The road not taken

What current criticisms of Article 371(A) reveal is that any such locally tailored visions of development and governance have, with few attempted exceptions, not really come to pass and are not part of the current vision of those in power.

The road not taken

Nagaland state of India flag on flagpole textile cloth fabric waving on the top sunrise mist fog. (stock photo)

How are we to explain the recent criticism of Article 371(A) of the Indian Constitution, which gives special status, protection and provision to Nagaland, from within the higher political and administrative echelons of Naga society itself? Several Naga politicians and state functionaries have asserted that Article 371(A) has become a “stumbling block” for the state’s governance and development as, among other things, it complicates the government’s acquisition of land for purposes of development, the extraction of mineral resources, and levying taxes on land and property.

What might this criticism tell us about the contemporary nature of governance and development, or about how things have evolved since the enactment of Article 371(A) as part of the creation of Nagaland in 1963? In the early 1960s, the creation of Nagaland was envisaged as a political compromise to the Indo-Naga conflict that spread death and despair in the 1950s (and in different forms ever since). In the briefest of summations, Article 371(A) offers special constitutional inclusion and provisions to the state of Nagaland, particularly with regards to the Nagas’ religious and social practices, customary laws, procedures and justice, and the ownership and transfer of land and its resources.

In these domains, Naga traditions, customs and culture overrule and supersede Acts of Parliament, the Indian Penal Code, and pan-Indian development policies and procedures. While the legal implications of this amendment continue to be debated, to the letter Article 371(A) almost makes Nagaland a “foreign country within the Indian Union”. This constitutional amendment was broadly in line with Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for the Naga, and other tribal upland communities, whom he envisaged to “develop along the lines of their own genius” while further cautioning that “we should avoid imposing anything on them.”


What Nehru advocated was not the incarceration of tribes into their own traditions and habitats, but them adopting an endogenous trajectory of development and administration. This became the rationale, first of the Sixth Schedule and subsequently and specifically for Nagaland’s Article 371(A). But if Article 371(A) was long celebrated as the holy grail of Nagaland, even its very raison dêtre, contemporary criticisms of it from within its ruling class now indicate that something has happened.

Or rather that something has not happened. If some Naga politicians and state functionaries now contend that Article 371(A) holds back development and progress and is an impediment to governance in the state, this is largely because this constitutional amendment was never accompanied by an endogenously formulated vision. One in which development and governance were based on long-term policies, plans and values that respond to the historical, cultural, social, economical and environmental context and specificities of Naga society. On the other hand, no sooner was Nagaland formed; its notion of development became shaped by the conventional grammar of pan-Indian (if not universalistic) paradigms and strategies — first of Centre-led and then joined by capitalist development.

What these externally devised and driven interventions crucially hinge on, among other things, are economic growth, capital investment and infrastructure, in the process privileging investment over cultural and ecological impacts, productive urban spaces over village life, and resource extraction over biodiversity and forest-cover. What it hinges on, too, is the measurement of development and progress’ success and failure in terms of standardised indicators that have nonlocal origins and along whose yardsticks Nagaland, because of its distinctive history and setting, predictably became ranked towards the country’s lower rungs of states.

It, therefore, cultivated a Naga collective consciousness, not primarily of historical, cultural and economic distinctiveness, but of marginality and an awareness of exclusion that only further opened the door for external state and capitalist interventions. If Nagaland is now habitually construed as poor, backward and underdeveloped, such evaluations are perhaps best understood as a “developmenteffect”, not a historical or innate condition, as there are plenty of other possibilities, like social, cultural and ecological “capital” to assess the condition- of-being of Naga society, both at the threshold of statehood in the 1960s and now.

If ideas of development and progress soon became derivative, so became administration and governance. When moving the bill for Nagaland statehood in Parliament, Nehru expressed his desire for the new state to “function without, I hope, that complicated structure of administration which the other States require.” Instead, and as a few early Naga politicians too advocated, Nagaland could be governed bottom-up through preexisting and evolving clan, village and tribal councils and a broad process of participation at local levels.

But even as such bodies continue to exist and exert considerable influence in their form and functioning, they are often jammed by a massive local bureaucracy, to the extent that a former Nagaland Development Commissioner lamented the state’s “huge overloaded governmental structure, the sustenance of which occupies almost all the energies and resources of the government.” In the contemporary conjecture, and in view of the widespread divisions and disillusionment “development” has caused locally, it might well be asked whether the above modes and moods of development and governance were really the only options available to Nagaland. A quick visit to nearby Bhutan will show that cultural and environmental dignity, and local conceptualisations of well-being rank at the top of the development agenda and they indicate that a distinctive, place-based development strategy is possible.

It is an alternative developmentalist programme that is at once critical, distinctive yet practicable, and focused on notions of well-being and livelihood in terms of place-based political economy and cultural values and pride; not, to be sure, in arcane isolation but in careful negotiation with larger economic and political processes. In the context of Nagaland there was, of course, always a tension between the possibilities that Article 371(A) offered and the state’s financial dependence on the Centre, while the continuing politics of insurgency and counter-insurgency also hardly offered a conducive atmosphere for creative imagination and long-term visions.

Yet, in the aftermath of statehood there seemed a basis and opportunity for imagining what a distinctive, sustainable and culturally modulated model of Nagaland development and governance might look like. What, after all, is Article 371(A) if not an affirmation of the Nagas’ right to difference, an acknowledgment of their distinctive history, own social mode of being and view of life. It is also an enabler of a trajectory of development, administration and governance that is distinctively centred on the valuation of Naga history, traditions, culture and visions of what constitutes the “good life.” But making this difference the basis of rethinking planning and policy proposals was the road not taken.

And that is because Nagaland resorted, or was made to resort, to a standardised model of Centre-led planning and capitalist development. In this scenario, Article 371(A) now exists at odds with current economic and political realities and aspirations, especially as articulated by those in power. If the dominant frame to imagine and measure local progress is by creating a basis for regional capitalist development, one that is reliant on resource extraction, culturallysanitised economic growth, reaping revenues, rapid urbanisation, largescale infrastructure projects, and the creation of special economic zones, then, most certainly, the presence of customary laws and inalienable land rights will impede this vision.

But perhaps this kind of development was not meant to be Nagaland’s destiny. What, perhaps, was its destiny, or at the very minimum a possibility, was to envision a kind of developmentalist programme and form of governance that would strengthen the valuation of Naga history, culture and identity, indigenous skills and knowledge, the environment and its resources, and feelings of ownership and belonging. In short, the Nagas themselves would have become the enactors and repositories of their development and governance. To say that on the brink of statehood, Nagaland could have (or just might still) cultivate a trajectory of development and governance characteristic only of itself is not the same as romanticising local traditions, or ignoring the fact that Naga customary laws, landholding patterns, and ideas of justice — as constitutionally protected —are also embedded in power relations.

Or for that matter, to imply that cultural distinctiveness and its preservation is antithetical to development, economic growth, and modern governance. Designing a placebased developmentalist programme and mode of governance would have to be an evolving, dynamic and participatory process, based on creative thought, deliberation and imagination. Undoubtedly this is an uphill task, but evidence from elsewhere, even if sporadic, shows that it is not impossible.

What current criticisms of Article 371(A) reveal is that any such locally tailored visions of development and governance have, with few attempted exceptions, not really come to pass and are not part of the current vision of those in power. What is further clear is that these criticisms from within Naga society, even if voiced by a small (yet influential) minority, is music to the ears of the central government that now takes a more than sceptical view of constitutional amendments for selected states, and which makes the current debate in Nagaland all the more urgent and politically consequential.

(The writer is a social anthropologist and teaches in the department of social sciences at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan)