On 14 August 1947, the Naga National Council pressed ahead with its demand for a separate nation, declaring that Nagaland would remain independent and not submit to the Indian constitution. In a plebiscite it organised on 16 May 1951, over 99 percent of the voters upheld full Naga sovereignty. Not a single vote was cast in Nagaland during the first Indian general election of 1952. In September 1954, the NNC president Angami Zapu Phizo formed the Free Naga Government, which wrote to the Indian president affirming that the Nagas had a 1,700-year history as an independent nation. “We do not want anything from India,” the letter said. “Please leave us alone.”
The Indian government initially ignored the declaration of independence, but responded in the face of greater assertion of Naga nationalism by arresting nationalist leaders and raiding their villages. The 1954 letter documented a list of atrocities committed by Indian armed forces, including beatings, torture, rape, killings and the burning of villages and crops. In December 1955, Phizo announced plans to establish an army to defend Nagaland against Indian aggression. A violent insurgency soon ensued.
When the conflict was at its peak, Visier Meyasetsu Sanyu was living with his family of nine in the village of Khonoma. In this extract from his latest book, A Naga Odyssey: My Long Way Home, he narrates how in 1956, when he was five years old, his family fled their village out of fear of the Indian Army and sought refuge in the surrounding jungles, where they would remain in hiding for over two years.
When the Naga Army attacked the Indian garrison at Kohima in June 1956, violence spread very quickly as the Indian Army sent in reinforcements and led a general attack on Naga villages in the region. Many people secretly prepared to leave our village. Over a series of nights people slipped away in family groups—but only members of two khels [clans], Merhüma and Semoma. Before they left, family heirlooms and possessions that could not be carried were secretly buried. This added to their sorrow as precious household and ritual items were abandoned and their survival left to chance. On a night in June 1956, our family of nine—my mother and father, three brothers and three sisters and I—slipped into the darkness. Most members of the third khel, Thevoma, who supported autonomy within India, stayed there under the protection of the Indian Army, but a few joined us. Indeed, some Thevoma joined the village guard set up by the Indian military and fought against their own people. This was a time of great village upheaval, bitterness and division.
My father took his gun—loaded of course—for we were in great fear of discovery. Others carried spears and axes. Most of us lugged baskets brimming with food and essential clothing, and any precious items such as jewellery. My mother took coins loaded in a belt. We all wore our Angami tribal shawls about our shoulders to keep us warm. As I was just five, my eldest brother Perhicha, then in his twenties, carried me wrapped in a Naga shawl slung over his back like a rucksack. We left the village walking past our rice fields in the dark, then we climbed and climbed to put some distance between us and Khonoma. I dozed in my sling, bumping against my brother’s back. A sharp pain caused me to cry out as a nettle bush scraped my legs, causing one of my family to gag my mouth to avoid detection. For all of us it was an emotional time, although being five I had no real sense of what was happening. Yet now that I understand, I become emotional just remembering this leaving of home. Since then, separation from my home has been a constant feature of my life. Even the more knowing and older ones in the family were at the time in the fog of the present, unaware of how long the separation from home might be. As it turned out, our time as nhanumia—jungle folk—lasted over two years, while some families spent many more years in the jungle.