By Lt General H S Panag
If one was to point out a single factor that gives impetus to an insurgency, it is the violation of human rights. Irrespective of the cause, an insurgency is led by a highly motivated leadership with a small hardcore following. Majority of the population focuses on its well-being, for which peace, and law and order are essential.
The political strategy of the insurgent leadership is to brainwash the population with propaganda and coercion. The propaganda is based on the premise of an exploitative, ruthless, and tyrannical state that crushes a defenceless population under the boots of its security forces. The more this perception is reinforced, the more alienated the population becomes. If the state violates its own laws, it crosses the thin red line and loses the battle of the minds.
The killing of Dr Haralu on July 2, 1956, was one such thing that changed the course of the insurgency in Nagaland. This was classic insurgency, where people belonged to a single ethnic group—divided between Christianity and Animism but united by their historical tribal cultural bonds. The Naga nation had been virtually independent for 52 generations and enjoyed quasi-independence even under the British rule since 1881. A fair amount of arms and ammunition was available from the dumps left behind by the Japanese and British armies during World War 2. External support was available from China (via Burma), East Pakistan, and similar ethnic groups in Burma.
In 1918 came the Naga Club, which told the Simon Commission in 1929: “Leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times.” The Naga National Council (NNC) was formed in 1946 under the mercurial Angami Zapu Phizo, who declared Nagaland as an independent state on August 14, 1947. The NNC conducted a “referendum” in 1951 and claimed that “99%” people supported an “independent” Nagaland, though within the NNC itself there were two opinions. The moderates led by general secretary Theyieu Sakhrie were committed to the larger Naga cause but against an armed struggle, foreseeing its futility against the might of the Indian state. They were for greater autonomy under India to preserve the Naga way of life. The other group, led by Phizo, wanted nothing short of total independence. The people were on the edge but biased towards the moderates.
Phizo formed the underground Naga Federal Government (NFG) and Naga Federal Army (NFA) for armed insurrection on March 22, 1952. The government sent in the Assam Rifles, Assam Armed Police and, hard to believe, a battalion of the UP Armed Constabulary. Over the next four years, civil disobedience and violence increased gradually. The Indian Army began inducting and, by February 1956, it had a brigade that was built up to a division by mid-1956.
In the summer of 1956, Phizo decided to launch the “counter-offensive”, as he called his full-scale insurrection, before the Army could consolidate and control the situation. But before this, in January 1956, he decided to silence the moderate leadership, accusing it of collaborating with India. He started with poet, writer, and NNC ideologue Sakhrie, his mentor and speechwriter.
There was widespread resentment in the Naga nation over his gruesome killing. People started deserting Phizo and cooperating with the government. Phizo went underground and began final preparations for his counter-offensive. The insurgency was at a critical stage. The Naga nation was divided. The stage was set for military operations focusing only on the hostiles, to create conditions for negotiations with the moderates for autonomy under the Constitution.
The Army chief, in his order of the day, laid down the policy: “Remember that all people of the area in which you are operating are fellow Indians… some are misguided and have picked up arms against their own people… you are to protect the mass of the people from these disruptive elements… you are fighting only those who threaten them. Do everything possible to win their confidence and respect, and help them feel that they belong to India.” Even prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru said: “Fire only when fired upon.”
Phizo launched his “counter-offensive” in April 1956 and, in June, laid siege to Kohima. Despite the clear-cut strategy, our army, inexperienced in counter-insurgency warfare, met violence with more violence and made little distinction between friend and the foe. The moderates lost heart but still favoured negotiations.
On July 2, 1956, Doctor Haralu, region’s first doctor, a moderate, and probably the most respected man in the Naga nation, was killed by a patrol of 2 Sikh a few kilometres outside Kohima, where he lived in a cottage and from where he trekked every dawn to Kohima to spend time with his grandchildren, to return at dusk. When warned by relatives, he said: “Who would want to kill a defenceless old man.”
The patrol had suffered some casualties in a night ambush. The men were seething with anger when, at dawn, they saw the frail, shawl-clad figure of Dr Haralu. Without warning, they set upon hitting him with rifle butts. He fainted and they left him for dead. The patrol had hardly moved when the doctor stirred. The patrol returned to pump bullets into him.
Flung over a cliff, the body but was caught in a tree. The macabre scene stunned the Naga nation. The moderates were aghast. “What is the difference between the ruthless Phizo and the Indian Army that did a Sakhrie on a defenceless old man?” Overnight the moderates abandoned talks and went en-mass to Phizo, uniting the Naga nation against India. PM Nehru’s apology in parliament and action against the guilty soldiers was to no avail. Rest, as they say, is history.
Lt General H S Panag
Lt Gen H S Panag was General Officer Commanding in Chief (GOC in C) of Army’s Northern Command and Central Command. After retiring in December 2008, the General served as a Member of the Armed Forces Tribunal with the status of a high court judge till December 2013.