August 15, 2005

Factions fracture Naga dream of freedom from India

By Simon Denyer

KOHIMA, India (Reuters) - Shoukrie says his customers'
complain when he has to hike the prices in his small general
store in the hill town of Kohima, capital of the Indian state
of Nagaland.

But, he explains, he has no choice. Rebel "taxes" are
simply too high. And if it was not bad enough, there are three
factions who each come demanding money.

"We cannot survive like this," says Shoukrie, who like many
in Nagaland goes by one name. "Yes, we still believe in
independence, but that hope is too far away now."

"The situation of Nagaland is becoming a joke. As long as
there are so many factions there is no hope of independence or

Here in the remote northeast of India, rebels from the
Christian hill tribes of Nagaland fought a fierce insurgency
against Indian rule for five decades, until a ceasefire in

But the Indian government and the Nagas, who are the most
powerful of the dozens of rebel groups in the northeast, appear
no closer to a resolution of the conflict, which security
experts say could open the door to peace in the entire region.

Within the Nagas, power struggles and personal rivalries
have split the movement. All three factions are observing the
ceasefire with the government, but not always with each other.

Rebels themselves admit fellow cadres have not always
behaved well, throwing their weight around, behaving as if
their guns made them something special.


It all reinforces the impression many rebel cadres "are not
fighting for the cause of the Nagas, they are fighting for
money," in the words of Lhulie Mayse, a farmer in the small
hill-top village of Khonoma.

Today, only the main faction of the National Socialist
Council of Nagaland is taking part in peace talks with the
Indian government -- so far with little to show for it.

Their patience is wearing thin, and they extended the
ceasefire on July 31 for just six months, instead of a year.
Ordinary Nagas worry the whole process is meaningless without
unity, or could even be dangerous.

"It is no use having peace with just one group," said
Mayse. "One group will smile, the other group will keep

Before the British arrived in these thickly forested hills
the Nagas were headhunters, divided into 32 constantly warring
tribes who still speak different languages.

Christianity brought by American Baptist missionaries
gradually brought headhunting to an end -- although some
villages still keep the skulls of their former enemies. The
church today is a major factor forging a sense of Naga unity in
a Hindu-dominated country.

But those tribal fault lines have not disappeared, and find
expression in the rebel factions. Some ordinary Nagas fear
fratricidal conflict is not far away, especially if one group
of tribes feels excluded from any peace accord.

"Reconciliation between Nagas is the only way to reduce
this problem to a manageable size," said one Naga intellectual,
who declined to be named because of rebel threats in the past.
"The effort has to be born here."