Northeastern View | The demand for a separate ‘Frontier Nagaland’ state has a colonial history - Hindustan Times
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Northeastern View | The demand for a separate ‘Frontier Nagaland’ state has a colonial history

Mar 24, 2024 08:21 AM IST

What's needed is an honest four-cornered dialogue between New Delhi, Kohima, and the competing demands for a separate eastern Nagaland and a united ‘Nagalim’

On March 19, 2024, at a public meeting in Tuensang, the main administrative centre in eastern Nagaland, local civil society members made a momentous proclamation on behalf of the people they claim to represent – to not participate in any central or state elections, including the upcoming general election.

The ENOPO has been demanding a separate Frontier Nagaland state since 2010 over alleged issues of discrimination. (File)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
The ENOPO has been demanding a separate Frontier Nagaland state since 2010 over alleged issues of discrimination. (File)(HT_PRINT)

Led by the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO), the gathering re-endorsed a resolution issued earlier, on February 23, in Chenmoho village of Mon district. The reason behind this forthright rejection of elections is ostensibly straightforward – the failure of the Narendra Modi government to fulfil its promise to create an autonomous division for eastern Nagas, known as the ‘Frontier Nagaland Territory’.

What’s behind this demand for autonomy by the eastern Nagas? Will New Delhi grant it?

History of ‘Eastern Nagaland’

As with most cases of demands for ethno-political autonomy in the Northeast, the movement for a separate ‘Eastern Nagaland’ can be traced back to a long colonial history of frontier management and line drawing.

Beginning in the mid-1860s, the British colonial administration began to put in place a bifurcated regime for administering the Naga hills. While it brought western Nagaland under formal control by establishing the ‘Naga Hills District’ in 1912, it left the east out of its administrative remit due to its relative remoteness. This created an unequal political geography across what later became ‘Nagaland.’

The west received colonial developmental largesse, which the east was deprived of. Needless to say, an economic divide between both regions emerged, in turn festering adverse mutual perceptions between the western and eastern Nagas. In fact, in the late 1880s, eastern Nagas violently attacked western Naga villages, even provoking preventive raids by colonial forces who sought to defend their subjects in the west.

Since then, eastern Nagaland remained a distinct political entity in one form or the other for many decades, through various phases of administrative realignments. In 1914, it was brought under nominal colonial control under the ‘Assam Frontier Tract Regulation’. Then, the Government of India Act 1935 designated it as a ‘tribal area’ while flagging western Nagaland as an ‘Excluded Area’. After Indian independence, eastern Nagaland was formally classified as ‘Tuensang District’ and incorporated into the ‘North East Frontier Tract (NEFT)’. It became the ‘Tuensang Frontier Division’ when NEFT became the ‘North East Frontier Agency (NEFA)’ in 1954.

Three years later, the ‘Tuensang Frontier Division’ was severed from NEFA and clubbed with the Naga Hills to form the ‘Naga Hills Tuensang Area (NHTA)’. This merger was further consolidated when Nagaland was given full statehood in 1962. While Tuensang enjoyed a fair degree of political autonomy even after Nagaland became a state, it was this awkward merger with western Nagaland that created the foundations for the ‘Eastern Nagaland’ statehood movement, steered by the ENPO.

The colonial legacy of unequal governance rolled over into postcolonial angst among eastern Nagas against the Kohima government, which was widely accused of short-changing the east. The “land of the backward people” – that’s how Chingmak, an eastern Naga, described his homeland to anthropologist, Jelle JP Wouters, as narrated in his 2018 book ‘In the Shadows of the Naga Insurgency’, during his fieldwork in Noksen.

Contours of the present demand for ‘Eastern Nagaland’

The current ENPO-led movement for a separate ‘Eastern Nagaland’ state formally began in 2011. ‘Frontier Nagaland Territory’ – that’s what they call their envisioned future state, which is currently composed of six districts. The ENPO, which was formed in 1997, claims that Union home minister Amit Shah promised to accept their demand on December 7. However, negotiations appear to have stalled since then, and legislators from eastern Nagaland are now camping in the national capital in the hope of resuming talks with the home ministry.

Importantly, the eastern Naga representatives have chosen to directly talk to New Delhi, rather than go through the Nagaland state government, which is currently led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio of the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, the Rio government in Kohima has maintained a passive distance from the negotiations. In 2022, it clarified that the issue was between eastern Nagas and the central government.

This reveals a continuing trust deficit between the eastern Naga representatives and Kohima – a vestige of colonial history. In that sense, the central government is well-placed to play the role of a neutral arbiter. However, the issue is more complicated than it looks.

The centre is currently in talks with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) to find a permanent solution to the Naga conflict, which began in the 1950s. It signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the armed group in 2015, but negotiations have flatlined since. If the centre agrees to carve out a separate eastern Naga state from Nagaland, NSCN-IM, which seeks to create a single Naga homeland called ‘Nagalim’ with a separate flag and constitution, might abandon the peace process. Essentially, the centre is faced with a peculiar demand for double autonomy.

Alternatively, New Delhi could, through multi-stakeholder talks, figure out an arrangement in which it creates a ‘Frontier Nagaland’ state that reports to a ‘Nagalim’ government. This, however, will be as complicated in reality as it sounds on paper. What is needed is an honest quadrilateral dialogue between New Delhi, Kohima, ENPO and the NSCN-IM to identify a viable way forward.

Angshuman Choudhury is an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, and focuses on Northeast India and Myanmar. The views expressed are personal.

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