Thinking Through Naga Identity in the Past and Present



The British as well as the Indian colonial ambitions have been to subjugate and assimilate Naga lifeworlds, forcing several cultural, linguistic, and social forms of Indigenous knowledge into precarity. Richard Kamei outlines a brief history of the ongoing struggle for Naga sovereignty, questioning also the “civilizing mission,” which legitimizes an active stealing of the community’s land, life, and resources. 

A village spread out among a mountain, with other mountain ranges and a blue sky behind.
The village of Khonoma village, birthplace of Angami Zapu Phizo. Photo by Richard Kamei (December 2016).

Nagas inhabit two countries: in India, across the present states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, and in Myanmar, the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing state and Kachin state. They comprise forty to sixty different Indigenous communities, and pride themselves in leading one of the longest-running movements for sovereignty in South Asia and South-East Asia. In the past, they demanded freedom from British rule, a struggle whose form in the present continues to be informed by the ideals of Naga nationalism, as proposed and led by Angami Zapu Phizo. The movement centers around their identity and nation, strengthening their assertion as independent people.  

Akin to Indigenous communities across the world, the Nagas also derive the commonalities of their identity in shared ancestors, origin, culture, and relationships with nature. They  continue to attach their belongingness to their lands, as well as the rituals and ceremonies taking place on it. They are non-literate communities that pass down their stories and knowledge through oral traditions across generations until today, sustaining their cultural customs and lifeworlds. The existence of morung (dormitories) serves as a school of life where life skills and responsibilities towards community are imparted. However, all such shared practices have been negatively connotated through the lens of ethnocentrism and saviorism. They have been seen as illiterate and inferior in the British colonial period, in the “post-colonial” period, and even in contemporary writings about the Nagas. The stereotypes constructed are still repeated in academic writings today, where they are essentialized and are being described as lacking any agency.

These negative portrayals and transformations of their lifeworlds have their roots in the early 19th century. The year 1832 marked the start of the colonial encounter with the Nagas, which upon first contact later led to the construction of a road connecting Silchar to Imphal, where several of them were coerced into contributing labor. Due to the expansion of their colonial rule in the region, the British faced hostility in the form of raids. They responded by sending out several military expeditions to where the communities lived, resulting in a series of horrific crimes against the Nagas, from the burning of their villages and granaries to the murder of several men, women, and children. With each expedition, there was Indigenous resistance against the British. These expeditions were also conducted to send a message that there would be punishments for the raids. As the Nagas were further exposed to colonial intervention and subjugation, they were also exposed to new diseases, including venereal diseases, smallpox, and cholera.

As part of their colonial rule, the British also introduced and expanded tea plantations, bringing people who constituted the labor force from outside the northeast region. The introduction of tea plantations aligns with the expansionist policy of the colonial empire wherein the villages of Nagas were conquered and controlled. The expansion of these plantations intruded onto Naga lands, especially areas that were used for shifting cultivation. The Nagas retaliated by raiding a tea plantation with violence, an action that was followed by the British introducing the Inner Line Permit as part of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, in order to protect the interests of their empire. This permit system continues until now, but with a different purpose—an indication of the many legacies of British colonialism which have been carried forward into the unequal configuration between India and the Nagas.

The 1879–80 Anglo-Naga war between the Angamis and the British is considered one of the last resistances in Naga history. After the Nagas suffered a defeat, Kohima became the permanent headquarters of the British. This led to the spread of colonialism through the Indigenous lands, along with the imposition of Christianity, for which Christian missionaries attempted to supplant the local religion and culture. These two forces worked together to alter the Naga way of life. 

The Naga participation in World War I, as part of the labor corps, is seen today as a critical point in Naga nationalism. It is written that those who participated in the labor corps, along with some others working for the colonial state, had formed the Naga Club that is known for charting the Naga political future. Its memorandum to the Simon Commission, conceived to reform colonial India in 1929, was perceived as the first written expression of self-determination in Naga history. They claimed that the Nagas were independent until the British ruled them. They lamented that they wanted to live as an independent nation and saw no viability in integration with “the plains,” a reference to India.

They drew attention to their distinct cultures in language, social life, and food practices, and highlighted how the imposition of new and heavy taxes would ultimately steal from them the land they had inherited from their ancestors.

They appealed to the Simon Commission that their country “should not be thrust to the mercy of other people, who could never be subjected; but to leave us alone to determine ourselves as in ancient times.” The distinction drawn here is extremely relevant to the politics around food, language, and social customs in the present. 

Kamei Funambulist 1
Morungs (dormitaries) built for the annual hornbill festival in Kisama in Nagaland. Photo by Richard Kamei (December 2016).

Today, the Naga society is more exposed to mainstream societies in India, leading to various encounters with their food culture, among others. In recent years, dog meat consumption has been brought to the fore as an “issue,” especially among animal rights activists, who have taken Naga culture and framed it through colonial stereotypes. To the Nagas, this treatment from mainstream societies of India is no different than what they experienced with the previous colonizers. Both uphold the notion that the Nagas are uncivilized and lack any human decency. This same group of people are clear on their stance on the recent beef ban in India, yet when it comes to dog meat consumption among the Nagas, their true vitriol is revealed.

This stance was similarly taken by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who reveled in saviorism when it came to tribal communities. After all, he pioneered their integration into the national narrative by symbolically including their cultures. Yet when it comes to their agency and self-determination, his position reveals a stake in maintaining the intergenerational trauma afflicted upon the Nagas. After the end of World War II, Naga nationalism gained momentum with the Naga National Council (NNC), built upon the path laid down by the Naga Club, to carry forward their struggle for nationhood. After the British left the region in 1947, the Naga-inhabited areas came under Indian state sovereignty. The NNC spearheaded the call for the sovereignty of Nagaland, consolidating the Naga identity with this demand. The major event that rocked the region around that time was the plebiscite held by the Naga nationalists in 1951.

Under Angami Zapu Phizo, the NNC is considered to be the architect of Naga nationalism, pronouncing the need for a sovereign Naga nation through a plebiscite, which received 99 percent of votes in favor of their demands. Until today, this event has been referred to as a key turning point in the ongoing Naga political journey.

In response to the resolute Naga assertion, Nehru was adamant in his stance that they must not be left to themselves and that under no conditions would freedom be granted to them. He incited military intervention against Naga nationalists during the 1950s. In 1958, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was implemented in the Naga Hills, which continues to enable militarist violence and killings of the locals without any repercussions for the soldiers. Naga nationalists, as part of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), decided to enter into a peace dialog with the Government of India in 1997. In 2022, this dialog marks its 25th year, yet it is still searching for a solution. While the Narendra Modi government had signed a framework agreement with Naga nationalists in 2015, it has remained in a deadlock ever since because of the demand for a separate Naga flag and Naga Constitution. 

Today, the identity of the community is still shaped by its experiences of colonialism and the violent incursions into its hills.

In response to the emergence of the nation-state in India during the late 1940s, Nagas asserted their identity to support their claim for independence. Around the same time, Christianity was taken up as a shared identity among Nagas, particularly because it was already widespread as a faith due to U.S. missionaries. A significant aspect of integrating Christianity into Naga identity is seen as a strategy in response to the dominant culture—Hindu culture, or to be specific, the Indian state. This rendered specific political meaning to Naga identity, making it difficult to assimilate or be devoured by the dominant fold. 

Kamei Funambulist 3
Naga men in traditional costumes and tourists during the festival in Kisama. Photo by Richard Kamei (December 2016).

The Nagas are now at an unprecedented stage in their fight for self-determination. While Article 371A (Nagaland), Article 371C (Manipur), Inner Line Permit, and the ongoing Naga peace talks may offer their versions of hope, the Nagas still cling to their identity for it holds the possibilities for a future that is not uprooted from their past, for it upholds their intimate relationship with their land. Their condition suggests that they are a nation (scattered across modern nation-states) with several units of villages and systems that bind people together. This feeling of commonality is their echo reverberating all over their hills. Are you listening? ■