Revisiting Phizo’s Ideals: The Question of Sovereignty in Naga Political Movement

Porteus Shimray

Research Student, University of Delhi

There is a general perception among the young Nagas of present generation that Phizo, the grand leader of yesteryears Naga political movement, may have actually erred when he was not willing to accommodate any form of political arrangements for the Nagas, except absolute sovereignty. However, some old guards may still stand by what Phizo had fought till his last breath in London. From the beginning of Naga political movement, which began with Naga Club’s Memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929, the goal of attaining ‘sovereignty’ has remained as one of the central tenets of Naga political struggle. Although, the Nagas who had submitted the Memo did not specifically used the term ‘sovereignty’, what they had demanded for the Nagas in the event of British Colonial power leaving India was clear enough to indicate that they seek complete ‘independence’ from external forces (by which they mean India or for that matter any other neighboring nation) and freedom to manage their domestic affairs in their own terms. By demanding ‘to leave us alone to determine ourselves as in ancient times’, the Naga Club had set the ground where Nagas want their future to be, and in the years to come this became the main focus of Naga political demands.

The concept of ‘sovereignty’ was used much later in the period of Naga political struggle, but by the time India was about to attain freedom from Colonial rule, Nagas were quite sure of what they want. The educated youngsters, who had acquired their knowledge from educational institutions outside their own village, were taking up the leadership of Naga political organizations. It must be noted that though Nagas were opposed to any form of political imposition and intrusion into their territory from the ancient times, they had not formulated clear political structure or tried to have uniform administrative systems for all the Nagas. An exception had occurred with the emergence of Jadonang’s movement during the colonial times, who had dreamed of establishing ‘Naga Raj’, but it failed to inspire all the Nagas. Therefore, the ideals of modern political practices had come through education and exposure with the outside world, but Naga leaders were quick to find parallels between modern ideals and Nagas’ traditional way of life. And, ‘sovereignty’ was one of those enticing ideals that Nagas have closely hold on ever since they came to know that Colonial rule was coming to an end.

During the heydays of Naga National Council, it was not only Phizo, but the whole generation of Nagas, who have had some exposure to Western education and political ideas, had stood for complete ‘sovereignty’ for the Nagas. Verrier Elwin, in his book Nagaland, has also noted that even for an average Naga the word ‘independence’ was the ‘sweetest’. The rare encounter between Morarji Desai and Phizo in London, the breakdown of first Ceasefire Agreement between Government of India and NNC during the 60s, mass boycotting of Nehru’s speech in Kohima, and various instances of similar nature indicates that Nagas have been quite adamant in their political practices. Phizo’s political stand has been the epitome of what Nagas want during that point of time. He was quite adamant about the forms of political arrangement for Nagas, making it clear that Nagas will not have anything other than ‘absolute sovereignty’.  It has been a common practice among the Nagas to blame Indian government for all the misdeeds and mistakes that have occurred in the past; but it is also time for the Nagas to introspect and interrogate what have happened in the past, and relook into the stances that they had taken. And going by the historical experiences, being highly adamant in one’s political ideals has not paid off well for the Nagas in the long run.

Today, when Indo-Naga political negotiations has been going on for the last 17 years, globalization has reached our nondescript villages, and Naga youths are busy working in distant places across the globe, the concept of ‘absolute sovereignty’ may actually seem redundant. Naga leaders are also becoming aware of the political realities of present times that ‘nations’ today are not as ‘independent’ as they had dreamed to be, but rather dependent of others, in terms of economy and policy matters in international arena. To be more futuristic and also more realistic, the concept of ‘shared sovereignty’ has also been thrust into the mindset of Naga leaders, and it is becoming the main focus for the future political arrangements for the Nagas. How and in what manner exactly this new concept maybe practiced and put into place is a matter of speculation as political negotiations are still going on, but it is indeed a stark deviation from the strands that Naga political movement has taken in the past.

It has become a repeated offence, sort of psychological game plan, and often committed by Indian bureaucrats and political leaders, to proclaim that Naga leaders have given up the demand for ‘sovereignty’. In an equal measure, Naga leaders have time and again clarified that they have not made any compromise on the question of ‘sovereignty’ of the Nagas. While the public is not only bemused, but also remained as mute spectator to political mess being presented in the media. As we flipped through the pages of Naga political history, it has also been interspersed with the ideals of sovereignty, and today we find that we are being hunted by this dream time and again. Should the Nagas continue to follow Phizo, and steadfastly hold on to the ideals of the past, and what all the modern nations have been built upon, or forego the past and make adjustments for the present? Today, when so much blood has been shed and numerous lives being sacrificed, the concept of ‘sovereignty’ is becoming a ‘sacred’ terrain, where every Naga leader and political organizations would not dare to be on the wrong side. On the other hand, the average Naga is becoming to think whether it was just an illusion, or just an unrealistic dream to hope that sovereignty will actually be attained one day.

What has always been taken for granted, or perceived as being established, in the political doctrine of Naga political struggle is the political status of Nagas. The whole discourse on political struggle of Nagas has been and continues to be overshadowed by what ‘nation’ practices, for example ‘sovereignty’, and not the structure and status which make a nation distinct. Sovereignty refers to the political power and practices, which are accorded to established ‘nation’. Thus, in the first place, what Nagas need to defined and fight is to be recognized that they are a ‘nation’. If the premise of political negotiations begins from here, then one can move to what ‘nations’ ought to get, and be duly accorded. There have been fervent attempts by academicians in Northeast India to deconstruct the social and political foundation of Naga nationhood. Nagas have been projected as just another ‘collection of tribe’, which the Colonial master brought together under some generic term. The social and linguistic diversity of Nagas have been projected as incongruent with the structures of ‘nationhood’. It is one way to demand for sovereignty all the time, but on the other hand it is altogether a different gambit to define one’s political status. But, a clear stand on the political structure of the community clubbed under the generic term is fundamental to the political struggle. It may seem irrelevant at some level, but to mitigate the dissensions within the fold, as well as to counter the adversarial conjectures, it is becoming need of the hour.

It is too early and presumptuous to assume that ‘sovereignty’ is a political tool that has become redundant or loss its value. The fundamental principle on which ‘nations’ are built upon, and continue exist is heavily determined by the ideals that has been laid down in the Treaty of Westphalia. If the ideals of sovereignty has lost its currency in contemporary times, then there will no need for territorial demarcations between nations, because it is there that marks the strength of any nation. Globalization may have done all the harm that it could to any nation’s economy and power to make decision, but in real political terms nations continue to respect each other’s domain in various spheres. Despite all the good and bad effects of globalization, and talks about the world becoming a global village, it has remained within the realm of economic and cultural spheres. In political practices and structures, the impacts of globalization have not been fully ascertained.

We can still uphold Phizo’s ideals as sovereignty is still relevant in one way or the other for any nation’s existence. But, had he been more accommodative or look at the road of Naga political solution as a process and not an event, the political trajectory of Nagas could have taken a different turn. The fight for sovereignty has taken varied turns in contemporary times. There are still various political groups around the world fighting for nationhood, and even now some nations are being born in different continents. While some have used the UN’s office, where others national groups have also attained sovereignty on their own. The political situation in South Asia is still undergoing tremendous change, and Nagas leaders should be able learn and take advantage of this situation. They may also rethink the political methods and strategies that they have used in the past, and learn from the historical experiences that their predecessors have been through. A critical assessment of what had happened with A.Z. Phizo led NNC will be a good point to start, and make necessary changes in their policy and strategy in taking the movement forward.