Friday, November 21, 1997 Published at 07:08 GMT
The forgotten war in Nagaland
Reporting from Nagaland
Few of the world's simmering civil wars have lasted as long as the conflict in Nagaland, in north-eastern India. It's a small but beautiful land of around a million and a half people. For the best part of fifty years, since Naga political leaders declared Nagaland to be independent, saying that as tribal people they had always ruled themselves, there's been an on/off war between militant groups and the Indian security forces. A ceasefire came into effect in August and has just been extended for a further three months. But peace remains elusive, as Mike Wooldridge found out on a visit
The day begins early in Nagaland and the elders of the independence movement were already seated in a circle in the "peace camp" in the capital, Kohima, when I arrived before seven.
Some were in military fatigues, others wrapped in brightly coloured Naga blankets to ward off the freshness at five thousand feet. The welcome though, was embarrassingly warm. Our BBC team were, they said, the first representatives of the international media to meet them in fifty years.
This was one of the wings of the Naga National Council, the body that declared the independence of Nagaland on the 14th August, 1947, only hours before India gained its independence from Britain.
Like so many conflicts of its kind, there are passionate claims of historical wrongdoing and visitors from outside are rare enough to be regaled with every dimension of it. If you are from Britain, you will be asked by some, with great courtesy, to convey to the Queen a request that she should apologise for Britain letting the Nagas down.
But more than that, you will be asked for British aid. An accusation made frequently is that the policy makers in Delhi devote much more attention and funding to crushing militancy than to development in the state.
It is visibly one of the poorer parts of a still overwhelmingly poor country. It is not called the Naga Hills for nothing, and the roads that link isolated villages are relentlessly twisting and often rutted.
Health care, for example is rudimentary outside the towns. Enter the army, seizing the chance during the permanent cease-fire, even though only one militant faction is formally observing it, to step up its "good works" and, it hopes, win over some of those who would see the military only as an oppressive force.
It was, frankly, hard to judge how far this policy was working from the experience I had of dropping into an army medical camp in the village Chakabama. There was an eye tent, one for gynaecological problems, a dentists chair, and so on. There weren't exactly long queues on this first morning; but those who had come to have problems attended to seemed appreciative enough.
The security forces have adopted a lower profile on the streets of Kohima and other towns during the cease-fire. They're fewer in number and deliberately have a more relaxed posture. But it's a deceptive cease-fire, many Nagas feel.
There have been at least 120 killings since it was declared. They have been mainly inter-factional, between two wings of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, IM and Khaplang, and the Khaplang faction appear to have come off worst.
As might be expected, some Nagas see this feuding as neatly serving the Indian Government's interests. It wasn't long before a few discreet enquiries led us to local leaders of the Khaplang faction. Even though they're not party to the cease-fire, no heroics were needed. The meeting was in a wooded area a short taxi ride from Kohima.
Rather more military uniforms around this time, and some serious weaponry. Much crashing through the trees and leaping into crouched firing positions, though this may have been as much to impress as because intrusion was genuinely feared. Some of the nearby villagers do fear the potential repercussions of having the militants all around.
Again, in this small clearing, there was a circle of chairs, and tea, and talk. The Khaplang regional chairman had once been with the Naga National Council, the pioneer group. He'd trained in China in the sixties. Why had he taken up arms? Because, he said, India had 'forcibly' taken Nagaland. Then as an afterthought, the perhaps even less comfortable answer: if we kill someone, he said, we create some news and then we are considered important.
There's so little in the way of recreational facilities in the capital, a
swollen village that spreads itself across a prominent ridge, that office workers and students often choose to take a break in the beautifully tended war cemetery containing the graves of those who died in the battle of Kohima, one of the fiercest battles not just of the Burma War but of the entire Second World War. One soldier scribbled the message that is inscribed as an epitaph on a memorial in the cemetery, with its concluding lines "For your tomorrow we gave our today". But little were that soldier and his comrades to know that Nagaland had not exhausted itself as a place of conflict, and few would care to predict today when it will.