Feb 13, 2003

Nagaland and Sovereignty

According to Sanjay K. Pandey Assistant Professor to the School of International Studies, "Special status" is one of the strategies adopted by federal systems to satisfy the demand of national groups for political and cultural autonomy.
Talking to the media, the NSCN (I-M) leader, T. Muivah, asserted "The question whether Nagaland's sovereignty is negotiable or not doesn't arise. The destiny of Nagas should be left to Nagas themselves. Sovereignty of Nagaland belongs to the people of Nagaland". The statement has created doubts and misgivings in the minds of many people. To grasp the real intent and import of this assertion one has to first examine the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty in simple words is the principle of absolute and unlimited power. It is generally considered an essential attribute of the `state', which distinguishes it from other organisations and groups. The concept arose in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the emerging national monarchies in England, France, Spain and elsewhere were trying to assert their authority over rival claimants, such as the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, and the feudal vassals.

The traditional concept of sovereignty is considered no longer applicable to modern systems of government, which operate according to the principle of checks and balances and distribution of power among a number of institutions, none of which can meaningfully claim to be sovereign. This is particularly evident in the case of federalism - one combining a central government and a number of constituent regional governments each having exclusive jurisdiction over some matters - which is based upon the paradoxical notion of shared sovereignty. But, the concept of sovereignty retains its appeal, especially among groups and regions fighting for self-determination and independence.

However, a distinction should be made between claims of sovereignty and demands for independence. During its last years the former Soviet Union witnessed what has been described as the "Parade of Sovereignties", when 41 constituent units declared themselves to be sovereign states. But only 16 of these actually aspired to independence beyond sovereignty.
Fifteen seceded without war and with relatively little bloodshed while Chechnya is still fighting for independence from Russia. The other units, which are now part of Russian Federation or the other successor states of the dissolved Soviet Union, did not aspire for independence but for more autonomy. What the Nagas led by the NSCN (IM) are demanding is not outright independence, which they seem to have realised is unachievable. Mr. Muivah's statement "A better understanding of the reality of Nagas by Indian Government would enable the Nagas to understand the reality of India ten times more" in fact points to this realisation. What they demand is recognition of their "uniqueness" which they define in terms of their distinct tribal identity, culture, way of life and their faith - Christianity. More than this, they insist "Nagaland was never part of India and that is the uniqueness of our history". Before the coming of the British, the only contact they had with the outside world was in the form of salt trade with Assam.

Though the British brought the Nagas and the other tribal areas in the Northeast under political control, they were declared "excluded areas" and "backward tracts". The British adopted a policy of non-interference in local tribal affairs. The Naga leaders claim that when the Simon Commission came to India in 1927 some Nagas met it and asked that they may be "left alone". They point out that the Nagas under the aegis of the Naga National Council led by Angami Zapu Phizo declared their independence on August 14, 1947, a day before India's independence. This was ratified by a 99 per cent affirmative vote in a referendum held in May 1951, according to them. They believe that these two actions provide firm legal and ethical basis for their claim of separateness. At present, the majority of the Nagas and their leaders realise that outright independence is unachievable. But they still insist on recognition and respect for their uniqueness and honour, for which thousands of Nagas sacrificed their lives.

In fact, the present breakthrough in the talks was achieved only after a Joint Communique was signed by K. Padmanabhiah, representative of the Centre, and Mr. Muviah stating "The Government of India recognises the unique history and situation of Nagas". `Special status' is one of the strategies adopted by federal systems to satisfy the demand of national groups for political and cultural autonomy. It arises when a constituent unit contains a population, which is in a majority in that unit but otherwise a minority in the entire federation. The arrangement is also referred to as "asymmetrical federalism". It is important to remember that the demand for `special status' by national minorities is not just a demand for additional powers but also for national recognition - a symbolic declaration of their "distinct identity" and "uniqueness". These arrangements vary from country to country and each case has some lesson for us.

Canada was perhaps the first modern federation to take recourse to a `special status' arrangement to accommodate the aspirations of the French-speaking majority in Quebec province. To assuage the feelings of the embittered people of the province two attempts were made in 1987 and 1992 to restore some of the privileges and to provide recognition to Quebec's distinct status within the federation. But both the attempts failed because of the strong opposition of the English-speaking majority in the country. Thus the demand for `special status' by some units ( inhabited by national minorities ) in a federation is resisted by people of other units, who either feel discriminated against or are apprehensive that such demands may lead to secession. When this division becomes a platform for political mobilisation and electoral politics the problem gets compounded. Spain was a unitary state till the constitution of 1978 gave `special status' to Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia as a price for holding together the multinational country.

Taking advantage of some provisions in the Constitution, the other units also demanded and got these special powers. But the Catalan leaders who demand special treatment and recognition as nations within a "multinational Spain" have resented this "leveling up" or the "coffee for everyone" approach. In fact they speak of a special "co-sovereignty" status within Spain that they, and not other autonomies (units) would have. The Malaysian system is one of the best illustrations of this approach. Although it has a highly centralised system of government, Malaysia has given the states of Sabah and Sarawak powers that normally fall under the central jurisdiction. These Bornean States have considerably more autonomy than the 11 other States in areas such as taxation (in particular customs and excise), immigration and citizenship, trade transportation and communication, fisheries and several social affairs sectors. The purpose is to protect the distinctive characteristics and interests of the two states.

The Indian Constitution also contains "special provisions" for certain States and regions. Article 371(A) ensures that "religious or social practices of the Nagas", "Naga customary law and procedure" and "ownership and transfer of land and its resources" is protected. There are reports suggesting that the NSCN (IM) leaders want special arrangements for a separate flag, citizenship, defence, trade and currency for their proposed territory. These are symbols of sovereignty and as the above discussion shows symbols play important role in such matters. Hence, some of these demands need serious consideration. Indeed, recognition of the principle of "divided sovereignty" and genuine operationalisation of state (province) level sovereignty will provide ample protection to national minorities' identity and scope for their language and culture to flourish. This will give them the much-needed sense of security.