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India, the Nagas and the north-east

1 November 1980

What is India? Who is an Indian? If for the present the answers seem to be self-evident they were by no means that for the half century that preceded the emergence of independent India in 1947. The imperial overlay on the South Asian sub-continent gave it a dimension of unity that made it one from the Khyber Pass to the Salween River, and by the mid-decade of the twentieth century, the vocabulary and perceptions of the independence movement had created a concept of Indian national identity feeling itself to be coterminous with the limits of British rule. But for many this new nationalism belied the realities, as seen by Straqhey at the turn of the century in the now-familiar passage: ‘There is not, and never was, an India, or even any country of India, possessing- according to European ideas – any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious: no “Indian nation”, no “people of India” .’

These others challenged the assumptions of nationality and nationhood that the Congress Party came to take for granted, and, as the prospect of the departure of the British became real and then near, so the question of who should be left an Indian, subject to the rule of a government reflecting the native majority, became sharper. Under the leadership of Jinnah the mass of the Muslims of the sub-continent opted out of India, electing for a new nationality, that of Pakistan. Smaller groups raised the same claim as the Muslims, seeking to reject the accident of history that would make them subjects still of a government in Delhi after the British left: some Sikhs called for an independent Sikhistan; in the south, the Justice Party had long been urging the establishment of a separate Dravidian state when the British quit; the idea of a sovereign and united Bengal had been mooted in Calcutta. None of those ideas germinated then, and the India that came into existence upon the departure of the British was shaped by only one partition which created Pakistan.

But one even smaller group whose political leadership had not only claimed the right to independence from India on the departure of the British but had also attempted to make its own unilateral declaration of independence, has even now not been reconciled to inclusion in India; and in consequence the Indian Army is, as it has been on and off for not far short of twenty years, engaged in another draconian attempt to crush the resistance of the people concerned, the Nagas.

Please note that the terminology in the fields of minority rights and indigenous peoples’ rights has changed over time. MRG strives to reflect these changes as well as respect the right to self-identification on the part of minorities and indigenous peoples. At the same time, after over 50 years’ work, we know that our archive is of considerable interest to activists and researchers. Therefore, we make available as much of our back catalogue as possible, while being aware that the language used may not reflect current thinking on these issues.

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Neville Maxwell