By Stuti Srivastava
Image: Members of Naga Mother’s Association in Dimapur. Photographs: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
India’s northeast – comprising eight small states is a geographically and culturally diverse region, unfortunately reduced to the essentialist ‘Northeast’ that fails to encapsulate the plethora of cultures, practices, social groups and subgroups that inhabit it. Much like Kashmir, the Northeast is also plagued by issues of post-colonial occupation, and identity-based nationalism, with the added issues of inter-community violence. Peace is disturbed heavily by the military, but also almost equally by armed militant groups.
A Brief History of the Conflict in Nagaland
The conflict in Nagaland has lasted even longer than the one in Kashmir. It stemmed from the British occupation of the area in the 1800s, the introduction of western modules of civilization and Christian culture that sought to erase Naga identity and practices, which in turn divided people along communal lines, and the subsequent partition of the region into Myanmar (then, Burma) and Indian Nagaland – a hasty drawing of boundaries that divided clans and communities along state lines and pushed them into unwanted nationhood.
The Naga demand is complicated – the ‘Nagas’ are not a singular people, there are several tribes that come under the term, and all have varying social practices and structures, and resultantly different political aspirations. However, the demand for autonomy, self-determination, and subsequent secession remains central to the Naga struggle.
After being made part of Assam, the people’s struggle in Nagaland became increasingly violent. Rebel groups grew in number, and by the 1970s, Nagaland became increasingly militarized. By the 1990s, inter-community conflicts between the Nagas and the Kukis of Nagaland and Manipur also began. During all this, large scale violence was being inflicted on women and their bodies by both state and non-state actors.
Traditionally, the Naga society has been relatively more egalitarian, in comparison to the Indian mainland – with no visible hierarchical structures and considerable autonomy for women (at least in matters of divorce, marriage and economic activities involved in shifting cultivation practiced by the tribes.) However, the integration of the region with India, and previous colonial interventions caused the infiltration of Hinduist social hierarchies and gender patterns into the Naga social structure. However, the semblance of equality for women in ritual spheres does not extend to economic and political spheres. Women are rarely able to access public space freely, and having a real political voice is still a distant dream.
It is in this gendered backdrop that the women in Nagaland have taken up a role in peacemaking processes in the conflict. Though Naga women had a traditional role as peacemakers, often acting as intermediaries and mediators between warring tribes, they would only transport messages of decisions taken by male leaders. In this background, taking a feminist stand vouching peace, justice and cooperation by occupying public space in a variety of ways has been a revolutionary act for Naga women.
Motherhood and Mobilization
From the beginning of the violence, women have been at the forefront of peace processes. They have put their bodies at stake, often acting as ‘human shields’ during clashes between the state’s forces and Naga communities. They have kept overnight vigils trying to prevent violence and asking armed forces to withdraw (Haksar, 2009). Women have led movements against sexual violence and torture imposed on women during conflict related violence, and mobilized within communities to stop children from becoming insurgents.
The strength of Naga women lies in the variety of ways they have organized themselves, for varying causes, at ground levels, engaging in community problems, and all united by the common goal that locates sustainable peace in justice, community building, human development and the destruction of patriarchal systems.
Naga women’s mobilization has changed drastically over the years – going from a grassroots movement under the politics of motherhood to a political movement with now growing structural power. The NMA (Naga Mother’s Association) started in 1984 as a small movement that sought to provide a common platform to address women’s grievances, especially problems affecting the family such as drug abuse, domestic violence, and the spread of STDs. However, it quickly moved beyond these issues and became an important organization of women promoting reconciliation and advocating against violent conflict.
Perhaps the most notable campaign of the NMA has been the ‘Shed No More Blood’ program of 1994, in which it created a ‘Peace Team’ stressing that a ‘people to people’ dialogue is necessary for a solution to the conflict (Sandham, 2002). These peace teams acted as mediators between people, organized rallies against the AFSPA (the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in India that gives the military increased authority to inflict violence on protesters in militarized areas including Kashmir and the Northeast) and military violence, and encouraged dialogue between Naga leaders and the Indian state. In 1999, four representatives of NMA and the NWU (Naga Women’s Union) enabled indirect talks between the top leadership of the warring factions. They trekked across the Myanmar border to the camp headquarters of the rival group and emerged as trusted interlocutors between the top leaders (Manchanda and Kakran, 2017).
The NMA’s mobilization is rooted in motherhood. It recognizes women as mothers and espouses a caretaking role in politics. Their preamble reads, ‘‘Naga mothers of Nagaland shall express the need of conscientizing citizens towards more responsible living and human developments through the voluntary organizations of the Naga Mothers Associations.” (Quoted in Banerjee, 2007) One of the founders of the NMA, Neidonou Angami, says about formal politics, “We (women) have our role to play as mothers, and they (men) have theirs.” (in Manchanda, 2005) This mobilisation, rooted in familial bonds, is often a deterrent to more radical, feminist resistance, but it is also this mobilisation that has accorded it considerable voice and reaped political results, since by calling upon a traditionally feminine role, they have gained societal approval.
It is not only the NMA that has engaged in more socially accepted politics to further their cause. Many women’s groups, for example, hold meetings in churches, where gatherings aren’t questioned, and women are easily able to uphold legitimacy in occupying this space.
But what the NMA has not been very successful in doing – bringing change in gender structures, has become the main realm of its sister organization, the NWU. The NWU has rallied for rights of divorce, marriage, property, succession and against tribal courts. It has been involved in the quest for reservation of seats for women in the Naga Legislative Assembly, and works collaboratively with the NMA and other groups against human rights violations by the military, and campaigns relating to sex education, gender sensitization, drug abuse and peace processes as well.
Over the years, the NMA has also rethought its rigid stance on political participation. It has become a body led by women who are recasting Naga women’s agency in a more assertive rights–based politics. These gendered shifts reflect the changing social dynamics of Naga society as it negotiates a realignment of status, authority and power relations in the long ceasefire and cold peace (Manchanda and Kakran, 2017). The ceasefire has in fact, been especially important since the negotiated peace has allowed women more agency in accessing public life and for women groups in combining security politics with development.
Naga women’s politics has been rooted in indigenous cultures, and has succeeded in helping women carve out a political identity in a patriarchal backdrop. By mobilizing around issues of micro-politics, a space has been created that values women’s intervention in peace and development. In such context, it is necessary for Nagaland to recognize women’s agency and ability in not only negotiating, but creating peace. Feminist peace policy through active engagement with women’s groups in Nagaland is the way toward creating sustainable peace in Nagaland and solving the Naga conflict.
1. Manchanda R, Kakran S. Gendered power transformations in India’s Northeast: Peace politics in Nagaland. Cultural Dynamics. 2017;29(1-2):63-82. doi:10.1177/0921374017709232
2. Haksar N (2009) Machiavelli’s ceasefire and the Indo-Naga peace process. Mainstream Weekly 47(16). Available at: http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article1276.html
3. Sandham, O J (2002): 'Naga Women on Peace Mission', httpy/www.manipuronline.com.Features/March 2oo2/nagamissiono7_2.h
4. Banerjee, Paula. 2007. ‘Between two armed Patriarchies: Women in Assam and Nagaland,’ in Rita Manchanda, (Ed.)., Women, War and Peace in South Asia: Beyond Victimhood to Agency, New Delhi: Sage Publications, pp. 132-176.
5. Manchanda, Rita. 2005. “Naga Women Making a Difference: Peace Building in Northeastern India.” Institute for Inclusive Security.