Two men and a boy, armed with a rifle each, approached us as we reached the designated camp of NSCN(IM) (National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Issac-Muivah)) at Hebon, a few kilometers outside Dimapur. We took permissions and direction before moving on. Kathi, a friend and an ex-journalist for Morung Express, asked, “Are you nervous?” We drove through the settlement where young cadres of the outfit could be seen walking nonchalantly every now and then with a gun on their shoulders. Even outside the camp, you could see them in plain clothes driving a Gypsy. “They are UGs!” Kathi remarked repeatedly that day. I waited outside another gate while he arranged a meeting with ‘Awili Madam’ for the next day.
Awili is a Steering Committee member, and one of the earliest women, to have joined the largest underground faction operating in the entire North-East. Though they signed a ceasefire agreement with the Indian Govt. in 1997 (technically, only within the state of Nagaland) and have been restricted to their designated camps since then, the Naga inhabited parts of Manipur have witnessed activities. Only two months back, they had a standoff with the Indian armed forces at Shirui village in Ukhrul, Manipur. Villagers had to sit on protest to make sure the standoff doesn’t lead to a war. To put the insurgency of North-East in perspective, ULFA in Assam has weakened considerably and surrendered two of its most famed battalions. In Manipur however, more than forty different underground groups operate, most without any knowledge as to why. NSCN of old has also split into four factions always at war among themselves. Only last year, during a span of about a month, more than two hundred cadres of two major factions died. Ceasefire may have put to rest the battles between Indian and NSCN armies, it hasn’t yet been able to bring peace to Nagaland.
The very next day, we walked into a house in Dimapur town where she sat with a junior colleague. Round faced and kind eyed, she looked smart and stern for her age. And she had a restrained smile unlike her junior colleague. Also, she could, without much controversy, pass off as an administrator.
While Kathi introduced me and explained to her in their common language ‘Sema’ about the interview, I studied the surroundings. We were in the drawing room of the house where a wooden cupboard with a glass front faced us. The floor was carpeted and the sofa, comfortable. Television sat neatly in the most distant corner. On the wall behind the cupboard, Jesus was having the last supper. In front of me and to the left of Awili, a framed text read, “Peace be within thy walls & prosperity within thy palaces. – Psalms 122:7”
Before we began, tea arrived. Awili prayed for a fair bit of time before lifting the teacup. Sema was the language of the interview. Kathi explained later that it has little vocabulary that shows in its overdependence on the sounds. Words alone don’t say much in Sema unless the speaker uses his/her physicality to add to the expressions.
It turned out that Kathi too, was not very proficient with the language and often struggled to put forth the essence of my questions. I didn’t always get my answers in the manner I’d have liked. More often than not, translation meant simplification and the intended sharpness of a few questions couldn’t be conveyed properly. Yet, the answers I received reflect upon the person as much as the struggle I was trying to comprehend.
What made you join NSCN(IM)?
When I was a little girl of nine years, our Naga National Army was at war with the Indian forces. During the war, Indian troops would burn villages and force all the villagers to stay in a designated camp. These were very congested camps and the atmosphere was filled with terror. In there, my father’s eyes always spoke of a deep-seated fear. We were at a village called Puhuboto. The women were taken to a different camp often. On one such occasion, I was with my father and we were given a fixed time for cooking and eating. I along with my sister helped him but we could never even begin to eat. As we tried to eat whatever we had in front of us, the soldiers started hitting us with the butt of the rifles. My father was badly wounded and we had to stay hungry. I could only think to myself, “If only I were a boy…”
From then on, I developed a strong revolutionary conviction. Also, my mother was pregnant then. She was a voluntary worker for the Naga national cause for which, she was tortured badly often. Eventually, it led to a miscarriage due to all the stress, and no care available in those camps. The incident cemented my determination to fight for our national independence. We – me, my family, our people – had no life there. No dignity, no respect as a human being. We were treated without any human consideration. I couldn’t let it continue. On September 20, 1974, I ran away with a friend Asheli to join NSCN despite resistance. The villagers had tried to persuade me against the idea as I was a girl, but I refused to listen to them. We left school and from Puhuboto, we went searching for national workers. We thought they were in the vicinity and soon found them. Thus, my journey started…
Once you joined the outfit, did you have to face any challenges there as a woman?
None at all. I had no trouble being a woman. However, people still say you cannot fight as you are a woman. Nobody ever supported me in joining NSCN. Only the conviction I had to be a national worker saw me through. I was one of the earliest women to join the women battalion under Loveholy who was the president. We were a strong unit and we never had to face any injustice because of our gender. Soon after, we went to China for our first training.
What changes, do you think, has the outfit undergone during all these years?
A lot of change has taken place. Earlier, it was all about love for each other. When we stayed in the jungles, the villagers would give us rice voluntarily. Our commitment to the struggle was so strong that people didn’t know of our existence in the forest. We would hardly interact with the people. Our time was spent entirely in the jungles. When we cooked our food, we wouldn’t even let the smoke come out. Those who let it go out were severely punished. The world outside knew that we were somewhere close but they never knew where. (Her eyes have lit up, she recites a tender poem, it seems) …When we spoke, we spoke in silence. Even if we crossed roads, we treaded in such silence… No one knew how we ate and where we slept, when we moved from one place to another. When it rained, we didn’t change our clothes. The clothes dried on our respective bodies. Among us women, we gladly shared our clothes with those who had none. The shoes became an integral part of our feet. We had gotten used to living with blisters all the while. Whatever we had in the name of food, we happily shared. Our commitment was so strong… And believe me, it was all built on love for each other.
But these days, even among us, some have become very rich. Those who are committed are still the same, though. Now people drive big cars. Fancy luxuries have taken over our issue. So indeed, there is a huge difference between the undergrounds we were and what we are today.
While the ceasefire is on for the past twelve years, what, according to you, is the vision of NSCN for the resolution of Naga Political Issue?
We are still in negotiation with Government of India, though there are four factions now. India may not be paying much heed to us but the whole world knows about our issue now. In God’s word, He has predicted that many might not reach the end of the struggle, but some of us in the struggle will see that day. I really believe in seeing that day…
How do you perceive and differentiate between India, Indian Govt and Indian people?
There are a lot of differences between India and us. They belong to the Aryan race, we don’t. We are not enemies. But yes, we are different from each other in many ways. Culture, lifestyle, values… We are altogether different.
For the Govt of India, Nagaland is a strategic region against foreign invasion. They do admit that we are rich in natural resources. So they will always try to keep us in their control. Indians will never leave unless thrown out.
As for Indian people, basically, we belong to different cultures, customs and tradition. Most of them are Hindus while we are Christians. We hardly have any commonalities to interact about. However, what I can say is that we Nagas, be it anyone from outside our state, always offer our concern and hospitality. On the contrary, though I’ve been to Delhi and other places in India, I’ve found it very rare for Indian people to offer you even a glass of water.
What are your feelings on the arrival of yet another 15th August – a day India celebrates its independence while you struggle to find yours?
See, India is also a nation that won its independence from a colonizing power on the 15th of august. Indeed it is a day for India and Indian people to celebrate. While they do that, we too, wish to celebrate another day of the year as our day of Independence.
How do you engage with the people of Nagaland, especially those from far and remote villages? How do you keep in touch with their changing aspirations while you represent their cause?
We don’t have people’s minds with us here. We can’t control what they think, nor can read it. Over the years, so many people have joined NSCN, we don’t know with what aspirations. But for us, for NSCN, the objective is the same. It is exactly what we started with. I worked for thirty years but my mind hasn’t changed one bit. It hasn’t taken a diversion from the path we decided together to tread upon. We’ve seen many people come and go. Some see the opportunity of making money and they make money. And I think that is greed. Some others with no principles keep running from faction to faction; some are manipulated by Indian propaganda and some are even bought over with money.
All this, we understand, is an outcome of Indian propaganda. They want to create a sense of division among us. But we remain intact with our policy and intend to prepare our next generation for the struggle until we’ve achieved our objective.
Which means, for you, representing people’s aspirations is not relevant. You are in the struggle because you, personally and as an organization, believe in it?
Yes. But let me correct you. In a few places like Dimapur and Kohima, they say we are not popular. That may be so… Yet, in the interior villages, people have a strong sense of Naga culture. They support us very strongly.
While you cannot be held directly responsible for it, how do you justify your position in a struggle that has led to so much damage? Countless people have died in clashes within ethnic groups or the armed factions. There is such high degree of corruption within every political body, including your outfit. People live in fear and trade for life with whatever little they have. How do you explain that?
Corruption is everywhere. India is not free from it either. In fact, India is one of the most corrupt countries. It has been going on since ages. We have to deal with our share till we free ourselves from India.
As for the factions, even during Indian independence struggle, there were many. Not everyone was with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The independence movement was so divided it even led to a partition of the country during which so many lives were lost.
Have there been any disappointments?
It was on 19th January, 1980 when I had my biggest displeasure about the Shillong Accord. After the signing of the Accord, my husband was beheaded and I was imprisoned for six months by the accordists. This, till today, has been the greatest discontent of my life.
Would you like to share some notable anecdotes, some highlights – pleasant or otherwise – of your journey?
(Smiles. She is clearly relaxed now. Begins after a brief pause) Let me cite a few that come to my mind… On the way when we were going to China, we were to cross Ao region. Indian Army surrounded us from all sides. There were two hills, both occupied by the Indian Army. We had to take the narrow ridge through which a river was flowing. We clashed four times with the Indian Army. During that time, we’d gone without food for one month and four days.
Another incident happened when we were on a plain near the Chandwin river where the Burmese Army leader led an ambush on us while we were on our way to China. We had no cover and bullets were raining down on us. We just kept crawling. At that time, three of us died: two Konyaks and my friend Asheli. One was taken away by the river. I too crawled for some cover. All I can say is that I survived because of God’s miracle. After the ambush, we ran into the jungle and for nine days, we didn’t have a drop of water. In desperation, as I couldn’t take it anymore, I drank from an elephant’s foot-pool and got hit by malaria. My hair also began to fall due to the sickness. By the time we reached China, I became totally bald.
Then, in 1977, while we were on our way back from China, at a village called Tankho, we were attacked by the Burmese. Enemy was throwing 3mm mortar at us. Trying to escape, I jumped and just then, one mortar fell exactly where I stood. Because of that, till today, I have a damaged left ear.
What would be your expectations from the Indian people for the resolution of Naga political issue?
Well… I appreciate that you came here to ask these questions. Very few people in India know about our issues. At least you came here and are trying to understand what we’ve gone through. We can only hope that more and more Indians realize our unique Naga culture and understand Naga history. I hope many more come to know of it through you. All we expect from them is, understanding. We are going to be a free nation one day.
“When the great laws of history are not used to explain humankind it will be possible for people to leave behind their own voices.” — Gao Xiang
“In the end, man is not entirely guilty – he did not start history. Nor is he wholly innocent – he continues it.” — Albert Camus