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Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

AIPP expresses solidarity on the commemoration of the Naga Plebiscite Day of May 1951; a significant event in the story of the Naga People’s struggle for self-determination

Message delivered by
Gam A. Shimray, Secretary General on the occasion of
Celebrating the Naga Plebiscite Day

16th May 2024

I bring greetings from Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) to the Naga People on this important occasion, the commemoration of the Plebiscite Day – 16th May 1951. AIPP is grateful to the National Socialist Council of Nagalim for inviting us to be a part of this historic day that represents one of the most inspiring struggles of Indigenous Peoples in modern times.

I share this message with you on behalf of many Indigenous Peoples in Asia as well as share some pieces of my reflection as a Naga as I find it difficult to separate myself from the struggles and issues of our people.

This day is of particular significance to the Naga people because it concretized the collective political resolve of the Naga Nationhood movement in world history. It was not a historical accident, but an act of visionary leadership of A.Z. Phizo that charted the pathways for the future of the Naga people.

The Amsterdam Joint Communique of July 11, 2002, recognized the uniqueness of Naga history, thus accepting it as a historical fact. Furthermore, the Framework Agreement (FA) of August 3, 2015, inked by India and Naga recognizes that ‘in a democracy sovereignty lies with the people’. This is another groundbreaking advancement in the history of the Naga people under the leadership of the then Chairman Late Isak Chishi Swu and General Secretary Th. Muivah. This act of recognition and reaffirmation has taken the historic Plebiscite result of May 1951 that exemplifies sovereignty of the people to a whole new level.

Further, assuring their highest commitment, they shook hands in agreement that they have reached new heights of understanding and appreciation of each other’s history and situation. It was an act of statesmanship reflective of people-centered leadership by Naga leaders.

To a keen observer, it appeared to finally signal the dawning of wisdom and potentially the birth of a new era that India and Naga will share as two equals. But what followed was unexpected. There is still no sight of the land of honey and milk.

With all my imperfections, I would like to raise a few questions and issues to help us appreciate the matter we are dealing with. No matter what controversy the FA has spiraled into, to be respectful of what has been achieved, allow me to respectfully address the Government of India (GoI) and the Naga people as two entities.

At the time of British withdrawal, there were 565 officially recognized princely states and thousands of zamindari estates and jagirs representing an impressive diversity. In addition to this were the territorially bound tribal communities who are today referred to as Indigenous Peoples by international law. In general, Indigenous Peoples are stateless societies who fall outside of princely states and so-called mainstream structure of the society (without feudatory relationship within). These diverse and territorially bound Indigenous Peoples of India represented another complex set of landscapes and uncertainty (whose political issues remain unsettled to this day) during the formation of India. This explains, to some extent, why Nagas did not merge with India; it was too complex to understand and too problematic to find a good reason to join the Indian Union. It was not about making enmity with India as has been erroneously fabricated. The Nagas’ position was not an antagonistic one; it took the non-violent path to demonstrate the popular aspiration of the people which was epitomized by the May 1951 Plebiscite.

In my opinion, these socio-cultural, ecological and political diversity were the greatest challenge to the master minds of the Constitution of India and it continues to be so for its authorities. Greatly influenced by the system in England and mindful of India’s diverse needs and conditions, the Indian Constitution borrowed several features of previous legislation, including the Government of India Act 1858, the Government of India Acts 1919 and 1935, etc. Further, several Articles in the Constitution exemplified these needs and conditions e.g., Article 370 and 35A, Article 371A, 371G, and Article 244, etc. Furthermore, Article 40 of the Directive Principles of State Policy envisages enabling functions of self-governance.

With reference to the Indian Constitution, I would like to lay out three important points. Firstly, democratic governance of the people was reflected in intent and as contained in some of the above Articles. Secondly, as opined by CR Bijoy (2003), the governance history of the peoples of the Indian sub-continent traverses two distinct broad trajectories that are yet to meet and have dialogue. One path is characterized by the central and state governments with their bureaucracies, and the second path is of self-governance or autonomous units that conflicts with the former. Thirdly, for India, tolerance is one of the key pillars upon which peace and security is to be built upon given its enormous diversity. Tolerance became a necessary condition for peace and security because no diverse group can claim to possess the ultimate truth. However, India has been challenged now and then by communal issues and inter-regional tensions. These points are not about criticism or exposing anything on these issues for the sake of accountability or justice. It is just to draw ourselves into deeper reflection in consideration for a better future.

In general, understanding the role and purpose of institutions, including the institutional capacity for governance is important in all the above three contexts. Borrowing from Douglas Nord (2003), let me briefly illustrate this point. Institutions are made up of formal rules, informal norms, and their enforcement characteristics. The focus of institutions primarily has been on formal rules, meaning on laws, constitutions, and regulations. But informal norms of behavior in many ways are more important than formal rules. It seriously determines the success of governance. Institutions must be flexible and concrete enough to be responsive to the specific needs and conditions and avoid prescribing uniformity that prevents meaningful expressions of socio-cultural groups in specific contexts. For example, one of the inbuilt tensions we see in the Indian polity arises from prescribing one national administrative system which effectively prevents the emergence of self-conception of self-governance systems (even in the autonomous areas) defeating the objective of addressing diverse needs and conditions.

This problem is not peculiar to India, for example, as pointed out by Douglas Nord, when Latin American countries became independent in the early nineteenth century, most of them borrowed from the Constitution of the United States. It worked well for the United States but not for Latin America. The reason was both their informal norms and their enforcement characteristics were vastly different from the United States. In the context of Nagas, the tradition is consensus democracy and not party-based electoral democracy. We had formal rules and structure, but it was the informal structure and norms that works as a second nature which was more important in delivering results to decision-making and collective governance.

One assumes that the FA is reflective of these important lessons and acknowledges the sovereignty of the people. The FA stands on these twin legs. Or at least, it was indicative that the two entities have come to appreciate their positions and have found a firm ground to stand on. Further, affirming that sovereignty of the people does not mean the discovery of the absolute truth by either entity, nevertheless committing to indubitable universal truth allowing for creation of space to maintain respectful tolerance and closeness. Furthermore, the FA is reflective of the realization of the inseparable nature of India and Naga people, and thereby, to share powers between the two sovereigns. These are important considerations for moving forward and in the development of our institutions or constitution because our tradition, political culture and political system vastly vary. Contrary to some opinion, understanding the differences well will only make it possible to unite and co-exist meaningfully as sovereigns by creating the space for tolerance.

Finally, I am of the view that the FA does not diminish the Constitution of India, rather, it takes forward the vision of India and the Naga people further. It provides a basis for both sides to learn and grow. Most importantly, GoI must understand that a political solution that is truly reflective of the sovereignty of the people will magnify the dignity and political standing of India at the world stage or demean its image by acting contrary to the FA. In terms of image and dignity, it is far more important for India.

The fear is that this unique opportunity for peace may be swallowed by politics that have no vision or morality. In referring to peace, I am also emphasizing restoring its holistic meaning. Peace as a core concept is surrounded with immediate associated concepts like truth, humanity, justice, tolerance, and reconciliation, etc. Further to that, it would include concepts like decolonization to address forms of discrimination, cultural subjugation, and economic domination, etc. Peace is something both India and Naga people deserves and endeavoring for peace is a solemn mission that demands utmost attention and sincerity from those who are at the negotiating table and keeping trust with the people.

For the Naga people, it has been an arduous journey demanding every bit of strength left in us. Our situation has become grimmer, and we are feeling the crushing blow of the consequences. Our struggle has made us strong and resilient, but having to face bitterness and pain as a score of our own doing is a much bitter pill to swallow. But, as it says, “this time may be dark, but all regrowth starts in the darkness of a seed”, we will surely bounce back stronger if we seek wisdom and humility.

We feel broken because there are many who have and are bearing unjust sufferings. These sufferings are undeserved, but we must know that the good still lives – the good is not dead. We must not allow our suffering to be transformed into resentful bitterness, else, there will be no limit to things that we can turn into hell. I am reminded of the Book of Job and I believe that there are many Jobs among the Nagas. We must bring back our focus. To heal, let us be in solidarity, meaning, let us participate in other’s suffering. To heal, let us humble ourselves, as I believe that humility is the means to breakdown the wall of Jericho that we have built around ourselves by our own doings.

The beginning of wisdom is to recognize how complicated it is to get to the land of honey and milk. The enslaved or the oppressed people struggle for their freedom against a tyrannical order, but as they become free, there are many who long to return to their time of oppression. This tells us that ‘freedom is not everything’. The joy of freedom becomes a reality only in ordered freedom as opposed to tyrannical order or unordered freedom.

In seeking wisdom, be it the Churches, Naga Political Groups or social organizations, etc., perhaps, an important area to begin with could be, to deepen our understanding of the gap of leadership in the Naga society. No one possesses the full truth, but at least, history tells us that value-based leadership with strategic thinking succeeds more. A leader who keeps the fire burning that is never consumed and keeps the house warm and enables the participation of all. A leader who thinks about the future of the people collectively and know how to move towards that vision of the future. Essentially, leaders who represent the mobilization and generation of collective vision and rebuild societies based on the values and vision of the people−leadership that understand ordered freedom.

We must nurture the seeds of our great future−the future of our children and humanity. The Naga people have made great achievements because we have great leaders who are always ready to sacrifice.

To move forward, we need a new momentum in our movement so that our spirit and hope is renewed. Let us pray and applaud our leadership so that they remain wise and lead us in humility. Let us cheer and give them strength so that they know that they are our voices.

Indeed, this is a moment of reflection, a moment of renewal, a moment of solidarity, and a moment of celebration for the history that we have made and will continue to make!


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