Once conflict starts in the developing world, it is a protracted process. Numerous countries in Asia and Africa have endured decades of armed conflict. Other countries have lived under the permanent menace of political violence. Indeed, in many countries ceasefires and peace accords have resulted in increased violence, as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of these developing countries suffered greatly in the colonial period. The colonial masters often followed a divide-and-rule policy. One group of people was treated better than others. In the post-colonial period these bitter rivalries between religious groups, tribes, clans and ethnicities continued. Often post-colonial governments inherited this mantle of recurrent conflict between different groups of people and became a player in this whole process. The ruling elite, having learnt from the colonial masters, persisted in siding with one group against the other. That is where our narrative begins.
Women are often portrayed as passive victims during conflicts but that is certainly not the only role they play. Stereotypical essentializing of women as victims and men as perpetrators of violence denies each their agency and voice as actors in the process. In previous studies, we have seen that women play multiple roles in conflict. They can be both the aggressor and the peacemaker. Women are among people killed and belong to the thousands displaced by ensuing violence. They witness their children killed and maimed by the conflict. During conflict they live, laugh, cry, sometimes miscarry or give birth to their children in the bush and always try to survive. Some lose their livelihoods; others lose their crops. Conflict leads to impoverishment of many women and so their protection needs are heightened. Governance in the post-conflict period is also a matter of serious implications. It is often the cause for reemergence of conflict.
Sometimes, however, conflict governance produces some other phenomena. As has been stated earlier, women play multiple roles in conflict. They can be both the aggressor and the victim. But in both capacities they are always unequal to men and this inequality can bring forth unusual alliances. In different parts of the world, women often ally with their own men during conflict and their actions can range from encouraging their men folk to wage war, cooking for the warriors and secretly transporting weapons. For example among the Kisii tribe, women scream to declare the start of war between the Kisii and the Maasai. Women who refuse to scream are divorced by their husbands because it is the women who are supposed to scream to announce the beginning of a conflict. Kisii women collect stones for men to fight. The women also sharpen arrows and poison them in preparation for war. In some cultures, women taunt men for cowardice if they do not seem ready to participate in a conflict between their community and other communities. In India, we were brought up with the story of the women from Rajputana who refused to recognize husbands who fled from the battlefield. Pastoralist women give blessings to young men to go to war. They transport arms and food for warriors and pass on important information. It is futile to think that women will stay away from supporting their communities when they are embroiled in violent actions. However appeals can be made and are made to these women so that they favor political and non-military solutions. In this process they can enter other creative alliances that can have the potential of changing the nature of conflict and are what seems to have happened in the Northeastern state of Nagaland in India.
In Northeast India both the state and non-state military forces recognize women as agents of peace. What does agents of peace in conflict situations imply? Does it merely mean playing the role of negotiator or mediator to resolve immediate conflicts or does it entails engaging with the larger socio-political framework that produces conflicts? The immediate role in resolving conflicts lies on the shoulder of the women of Manipur as the chief minister is quoted saying in a leading daily: “As saying Manipur is today veritably on fire and the major onus of dousing this fire rests on the shoulders of our womenfolk who have always taken a major role in the shaping the history of the land. He said there are no sons who will not listen to their mothers, no brother who cannot be influenced by their sisters”1
In this context, it is important to remind ourselves that the experiences of women as “victims” and as agents are varied owing to their affiliation to various religious, ethnic, tribal and clan groups. Women are often marginalized within their own ethnic groups and they are constantly fighting for their socio-economic and political rights. The rising conflict has its own demands from the women to play as negotiators which have increased the role of women in the civilian sphere. In Northeast India women from all the ethnic groups have taken part in resistance movements and one of the common points against state oppression shared by all the women’s groups in the region is the demand for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA; 1958/72). They claimed it to be merely the most recent state action against women in the region, where women have faced multiple injustices from the colonial period onwards. They also claimed that the brunt of injustices came after the passage of AFSPA in Northeast India in 1958. This is an Act passed through a constitutional process but it has facilitated some of the most gruesome human rights abuses in Northeast India. In this essay we hope to portray how the women living in Northeast India’s Nagaland, a border state that has been marked as hostile by the majoritarian state of India, negotiate with both the government and the underground movements. I also intend to show that women do not accept their situation of vulnerability passively and have innovatively created alliances at times with the Indian state and at other times with the rebel movements to create a space in which they can be heard, and that can be considered as their own space of empowerment. Over the course of the conflict, they have shaped and reshaped their responses to the state and innovated and changed techniques of negotiation. In this way they have had a profound impact on governance and conflict resolution and in the process reshaped gender relations in their own societies. As for those in governance found women as their ally in trying to push for ceasefire. With few other such options they tried to strengthen this alliance by giving women certain essential rights that was at times denied by their own communities, like 33 per cent representation in village-level representative institutions. In this way, governance merely by violence changed to a mixed mode of governance where delivering essential socio-economic necessities were recognized as an important role of the state.
Therefore, on its part the state began by trying to combat all forms of opposition through violence but after extensive bloodshed recognized that only violence does not work. They eventually decided to temper violence with development and promise of more. In the process when they could conclude a ceasefire with the rebels they prioritized development over punitive measures and tried to reconcile recalcitrant communities by sponsoring alliances with different groups including young women and men who had less potent memories of conflict. In this way the contest over sovereignty was subtly governmentalized. Conflict over sovereignty changed to a contest over governing. The young women definitely aided in the process by demanding that governing should also be about service providing and ensuring rights. The state was aided by the fact that with the receding of the mega conflict smaller competitions appeared on the horizon in which the state positioned itself as arbiter. The new generation of women understood that they could use the state and its new mode of governance as their ally and push for their rights agenda. In this way the state polarized the society on the basis of ethnicity, age and gender and controlled the impulses of a mega opposition. The women on the other hand used state mechanisms to negotiate for mitigating traditional wrongs and pushing for individual rights that they could not during the heyday of conflict.
In their negotiations with the state the women undertook many innovative actions to fight violence and traditional injustices and create a more just society. Their negotiations over the years will help us to understand the way the women’s groups in Northeast India and in other regions have been instrumental in redefining security, be it their fight against repeal of AFSPA, ensuring food security, ensuring securitization of life and livelihood through patrolling in the neighborhood and resorting to non-violent dialogues with the underground movements and the army to resolve and prevent conflicts and creating innovative ways of engaging with governments or fighting for women’s land rights and reservation of seats in elections.
This paper is meant to fill the lacuna in the existing literature. It deals with women in the state of Nagaland in Northeast India and analyses their negotiation with a state that traditionally privileges values that maybe patriarchal. Through their activism they made the state realize that upholding their cause will help the cause of justice and peace and also change contest over sovereignty into a question of governance and the former is always more problematic for a state to handle than the latter. Women’s engagements with conflict and peace in Nagaland have transformed the traditional definitions of engagement and resistance and thereby had serious impact on both gender roles and governance.
Northeast India: A Cauldron of Conflict
Northeastern India share borders with Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Myanmar and so the eight states can be called border states. The British began administering the area through a series of Acts such as the Schedules District Act of 1874 and the Frontier Tracts Regulations of 1880. In 1873, the British passed the Inner Line Regulation. According to one analyst the logic behind this regulation was that the “unrestricted movements which existed between the British subjects in Assam and the wild tribes living across the frontiers frequently led to quarrels and sometimes to serious disturbances”.2 The British administration also wanted to control the rubber trade that was still in the hands of the hill people and that caused frequent skirmishes between the groups. The Inner Line Regulation was a means to separate the civilized plains people and the wild hill people. The inner line did not in any way give the sovereignty to the hill people rather it was a means by which administrative zones of the hills and the plains were separated ostensibly because the civilized faced problems with cohabiting with the wild. The Government of India Act of 1935 classified the hill areas of Assam into excluded and partially excluded areas. This was done mainly to exclude the hill areas of Assam from the jurisdiction of the Reformed Provincial Government that included the plains of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. This policy resulted in a separate political evolution of the hill and the plains. The excluded areas were not demarcated to protect regional autonomy. Rather it was meant to keep recalcitrant groups at bay. It also meant that the hill areas remained excluded from all constitutional experiments that were embarked upon within the jurisdiction of British India. To justify such demarcations there was a process of demonization of certain groups of people, at least in the official discourses that were considered recalcitrant and the Nagas were one such people.
During the Constituent Assembly Debates the process continued. During the debate on the provisions of the Sixth Scheduled, such a mentality was apparent particularly among members of the dominant groups. When there were discussions about giving the Naga Hills an autonomous council, some of the responses of the members of the Assembly reflected the attitude of the architects of the Constitution towards these people. Kuladhar Chaliha from Assam was particularly vocal. He said:
The Nagas are a very primitive and simple people and they have not forgotten their old ways of doing summary justice when they have a grievance against anyone. If you allow them to rule us or run the administration it will be a negation of justice or administration and it will be something like anarchy…3
Although not as vociferous as Chaliha, there were many who made it obvious that the Nagas did not belong. Brajeshwar Prasad from Bihar during the same debate stated that “responsibilities of parliamentary life can be shouldered by those who are competent, wise, just and literate. To vest wide political powers into the hands of the tribals is the surest method of inviting chaos, anarchy and disorder throughout the length and breadth of this country.”4 Even Gopinath Bordoloi who drafted the Sixth Schedule commented that hardly any of the tribes could be called self-governing but “the time may come when they may become fit to govern themselves”.5
Discussions on the Sixth Schedule were a precursor of things to come. The members of the Constituent Assembly who were deliberating on the creation of a democratic constitution for India were not merely obsessed with the idea of maintaining order as Paul Brass has suggested.6 That was just one of the things that they concerned themselves with. They were also in the business of constructing a citizenship that would be loyal to the order that they were seeking to maintain. On the basis of this criterion they constructed notions and discourses of who belonged and who did not. They created a hierarchy of citizenship and in that hierarchy many Northeastern tribal groups were at the bottom rung, particularly the Nagas. Their avowed difference was considered deviance and they were at best patronized and at worst vilified. At the back of everyone’s mind was the fact that these people were not us and so unworthy of any autonomy or self-rule. Even as early as in the Constituent Assembly the nation’s leaders were using the language of their colonizers to deal with all those they considered as other/deviant. This was decisive in shaping state attitude towards the region. An analysis of laws such as AFSPA, the National Security Act, etc. will also show how groups were marked recalcitrant by evolving border laws and then they were treated as criminals. Thereby the ground was laid to treat these people with disdain and violence because what they were claiming was sovereignty over their self. But such claim could only be entertained from those who could be seen as “people”.
A Look from Inside
The historiography of North East India from the other side, i.e. from the side of Manipur andNagaland looks very different. It is vivid with “treacherous” accounts of accession by the “Indianstate” post the declaration of independence of the Indian dominion by the British Crown on 15August 1947. Most of the armed resistance groups are said to be fighting for autonomy under theleadership of those who believe in the right to self-rule. In Manipur, some of the armed resistancegroups are Manipur People’s Army (the armed wing of United Nations Liberation Front), People’sLiberation Army (PLA), and People’s Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak (PREPAK). The list is endless.The number of armed resistances is on a rise and the only way of coping with the conflict that theIndian state has resorted to is through militarization of Manipur. The massive militarization thatManipur has witnessed over more than six decades is further legitimized by the existing AFSPA,which enables army officials of any rank to resort to violence to maintain law and order. Present-dayManipur is flagged with multi-layered problems with the parallel existence of democraticfunctionaries and institutions like the panchayats, municipality and state legislative assembly on theone hand and the day-to-day challenges posed by militarization by the state and the increasingnumber of armed resistance groups on the other. The presence of military forces has created frictionsbetween ethnic groups and a clear divide between the valley (an area dominated by Meiteis) and thehills (areas dominated by Naga and Kuki tribes).
The Naga struggle is embedded in a much deeper history of ethnic identity and territoriality,which can be traced back to the Treaty of Yandaboo of 1826, which brought the British to theNortheastern part of India. According to Achumbemo Kikon, for administrative convenience, theBritish established the Naga Hills District in 1866, which was later on merged with Assam in 1874.7With the formation of the Naga club in 1918, the Naga voices became consolidated to assert thesentiments and voices of the people. A memorandum submitted to the Simon Commission in 1929made it quite clear that “Naga areas be left out of the proposed reform scheme”. In 1946, under theleadership of Angami Zapu Phizo, the so-called “father of the Naga Nation”, the Naga NationalCouncil (NNC) was formed. Under its banner, Nagas declared their independence on 14 August1947, a day prior to “Indian” independence. The sentiments of the Naga people went unheard andthe nascent Indian state in order to safeguard the “integrity” of the Indian nation “adopted repressivepolicies and suppressed the Nagas with its military strength”.
From 1948 onwards, the Naga problem escalated. In 1947, the Naga Hills were dividedbetween Assam and Manipur and the next year many Nagas, including Daiho Mao, were arrestedfollowing their efforts to blockade an entry point to the Naga Hills. Within the mainland it waswidely held that Burmese Communists infiltrating into Assam were aiding the Nagas. By early 1951,the Nagas asked for a plebiscite and were predictably refused. Under the auspices of NNC, the Nagasthemselves called a plebiscite in which almost everyone voted in favor of independence. On 16 May1951, that plebiscite was held in which 99.9 per cent voted to reassert the Naga position in favor ofan independent homeland devoid of domination and political control of any sort. Following theplebiscite, the Nagas boycotted the two Indian general elections in 1952 and 1957. In 1963, Nagalandwas created on the basis of what is known as “Sixteen Point Agreement”, which has been the subjectof critique, with some like Achumbemo believing that this agreement was offered to the NagaPeople’s Convention (NPC), a group handpicked by Indian intelligence agencies to mediate betweenthe Naga resistance groups and the Indian government. Nagaland was created based on thismemorandum which never incorporated the views of the Naga people or resistance groups. Thus,after independence, Nagas were distributed over four states: Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradeshand Nagaland, which had the majority. In the 1950s, the Government of India placed restrictions onNNC. The movement for Nagalim spearheaded by NNC was divided into two factions in 1980.Under the leadership of General Secretary Th. Muivah, NNC vice-president Isak Swu and presidentof Eastern NNC S.S. Khaplang, a group broke away to form National Socialist Council of Nagaland(NSCN). In 1988, there was another split, creating two groups now known by the name of theleaders: the Isak-Muivah faction and the Khaplang faction.
The Indian state chose to cope with the crisis of sovereignty and autonomy movementsthrough militarization of Manipur and Nagaland. A paternalistic top-down securitization approachthrough militarization and enforcement of AFSPA in Nagaland and Manipur has been the reasonbehind many a bloodshed and atrocities. The ceasefire agreement between Government of India andthe National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) has been in place for more than fifteen years. Thecontradictory nature of ceasefire lies in the very existence of AFSPA in Nagaland, the presence of theIndian Army and the way women continue to become victims of community honor in thistransitional phase of political instability. The violence generated by state and non-state actors hasbeen responsible for loss of human dignity and gross violation of human rights that has completelyengulfed the lives of people. Before getting into any other discussion it is essential to explore thenature of violence.
*The paper is written by Paula Banerjee and Ishita Dey.
* Paula Banerjee is a Member of CRG and Associate Professor of Calcutta University. Ishita Dey is also a member of CRG and Ph.D. student of Delhi University.
*The paper was first published July 2012
(Courtesy: Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group- www.mcrg.ac.in)
1 Imphal Free Press 17 March 2001.
2 Joysankar Hazarika, Geopolitics of Northeast India: A Strategical Study (Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 1996) p. 74.
3 Shri Kuladhar Chaliha, in The Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. IX, Tuesday, 6th September 1949, pp.1-2
4 Shri Brajeshwar Prasad, in The Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. IX, Tuesday, 6th September 1949, p. 3 of 20
5 Shri Gopinath Bordoloi, in The Constituent Assembly Debates, vol. IX, Tuesday, 6th September 1949, p 4 of 26
6 Paul R. Brass, “The Strong State and the Fear of Disorder,” in Francine R. Frankel, Zoya Hasan, Rajeev Bhargava and Balveer Arora eds., Transforming India: Social and Political Dynamics of Democracy (New Delhi, OUP, 20 00) pp. 60 62.
7 Achumbema Kikon in Sanjay Barbora eds Experiences on Autonomy in East and Northeast: A Report on the Third Civil Society Dialogue on Human Rights and Peace, Published by CRG, 2003: p. 29
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