The Common Good
February 2005

By the Barrel of the Gun

by David M. Jamir | February 2005

Little progress has been made toward human rights in northern India.

From my comfortable home in Illinois,

From my comfortable home in Illinois, I watched in horror as terrorism struck my homeland. I could not resist saying to my wife, "Wow! Nagaland is on the news." On Oct. 2, 2004, two bombs exploded simultaneously in the Dimapur train station and in a local market. Twenty-eight people were killed and 100 were injured. It is unclear who was responsible for this tragedy, but unfortunately in northeast India there are too many possibilities.

Since 1952, this region, made up of seven states and home to 38 million people, has birthed "at least 15 major insurgent groups and 40 other smaller groups," according to G. Vinayak in his article "Insurgency is the biggest business in the northeast." "Except [for] the Naga insurgency," claims Vinayak, "most of the outfits in the northeast have been born out of neglect heaped...by New Delhi on these distant states since Independence." All seek separate homelands from India. Both the Indian military and the underground fighters have committed egregious human rights violations. In the eyes of the people, both are equally dangerous, fostering fear as a tactic of conflict. Very few people are willing to express their opinions for fear of reprisals. The various militant groups pressure the population to embrace their particular version of a settlement with India in the name of "unity." Yet, unity cannot be forced on a deeply divided and traumatized people.

The conflict in Nagaland, home to 3 to 4 million indigenous people, is the longest in the region. The American Baptists in the 1870s converted Nagas to Christianity, and today the vast majority is Baptist. Christianity gave the disparate Naga tribes a common identity, setting them apart from the India’s Hindu majority. Even prior to British departure, the Nagas petitioned for independence. "Nagas have every right to be independent," said Mohandas Gandhi, father of the Indian independence movement. "If [Nagas] do not wish to join the Union of India, nobody will force [them] to do that."

Nevertheless, against its will Nagaland was incorporated into the newly formed Indian nation. In response, the Nagas unilaterally declared their independence in 1947, one day before India gained its independence. The Indian military was sent to occupy the territory and repress the fight for freedom. To this day the military has the right to shoot and kill any civilian. Over the decades, the Indian military has razed villages, corralled villagers into camps, and killed countless innocent civilians.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the Naga National Council sought to negotiate independence with successive prime ministers. Instead, the Indian government granted Nagaland statehood. The central government provides 100 percent of the Nagaland state budget, using the funds like an umbilical cord to tie Nagas economically to India.

THE PROTRACTED conflict has spawned several armed factions that fight against the Indian military and each other while demanding payments from the Naga population. Currently, there are three Naga "governments-in-exile," each with its own vision of freedom.

In 1997 the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America initiated a process of conflict transformation between the underground factions and with the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights. More recently one of the factions has been active in the United States, especially among conservative Christians, presenting the Naga cause as one of religious persecution by India’s Hindu majority.

Nagaland’s protracted conflict has led to ongoing chaos and a lack of civil order. Fear permeates our society. Children of the same womb now demonize one another and practice retributive justice. There are no simple answers to these conflicts, but there is a crying need for reconciliation. No one can rule by the barrel of the gun.

David M. Jamir, a native of Nagaland, is associate pastor of Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Illinois.

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