Indian Catholic News

Naga issue comes alive as Indian state goes to polls

As local parties threaten to boycott the provincial election, the BJP could profit from voters' desire for change.

Officials and representatives of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, which has been demanding a separate state for ethnic Naga people, meet with representatives of similar groups in state capital Kohima on Jan. 30. (Photo by IANS)

The festering wound of Naga self-determination opens every election time in India's northeastern Nagaland state, but during this month's provincial election it could help India's pro-Hindu party earn more seats in the Christian-majority state.

The stage is set for a landmark election as the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) aims to capture power. But over a dozen local parties have threatened to boycott the polls as part of their seven-decade demand for a separate Naga homeland.

Ethnic Naga groups, who represent the dominant population in the state, have launched a strike to protest the federal government's decision to have an election on Feb. 27 before finding a solution to their demand.

"There will be a state-wide strike," said prominent Naga leader Theja Therie.

The strike began on Feb. 1 by blocking roads and closing businesses in state capital Kohima and some pockets, but many groups will join to intensify the strike, Therie told

The Naga demand for an independent state dates back to British rule when they wanted to remain outside the Indian federation as the British finalized terms for making India free in 1947. The Naga people rebelled against being part of India, but the Indian army suppressed the protest and in 1963 Nagaland state was formed to give them some autonomy.

An armed guerrilla rebellion continued in their attempt to form a "Greater Nagalim" or Naga state incorporating Nagaland and parts of Naga-inhabited areas of Myanmar and the Indian states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The decades that followed Nagaland's formation saw violence in an area populated by 17 major tribes and over 20 sub-tribes as at least 10 major groups took up arms purportedly for the common cause. Their struggle for supremacy and rivalry made the issues complex.

With the federal government deploying the army to suppress the insurgency, the bleeding continued until 1997 when New Delhi and some warring groups agreed to a ceasefire to find a solution within the Indian constitution through talks.

Although 89 percent of the state's two million people are Christians, Catholic Church leaders who attempted peace talks admitted failure, saying Naga people put their clan feelings before faith and any other affiliations.

The internecine violence forced the ceasefire to be extended several times. The last one is in force until April 27, 2018. But a solution has been evasive all these years, threatening peace in the state.

Solution after election

With several Naga political groups backing the demand to find a solution before the election, the developments are significant for the BJP, which now controls governments in 19 of 29 Indian states and aims to make ground in the predominantly Christian hub.

Senior BJP leader Ram Madhav maintains that the election should be held to help find a quicker solution to the protracted issue. He believes that a BJP government in the state and in New Delhi will help find a lasting solution to the Naga issue within the Indian federation.

The election looks tougher than usual for the BJP as it has become a multi-corner fight. The Naga People's Front (NPF), Congress party and the newly formed National Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) are in the fray besides the BJP.

A coalition led by the NPF and the BJP runs the state. The NPF has 54 seats in the 60-seat house, while the BJP has only four. Congress and the Progressive Party have no seats at all as all eight Congress members merged with the NPF in 2015.

The BJP is following its usual strategy by encouraging leaders from other parties including rival Congress to defect and join them, but the strategy has not gone down well with ordinary Naga people, who have a mistrust of outsiders.

"Being a Naga, it hurts me to see some of our leaders willing to play second fiddle to a party like the BJP, which does not have a base and acceptability among the Naga," said shopkeeper Moa Temsu in Shillong.

It will be hard for the BJP to get the Christian vote if they "play the Hindu card," said a Christian educationist who did not want to be named.

"The Christian community has been always against Hindu fundamentalists … we are concerned that the BJP will support extremist groups," he said.

Naga to vote for change

A prominent Christian leader in Thahekhu village on the outskirts of Nagaland's busy commercial capital told that people will vote for change. "Regardless of any affiliation, we want change," said Reverend T. Sema.

He said the ruling coalition led by the NPF, and even the Congress party that ruled the state for decades, could not offer any lasting solutions to socioeconomic issues.

The seven northeastern states are isolated from mainland India. Most of their grievances do not become issues affecting mainland politics and social life.

Corruption at local level means poverty is growing in villages, said Mughalu Kiwime, a theology teacher.

"Even towns like Mokokchung cannot develop due to corruption," he said, stressing that the BJP may gain from the desire for change.

Businessman Neingulie Angami said: "People are used to corruption and concerned about it. My gut feeling is that one day this anguish will turn into an outburst against the prevailing system."

Cutting across religion and ethnic affiliation, leaders agree that voters longing for change could vote for the BJP if the party could sell the argument that it would help them cure their wounds by working with the BJP government in New Delhi.

If Naga political outfits continue to boycott the polls and Congress remains inactive, the BJP's run to power will be smoother. Local parties know that better than others.

"Our party will prepare for the elections," said Bishnu Bhattacharjee, an official of the ruling NPF. "We will not repeat the mistake of 1998 when we boycotted the polls and Congress by default came to power," he said.

Progressive Party chief Chingwang Konyak told it could not "allow other parties to take the benefit of the political confusion."

That makes it abundantly clear that despite the threats of a boycott, all major parties will participate in the election, and their fate will be known when results are declared on March 3.

Source: UCAN

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