When British colonial officers first climbed the Naga Hills and began probing into the “character” of its inhabitants, they soon learned about the social institution of oath-taking, and how oaths were locally held in high regard. Among Nagas, they found, oaths were associated with right, truth and justice.
Few dared to speak falsehoods when placed under oath because, as the administrator-cum-anthropologist JH Hutton writes, “A false oath is held to entail death or at least misfortune as a result of it”.
Crucially, an oath was not just consecrated on the life of its taker, but also on the lives and wellbeing of close relatives. “Questions of fact”, Hutton thus observes, “are usually decided by an oath, and an oath, at any rate if the lives of others are made responsible for its truths as well as the life of the swearer, is usually accepted by either party, and is usually (…) evidence that the swearer and the other whose lives are offered believe in the truth of their case.”
Realising the sacredness and effectiveness of the Naga oath, British officials made this custom their own in their dealings and diplomacy towards the Naga.
The colonial archive tells of numerous oath-taking ceremonies concluded between British officials and Naga leaders of different villages and tribes.
In the 1830s, for instance, Grange narrates how one of his subordinate officers and an Angami Naga leader held a chicken by opposite ends and pulled it until the body was severed, which signified that “if either was treacherous his head would be divided from his body in the same manner”. Another commonly practiced form of sealing an oath was with the two parties involved holding a spear at opposite ends, which was then cut into two, with each retaining the bit in his hand.
Even when written agreements were drawn up, on which colonial officers too insisted, these had to be sanctified with an oath for it to carry value to the Nagas. To show their assent to one such written agreement, another colonial source tells, “they (Naga leaders) placed a double-barrelled gun between their teeth, after this a sword and spear and declared that, if they swerved from their oaths, they would fall by the one or the other”.
In those days, the breaking of an oath amounted to a declaration of war, and often resulted in violent hostilities, both between the British and the Naga, and between Naga villagers, clans and communities. While the form of Naga oath-taking has long since transformed, as a political practice and principle, its sacredness, once pronounced, remains a potent force.
It is the reported defaulting on a modern oath, in the form of a written agreement, which has now brought a new low between the National Socialist Council of NagalandIsak/Muivah and the Government of India represented through interlocutor-cum-Nagaland Governor RN Ravi.
In 2015, after 18 years of ceasefire and political negotiations, a so-called “framework agreement” was signed into being between the NSCN-IM and the Union government. The agreement was presented as a prelude to a definite political settlement, which was expected to follow soon thereafter.
While contents of the agreement were not divulged for public scrutiny, its signing in the presence of the Prime Minister heralded the hope that the Indo-Naga conflict, which erupted in full-blown violence in the 1950s and has in various forms continued since, would finally witness a conclusion. Now five years on, not only has no definite political settlement been arrived at, but the wording and therefore the legitimacy of the oath that is the framework agreement has become shrouded in doubt.
This is because the NSCN-IM accuses Ravi of editing a crucial word out of it, and for having disseminated the altered version to stakeholders. Whereas the original document, as now released by the NSCN-IM as an act of protest, tells that the framework agreement guarantees “an enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of the two entities”, the version circulated to Naga civil and tribal bodies by the interlocutor-cum-Nagaland governor does not contain the word “new”.
In the context of a four-paragraph, tightly framed document, the presence or absence of the word “new” indeed makes all the difference. If interpreted, as the NSCN-IM does it, “new” refers to a unique, firstof-its-kind political arrangement between the “two entities”. This, in turn, would allow for political arrangements outside the bounds of the Constitution; to a settlement, that is, “with” but not necessarily “within” India.
The absence of the word “new”, on the other hand, would seem to preclude such a possibility, thus confining the settlement within the boundaries of the Constitution. Given that complete “merger” has always been ruled out by the NSCN-IM, this is where the apprehension lies. It is hardly surprising that this controversy has emerged after Ravi’s nascent ascent to the position and power of Nagaland governor, which took place four years after the conclusion of the framework agreement.
As governor, his jurisdiction and duties, after all, are in conflict with those of his continuing role as interlocutor. Whereas in his capacity as governor, Ravi is expected to defend and uphold the Constitution at any cost, as interlocutor he is expected to also think beyond Constitutional precincts and possibilities. These two positions therefore seem to cancel each other out, in the sense that performing well as governor would make him default as an interlocutor, and vice-versa.
As an illustration, when Ravi in a recent letter to the chief minister characterised Naga nationalist groups, including the NSCN-IM, as “armed gangs” involved in “rampant extortion” and so “challenging the legitimacy of the state government”, he was clearly speaking in his role as governor and with his prerogative to uphold law and order. However, the organisations labelled “armed gangs” consist of the same people he is tasked to negotiate with as interlocutor.
The NSCN-IM, and other Naga nationalist groups, however, are unlikely to be forthcoming in negotiations with an interlocutor who tags them as criminals instead of political actors. The two portfolios, of governor and interlocutor, simply appear irreconcilable. The current allegation that the framework agreement was desacralised, and the NSCN-IM’s associated demand that the interlocutor be replaced is likely to further elongate, and thereby further institutionalise, the already long standing condition of a ceasefire without settlement.
Who will benefit from a possible further delay? Arguably it is the Indian State. Seen broadly, the current ceasefire, now 23 years old, over time worked to the advantage of the Indian State, if only because it possesses two things that Naga nationalist groups do not – patience and near inexhaustible resources.
The absence of violent conflict, even without a political settlement, enabled the Indian State to expand its administrative and development apparatuses in the Naga highlands, and to increasingly tie Naga livelihoods to existing State structures and the political status quo. Meanwhile, an entire Naga generation has grown up during the ceasefire, and their understanding and affinity with the Naga struggle is evidently different from previous generations.
Moreover, the longer the ceasefire continued, the Naga Movement found it harder to prevent disillusionment among ordinary Naga men and women, as well as restlessness, indiscipline, and conflict within its own rank and-file. And while the Indian State draws systematic revenues and taxes throughout its territory, and which is lawful, Naga nationalist groups must rely on extractive regimes of taxation over the Naga populace to sustain themselves, but ever so at the risk of causing resentment.
As such feelings of resentment have been on the rise. But if all of this would seem to place the NSCN-IM in a tough spot, Naga politi
cal history reveals, with violent certainty, that the breaking of an oath always carries the potential to unleash new political passions, rake up old grievances, and inflame lingering resentments. And that is something to be wary about.
The writer is a social anthropologist and teaches in the department of social sciences at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan