Decolonization And Its Discontents: Naga Claims-Making And Indian State-Making – Analysis


On 19 November, as part of its Alumni Lecture Series, IPCS hosted Dr Lydia Walker, Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, of the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies, for a talk on Decolonisation and its Discontents: Naga Claims-Making and Indian State-Making. This is a summary report of the discussion.

Narratives of Indian nationalism often over-shadow the existence of alternate, and often competing, nationalist claims that arose within the subcontinent in the postcolonial era. A case-in-point is that of Nagaland in Northeast India. Naga nationalists engaged extensively in nationalist claims-making during the second half of the 20th century. The nationalist claims of this state-in-waiting can betraced through three lenses:

1.     Construction of nationalist claims through narrative-making

2.     The transnational advocacy of these claims

3.     Critical geopolitics surrounding said claims.

Nationalist claims-making

Naga narrative-making helps us understand their nationalist claim and how they envisioned themselves and their role in the world.

The Naga nationalist narrative of the British empire was distinct from the dominant Indian nationalist narrative. For instance, in the latter, the Simon Commission is portrayed as an illegitimate tool of continued British rule. However, Naga memories about the Commission revolve around a memorandum that the Naga Club presented to it, expressing their desire for self-determination. This underlines how the British empire played different roles, and continues to invoke a different set of memories, across the subcontinent, which cannot be explained by a monolithic Indian nationalist narrative.

Naga nationalism interacted with and reacted to large international political events, such as World War II, when the Japanese invaded the Naga hills, culminating in the Battle of Kohima in 1944. In Naga memory, this invasion thrust Nagaland into a global arena. The war and its memory continue to symbolise Nagaland’s links to an international sphere.

Religion also played a central role in Naga identity-formation as distinct from that of the Indian Union. Today, Nagaland is 75 per cent Baptist and 90 per cent Christian. This is important on two levels. Christianity demarcated the Naga region as distinct from the rest of India in terms of religion, as opposed to Hinduism and Islam, but also as a marker of Nagaland being a civilised, westernised region. It served as an international connection the Nagas held to the modern, western world – a connection that did not pass through New Delhi.

Trans-national advocacy

The search for legitimising their nationalist claim led the Naga nationalist leader, Angami Zapu Phizo, westward. 1960 witnessed the opening up of nationalist possibilities across the world, with seventeen newly independent countries taking their seat at the UN. Phizo wanted to insert Nagaland into this international discourse over decolonisation. Given the state-centric nature of the UN, the only path to do so was through transnational advocates. Phizo, thus, reached out to Reverend Michael Scott, who had been a spokesperson for the Hereros of Namibia/South West Africa at the UN for nearly two decades.

Scott brought Phizo to London from Zürich in 1960, where he was able to present the Naga cause to an international audience. Scott and his colleagues worked on a host international hot button issues, and in 1963 attempted to march from New Delhi to Peking. This failed because both the Indian and Chinese governments were wary of the political stances of the leaders of the march, Scott and Jayaprakash Narayan.

In 1964, the Naga Baptist Church Council invited Jayaprakash Narayan and Michael Scott to Nagaland to broker a peace agreement with the Indian government. The mission came to an end with the deportation of Scott, but it explored alternative political formations to accommodate the Naga-Indian relationship, such as the status of princely states in India or protectorates in British southern Africa. However, the failure of the peace mission brought with it the realisation that these empire-centric formations were no longer possible under an independent Indian union.

Critical Geopolitics

Central to Naga identity was also the question of where Nagaland really is. This refers to the geopolitical power dynamics that forged Nagaland’s position in the Indian subcontinent and the world.

From the mainland Indian perspective, Nagaland is in India’s Northeast – a peripheral frontier connected to the mainland by a thin bit of land. It oscillates between being forgotten or being fetishised through depictions of primordial, tribal communities. It is, thus, removed from mainstream India.

It can also be described as part of a “Zomia,” a term historian and anthropologist Willem van Schendel used to describe the region of upland Southeast Asia, which has been expanded to stretch from Tibet to Thailand. The term is meant to encapsulate the region as an ungovernable, anti-state space characterised by low-level peasant resistance against statist constructions.  

However, in a Naga political imagination, Nagaland is not a forgotten frontier. It is the junction of China, Burma, and India; a critical theater of World War II. This Naga nationalist geopolitics is also cartographically articulated in hand-drawn Naga nationalist maps from 1960. It is portrayed not as anirrelevant boundary, but as a central determinant of the parameters of all three states. In this set of memories, Nagaland is, therefore, not marginal but central, and a key player in the geopolitics of the region.

Rapporteured by Shivangi Seth, Research Intern, IPCS


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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