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Naga Identity - Ideals, Parallels, and Reality

DIMAPUR29-02-2012People from various Naga groups attending at the Naga Reconciliation meeting in Dimapur, Nagaland on Wednesday, February 29, 2012.The meeting was organized by the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR) and the intent of the reconciliation meeting is to explore together the possibilities of a new reconciled political relationship among the signatories of the Covenant of Reconciliation and to develop a joint working mechanism to pursue the historical and political rights of the Nagas. The purpose of the meeting is for the FNR to report to the people on the status of the Reconciliation process and that during such a meeting it would also invite leaders of all Naga groups (factions) to share its position on reconciliation and its vision for a shared Naga future. The leaders of all the Naga groups (factions) and the Naga Hoho, Nagas in Myanmar, Assam and Arunachal, all the women organizations, all the student organizations, civil society organizations, churches, senior citizens, Village Headmen, Naga Council, politicians and bureaucrats and the Naga public took part to discuss the on-going Naga peace process, arm conflict among the various Naga groups and need to unite all Naga groups of a common goal.PHOTO: RITU_RAJ_KONWAR - caption | Photo Credit: Ritu_Raj_Konwar - Ritu Raj Konwar

The Naga Hoho, the apex civil society body of the Nagas, while striving for a unified Naga identity, has been fighting a losing battle to bring about reconciliation among the several factions of Naga militias divided along tribal lines or factional loyalties that override ethnicity. The major challenge towards building a cohesive political unit is a fragmented identity engaged in internecine strife with bloodied consequences, which is in opposition to the larger Naga identity, says Namrata Goswami.

For Naga ethnic groups inhabiting the Naga Hills in the Indo-Myanmar trans-borders, the road to peace and prosperity lies in forging a common political Naga identity. There are several models the world over, both old and new, that could serve as examples on a comparable scale for political solidarity amongst geographically neighbouring people with similar but subtly varied cultures. Most of these cultures also are in disadvantageous juxtaposition due to external impositions of State administrations and territorial demarcations, with serious implications for the traditional homeland setup of these ethnic groups. In the past the formation of the Six Nations in North America, more recently the multinational struggle of the Kurds in the Middle East, nearer to home the evolution of the modern nation of Bhutan and currently the campaign for autonomy of Kachin neighbours of the Nagas are good instances of affiliated ethnic groups and tribal clans seeking common ground for collective political goals. The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) of the Kachins has a civilian-run extra-legal bureaucracy providing public services in Kachin State. Bhutan has several ethnic groups with one dominant group-controlled absolute monarchy. The country has recently made a successful transition from monarchy to a constitutional democracy. The Kurds of Kurdistan are currently a nation in the making in a trans-border conflict zone contiguous with Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In early American history, the Six Nations, also called the Iroquois , was a confederacy of different Native American ethnic groups. Today, this powerful super group has unified independent governance, and lives both in the United States and Canada.

As a historical illustration, in contrast to the success of the Iroquois was the Great Sioux Nation made up of several ethnic groups whose traditional homeland once spanned across thousands of square kilometres in the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada. The Sioux being formidable warriors, but divided along group loyalties, lost a major chunk of their territories to the invading U.S. military, including the Black Hills, which are sacred grounds since ancient times for the Sioux and remains lost to them even today. The once proud peoples have been reduced to living in scattered reservations in the land of their ancestors. In 2007, a group of Sioux travelled to Washington DC to reassert their independence and sovereignty.

Naga Identity: Ideal versus Reality

The Naga Hoho, while being the apex civil society body of the Nagas striving for a unified Naga identity, has been fighting a losing battle bringing reconciliation to the several factions of Naga militias divided along tribal lines or factional loyalties, which override ethnicity.

Naga tribes in their ancestral homeland face the divisive international boundary between India and Myanmar as well as national administrative boundaries in both countries. However, much more than man-made lines on maps, the major challenge towards building a cohesive political unit is a fragmented identity engaged in internecine strife with bloodied consequences, which is in opposition to the larger Naga identity. As an illustration, the Zeliangrong United Front (ZUF) is an armed ethnic militia of the Zeliangrong Naga group consisting of the smaller Zeme, Liangmei and the Rongmei ethnic groups. Zeliangrong groups are spread over contiguous territories in Nagaland, Assam and Manipur States of India. The Zeliangrong territory is also the domain of other Naga faction rivals of the ZUF fighting for the Naga cause. There have been several incidents of encounters between these competing Naga militias vying to dominate the same geographical space inhabited by the Zeliangrong people, especially between the ZUF and National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Isak- Muivah faction [NSCN (I-M)].

Figure 1 - Major Naga Ethnic Groups’ Areas

© Namrata Goswami

(Click here for a higher resolution image)

On the other end of the Naga identity spectrum is the National Socialist Council of Nagaland- Khaplang faction NSCN (K) headed by S. S. Khaplang, who is a Heimi Naga. The Heimi ethnic group belongs to the larger Tangsang Naga group including the Pangmi, Khaklak and Tangan ethnic groups spread over contiguous territories in Sagaing and Kachin States of Myanmar. In India, the Tangsang group consists of the Tangsa, Muklom and Tutsa in Arunachal Pradesh. The NSCN (K), with its headquarters in Myanmar, signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government in 2012. This faction holds sway over Nanyun and Lahe Townships in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, with a liaison office at Khampti town in Sagaing Region of Myanmar.

The Indian Government too has a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN (K) since 2001, which has expanded its presence in Naga inhabited areas of India. Traditionally the NSCN (K) has been challenged in Naga inhabited areas of India by the NSCN (I-M). There have been numerous deadly clashes between these two NSCN factions in a fierce feud to dominate maximum Naga inhabited territory. As a few illustrations, a significant development starting in the early 2000s was the advent of NSCN (I-M) cadres into Arunachal Pradesh, originally the NSCN (K)’s backyard, turning the peaceful districts of Changlang, Tirap and the newly formed Longding into a battlefield. Both factions were fighting for dominance in Naga inhabited areas of the State, when in 2009 the NSCN (K) brought in their traditional ally, Myanmar’s heavily armed and battle hardened Kachin Independence Army (KIA) to take on the NSCN (I-M). The NSCN (K) also combined forces against the NSCN (I-M) with non-Naga militants like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) of Manipur, both of whom have camps in NSCN (K) active areas in Arunachal Pradesh and bordering the Naga Self-Administered Zone, Myanmar. In 2006, the internecine feud between the NSCN factions took an unprecedented turn when the NSCN (K) issued ‘quit notices’ to all Tangkhuls in Nagaland, accusing that ethnic group of ‘masterminding terrorism against the NSCN (meaning the Khaplang faction) and innocent Nagas’. 1

Members of the Tangkhul ethnic group from Manipur are exclusive cadres of NSCN (I-M) and with this move the NSCN (K) was attempting to deny Naga affiliation of the Tangkhuls.

Figure 2 - Areas of the operations of the NSCN factions

© Namrata Goswami

(Click here for a higher resolution image)

The biggest blow to the NSCN (K)’s pan Naga influence in India came with the formation of the NSCN-Khole Kitovi (NSCN-KK) faction on June 7, 2011. The faction was formed by a dissenting group of cadres and their leaders, Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zhimoni, from the NSCN (K). Khole Konyak is from the Konyak ethnic group, the largest amongst the Nagas of Nagaland State. An interesting fact is that the Konyaks are the dominant group in contiguous Lahe Township, headquarters of the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Myanmar and also inhabit Khampti Township of Sagaing Division in Myanmar (See Figure I). Kitovi Zhimoni is a Sumi Naga who are numerous in Nagaland. Since both the NSCN (K) and NSCN (KK) occupy the same ethnic territories, there are bitter and deadly shooting incidents/encounters between the two splinter factions for military dominance. However, presently, the NSCN (KK) are focused on the current boundaries of Nagaland with the goal of pushing out and limiting the NSCN (K) to being a diminished Myanmar based outfit.

Figure 3 - NSCN (I-M)‘s claimed Nagalim

© Namrata Goswami

(Click here for a higher resolution image)

NSCN (I-M)’s Nagalim i.e. the lofty goal of an independent ‘Greater Nagaland’ encompasses large swathes of contiguous territory inhabited by both Naga and non-Naga ethnic groups in India and Myanmar. In Myanmar, major chunks of claimed areas have mixed Naga and other ethnic groups populations. Tanai Township in Kachin State have several Naga villages along with the Kachins. Even Khampti Township, which was earlier headquarters of the ‘Burma Naga Hills District,’ have a sizeable minority of Nagas living with Bamar, Shans, Chinese and Indians. Other ‘Naga towns’ like Homalin , inhabited by fewer Nagas, are dominated by Bamar, Shans, Chin, Chinese and Indians. The NSCN (I-M) has not been active in Myanmar to press their claims of Nagalim after a declared ‘unilateral ceasefire’ with the Myanmar government.

The Nagalim territorial claims in India include large strips of territory peripheral to Naga inhabited areas, which have minuscule Naga populations as in Assam’s Cachar, Nagaon, Golaghat, Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Dhemaji districts. In Dima Hasao (formerly North Cachar Hills) district, Nagas are a sizeable minority and a small minority in Karbi Anglong district of Assam. Arunachal Pradesh’s Lohit, Anjaw, Dibang Valley, Lower Dibang Valley and Upper Siang districts are inhabited by ethnic groups such as the Adi, Mishmi, Zekhring, Khampti, Deori, Monpa, Memba, Tai Ahom, Singpho, Chakma and Tibetans, with distinctive identities bearing no affiliation to Naga ethnicity. The NSCN (I-M) however, has been actively engaged in endeavours to expand its influence to all Naga inhabited areas of India as well as mentoring other non-Naga insurgencies of northeast India in a sort of titular ‘mother of all insurgencies’ role.

The leaders of the NSCN (I-M) are Thuingaleng Muivah who is a Tangkhul Naga and Isak Chishi Swu who is a Sumi Naga, both from two of the larger Naga ethnic groups (see Figure 1). The Tangkhul Nagas form a large ethnic group in Manipur and adjoining areas of Sagaing, Myanmar where they are called Somra Nagas. Tangkhuls are the mainstay of the NSCN (I-M) and have taken the faction’s fight to faraway operational zones like Arunachal Pradesh.

However certain major incidents illustrate the complex nature of the ethnocentric support for the NSCN (I-M). In December 2013, the Sumi Nagas of Nagaland threatened to evict the NSCN (I-M) from their lands. The incident was triggered by the attempted rape and molestation of two Sumi women and the grievous injuring of two Sumi men who were all travelling to Zunheboto town. Their vehicle was allegedly waylaid by four armed cadres of the NSCN (I-M) who perpetrated these actions. The Sumis were further incensed by the failure of the NSCN (I-M) to later hand over the culprits hiding inside the guarded designated camp, instead attempting to compromise with the Sumi Hoho and even ‘pay off’ the victims to silence them.

In 2010 the NSCN (I-M)’s General Secretary Th. Muivah made abortive attempts to visit his native village in Manipur. These visits were stiffly opposed by the Manipur State government as earlier ones had triggered violence in Naga inhabited areas of the State. The NSCN (I-M)’s inclusion of Naga inhabited areas of Manipur into Nagalim evokes a deeply resentful response from the Meiteis for whom the issue is very sensitive.

The complexity of ethnic boundaries, as has been illustrated above, forced divisions of ethnic communities inhabiting the border areas of India and Myanmar by the imposition of an arbitrary international boundary with little regard to local realities, and the framework of policy-making that views ethnic groups as somehow pre-modern and in need of development are the major existential and ideational challenges. Inherent in this framework is a notion that somehow, the so called mainstream culture and institutions are themselves not ethnically slanted but universal. 2 In this scenario, policy making is propelled by the ‘command culture of legitimacy’ that the public administrators espouse, especially in dealing with minority communities, which can backfire. Consequently, what is required, and which has not been developed yet, is a deep seated understanding of the culture of identity recognition and preservation. Most importantly, since negotiations with armed groups in the Northeast are conducted in a scenario of threat, it is important to understand this framework so that there are no false expectations. 3

The challenge for armed groups like the NSCN (I-M), NSCN (K), and NSCN (KK) is to meet the claim of representation of a common Naga identity and community, already run asunder by the territorial divisions brought about by a modern state mechanism as well as by the internecine clan/tribe-based fights that threaten the notion of common ethnic identity. Only time will tell whether, like the Great Iroquois , the Nagas can form a common supra-national/transnational structure that provides a common platform to their way of life and traditions.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.


1 For more, see “NSCN-K Quit Notice”, The Telegraph, January 30, 2007, at (Last accessed on June 14, 2014).

2 For more on this, please see Wsevolod W. Isajiw, “Approaches to Ethnic Conflict Resolution: Paradigms and Principles”, International Journal of Intercultural Relations , 24 (2000), pp. 105-124.

3 Ibid

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