The Indian state of Nagaland is poised to once more create a major headache for India if the unrest there doesn’t fully stabilize sometime soon, although this story is almost completely overlooked by the Mainstream Media’s blackout on the topic. The large-scale riots from earlier this month have already led to the police killing three participants after they torched government buildings and vehicles, and the Chief Minister abruptly resigned in response to the protesters’ demands.
This appears to have calmed the situation, at least for now, but the sudden explosive outburst of violence reminded all those who followed the events that Nagaland is fuse which could easily light “India’s Balkans” ablaze in the Northeast. This isn’t by any means a new realization, but the contemporary domestic and international context has markedly changed since India’s independence and the original onset of the Naga conflict shortly thereafter. In light of the recent violence, and taking into consideration the relevant geopolitics of the New Cold War and the Modi Era, it’s worthwhile to conduct a strategic analysis about this long-standing issue and forecast the implications that an intensified renewal of the Naga Conflict could have for India and the “Greater South Asia” region at large.
The research begins by bringing the reader up to speed with the historical and recent context of this issue, and then proceeds to identify the most realistic interconnected catalysts which could spark a more pronounced aggravation of violence in and around Nagaland. The next part of the work then analyzes the domestic and international implications of an intensified Naga insurgency, while the final segment takes a look at the most feasible way that this conflict could be resolved in order to avoid the negative scenarios previously described.
The Naga were never a part of what is generally considered to be “Indian Civilization”, at least in the sense of not going through the same historical experiences as most of contemporary India did during the Mughal Empire and its many predecessors. This is because the rugged and mountainous geography in the group’s homeland, as well as the ‘civilizational buffer’ of the Bengalis, served to insulate them from the rest of the subcontinent’s affairs. As a result, Nagaland wasn’t even conquered by the British in the same way as they wrested control of the rest of India, but rather was taken from what was then Burma as a result of the Treaty of Yandabo which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. Other Naga populations in what is nowadays northern Myanmar were occupied after the Third Anglo-Burmese War ended in 1885 with the annexation of what was at that time Upper Burma.
Following the conclusion of that conflict, all the Nagas were living in British India until London decided to make the Burma Province its own separate colony in 1937, arbitrarily giving Assam (of which most of the Nagas were administratively a part of at that time) to India despite its lack of historical connections with the rest of that political entity. This had the effect of drawing the modern-day dividing line between the Nagas in Northeastern India (then referred to simply as Assam) and their cross-border kin in Burma (nowadays Myanmar). Prior to their separation, however, both groups of Nagas converted en mass to Christianity as a result of the frenzied missionary activity which took place under British rule, and this further exacerbated this demographic’s sense of identity separateness relative to the rest of their Indian ‘compatriots’.
The distinct feeling of pride that the Nagas had retained during the British occupation became a political issue after London granted independence to its South Asian colonies, as the Nagas in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam did not want to be part of the newfound union and instead agitated for independence. According to New Delhi, they voluntarily acceded to join India, while Naga nationalists refute this and say that it was done under severe pressure and that they didn’t really have a choice. The contradiction between these two narratives gave rise to an armed insurgency that began in the early 1950s and intermittently continues into the present day, though many of the militant actors have changed since then and the Indian government officially classifies some of them as being “terrorist groups”.
Throughout the course of the conflict, a new demand began to arise, and that’s the desire for Naga nationalists to create what they call “Nagalim”, which is their term for “Greater Nagaland”. Different groups have various interpretations over how large this entity should be, but its maximum extent covers almost half of Northeast India and a strip of northern Myanmar. Some organizations favor the sub-state creation of “Nagalim” purely within India’s existing international borders but through the revision of domestic ones in the Northeast, while others want an independent state either on this territory and/or in northern Myanmar. After numerous rounds of peace talks, the government and the powerful National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) militant faction signed a Framework Agreement in August 2015, though the text has scandalously not been made public ever since.
As could be expected, the “Nagalim” project is not only perceived as a threat by the central authorities in New Delhi, but also by the peripheral ones in the Northeastern states which stand to lose a large amount of their territory (or in the case of Manipur, all of it) if this vision is actualized to its maximum extent. Due to the “world’s largest democracy” being contradictorily opaque about releasing any details of the framework agreement, local political and civil society leaders in the region have legitimate reasons to fear that New Delhi’s peace with the Nagas might ultimately come at their territorial expense despite unnamed officials’ insistence to the contrary. From the opposite perspective, Naga nationalists argue that “Nagalim” should incorporate all of the contiguous areas presently inhabited by the Nagas, but this view predictably arises fear in the non-Naga populations that excessive migration into what they consider to be their ancestral homelands might lead to a series of Kosovo-like separatist scenarios which take away their land, whether in the form of a regional reorganization of state boundaries or outright separatism.
This feeling is especially pronounced among the Assamese, which have seen their administrative-political unit progressively decrease in size ever since 1947 as new states were intermittently carved out of it as the decades passed, Nagaland being one of them. The competing sub-state nationalisms at play in Northeastern India have led to a very explosive geopolitical situation which in many senses could be stereotypically simplified as “India’s Balkans”.
The focus of the present text isn’t to elaborate on the details of the other competing nationalisms present in “India’s Balkans”, whether it’s that of the Bengalis versus the Tripuris or the Assamese against the Bodos for example, but to stay focused on how the Naga issue in particular could impact on the region at large. The reader should never forget the degree of justifiable trepidation that the non-Naga population feels concerning the secret Framework Agreement, since they reasonably speculate that New Delhi – and especially boast-prone “56-inch chest” Modi – would have otherwise bragged incessantly about the details of the deal had it not contained some ultra-controversial aspects such as the partial territorial re-division of the Northeast.
The most likely reason why the government has remained so uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the agreement that’s supposed to end one of India’s longest-running insurgencies is because it acknowledges that the timing isn’t right to reveal its contents, properly assessing that the Northeast might explode if the truth was bluntly disclosed. In conditioning the population to accept what might likely be the administrative-political expansion of Nagaland into the territory of neighboring states, New Delhi wanted to ‘cushion the blow’ by using what it presumed to be its leverage over the Nagas in order to compel them into making concessions to their rigid socio-cultural standards which would thus make formal Naga rule over any forthcoming “non-Naga” (relative to “Nagalim”, not their declared homelands) minority groups potentially more acceptable to the affected populations. The Nagas are known for being a very masculine culture which doesn’t traditionally accept female governance, but it’s precisely this element of their society which the central authorities tried to disastrously change just a few weeks ago.
The most direct cause of the recent unrest was New Delhi pressuring former Nagaland Chief Minister T. R. Zeliang to agree to a 33% female quota for all representatives elected to Urban Local Bodies (ULB). According to reports, he promised local tribal leaders that he would refuse what they viewed to the illegal superimposition of Western ‘modernity’ onto their traditional culture, pointedly in alleged violation of Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution which stipulates that the Indian government cannot infringe on the “religious or social practices” or “customary law and procedure” of the Naga people.
Nevertheless, Zeliang supposedly reneged on his word and decided to implement the 33% quota anyhow for the upcoming ULB, which instantaneously triggered thousands of Nagas to riotously take to the streets in protest of what they believed was New Delhi’s illegal socio-political power grab against their culture. Throughout the course of events, government buildings and vehicles were torched, three participants were killed by police, and a state-wide “bandh” (strike) froze Nagaland to a standstill until the ULB polls were declared null and void and Zeliang acquiesced to the demonstrators’ will and resigned.
Zeliang’s resignation narrowly avoided an even more lethal escalation of the conflict, as the only other possible recourse would have likely been to apply the provisions of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in giving the military the prerogative to shoot and kill any “threats” on sight and potentially place the state under “President’s Rule” until the unrest could be quelled. In other words, the Nagas were very close to coming under the same sort of brutal oppression that the Kashmiris regularly experience had it not been for the sudden restoration of relative stability in the state. As seen from the jingoist perspective of the Modi-Doval national security state, the ‘unexpected’ outbreak of violence in Nagaland ran the risk of disastrously spreading throughout the “Indian Balkans” (particularly Manipur and Assam) had it not been promptly stopped, which is why they were likely countenancing such draconian extreme measures in the event that the chaos continued.
India would rather not have to react this way for reasons which will be elaborated on soon in the text, but what’s important for readers to understand is just how close the “Indian Balkans” came just a few weeks ago to the brink of Hobbesian sub-state tribal-ethnic warfare and an approximate structural repeat of the Kashmir scenario, and all because New Delhi arrogantly, clumsily, and perhaps even illegally sought to impose its desired Western socio-cultural standards on the Naga.
While the situation in Nagaland has temporarily calmed down and seems to have stabilized, the underlying causes of the latest bout of violence and the ethno-separatist insurgency in general have yet to be fully dealt with. It’s indeed possible that the latter is secretly addressed in the mysterious Framework Agreement that New Delhi reached with the NSCN-IM, but there’s no way to know for certain. Even if it is, however, it’s likely that it’s being kept secret precisely because the eventual outcome is predicted to be unacceptable for the non-Naga populations which might be forced to cede their territory to “Nagalim” and come under that community’s overwhelming socio-political control, hence, to remind the reader, one of the most probable reasons why New Delhi might have been so desperate to infringe on the Naga’s masculine-dominated culture and risk the rapidly intensifying conflict which inevitably unfolded in order to placate the “minority” populations which would in that case have to eventually come under the Nagas’ control.
Looking forward and attempting to forecast the next crisis in the “Indian Balkans”, it’s very likely that it will in some way or another involve Naga-driven (even if New Delhi-initiated/-provoked) events, whether caused by the proactive moves taken by this group (protesting, rioting, taking up arms against the state, etc.) or the reactive ones of the neighboring populations (i.e. non-peaceful responses to “Nagalim”).
There’s of course the possibility that one of the two other flashpoints explodes in the future instead, such as the regional spillover of the Bodo or other non-Assamese minority groups’ anti-state insurgency to other territorial units or the “Bengali issue” escalating to the point of international tensions, but keeping with the theme of the present text, the article will continue analyzing the prospects for this happening with the Nagas. It can’t be ruled out that the following triggers could also contribute to the aforesaid scenarios or vice-versa, owing to the complex interconnectivity of the “Indian Balkans’” conflicts, but without further ado, here’s what could happen to worsen the tense status quo in Nagaland:
* New Delhi continues to pressure the Nagas to acquiesce to what they view to be radical and incompatible socio-political concessions, inadvertently sparking renewed street unrest and the emboldening of separatist organizations alongside their increasingly popular appeal;
* In seeking to explain to the Nagas the reason behind the above and accommodate/appease them, New Delhi reveals some of the administrative-political territorial plans contained in the secretive Framework Agreement, thus triggering reactive violence among the affected non-Naga populations;
* The Framework Agreement collapses because either the NSCN-IM decides for whatever reason to abrogate its truce with New Delhi (perhaps due to popular grassroots pressure) or it’s superceded in importance and widespread appeal by new or rival groups which provoke a new phase of conflict;
* The ‘irredentist’ Naga population contiguously outside of Nagaland agitates against the local non-Naga state authorities either out of anger at being excluded from the Framework Agreement’s scope of authority (i.e. no New Delhi-approved creation of “Nagalim”) or in riotous support of this measure;
* Cross-border attacks by Naga militants in Myanmar such as the NSCN-K who aren’t party to the Framework Agreement prompt New Delhi into yet another ‘hot pursuit’ or ‘surgical strike’ just like in the summer of 2015, unwittingly provoking an international crisis between the two neighbors;
* The Myanmarese Tatmadaw start to suppress the Nagas in the northern part of the country, provoking a harsh response from the NSCN-K and other nationalist-militant (or, according to India, “terrorist”) groups which spills across the border into India and/or inspires Naga “volunteers” to fight in Myanmar;
* and/or New Delhi overreacts to any of the above with a trigger-happy response characterized by a Kashmir-like orgy of AFSPA violence against the population and the galvanization of a National Liberation Movement for Nagaland/”Nagalim”.
To be sure, these scenarios could either occur independently of one another or in some sort of combination, but a detailed reading of the Nagaland Conflict indicates that these are nevertheless the most likely to happen if the examined conflict trajectory is to be advanced at all. That’s not to say that they will occur, nor that an unforeseen catalyst won’t spark the cycle of violence instead, but just that the previously examined triggers are the most relevant ones at this time for observers to keep a watchful eye on.
It’s impossible to know exactly how any large-scale Naga-provoked conflict in the “Indian Balkans” would unfold, so the author will refrain from speculating about the specific details of this course of events, but will instead examine the larger structural consequences that could be expected. These can be divided into two categories – domestic and international – with the “Two-Front War” concept bridging both of them. In progressive order from the least intense and impactful to the most, the expected consequences of a large-scale outburst of Naga violence are:
* Pre-Election Test For Modi:
The Indian Prime Minister would come under immense pressure to resolve the conflict as soon as possible, with his political opponents capitalizing on any real or perceived misstep in order to score points ahead of the pivotal 2019 election.
* Kick Start Internal Administrative-Political Reform:
Whether limited to the “Indian Balkans” or ultimately expanded to other parts of the country such as West Bengal, the Naxalite-held areas of the eastern hinterlands, or Tamil Nadu, Indians will likely enter into a conversation about whether or not an updated 21st-century version of the States Reorganization Act is a long overdue necessity for preventing other similar sorts of conflicts from transpiring.
* Copycat Conflicts:
By its very nature in being the “Indian Balkans”, the Northeast ‘Seven Sisters’ could see a copy-cat effect of conflict breaking out within and among all or some of them, particularly as it relates to the future of “Nagalim” but also the two other flashpoints previously mentioned (Bodo and other minority separatism in Assam, and the Bengali issue in Tripura and elsewhere).
* Low-Intensity ‘Civil War’ In The Northeast:
Left unaddressed, the logical progression of a rapidly evolving Naga Conflict and consequent copycat ones in the region would be the de-facto start of low-intensity ‘civil war’ in the Northeast (relative to the unity and territorial integrity of the Indian state), with all of its resultant humanitarian risks of ethnic cleansing and even genocide.
* “Act East” Is Indefinitely Frozen:
Faced with a spiraling conflict or series thereof in the geo-pivotal Northeastern “Indian Balkans”, New Delhi’s “ASEAN CPEC” of the Trilateral Highway and other related infrastructure connectivity projects would indefinitely be frozen, therefore constituting a major security crisis for the country’s grand strategists and compelling them to rapidly react in one way or another.
* The “Eastern Kashmir”:
The Modi-Doval jingoists presently running India nowadays aren’t known for their patience or smooth handling of crises, so it’s very likely that they’ll overreact once they realize that their “Act East” project and ASEAN geopolitical legacy are at stake, and thus command the military to carry out a brutal Kashmir-like repression campaign in the region.
* Two-Front War:
The “Indian Balkans” have 45 million people in total, though Nagaland and “Nagalim” account for a considerably small percentage of the total, but in any case, the time, resources, and effort expended towards ‘keeping the peace’ after a large-scale insurgency might end up being much costlier than in comparatively less populated Kashmir, ironically serving as karmic justice for India after it endeavored so hard to open up a two-front internal war against Pakistan in Balochistan and the FATA.
* Two-Front War:
There are international implications to the two-front war concept as well, since the porous and lightly policed border that India has with Myanmar but also Bangladesh (relevant in the event of a pertinent sub-state/international conflict) could be easily penetrated by militant non-state actors, eventually leading to a security dilemma between both states and the rebalancing of India’s war doctrine.
* Dragging Myanmar into the Mess:
In the event that a Naga War gets too out of control, it’s inevitable that Myanmar will somehow get dragged into the mess soon enough, whether through a cooperative anti-insurgent/”-terrorist” campaign with India or by being the recipient of New Delhi’s ‘hot pursuits’/’surgical strikes’, the latter of which might be commenced without Naypyidaw’s approval and could therefore lead to problems.
* Myanmarese Meltdown:
The Southeast Asian state is presently engaged in a multifaceted civil war against the Bengali “Rohingyas” and a various assorted of eastern rebels, to say nothing of the Color Revolution threat posed by hyper-nationalist Buddhist monks, and the unexpected reemergence of what was thought to have been a long-resolved front in this Hybrid War could trigger Myanmar’s meltdown.
* Naypyidaw Turns On New Delhi:
While unlikely, there’s the chance that Naypyidaw might turn on New Delhi if India gets arrogantly carried away with any cross-border strikes against Myanmar-residing Naga militants, which could produce a very negative reaction from Naypyidaw that might see it pivot towards China in response, though with a consequent Western-induced intensification of its civil war in vengeful response.
* Pakistani Reverberation:
If India is compelled to reorient its military-strategic focus from the Pakistani border towards the Myanmarese one in the Northeast because of the “Eastern Kashmir” scenario, then New Delhi might take some of the Hybrid War pressure off of Islamabad, or contrarily, amplify it out of anger and a paranoid sense that Pakistan might have somehow ridiculously been behind the latest Naga Conflict.
* The Strengthening Of The Chinese-Pakistani Strategic Partnership:
As both sides are fond of saying, the strategic partnership between the two is as strong as steel and as high as the Himalayas, and this relationship will be reinforced even more amidst the period of internal Indian turmoil and potential international tensions with Myanmar, as the relative weakening of their rival cynically works out to their benefit by reorienting part of India’s military focus elsewhere.
* China Wins Out In ASEAN:
There doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum competition between Asia’s two largest Great Power giants, but India has unfortunately framed the coming years as an epic strategic struggle against China, so in reference to this angle, any indefinite period of unrest in the “Indian Balkans” would stop New Delhi’s “Act East” strategy dead in its tracks and grant China the corresponding ‘win’.
* India’s Implosion No Longer Becomes Taboo:
The most admittedly extreme ramification of prolonged and/or ultra-intense conflict in the “Indian Balkans” would be that the topic of India’s possible implosion no longer becomes taboo, no matter how seemingly improbable, though this could also serve as the much-needed impetus for the country and its society to move forward with the realistic solution of a 21st-century States Reorganization Act.
The Preemptive Solution
The best way for India to deal with the apparently intractable interconnected series of nationalist-separatist conflicts in its “Northeastern Balkans” is to proactively take charge in preparing the region, and perhaps even the rest of the country, for a 21st-century States Reorganization Act. This historic 1956 document largely created the administrative-political basis for most of India’s modern-day states, stressing linguistic commonality as the key feature in each unit’s formation. In the contemporary context, however, it might be more prudent to take ethno-cultural characteristics into account when dealing with the ‘Seven Sisters’.
Understandably, however, the reason why New Delhi hasn’t taken the brave step towards reconfiguring its territorial entities for the 21st century is because its leadership wisely understands that the clumsy execution of this ambitious policy could inadvertently lead to India’s unravelling and subsequent implosion, which is why it should only be carried out by the most effective technocrats. Importantly, the process must be completely transparent, too, unlike the secrecy surrounding the Framework Agreement which has predictably given rise to distrustful speculation about New Delhi’s motives against some of its own people.
The harsh reality is that the status quo in the “Indian Balkans” is unsustainable in the long-term except in the event that New Delhi turns all or part of this region into an “Eastern Kashmir” through AFSPA, so the logic in suggesting the proposed solution is to find a way to preemptively solve this geopolitical socio-cultural puzzle of multisided contradictions in the most peaceful manner possible, though understanding that all deals require every party to concede something in order to gain something else.
This will be hard to do in the “Indian Balkans”, or even in other parts of the country for that matter, and it’s obvious that New Delhi has tried its hardest to keep the lid closed on what it legitimately believes to be a Pandora’s Box of the highest magnitude. Nevertheless, it might be inevitable for them to open that box one of these days anyhow, and the longer that India waits before doing so, the less likely it is to achieve the outcome that it desires, which is to keep the country together in its present boundaries (not counting for Indian-occupied Kashmir and “Arunachal Pradesh”/South Tibet, which are entirely separate matters unrelated to this proposal).
That can only happen with a progressive loosening of India’s political model into more of a traditionally federative one with increased flexibility, specifically as it relates to resolving the identity contradictions of the “Northeastern Balkans” through the reorganization of the administrative-political territorial entities. Whether or not this ultimately leads to the creation of a sub-state “Nagalim” is a moot point in this context because the broader idea being expressed is that such revisionist conversations need to begin taking place in Indian society first in order to brainstorm the most ideal solutions for resolving the conundrums of the ‘Seven Sisters’.
The ‘contagion effect’ that New Delhi so obsessively fears could break through the Siliguri Corridor’s “chicken neck” and ‘infect’ the rest of India might become a self-fulfilling prophecy if India allows its “Northeastern Balkans” to fester for too long and lead to the explosive conditions for having this happen, which is why the author believes it to be preferable for the country to initiate this discourse as soon as possible – perhaps beginning at the expert think tank level – in order to best prepare the population for this convincingly imminent eventuality in the most responsible way that it can.