace of change affecting particular Naga communities, made a difference in the scope and timing of the conversion to Christianity. As Nagas confronted a reality that could no longer be seen as being under the control of their local spirits, they were beginning to pay more attention to the high gods in their own cosmologies who `as sovereign of the entire universe, was seen as more clearly in chargeí. It was in the context of a radically transformed world, that the missionary translation strategy of making the indigenous high god stand for the Christian god that began to yield converts (Eaton, 1997: 270). If Nagas had to abandon their many local religions in favor of a world religion to morally negotiate the larger world into which they were incorporated, nationhood was the global idiom that seemed most appropriate to negotiate the rough political terrain that the Nagas have found themselves in all through the second half of the 20th century.

Confronting Constructionism: Nagas Debate their Past

Earlier in the article I have outlined the NSCN-IM view of the Naga past: that it had `always been a sovereign nationí and is now divided into many political units ó decisions over which Nagas have had little say. In the summer of 2000 a remarkable pamphlet appeared in Nagalandís capital Kohima that explicitly took on this view of the Naga past. The pamphlet entitled Bedrock of Naga Society was published by the Nagaland state Congress party and, by all accounts, it was the brainchild of the stateís chief minister S.C. Jamir (NPCC, 2000). Indeed some Indian newspapers reproduced excerpts from the pamphlet naming Jamir as the author.

The pamphlet was a defense of the 16 points agreement between the Naga Peopleís Convention and the Government of India of 1960 that led to the formation of the state of Nagaland. This is new territory in Naga political debates. Bedrock took on the independentist argument that the formation of Nagaland compromised the sovereignty of Nagas. The idea that the Nagas have been a separate independent entity from time immemorial may be an `attractive propositioní but `is it really true?í the authors asked,`were we really an independent nation?í In words never heard before in Naga political discourse, the pamphlet gave this answer:

The stark and inescapable truth is that neither did we have a definite and unified political structure and nor did we exist as a nation. We were actually a group of heterogeneous, primitive and diverse tribes living in far-flung villages that had very little in common and negligible contact with each other. . . . Each village was practically an entity in itself. The main ëcontactí between villages was through the savage practice of headhunting. Mutual suspicion and distrust was rife. Internecine warfare was the order of the day. There was no trust or interaction between different tribes. In these circumstances, the question of a unified ëNaga nationí did not arise (NPCC, 2000).

In this version of Naga history, the idea of Naga nationhood gained momentum in the 1950s. The plebiscite of 1951 when volunteers of the Naga National Council went to far-flung villages to collect thumb prints of every Naga to announce that 99.9% of the Nagas want independence `emotionally integrated the various Naga tribesí. The 16 points agreement was the result of an impasse. It had become evident that under no circumstances the Indian Government would have conceded the Naga demand for sovereignty and the Naga movement had reached a dead end. Some Nagas took stock of the situation, and resolved that `even if Independence was not possible, the land, identity and individuality of the Naga people should never be compromisedí. The result was the agreement that led to the creation of Nagaland in 1963, which `gave the Nagas worth and significance in the eyes of the worldí (NPCC, 2000).

Bedrock is undoubtedly a political document with the signature of the Congress party and of chief minister Jamir, who is known to be firmly opposed to the NSCN-IM leader Muivah. Yet its broader significance should not be underestimated. The lines between independentist and integrationist factions in Naga politics have always been blurred; in that sense this intervention is part of a debate among Naga nationalists. It is rare in the history of the practice of nationalism for a constructionist position of a groupís identity to be presented with such candor.

The pamphlet, not surprisingly, led to an enormous controversy among Nagas. The NSCN-IM published a pamphlet labeling Jamir an `Indian stoogeí out to destroy Naga solidarity. It denounced the 16 Point agreement as a betrayal of the Naga people and expressed surprise that `a man calling himself a Naga can fall this low that he is willing to disown his own historyí (Karmakar, 2000). There has been a lively debate in Naga newspapers as well. Other political and civil society groups entered the fray. The Naga Peopleís Movement for Human Rights, for instance, has called the pamphlet a distortion of Naga history.

What is not said in the pamphlet is also quite significant. Independentist and integrationist Nagas share the goal of bringing together Nagas under one entity. In recent years many Nagas have begun using the term Nagalim to describe the Naga homeland to distinguish it from the state of Nagaland. `Limí is a word in the Ao dialect that refers to land. While the term Nagalim had been used by Naga student leaders for a while, in 1999 the NSCN-IM began formally calling itself the National Socialist Council of Nagalim -- instead of Nagaland (Angami et al., 2002). The new term distinguishes between the state of Nagaland and what is seen as the territory of the Nagas without the expansive connotation of the term Greater Nagaland used by the Indian media.
While the integration of the Naga areas of Burma with the areas in India has not been high on the Naga political agenda, bringing the Nagas of India together has been an issue that unites most Nagas. Even the Nagaland Assembly has passed a number of resolutions expressing support for that cause and the 16 points agreement includes a clause articulating this position. Bedrock did not abandon that commitment. However, the position that the state of Nagaland `gave the Nagas worth and significance in the eyes of the worldí can also be seen as an attempt to downplay the Nagalim theme. Indeed in many public statements Jamir and his supporters have described the NSCN-IM leadership as `outsidersí, and have asserted that solving the Naga political problem should be up to the `Nagas of Nagalandí. Such statements clearly are targeted at Muivah.

In response to the ferment caused by the pamphlet, the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee (NPCC) in a statement clarified that `at no point of time the party had said the Naga political problem was resolved with the signing of the 1960 pactí. The pamphlet, it said, was not designed to `sabotageí the peace-talks between the Indian Government and the NSCN-IM (Assam Tribune, 2000). Despite the ambiguities and silences of the pamphlet, as a critique of the view that Nagas have always been a sovereign nation and its embrace of what amounts to a constructionist position on Naga identity, Bedrock marks an important turning point that can change the framework in which the Naga problem has historically been framed.

The Manipur Factor and the Peace Process

The issue of the Nagas of Manipur poses the most formidable obstacle to the peace process today. To understand the depth of the Manipuri anger, apart from the complex pre-colonial relations between the lowland state of Manipur and the Nagas outlined above, one has to consider Manipurís sense of growing alienation from India. The circumstances of Manipurís merger with India in October 1949, when it was stripped of the autonomy it had enjoyed, has haunted the post-colonial politics of Manipur. Like the much better known case of Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur during the British colonial period was ruled as a princely state. Four days before Indiaís independence on 15 August 1947, the king of Manipur had signed the instrument of accession entrusting defense, communication and foreign affairs to the government of India. Manipur then adopted a new state Constitution under which elections to a state Assembly took place and Manipur had a democratically elected state government. Independent Indiaís new leaders made public commitments to preserving Manipurís autonomy. But in September of 1949, the Manipuri king, held incommunicado -- with no access to his democratically elected Council of Ministers and Manipuri public opinion ó and under the pressure of considerable misinformation, false promises and intimidation, was made to sign a merger agreement. Consequently, Manipur lost its autonomy, the elected ministry was dissolved and an Indian official was appointed to run the state. The merger was never ratified by a popular vote.

A number of militant Manipuri independentist groups regard the merger as illegal and unconstitutional and many in the Manipuri intelligentsia express bitterness about the way it was brought about. Manipur, with its long and unbroken history as an independent kingdom was to be incorporated into India not as an equal member state of the Indian Union, but as a `Part C stateí, subsequently `upgradedí into a Union Territory. The politics of recognition has been a persistent theme in Manipurís troubled politics. Illustrative of the recognition theme are the protest movements demanding the status of a full-fledged state for Manipur under Indiaís federal framework, which it acquired only in 1972 ó and, quite significantly, from the Manipuri point of view, nine years after Nagaland -- and those seeking the recognition of Meiteilon or Manipuri as one of Indiaís official languages ó a status granted only in 1992. The possibility that their state might now be radically split behind their backs in secret negotiations between the Government of India and Naga rebel leaders is a source of enormous anxiety in Manipur. That Manipur geographically is a small valley surrounded by hills that make up the bulk of its territory ó and that is where most Nagas live -- adds to this sense of anxiety

The Meiteis ó an ethnic term that distinguishes the Manipurís lowlanders from the hill peoples -- are proud of the long history of their state in the Imphal Valley. Meiteis, who live mostly in the Imphal Valley, number about 1.4 million, and they constitute 57% of the stateís population. Among the hill peoples are those that are considered Naga by pan-Naga organizations, e.g., the Tangkhuls (113 thousands), Mao (80 thousands), the Kabui (62 thousands) and, fourteen smaller groups. In addition, there are 13 communities that are by some classification placed in the Kuki-Chin-Zomi group. Together Manipurís tribal population of 714 thousands amount to about 30% of the stateís population of 2.4 million people, though the hills comprise about 90% of the stateís territory.

It has been said by a Manipuri scholar that the `essenceí of the long history of Manipur is the interactions between the Meitei and the surrounding hill peoples and that the culture of the Meiteis is little more than the product of these `interactions, struggle for supremacy and subsequent fusion into a common ethno-linguistic entityí (Singh, 1990: 238). It is perhaps a sign of the gulf between the old and the new ways in which identities are negotiated that a recent article could claim that, `the name Manipur is only applicable to the Hindu dweller of the plains areasí (Shimray, 2001: 3675).

Meiteis today feel embattled and embittered by the identity discourse of the Nagas that threatens a radical diminution of the stateís territory. Meitei narratives of Manipur stress the stateís historical pluralism. A publication brought out to publicize the Manipuri point of view during the controversy over the ceasefire puts it this way: `It is an undeniable fact that there are many similarities in customs, habits and manners between the Meiteis and the hill peopleí. The term`Nagaí, it points out, quite accurately about a period that is now past, `had never been applied to the hill people of Manipurí, but it was a term used by the Tai-Ahom kings of Assam and the British to refer only to the people who inhabit the territory that is today called Nagaland. It points out that two Tangkhul Naga politicians, Yangmasho Shaiza and Rishang Keishang have been chief ministers of Manipur. And Meiteilon or Manipuri, it claims, is `the language of all Manipurisí since it is both the language of the Meiteis and the lingua franca of the hill peoples (AMCTA, 2001: 35-47). Such claims, of course, are challenged by the Naga and by other hill peoples (See Shimray, 2001: 3676).

Meiteis resent that Nagas are supposedly trying to `destroyí their state. Since Nagas acquired `a state of its own within a short span of timeí, even when `historical states like Manipurí did not, their aspirations have now `run wildí even `threatening the territorial integrity of other historical and advanced states like Manipur and Assamí (AMCTA, 2001: 23). Meiteis are critical of Manipuri Nagas who identify with NSCN-IM: `it is most unfortunateí that sections of some tribes who `claimí to be Nagas and `whose roots are deeply embodied in Manipur and whose parents shed blood for Manipur are now working in tandem with an outfit (i.e. the NSCN-IM) whose ambition is to destroy Manipurí (AMCTA, 2001: 27).

Manipurís anxiety about the Naga claims on its territory long precedes the current controversy. In 1994 when the Nagaland Assembly called for the unification of all Naga areas, the Manipur Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution to uphold the territorial integrity of Manipur. Interestingly enough, the chief minister of Manipur at that time was a Tangkhul Naga, Rishang Keising. Ethnic Naga politicians of Manipur have had to negotiate a difficult line between the claims on their loyalty as Manipuris and as Nagas, given the popularity of the pan-Naga cause.

Manipuri street protests against the cease-fire began as soon as the present ceasefire came to effect on 1 August 1997. On 4 August 1997, thousands of people participated in a protest rally in Imphal and the Manipur Legislative Assembly passed a resolution protesting the extension of the ceasefire. The mood that animated the spectacular protest in Manipur after the June 2001 announcement of the ceasefire having `no territorial limitsí is best captured in the words of a Manipuri activist. `The people of Manipur naturally felt that their apprehension was now coming trueí, wrote Khumajam Ratan, presumably referring to the fear of a potential break-up of Manipur. `Feeling deeply betrayed, they rose in protest against the central governmentís decision. When the news of the signing of the 14 June agreement in Bangkok reached Manipur there was a general disbelief. Gloom was writ large on the peopleís faces. The initial general disbelief and gloom soon turned to an unprecedented demonstration of strong, powerful protestsí (Ratan, 2001: 1)

The protest included general strikes, social boycott of the political parties, burnings of the Indian national flag and of effigies of Indian political leaders. There were police firings, deaths and injuries and significant destruction of public property including symbolically important ones such as the State Legislative Assembly building. Many Manipuri Nagas left the tense Imphal Valley for the hills. The protests died down only after Indiaís Home Minister announced on 27 July 2001 that the three words `without territorial limitsí would be dropped from the agreement signed with the NSCN-IM regarding the scope of the cease-fire. There is a demand now for an amendment of the Indian Constitution to guarantee the inviolability of Manipurís borders. Like Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, merged with India as a distinct entity, says a Manipuri publication. Since it had a `definite historical international boundary at the time of the mergerí India should not destroy those boundaries. `No alien force nor internal contradictions can break the territorial integrity of Manipurí (AMCTA, 2001: 38, 48).

Conclusion: Towards an Alternative Institutional Imagination

To those who had expected the long-running Naga conflict to end as a result of the current peace process, the impasse created by the Manipuri protest is disappointing However, the protest also served to bring to light the history of the regionís `strange multiplicityí and the tensions between the spatial discourse that had historically enabled the hill peoples and lowland states of the region to coexist and the spatial discourse of exclusive territorially rooted collectivities that frame todayís politics of recognition among Nagas, Meiteis and other communities.
By stressing the need to confront constructionism, I do not wish to de-emphasize the power of these identities. To say that `communities are social constructions: imagined, invented, put togetherí, as Michael Walzer puts it, does not make them `less real or less authentic than some otherí (Walzer, 1995: 324). Nor do I wish to suggest that confronting constructionism is something that only the Nagas would have to do; it applies to the Manipuris and the Government of India as well. Some senior Indian security experts, for instance, believe that Naga unity is only a `secessionist fictioní. As one of these experts puts it in a recent essay there are `nearly 40 major tribes sub-tribes among the people categorized as Nagas, each of which speaks a different language . . . and many of whom have unrelenting histories of internecine conflictí (Gill, 2001). In its inability to see Naga nationhood as a work in progress, this mind-set is remarkably reminiscent of colonial writings that sought to deny the status of nationhood to colonized peoples on account of their supposedly perpetual state of conflict and disunity.

Indian official attitude towards the Naga conflict, unfortunately, has been dominated by a security mindset. There is a belief that weaknesses on the Naga side -- military defeat, an aging leadership and pressure from the grassroots -- have pushed the rebels to the negotiating table, and that time is on the governmentís side to seek a resolution in its own terms. Apart from a lack of appreciation of how Nagas have come to see themselves as a collectivity ó partly because of their long history of confrontation with the Indian state -- there is little appreciation in the security discourse, of the Indian governmentís responsibility in the Naga nightmare or, at least, of the need to acknowledge the Naga sense of being wronged. Hindu nationalist myths and ill-informed ideas making Christian missionaries responsible for the Naga conflict may further stand in the way of creating an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation on the Indian side.

By contrast, Naga civic and intellectual life today shows remarkable signs of vitality, openness and flexibility. Perhaps because Nagas are free of the burden of a frozen hegemonic national narrative -- thanks to the lack of a long literary history -- Naga narratives are willing to live with remarkable ambiguity and uncertainty about their past. In that sense Bedrock of Naga Society was not an aberration. `The Nagas are not even sure of their numbers or the physical land areas they occupyí, writes a contemporary Naga intellectual known for his non-partisan appeal, `but whatever scraps of history have been handed down through the generations, they hold on with a tenacity that would escape the casual observer and surprise the serious researcherí. The absence of a common language or shared values, poor education, poor economic conditions or `the containment and control policiesí of the Government in order to manage the Naga rebellion, says Chassie, `have proved futile in tearing the Nagas apartí (Chassie, 1999: 21).

It is clear by now that secret bi-lateral meetings between the Government of India and the rebel leaders cannot produce a solution to the Naga conflict. Manipur surely has as serious a stake as any in the Naga conflict. If it is not a part of the way the Naga conflict is conventionally mapped, it is a function of how most observers have got accustomed to Indiaís centralized style of governing and deciding the fate of this frontier region. Yet stripping the political arenas of the region of substantive powers has been the major cause of the unrelenting political turmoil in the region. The Manipuri outburst is a product of decision-making at far-away places by bureaucrats with no knowledge or interest in the regionís history.

At the same time it cannot be argued that the Naga talks can be suddenly expanded to include Manipur as a stakeholder. Before anything like that can happen, all parties would have to come to terms with the limits of the territorial discourse in northeast India that the collision between the Naga and Manipuri projects of recognition underscores. There needs to be an alternative institutional imagination and a source of fresh ideas may be an entirely different political discourse than that of making and breaking states (See Baruah, 1997). The government of India in the past has resisted pressures to accept the international discourse of the rights of indigenous peoples. While there is a lot to be said for a distinction between the predicament of indigenous peoples in settler societies and in India, debates within this global discourse can also bring to the table new ideas for addressing the Naga conflict. The principle of the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples under international law, for instance, has led to concepts like separate polities within shared territories, which have been tried in societies, where relations between settlers and indigenous peoples are based on treaties between a government and particular indigenous nations.

Even if these parties had vastly asymmetric power relations when these treaties were signed, and for a long time such treaties did not protect these peoples against assimilative policies and practices, in recent years they have provided the basis for challenging the foundational myths of the national communities created by settler communities. But most significantly, slowly but steadily they are modifying the architecture of federalism in countries like Australia, Canada and the United States. The `nativeí peoples have been able to claim a place in the federal table alongside states. In the Indian mainland, the linguistic reorganization of states has created states or, what can be called nation provinces where particular nationalities constitute majorities capable of defining the public identity of those states. In many cases these nation-provinces are seen as legitimate partly because they pay symbolic homage to the history of Indiaís pre-colonial political formations. Given that experience, it is remarkable that there has been such a dismissive attitude towards the pre-colonial history of Manipur and its hold on the Manipuri political imagination. Whatever institutional structures are designed to resolve the Naga conflict will have to coexist alongside Manipur and not at the expense of Manipur.

Fortunately, in recent months, ideas about alternative institutional arrangements have become a part of Indian discussions of the Naga conflict. Indian journalist and policy thinker B.G. Verghese has suggested a non-territorial approach that would `strengthen the Naga way of lifeí and would not affect the integrity of other states. He recommends the formation of a Naga Regional Council that would give Nagas outside Nagaland a say in Naga cultural matters (Cited in Hazarika, 2002). Noted anthropologist B K Roy Burman has suggested an institution modeled on the Saami Council where the Saami people living in Sweden, Finland, and Norway are represented (Times of India, 2001). To be sure, both Roy Burmanís and Vergheseís concepts are rather preliminary at this stage and they seem to address exclusively cultural issues. Given the history of the past five decades, it would be too much to expect the Naga conflict to suddenly end on a whimper of some vague promise of cultural autonomy. A proposal that might have the power to capture the Naga imagination at the moment might take the Burmese government into confidence and bring the Nagas of Burma into the picture as well. This can be the first step towards a comprehensive dialogue that includes Nagas as well as the other stakeholders to consider an arrangement that crosses both transnational and inter-state borders which recognizes Naga identity, alongside both the sovereignty of India and Burma and the territorially embodied identities of states like Manipur and Assam. The concept can combine the Saami Council with the indigenous peoplesí institutions of Canada that exercise increasing powers alongside the provinces of Canada. Without such a significant shifting of gears, it is unlikely that the current five-year old Naga peace process can overcome the formidable obstacles it currently faces to end one of worldís most protracted and tragic armed conflicts.


1 Sahadevan (2000) shows that compared to most internal/civil wars in the world, those in South Asia have been unusually protracted. Using Roy Lickliderís definitions (Licklider, 1995), Sahadevan finds that while of the 84 wars included in the Licklider study only 18 or 21% were protracted in the sense that they went on for more than ten years, 63% of the wars in South Asia belonged to this category ó three times higher than the global average. The nearly five decades old Naga war, undoubtedly qualifies as one of the longest wars in the world.

i The category `tribe,í despite all its conceptual problems is part of Indian political discourse primarily because of a system of protective discrimination that exists in favor of groups of people listed as tribes. Article 342 of Indian Constitution provides for the president of India by public notification to specify the `tribes or tribal communities or parts of or groups within tribes or tribal communities which shall for the purposes of the Constitution be deemed to be Scheduled Tribes.í In this article I will use the term `tribeí to mean groups included in that list. According to a scholar who has examined how the Indian government arrives at the list, the tribes are `defined partly by habitat and geographic isolation, but even more on the basis of social, religious, linguistic and cultural distinctiveness ó their ìtribal characteristicsî. Just where the line between ìtribalsî and ìnon-tribalsî should be drawn has not always been free from doubtí (Galanter, 1984: 150).

1 I have borrowed the phrase `strange multiplicityí from Tully (1995).

* The argument of this section extends James C. Scottís (2000) hypothesis about Southeast Asia to northeast India. This and the following two paragraphs are mostly a summary of Scottís hypothesis.


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