KOHIMA/GUWAHATI: A 10-foot-tall monolith placed on a stone-and-cement pedestal towers over the road to Khonoma, a village of about 400 households 20 kms away from Kohima, Nagaland’s capital. Inscribed on the monolith are words that many in the state still wear on their sleeves with pride: “Nagas are not Indians, their territory is not a part of the Indian Union. We shall uphold and defend this unique truth at all costs and always.” The words are attributed to Khrisanisa Seyie, the first ‘President’ of the ‘Federal Government of Nagaland,’ and the monolith serves as his memorial.
Just yards away is another monument made of stone. This one is for Mowu Gwizantsu, the fourth ‘Commander-in-chief’ of the ‘Naga Army.’ “This monument commemorates a daring soldier who fought with legendary courage, endurance and selflessness. Khonoma gratefully remembers him and the dauntless men he led in far-flung battles to defend the right of their people as a nation,” reads the writing on the structure with rolling mountains in the backdrop.
Other than monuments, there are many tales of grit and daring that are told in this land of the blue mountains. But the ‘Indo-Naga war,’ as independent India’s first armed conflict came to be known, also left the Naga society deeply divided and scarred. The divisions, rooted in fear and suspicion over loyalties, split the armed movement down the middle, leading to bloody fratricidal battles and killings. Friends turned into foes and neighbours who once shared bread went for each other’s throats as blood spilled in the villages.
Among the first to be killed in the fratricidal war was Theyieu Sakhrie, the general secretary of the Naga National Council (NNC), the organisation A.Z. Phizo formed to launch the Naga movement. Sakhrie was seen as a moderate and an intellectual and Phizo suspected his loyalty even though they belonged to the same village, Khonoma. “In the heat of the moment, Phizo called Sakhrie a traitor,” said Niketu Iralu, a peace activist and Phizo’s nephew. Sakhrie was apparently tortured and killed in January 1956.
There were many killings and revenge killings after that, debilitating the movement. This created such a divide that decades later descendants of families involved in the killings did not even talk to each other even though they were neighbours. This perhaps spawned the Forum for Naga Reconciliation (FNR), a platform floated by civil society groups to heal the wounds of war.
In Khonoma, a cobbled stone road was built by villagers in 2012 as a symbol of forgive and forget. The road runs round the village and is called the Reconciliation Road. The reconciliation exercise was also purgatory in nature. For the affected families, it was as if a huge burden had been lifted from their shoulders.
“Many of the affected families were thankful to us for bringing them together. They said they were just waiting for this moment to forget the past and begin a friendship again,” said Iralu.
Matong Longkumer, whose father was vice-president of the NNC, agreed that fratricidal killings had deeply divided the Nagas. “The reconciliation process is going on and I support the FNR,” he said. Longkumer, who rarely ventures out of his house in Mokokchung in Nagaland, said the peace process should not be linked to the reconciliation in Naga society. “The political peace deal and reconciliation are two separate issues, they can go on side by side,” he said.
The Naga Hoho, Nagaland’s apex social organisation, was the first to start a process of reconciliation among the rebel groups. Later, a number of tribal organisations too started it.
“The Naga Hoho started the reconciliation process in 1995-96. To stop the fratricidal killings, we had met the leaders of NSCN-IM, NSCN-K and NNC and even gone to Myanmar to meet SS Khaplang, the chief of NSCN-K. Since faction leaders are from different tribes, organisations of the tribes were asked to convince their leaders to make peace. On our part, we visited their camps and met leaders to persuade them to stop the killings. If one guy deserted one faction to be with another faction, we used to request the group that lost a member not to retaliate,” said Naga Hoho chief Chuba Ozukum.
He said reconciliation is a continued process and it was still on. “Various organisations started it in their own way. After all these efforts, the Forum for Naga Reconciliation was formed in 2008 in consultation with the Naga Hoho. Today, the fratricidal killings have completely stopped. As for the Naga political problem, we always urge the groups to unite and talk to the Indian government in one voice. They have no ideological differences. They say they are fighting for Naga integration, self-determination and for a sovereign state. So, they are all using the same Naga fight. But then, there is the feeling of tribalism, which is deep-rooted. That’s the reason we have not been able to bring them together. Of course, there are also historical aspects for the division,” Ozukum said.
FNR convener Dr Wati Aier said they could make decisive strides towards Naga reconciliation with the people’s support.
“Eventually, inter-factional violence decreased, and some form of relative peace was established. Due gratitude goes to Naga National Groups (read Naga rebel groups) for upholding their commitment to refrain from all forms of violence. However, outstanding political differences remain. Hence, despite the positive path to end bloodshed, the Nagas are still confronted with a polarising situation of power politics, self-preservation and exclusiveness. These threaten to demoralise the Naga spirit and obstruct reconciliation,” Aier said.
“The time has come for Nagas of all ages and gender to take the responsibility of working for a peaceful and a just Naga society. For this, it is imperative that we courageously strengthen the path for Naga reconciliation. Our future needs it,” Aier added.