Frontier hope for the doubly marginalised

Frontier hope for the doubly marginalised

In 1963, when Dr S Radhakrishnan inaugurated the State of Nagaland, he had hoped that ‘those who are still unreconciled will come forward to participate in the development of Nagaland.’ Half a century later, Nagaland resembles a dystopia.

The insurgency remains unresolved and the deeply fragmented insurgent groups are busy in turf wars. The overstaffed state government, which dominates Nagaland’s stagnant economy, is financially dependent on the Centre. The people are disillusioned with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats as well as extortionist insurgents. Nagaland is, in fact, struggling to hold itself together, while its youth are seeking opportunities elsewhere and marginalised districts are trying to leave the state.

This is the context within which the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO) is demanding a separate Frontier Nagaland state for six Eastern Naga tribes – Chang, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, and Yimchunger. These tribes are spread across Tuensang, Mon, Kiphire, and Longleng, which are among the country’s remotest districts, and neighbouring Myanmar. They are united by a shared political history and a sense of being doubly marginalised within a state that is itself marginalised within the country.

Until the late 1940s, the Eastern tribes were largely unadministered and cut-off from other Nagas. They did not participate in the Naga Club that petitioned the Simon Commission. They were barely represented in the Naga National Council (NNC) when it was launched in the late 1940s in the Naga Hills. In the 1950s, the government and the NNC began reaching out to the Eastern tribes of the undivided Tuensang. Administrative vacuum and proximity to Myanmar’s Naga areas helped the NNC launch its armed insurgency in Tuensang.

In 1957, the Naga Hills-Tuensang Area (NHTA) was formed by merging the North East Frontier Agency’s Tuensang and Assam’s Naga Hills. When the NHTA was granted statehood as Nagaland, the Constitution’s Art 371A entrusted the Governor to safeguard the interests of the backward Tuensang district. Between 1963 and 1974, a 35-member Regional Council advised the governor on matters related to Tuensang’s administration. The Council sent indirectly elected representatives to the legislature, one of whom served as the Tuensang Affairs Minister.

In 1974, the outgoing Chief Minister wound up the Council and introduced direct elections in Tuensang, without an amendment to Art 371A, and also separated Mon district from Tuensang. Kiphire and Longleng districts were separated from Tuensang in 2004.

Four decades after their full integration with Nagaland, lack of representation in the state cabinet, abysmal share in public sector jobs, and severe development deficit are driving the statehood demand in the eastern districts. These districts remain poorly connected with the rest of Nagaland. The Eastern tribes blame Nagaland’s advanced tribes for the poor quality and limited reach of public infrastructure and services in their districts. There is an enormous disproportion between the Eastern tribes’ share in public employment (3-5 per cent) and state legislature (33 per cent). The ENPO claims that the Eastern tribes’ assembly seat share is actually less than their population share.

Opponents of Frontier Nagaland point out that the Eastern Nagas enjoy 25 per cent reservation in jobs as well as special backward region and border area packages and that they account for two-fifths of Nagaland’s Lok Sabha MPs. The ENPO argues that reservation is not implemented in spirit. Minimum qualifications are tweaked and appointments are made on temporary basis to bypass reservation and favour the educationally advanced tribes.

But, the Eastern tribes have very little representation in higher bureaucracy that makes temporary appointments and regularises them subsequently. Even those who clear these hurdles are appointed to unimportant departments. The ENPO further argues that an occasional eastern MP can do nothing for his people, who are insufficiently represented in the state’s bureaucracy and cabinet. Incidentally, Nagaland has never had an Eastern Naga Chief Minister. The state government is dominated by advanced tribes, who allegedly misallocate central funds meant for the eastern districts.

Even when the funds reach the ground, the projects are executed by contractors belonging to advanced tribes who bring non-local labourers. The ENPO, therefore, argues that initially the ‘backwardness’ of its people might have been a historical accident, but now ‘it is by deliberate and perpetual design.’

The ENPO believes that within the existing state the ‘pathetic and deplorable condition’ of the Eastern tribes is bound ‘to remain unchanged.’ It has, therefore, rejected halfway measures like autonomy under the Sixth Schedule or Art 371A as only a ‘full-fledged state’ can address the ‘perpetual helplessness’ of people living ‘under the realm of the other [tribes of Nagaland].’ ENPO leaders reject the charge that Frontier Nagaland will divide the Nagas.

Central assistance
They remind the advanced tribes that while the insurgency was launched from their areas, the eastern districts were forgotten after Nagaland secured generous central assistance. It is perhaps too late to seek further sacrifices in the name of unity. The Eastern tribes have already dissociated from all pan-Naga organisations and have floated parallel eastern organisations. The ENPO is also distancing itself from the state government, which allegedly distorts facts about the eastern districts and misleads the Centre, and is trying to hold ‘bilateral talks’ with the Centre.

It has cautioned both Kohima and Delhi that it is inadvisable to forcibly retain the geopolitically sensitive Eastern Naga districts within Nagaland. It bears mention that the ENPO’s struggle for statehood enjoys widespread support across the eastern districts and has been remarkably peaceful, which is atypical of the North East where recourse to violence is commonplace.

Nagaland will find it difficult to retain the eastern districts, which account for more than a third of its area and population, as the people have begun to disengage from the rest of the state. This is in contrast to the 1980s, when Nagaland survived the Zeliangrong statehood demand that threatened to sever Peren and parts of Dimapur.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)