Naga Insurgency has been at the forefront off late, their demands rooted firmly in their uniqueness of identity and ethnicity, religion and history. However, the crux of matter remains in the veracity of these claims and the role of Christianity. 

Ever since the signing of the Framework Agreement of the Naga Settlement between the Government of India interlocutor and Chairman of Joint Intelligence Committee R.N Ravi and National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM) leader Theuingaleng Muivah in August 2015, the insurgency in the northeast of India has been actively covered by the media and discussed by the intelligentsia. The focus of previous governments had been firmly fixed on Kashmir while the Naga issue simmered and further complicated itself with the birth of every new faction of the mother ship NSCN.

There have been various labyrinthine plots and counterplots in the history of the Nagas — Plots to give them a singular identity in order to legitimise the demand for ‘Greater Nagalim for Christ’. However, sifting through history to comprehend the genesis of this insurgency leaves a doubt on the veracity of the claims made by Naga insurgent groups. Demands for sovereignty or autonomy of Naga territories, spanning from Nagaland to areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur were made on the basis of their unique identity, culture and religion.

Rev. Seksim Kasam, General Secretary of the Council of Nagalim Churches in 2015,while addressing the Nagas, expressed the importance of Nagas coming together to support Muivah and Isaac Chisi Swu stating: “We have been given the privilege to build Nagalim Christendom. We have been called and chosen to be the builders and establishers not demolishers and destroyers of God’s kingdom here on earth. No business is more serious than engaging oneself in God’s mission. We are here to accomplish our divine duty. We cannot fail. If you take it a mean thing, then ask — who is going make our land a Christian Country Nagalim for Christ?”

Naga Tribes and Impact of the British

However, historically, the Nagas were not one single tribal community. Till the advent of Christianity and English education amongst the various tribes of the region, they were preserving their respective faiths of animism. Originally, the Nagas were not known by the names of the tribes as they are known now, but by the name of their villages. Now known as the Nagas, there were about sixteen tribes and various sub tribes, with distinct cultural traditions, dialects, customs, dress and systems of governance.

The name was only popularised and enforced by the British colonial authorities during the introduction of their rule in the Naga areas. Naga warriors periodically descended from their mountain top villages to raid the tea gardens of Assam in the valley below. These frequent raids compelled the British to engage the Nagas in armed conflict, which resulted in most of the Naga inhabited territory coming under British rule in India by early nineteenth century. With the subjugation of this region, further widening took place of the cultural gap between the Nagas and other hill tribes as well as the inhabitants of the lowlands.

British occupation brought many deep-rooted changes in Naga life. Spread of education led to increased political awareness. The introduction of English enabled the different tribes to develop a coherent identity, around a common language. They allowed no Indian to function as administrators of the hill districts. Christian missionary activity soon followed British annexation, with American Baptists assuming the lead. Rapid progress in religious conversion and literacy led to a growing sense of Naga solidarity.

Missionary Contact and Agendas

The first missionaries to come in contact with the Nagas, Dr. & Mrs. E.W. Clark, sailed from Boston in October 1868. Clark’s mission was in Sibsagar but the Naga hill tribes fascinated him and he moved to Dekha Haimong village to begin his missionary work, forty years after Rev. Miles Bronson who had limited success with the Nagas. The Clarkes then enlisted the help of an Assamese convert, “Godhula Brown”. The progress was slow and the entire village was divided. He did, however, manage to convert about 15 Nagas in 1872 and they were baptised at a village drinking well called ‘Chungli Tzubu’. This was the first time a divide had been created on religious lines within a Naga tribe. Many were hostile, being convinced that Clark was a spy for the British Empire and wanted him expelled but the village council itself was divided and that prevented the traditional norms they established a Clarks from being expelled. They village called Molung — the first dissuaded the new converts from Christian model village, well equipped participating in traditional rituals and with a Baptist church and where ceremonies, there was desecration of ancient Naga ceremonies would not be sacred objects and finally against all practised.


American Baptist Missions soon began to send other missionaries to aid and speed up the conversion process in Nagaland. Eventually, mission stations were planted throughout the Naga inhabited territory. Over a period of time Mulong became the centre of missionswith the main purpose of ‘civilizing’ and converting Nagas in tothe Christianfaith as mentioned by Clarke in one of his field reports.

Over the last century, the tribes converted to Christianity with emphasis on believers having ‘personal encounters with Christ’ and witnessing of ‘signs’ and ‘miraculous healing’. However, all tribes were not as enthusiastic. A few Naga tribes resisted the efforts of proselytisation wholeheartedly. The Zeliangrong tribes fought for the revival of Heraka, their ancient indigenous Animistic religion and by 1925, Rani Gaidinliu and Haipo Jadonang were at the forefront fighting to preserve their ancient beliefs against British subjugation. Within the Heraka faith, she came to be considered an incarnation of the Goddess Cherachamdinliu. Jadonang was hanged in 1931 and Gaidinliu was arrested in 1932 at the age of 16, and was sentenced to life imprisonment by the British. It is remarkable how a girl this young went to battle to protect her faith and it is equally disappointing that she doesn’t figure anywhere as a symbol of Naga courage in Naga literature and history.

Naga Separatism, Armed Rebellion and Christianity

The present Naga separatist movement is owed to these historical influences instigated by British colonial rule. The idea, rhetoric and narrative were the basis for the claims made by the Naga separatist groups. Once a common language had been established, religious affiliation brought in trust, and the result was that the Nagas readily accepted the ideas put forth by the British for self determination, democratic principles and western institutions.

We cannot alter the fact that the Naga villages or tribes were in a state of war, one against another with no bond of unity, no idea of a common interest or objectives and no concept of a Naga nation before the British and the missionaries appeared on the scene. In such a context, Naga nationalism was born under the impact of the Britishadministration and thereafter nourished by the missionary educated Nagas in the early 1940s, down till the present day.

One of the events amongst many, that sowed the seeds of nationalism, was the Reid and Coupland Plan. It was to be a Crown Colony comprising of India’s northeast and parts of northwest Burma. The Crown Colony plan, (even though it did not materialise), developed consciously and sub consciously in the political minds of the Nagas. This encouraged tribal separatism and finally developed into the long running discord between the Nagas and the Government of India.

Initially, the Nagas sought political mechanisms for addressing their concerns about the territorial union with India. Their demands at the time were only limited to some amount of autonomy and self-governance. The Naga Club, established in 1929 to address these concerns was established by anglicised missionary school educated Nagas and British Officers. In 1945, C. R. Pawsey, the deputy commissioner of the Naga Hills District, established the Naga Hills District Tribal Council as a forum of the various Naga groups. It replaced the Naga Club and finally formed the Naga National Council (NNC) which in any case was the brainchild again of the British. Let me point out here that during this time the Christian population was only about 20%; it was only after 1940 and the creation of these political platforms that the Christian population increased to 45%.

NNC leadership like Angami Zapu Phizo, under the influence of missionaries like Rev. Michael Scott, who supplied arms and ammunition in Red Cross boxes to Phizo in order to aid armed rebellion, changed the agenda from autonomy to sovereignty. Violence ensued and Christianity increased. If you look at Church records, one will notice the increase in Christianity was substantial during times of conflict. In the 50’s, the increase in growth was substantial, but it was only after the expulsion of Phizo and Rev. Scott and the Shillong Accord in 1975, that the rate of conversion exploded.

Expectedly there was a conflict between the leadership of the NNC over the Accord, divided into the moderates and the hardliners. Isak Chishi Swu, Thuingaleng Muivah, S.S. Khaplang formed NSCN as a new separatist organisation with civil and military wings. The Baptist Church membership peaked in 1976 and by 1980 it had increased by 55%. Anyone, with a spiritual bent of mind will realise that accepting a new religion can only come out of a spiritual experience, therefore the not so invisible hand that aided these mass conversions was the aggression of armed groups like NSCN which further fractionalised in 1988 forming NSCN (K) led by Khaplang and NSCN (IM) led by Isak and Muivah.

The Way Forward

Despite using the political, religious and conflict mechanisms to gain sovereignty from the Indian central government, the Naga groups have not had much success. Though the British provided the education and information for the mobilisation of the Nagas, the distinction between the ethnic constitution in Nagaland and mainstream India created the necessity for political mobilisation based on ethnicity to address various issues.

However, they have failed to take into consideration that when India became a Nation, over 643 recognised unique indigenous tribes and over 2000 ethnicities came together based on historical commonalities that go far beyond the last century. As for religion, there are over 2.8 crore Christians in India (majority of whom live in other parts of India). Meghalaya and Mizoram, also states with a majority Christian population have assimilated without losing their “uniqueness”.

One of the most influential modernists, Ernest Gellner proposed that nations and nationalism are the result of the process of modernisation. In the famous ‘Warwick Debates’ that occurred in 1995 between Gellner and Anthony D. Smith, Gellner suggested ethnic and cultural factors are transformed by economic and scientific changes. In which case, nations and nationalism are the result of modern processes. Gellner defined nationalism as ‘the striving to make culture and polity congruent, to endow a culture with its own political roof, and not more than one roof at that’. For Gellner, nationalism is rooted in ‘the distinctive structural requirements of industrial society,’ a characteristic of modern societies. Nations are created because of the need to create a standardised and homogenous high culture to meet the demands created by industrialisation.

The Naga separatists would benefit greatly and be in a position to serve the Naga population by understanding the needs of the modern world and relinquishing archaic and pre designed ideas of sovereignty. Decades of conflict has destroyed the aspirations of generations of Nagas. The Nagas, in the meantime bleed and continue to pay multiple taxes to multiple factions — NSCN-IM, NSCN-K, NSCN-KK, NSCN-U, NSCN-R amongst many others. Mass civil organisations like ACAUT (Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation) are testimony to their suffering. There are so many factions now that in fact even the Nagas are unsure of how many. During my time travelling and meeting Kilosners (Ministers) of the various separatist groups in Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, I noticed the absence of any sort of economic plan for the future of the Nagas; on the contrary they disregarded completely the emotions of mass movements of organisations like ACAUT.

The time has come for the responsibility of this conflict and its consequences to lie on the shoulders of the Naga separatists. In the 2014 Indian general elections, the voter turn out in Nagaland was a staggering 87%, the highest in India. This is a token of faith of the Naga civil society in the Indian Nation. If this is not recognised by the leaders of the near defunct separatist movements, then their motives for the welfare of the Nagas are certainly questionable. NSCN-K unilaterally abrogated the ceasefire with the government of India in 2015 and Khaplang since has died. With the rest of the leadership ageing, they would be better off leaving a legacy of peace rather than conflict. They would also do well to remember the words of the poet, A.C. Swinburne, in ‘The Garden of Prosperine’:

“That no life lives for ever; That dead men rise up never; That even the weariest river Winds somewhere safe to sea”

Ms Rami Niranjan Desai is a social scientist with degrees in Theology and Anthropology of Religion from King’s college, London. She was the former director of North East Policy Institute and has over a decade of field experience in conflict areas especially in northeast India.

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