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politics of region Arrow vol 6 no 3 contents
About borderlands VOLUME 6 NUMBER 3, 2007


Politics of Region: The Making of Nagas Identity During the
Colonial and Post-Colonial Era

Kekhriesituo Yhome
University of Hyderabad   


This paper is an attempt to problematize the concept of 'region' so as to analyze the politics of the Nagas (inhabiting the border or frontier of India and Myanmar/Burma nation-states) in the first half of the twentieth century. The ideas of 'region' and 'margin' are used as conceptual tools in this paper to analyze the complex nature of the politics of identity. The paper argues in particular that the 'production' of region - in this case that of the modern state - involves space and power, but that the margins of constructed regions have powers to resist and defy the hegemonic powers of the state, both ideological and institutional. The making of identity, this paper contends, is thus the making of place and the politics of identity is also the politics of space. The first section of the paper deals with the problemalization of the concept of 'region' and 'margin'. 'Region' is defined there as a particular way of partitioning space and the control and exercise of power over it, while 'margin' is conceptualized as a space of contradiction and contestation. The second section illustrates how colonial rulers constructed frontiers (or, for this paper, 'margins') from the blank-spaces in Imperial maps in the nineteenth century as part of the development of the modern politico-spatial arrangement. The last section explores how the Nagas, located in the 'margin' of constructed 'regions', contested and resisted this identity in the first half of the twentieth century.


There is a politics of space because space is political.

— Henri Lefebvre  

Power is everywhere not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere.

— Michel Foucault 


1. This paper is an attempt to problematize the concept of 'region' and analyze the politics of the Nagas (inhabiting the border or frontier of India and Myanmar/Burma [1] nation-states) in the first half of the twentieth century, arguing that the making of the Nagas identity can be understood as an attempt on the part of the Nagas to regionalize this space. More generally, the paper is about the history of colonial construction of boundaries and frontiers in the modern politico-spatial arrangement, and specifically about the production of the Nagas 'homeland' and resistance of the Nagas to colonial and post-colonial rule. The significance of the paper lies in the attempt to explore why and how the history of the Nagas in the twentieth century reflects a history of resistance, insofar as the Naga political struggle, emerged in the early twentieth century, is the first 'insurgent' movement in India and has been one of the protracted political struggles in South Asia [2].

2. Overall then this paper argues that the 'margins' of a region are able to contest not only dominant 'spatial arrangements' (that pushed them into the marginal position); but 'spatial ideologies' (that imposed a certain identity and history); and 'spatial practices' (that dominate them in everyday life). Divided into three main sections, the first section of this paper seeks to clarify the concepts and functions of 'region' and 'margin' with reference to the modern conception of the nation-state. The second section explores the colonial construction of the frontier from the 'blank space' [3] in maps during the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Here, the paper argues that colonial rulers regionalized these blank spaces for their own geo-politics and economic interests. Primarily though, this paper focuses on the margins, the end of one region and the beginning of the other. It attempts to map how these regions are constructed and why and how the margins of a region are able to contest the modern politico-spatial arrangement. Hence, the final part of the paper examines how and why the Nagas, located in the margins, were able to resist the modern forms of spatial and political powers. In the modern politico-spatial order this space has become the border of two 'regions'. Specifically, it lies between Southeast and South Asia, also demarcating two nation-states, Myanmar/Burma in the east and India in the west. This section thus analyzes the discourse of Naga politics to illustrate how this margin has not only resisted the imposition of the dominant colonial and post-colonial spatial and political structures of power, but attempted to regionalize its own position.

Re-conceptualizing 'Region' and 'Margin'   

3. As specified above, the ideas of 'region' and 'margin' are used here as conceptual tools to analyze the complex nature of the politics of Nagas identity. Drawing on Michel Foucault's and Henri Lefebvre's interpretations of the relation between 'power' and 'space', this paper attempts to re-conceptualize 'region'. Henri Lefebvre (1998: 280-281), for example, argues that 'every state is born of violence and that state power endures only by virtue of violence directed towards a space ... Indeed each new form of state, each new form of political power, introduces its own particular way of partitioning space, its particular administrative classification of discourses about space and about things and people in space'. Lefebvre's observation of the relationship between space and power is thus the key to understand the politics of 'region'. In his turn, Michel Foucault (1980: 69) defines 'region' as a 'politico-strategic term'. It is, Foucault argues, 'an indication of how the military and the administration actually come to inscribe themselves both on a material soil and within forms of discourse'. These observations indicate that there is an inherent connection between space and power.

4. A chessboard can be used as an analogy to explain these relations of space and power metaphorically insofar as there is certainly a spatial notion of power embedded in the chessboard. Each player exercises his or her power according to the given spatial rules, and power is hierarchically distributed to each player. Importantly, this power is visible only through the spatial rule of the game, and can be exercised only in the spatially divided boxes and the color of the space/box. The chessboard, thus, clearly reflects the relationship between space and power. More generally it shows that the conceptualization of power may not be possible without simultaneously conceptualizing space.

5. These insights from both Foucault and Lefebvre suggest that the 'production' of region involves space and power. They also suggest that regions - which can range from a large continent, to a nation-state, a specific area within a nation-state, a frontier of a nation-state, a city, a town, a ward, a school, an office, a religious institution, a hospital and so on - are not something to be understood as given. Rather they are produced by the interplay of power and space. Further, they are produced in history, with an ontology subjected to historical conditions and contingencies. 'Region', in other words, can be defined as a particular way of partitioning space and the control and exercise of power over it. To regionalize a space therefore involves political interests of accessing, governing, controlling and monitoring certain spaces or an area of land on the surface of the earth. This definition, furthermore, demands that there is a political agent/actor who regionalizes a space, who can be labeled as a 'regionalist'. In turn, a regionalist can be any organized political group or institution with an interest to control certain spaces, insofar as the ideology of the regionalist is to control spaces and the things and people in that space. Some forms of regionalist ideologies that we can discern in the modern era are imperialism, nationalism, ethnic movements, the conception and development of the modern state, civilization, developmentalism, and so on [4].

6. To this end, regionalist ideologies may range from political liberation/domination, economic improvement/advancement, and cultural emancipation/imposition. In reality, however, these projects are attempts to control or govern a particular space, things and people. For the last half a century, however, the modern state has come to establish itself as the most organized spatial and political power. Therefore, it is pertinent to focus on the modern state and examine its construction and contradiction in power relations over space. Consequently, in accordance with this focus, political projects such as national and ethnic movements; economic projects such as development and industrialization; and socio-cultural projects such as education, language, 'race', religion and so on may well be maneuvered to gain solidarity, loyalty and belongingness for one interest group to control certain spaces.  

7. At the same time, to see region as a politically constructed space also makes one think about the 'margins' that divide the regions. More specifically, the margins of a region are on the fringe of the dominant political power and at the edge of the spatial arrangement. 'Margin' is thus, conceptualized as a space of contradiction and contestation, a point that I will stress with reference to some of the recent debates on the contemporary nation-state that have primarily come about as a result of 'globalization'. For example, several scholars [5] have recently been critically engaged with the issues of globalization effects and one of their main themes has been the 'crisis' of the 'nation-state' in the contemporary era of globalization. Arjun Appadurai (2003: 338), for instance, argues that 'the isomorphism of people, territory, and legitimate sovereignty that constitutes the normative charter of the modern nation-state is under threat from the forms of circulation of people characteristic of the contemporary world'. He further points out that: 'As fissures emerge among the local, translocal, and national space, territory as the ground of loyalty and national effect (what we should mean when we speak of national "soil") is increasingly divorced from territory as the site of sovereignty and the state control of civil society. The problem of jurisdiction and the problem of loyalty are increasingly disjunct' (340).  

8. Despite this analysis, the phenomena that these studies consider - those of crisis, contestation, disjuncture, and so forth - are not perhaps applicable to the margins of the modern nation-state. That is, the complex problematic of the contradictions pointed out by these studies is perhaps inherently present in marginalized spaces right from the inception of modern nation-state. In the margins of the modern nation-state, 'loyalty' to the 'national effect' and the 'state control of the civil society' were constantly put to question. One may say that 'national effect' and 'state control' were always fragile in the margins. The 'disjunction' was never absent in the margins, and the 'isomorphism' was never present that can be disjuncted in the face of globalization. In the margins, then, questions of 'nationhood', 'identity', 'citizenship', 'legitimacy' and 'loyalty' were always contested and blurred. Nonetheless, although this 'crisis' is not a new phenomenon in the margins, it has perhaps, become part of the main agenda of these scholars because it strikes and threatens the core of the existing regions. Appadurai, for instance, argues that:

These disjunctions in the links among space, place, citizenship, and nationhood have several far-reaching implications. One of these is that territory or territoriality are increasingly the critical rationale of state legitimacy and state power, while ideas of nation seem increasingly driven by other discourses of loyalty and affiliation - sometime linguistic, sometime racial, sometime religious but very rarely territorial (2003: 341).

It is true that territorial sovereignty has always been the defining character of modern nation-state and is currently assumed to be eroding with the effects of globalization. This paper, however, argues that the territorial sovereignty that authorizes state legitimacy and state power within the given boundaries was always contested and challenged in the margins.

9. One central argument on the nature of the margin concerns its location. Emphasizing the role of space/place, Massey et al (1999: 171) argue that '[t]o say that a form of power rests in a particular institution, for example, says little about how space - the space of nations, of borders, for instance - makes a difference to and interrupt the operation of that institution's power and influence'. This observation suggests the importance of spatializing power and how the nature of space/place determines the nature of power/politics. In other words, I would suggest that although the margin is in the periphery of power and seems 'powerless', it is not outside the spatial power relation. Imagine, for instance, the margin as the line that divides the colored boxes of a chessboard. Paradoxically, the margin is not powerless in the power relation; it has the power to resist, defy, challenge, confront and subvert. This nature of the margin is not because the power of the core is weak. Rather, it involves the nature of the space and politics of location. Contrary to the conventional notion of the state-centered view of power, this paper emphasizes that the margins also invest certain power simply for being in the margin. Michel Foucault similarly reminds us of the impossibility of powerlessness and the importance of 'freedom' in any 'power relations':  

When one defines the exercise of power as a mode of actions upon the actions of others, when one characterizes these actions by the government of men by other men - in the broadest sense of the term - one includes an important element: freedom. Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only in so far as they are free. By this we mean individual or collective subjects who are faced with a field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportment may be realized. Where the determining factors saturate the whole there is no relationship of power; slavery is not a power relationship when man is in chains. (In this case it is a question of physical relationship of constraint.) Consequently there is no face-to-face confrontation of power and freedom which is mutually exclusive (freedom disappears everywhere power is exercise), but a much more complicated interplay (Foucault, 1994: 229).

10. What is important in the above argument is that 'power is exercised only over free subjects, and only in so far as they are free'. Indeed, it is freedom that provides the 'field of possibilities in which several ways of behaving, several reactions and diverse comportment may be realized'. This form of power relation can be clearly seen in the margin. In the power relation of the margin and the core, the core does not 'saturate' the margin entirely in their relationship of power. Therefore 'freedom' does not disappear completely in the margin, and those in this space possess the power to resist and contest the dominant powers. This freedom is derived from the nature of the margin.

11. Conversely, with regards to colonial (and later post-colonial) nation-states, power and spatial arrangements were grounded on the concept of modern state where the relationship of the modern state and territory is one of absolute sovereign control over that territory. This leads in turn to the imposition of political identity and homogenous history for all within that spatial boundary, an imposition that has always been contested in the margin and has thus produced the character of the margin as contested.

12. Also characteristic of the margin is contradiction, by which I mean the margin experiences and exemplifies a complex mishmash of history, culture, identity, and society. Akhil Gupta's and James Ferguson's (2002: 66) critique of cultural studies specifically talks of the contradiction in the margin. They assert that '[t]his assumed isomorphism of space, place and culture results in some significant problems. First, there is the issue of those who inhabits the border, that "narrow strip along steep edges" of national boundaries'. In the case of the Nagas inhabiting the Indo-Myanmar border the contradictions can be illustrated from the following observations. For instance, Sanjib Baruah contends that:

[t]he idea that South Asia is a discrete geographical region separated from Southeast Asia is a fiction. There are no 'natural' geographical boundaries separating South and Southeast Asia along the Indo-Myanmarese border. In territorial terms today's 'South Asia' is to a large extent successor to the entity called 'British India'. Northeast India's ties - historical, cultural, social and economic - do not stop at these international boundaries (2007: 215).

Peter Kunstadter also observes that Assam 'has a large population of tribal and minority peoples whose languages are more closely related to the languages of Southeast Asia than to those of the Indian subcontinent. Their cultures too resemble the cultures of their neighbours in Southeast Asia ... India's eastern border ... does not mark off a cultural or linguistic area' (cited in Baruah, 2007: 215). Given then, that, no 'natural' geographical boundaries separate South and Southeast Asia along the Indo-Myanmar border, the colonial construction of frontiers and boundaries during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is crucial in the study of the construction of margins.

Cartographic Surgery and Construction of Margins  

13. As already noted, the colonial expansion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has to be examined to understand how and why the margin between South and Southeast Asia was constructed. However, it is also important to note that the region [6] that colonial powers were constructing was done so from within the paradigm of the modern state under which the relationship between modern state and territory was defined as absolute sovereign control. It was within this model, then, that colonial map-makers constructed regions and justified their political and economic interests through the spatial ordering or arrangement of the hitherto blank spaces. More generally, every construction of region involves the imagining and drawing of blank spaces within a particular cartography.

14. Within colonial state ideology, then, mapping was a representation of power. As Itty Abraham (2003: 415) elegantly puts it: 'Asia, no less than Africa, had suffered the multiple scars of cartographic surgery as a result of the colonial experience. The mapping of the empty spaces into regions and the establishing of state institutions gave rise to the formation of the frontiers and boundaries'. Similarly, in his well-acclaimed book, Siam Mapped, Thongchai Winichakul (1998: 56) argues that 'it is the concept of the nation in the modern geographical sense that requires the necessity of having boundary lines clearly demarcated'. Both observations indicate that it is the modern nation-state that demanded the construction of boundary line giving rise to frontiers. The concern of the colonial powers regarding the frontiers and borders that they were constructing can also be seen in Lord Curzon's Frontiers (1907). There Curzon asserted that 'boundaries are the razor's edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations, and that just as the protection of home is the most vital care of the private citizen, so the integrity of her borders is the condition of existence of the state'.

15. With regards to the margin in question, the first event towards the construction of the Burma-India boundary - referred to as the 'Eastern Frontier of Bengal' or the 'North-Eastern Frontier of Bengal' in the early nineteenth century - can be traced back to the Treaty of Yandaboo, that ended the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826 [7]. By this Treaty Burma ceded Assam, Cachar, Jaintia and Manipur to the British. It is important to note that the large mountainous ranges and peoples inhabiting these mountains were not mentioned in the Treaty [8]. It only states: 'to prevent all future disputes relating to the boundary line between the two great nations, the British Government will retain the conquered provinces of Arakan ... The Arakan Mountains will henceforth form the boundary between the two great nations on that side. Any doubts regarding the said line of demarcation will be settled by Commissioners' (International Boundary Study, 1968: 7). 

16. In 1833, the boundary between Manipur and Burma was delimited and the Kubo (Kabaw) Valley was returned to Burma. This is referred to as the Pemberton Line, named after the Junior British Commissioner, Captain R. Boileau Pemberton. After British annexation of Assam, Cachar, and Jaintia, the vast mountain range was generally accepted as the boundary between Assam and Burma which was delimited in 1837 without a treaty. The 1880s witnessed intensive British surveying and the boundary was drawn more precisely with pillars erected along the boundary line after several expeditions. In 1894 the Manipur-Chin Hills boundary was demarcated, and in 1896 Colonel Maxwell re-demarcated the Pemberton-Johnstone area, placing thirty pillars in the ground. Lushia-Chin Hills boundary was demarcated in 1901.  

17. The Government of India Act 1935 separated Burma from British India by defining the former as 'all territories which were immediately before the commencement of Part II of this Act comprised in India, being territories lying to the east of Bengal, the state of Manipur, Assam, and tribal areas connected with Assam'. Since then the boundary line drawn by the colonial officials has been accepted as the dividing line. Even during the time of independence of both India and Burma the Burma-India boundary was not specified in the Independence Acts. It was only in 1967 that a bilateral agreement was signed between India and Burma, and the Burma-India Boundary Agreement 1967 was the first Act to delimit the entire Burma-India boundary. This boundary follows the colonial constructed line between the two states.

18. To understand why the colonial rulers constructed this particular border or margin, I shall examine the colonial writings on the political and military policies on the tract/zone [9]. One of the classic paradigms within which the colonial rulers imagined this zone/tract in the first half of the nineteenth century is illustrated by J. McCosh's, the Civil Assistant Surgeon of Goalpara (then in Bengal), remarks on the tract in 1835. These vividly situate the colonial concerns and construction of the margin. McCosh wrote:  

Few nations bordering upon the British dominions in India are less generally known than those inhabiting the extreme N.E. Frontier of Bengal; and yet, in a commercial, a statistical [sic] or political point of view, no country is more important. There our territory of Assam is situated in almost immediate contact with the empires of China and Ava [Myanmar/Burma], being separate from each by a narrow belt of mountainous country, possessed by barbarous tribes of independent savages, and capable of being crossed over in the present state of communication in 10 or 12 days. From this mountain range, navigable branches of the great rivers of Nankin, of Cambodia, of Martaban, of Ava and of Assam derive their origin, and appear designed by nature as the great highways of commerce between the nations of Ultra Gangetic Asia. In that quarter, our formidable neighbours, the Burmese, have been accustomed to make their inroad into Assam; there in the event of hostilities, they are certain to attempt it again; and there in case of its ever becoming necessary to take vengeance on the Chinese; an armed force embarking on the Brahmaputra could be speedily marched across the intervening country to the bank of the greatest river of China, which would conduct them through the very centre of the celestial empire to the ocean (McCosh, 1836: 193-194).

19. The above observations clearly reveal colonial perceptions of the geographical, economic and political importance of the zone in the nineteenth century. What is also to be noted is the sense of mystery regarding this zone. In addition McCosh emphasizes the zone's geo-political vulnerability to the 'formidable' Burmese and the 'celestial empire' of China, seeing it as saved only 'by a narrow belt of mountainous country, possessed by barbarous tribes of independent savages'. What one can infer from the above remarks is the fact that the colonial economic interest in Assam seems to be threatened by its proximity to China and Burma, and therefore that this zone was seen as operating as a fence needing to be protected and defended. On this view, then, the construction of the frontier was to protect the British territory of Assam from the threat of external aggression from Burma in the nineteenth century and the Chinese in the twentieth century. Thus, the colonial perception of this tract was that it was important but vulnerable; peripheral but important; mysterious but nonetheless a knowable zone.

20. From the political and military perspectives of three of the colonial officers in the 1830s concerned with the security of the North East Frontiers, one can further unravel colonial geopolitical concerns and apprehensions regarding this zone. For instance, in his Minute of 1839, Mr. Bird reiterated the importance of Assam Province and the need to defend it.

From some cause or other ... most of the tribes which surrounds Assam are in a very disturbed and agitated state ... whether this state of things originates in the intrigues of the Burmese and other powers ... effectual steps should be taken for the defense of the province ... not only would the whole of tea cultivation now of more importance than ever, be swept away, but it will open a road into the heart of our most valuable province to a host of enemies (Foreign Department, Political C. 5 June 1839, No. 88).

Similarly, in an official letter to the Secretary to the Government of India in 1839, Captain Jenkins, the Agent to the Governor-General, North East Frontier, noted the 'insufficiency of the Local troops for the protection of this province'. He felt that an increase in the number of troops was 'unavoidable', and that measures should be taken to bring all frontier districts more completely under their control. As he wrote: 

But in the present state of affairs, if we are to avoid the heavy expense attending the calling in of a Regular Regiment we ought, at least, I think, to have 500 disposable sepoys at the Head Quarter of the Assam Light Infantry, to meet any emergency that may happen. Although I am disposed to believe that 200-300 sepoys in one body with artillery would be able to be drive back any number of Burmese troops that is likely to be thrown into Assam (Foreign Department, Political C. 5 June 1839, No. 84).

21. Captain Jenkins' intention is explicit and needs no exposition. What is important to note however is that any colonial expansion in the zone was justified as defending the economically viable and important province of Assam from the perceived threat of intrusion from Burma. In his turn, Captain Vetch, Print Assistant, Luckimpoor (Lakhimpur) district, in his 1839 letter to Captain Jenkins asserted that:  

should there be no war with Ava I fear still that our prospect will not be improved, the jealousy entertained to us by the Burmese government will not allow them cordially to take steps for the improvement of communication between the two countries and I cannot but imagine that on the contrary they will always be pleased to seeing our frontier districts kept in alarm by the Kakoo and Singhos [sic] ... now that the tea in Assam is likely to become of great national importance it is more than ever desirable that we should take effectual measures to put an end to these disturbances which are now so baneful to the prosperity   (Foreign Department, Political C. 5 June 1839, No. 84).

From the above discussion we can see, then, that the colonial interest in the North East Frontier was to protect the plains of Assam, which had immense economic potential, and that the threat posed by the Burmese necessitated the British to construct a border for security. Another interesting point that can be inferred from these letters is their perception of the geographical zone as a frontier. For example, Captain Vetch in his letter points out that the area from 'Seesee' to 'Sadiya' requires no protection, for 'they were separated by long tract of almost impassable forest, intersected by the River Dehong and Debong'. Strategically, he felt that:   

'Jypore' and 'Rangpore', is the most exposed part of our frontier and the only one from which Assam can be endangered, but even these the country beyond is so difficult both by the nature and from the scarcity of supplies, that I doubt the Burmese with all advantages they have over our troops ... to assemble in any considerable force to attack Assam. In case of war they will no doubt endeavour to stir up all the Singhos and border tribes ... but whether we have a Burmese war or not I think the same kind of defense ought to be taken up to secure the frontier from future inroads (Foreign Department, Political C. 5 June 1839, No. 84).

22. The Government of India by the Proclamation of 1874 brought the following territories of the region - Kamrup, Darrang, Nowgong, Sibsagar, Lakhimpur, Garo Hills, Khasi and Jaintia Hills, Naga Hills, Cachar and Goalpara - under the Government of the Lieutenant-Governor of Bengal ( Gazetteer of India 1874: 53). Referring to the territorial jurisdiction between British Assam and Burma, the Secretary to the Government of India, said:

South of the Assam Valley a narrow strip of hilly country extends to the watershed between the Brahmaputra and Irrawaddy rivers, beyond which line it is agreed that we shall presume the country to belong to Burmah ... Even if the Burmese Government had the desire to occupy this tract, we could not, with safety to Assam, permit to do so. The Nagas are so far superior to the Assamese in physique and energy, that, under any centralized Government but our own, they would make the occupation of valley south of the Brahmaputra, from Sadya to Nowgong, most difficult and unprofitable. As we cannot permit the Nagas to pass under any Government, we ought not, from moral considerations, to allow them to remain in their present condition of barbarity; and we certainly cannot permit it without great danger to our districts which lie at the foot of the hills (Foreign Department, Political A. 5 June 1875, No. 401-403).

23. Finally, commenting on the Eastern borders of British India, W.H. Furness noted that:

Were not the gigantic Himalayas so near and ever-present, the Naga Hills of Eastern Assam. This chain of so-called hills stretches from the southern eastern borders of Tibet, between Lat. 20 and 26; almost due south to the sea, forming a dividing wall between Assam and Burma (Furness, 1902: 445).

Similarly, J.P. Mills, one of the colonial administrators in the region in the first half of the twentieth century, wrote in his 1926 article 'The Assam-Burma Frontier' that:  

A glance at the map will show what a curious position Assam occupies tucked away in the far north-east corner of India proper. It is itself a great alluvial plain, only 300 feet above sea-level, though it is 600 miles from the mouth of the Brahmaputra, which water it. It is united in the south with the alluvial plain of Bengal. Its inhabitants are closely allied to those of Bengal. But almost surrounding it are great mountain ranges inhabited by the people of the Mongolian stock. The north east of it is Himalayas, rising almost sheer up to enormous heights, and to the south-east - long range of mountain stretches for 500 miles down towards Bay of Bengal ... For much of its length this range forms the boundary between Assam and Burma (Mills, 1926: 289-290).

The politics of the colonial construction of frontier was also clearly reflected in The Report on the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry, 1947:

The strategic importance of the Frontier Areas as a buffer between an inland invader and the valleys of Burma proper prompted the British to extend their administration over these areas piecemeal, as necessity or opportunity arose, in the years following 1886. Local advances continued in the far north as late as 1940, when the head-hunting Naga tribes were first brought under some sort of administration.

24. The above statements are, in other words, a reflection of colonial spatial imagination. For instance, the vision of the mountains 'forming a dividing wall' is a colonial spatial construction of the region, and indeed the terms 'dividing' and 'wall' are both important colonial geographical contributions to the region. This stereotypical notion of geography is in fact a by-product of colonial politics and spatial imagination. Arguably, it is within this paradigm that the colonial rulers mapped places and peoples for the colonial knowledge.

25. To summarise my argument, then, colonial economic interests in the plain of Assam required a specific geographical imagination and discourse on the concept of frontier in order to vindicate their political legitimacy to control the space. Further, the accompanying construction of boundaries worked to delimit and delineate the space into a particular order. This particular way of partitioning space and the control and exercise of power over it is what, I suggest, can be called the construction of a region. Thus, in this region the mountainous ranges were seen as economically unviable and unproductive but, because of their difficult terrain, were also seen as providing a barrier or frontier to defend the plains of British India. The inaccessibility of the zone owing to the rough terrains was well calculated in the colonial strategy of defence. Indeed, it's fair to say that this colonial geo-political stratagem and military policies created the margins of the constructed region of British India. One may therefore argue that the colonial construction of the frontier was metaphorically fencing the empire or constructing a 'region'. In contrast to this, the next section examines how the Nagas, located in the constructed margins of the British India, responded to this colonial politico-spatial arrangement.

Production of 'Homeland'

26. Having already established that the margin invests certain power to resist the dominant power, I am now able to outline how the Nagas resisted the modern politico-spatial order to regionalize their space within the paradigm I have postulated. More generally, my aim is to show that the making of a community's political identity is not just about asserting one's 'history', 'language', 'culture', 'race' and so on, but is also about space and power. Indeed, the issue of space is always in the agenda of political actors insofar as the attempt to control and govern space - in other words, to regionalize space - is always an important political issue. As Henry Lefebvre puts it, 'there is a politics of space because space is political' (Lefebvre cited in Elden, 1998).

27. More specifically, this section explores how the Nagas, located in the margin of the constructed region of British India, contested and resisted both this construction and position in the first half of the twentieth century. What is imperative for the argument is that the Nagas, being in the margin, had the power to resist hegemonic state power and thereby counter the spatial and political orders constructed by the colonial rulers and later post-colonial Indian nation-state. However, before I deal with how the Nagas countered the dominant modern politico-spatial order and their attempt to regionalize their own space through the use of nationalism, a brief history of the emergence of the Naga political movement will provide a better understanding of the situation.

28. As early as the turn of twentieth century, the Nagas had begun to counter the modern politico-spatial arrangement. The Naga Club, the first pan-Naga organisation formed in 1918, articulated Nagas objections and aspirations through a memorandum to the Statutory Commission under Lord Simon on 10 January 1929. Twenty 'leaders' of the Nagas, signed the memorandum claiming that they represented the entire Nagas. The memorandum stated the following: 'We claim not only the members of the Naga Club to represent all those regions to which we belong viz., Angamis, Kacha Nagas, Kukis, Semas, Lothas, and Rengmas, but all other regions of Nagaland' (Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission, 10 January, 1929). This memorandum of Naga Hills is of immense historical importance insofar as it shapes the course of future politics of the Nagas.

29. According to Murkot Ramunny [10], the memorandum was drafted by one of the signatories, a respected and retired educationist from Kohima village named Razhakhrie who stressed that 'the feelings of all those who were educated and the leaders of the villages represented by the Dubashis were reflected in the draft' (Ramunny 1988: 25).   Reflecting on the events, Razhakhrie described that 'they at that time felt as a little infant trying to walk with its father ... that they would not be able to keep pace with the father ...was the fear in their minds' (Ramunny, 1988: 25). The memorandum was taken to the then Deputy Commissioner, J.H. Hutton, who according to Razhakhrie 'only corrected one word'. The memorandum states:

We the undersigned Nagas of the Naga Club at Kohima, have heard with great regret that our hills were included within the Reformed Scheme of India without our knowledge ... Our hills may be withdrawn from the Reformed Scheme and placed outside the Reforms ... Before the British Government conquered our country in 1879-80 we were living in a state of intermittent warfare with the Assamese of the Assam Valley to the north and west of our country and Manipur to the south. They never conquered us, nor were we ever subjected to their rule on the other hand we were always a terror to these people ... Our country is poor, it does not pay its administration. Therefore, if it is continued to be placed under the Reformed Scheme, we are afraid that new heavy taxes will have to be sold and in the long run we shall have no share in the land of our birth and life will be not worth living then. Government have always recognised our private rights in it, but if we are forced to enter the Council the majority of whose members is sure to belong to other districts we also much fear the introduction of foreign laws and customs to supersede our own customary laws which we now enjoy ... If the British Government, however, wants to throw us away, we pray that we should not be thrust to the mercy of the people who could never have conquered us themselves, and to whom we were never subjected but to leave us alone to determine for ourselves as in ancient times (Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission, 10 January, 1929)

30. The 1940s were also a defining moment in the landscape of Naga political history insofar as this period marks the conceptualization of a Naga 'national identity' and an active political consciousness and mobilization. For example, by this time there had emerged a rigorous and explicit statement that revealed the Nagas political imagination and conceptions. The first attempt to form an organization that includes the entire Nagas may be credited to Mr Charles Pawsey, the then Deputy Commissioner of Naga Hills District. Pawsey felt, after the devastation caused by the Second World War, that the Nagas should come together for the betterment and advancement of their society. Under his initiative the 'Naga Hills District Council' was formed in April 1945. But in less than a year the nomenclature was changed into the Naga National Council (NNC hereafter) on 2 February 1946 at a conference in Wokha. Mr T. Aliba Imti became the first president of the NNC.

31. According to Verrier Elwin, the 'NNC original political objective was to achieve local autonomy for the hills within the province of Assam and to train the people for self-government. It encouraged the Tribal Councils already set up by individual tribes and started to administer their own local affairs and consider possible reforms' (Elwin, 1961: 51). According to Ramunny, 'the NNC in those days had twenty-five members and represented in it were all the tribes of the Naga Hills District. It was expected that every Naga would be member of the NNC and every family was expected to contribute from one to one hundred rupees voluntarily towards its maintenance. It was not a political organization in the sense that it had no paid membership and no pledge for loyalty as to a party. The Tuensang area where majority of the Nagas lived was not included in the NNC' (Ramunny, 1988: 31). On 16 June, 1946, T. Sakhrie, the Secretary of the NNC and Sashimeren Aier submitted a Four-point memorandum to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the President of the Indian National Congress. The memorandum stated:  

1. The Naga National Council (N.N.C) stands for the solidarity of the Naga tribes including those in unadministered areas.

2. The Council strongly protests against the grouping of Assam with Bengal.

3. The Naga Hills should be included in Autonomous Assam in free India with local autonomy and due safeguard for the interests of Nagas.

4. The Naga tribes should have a separate electorate (Ramunny, 1988: 32).

32. The NNC also published a monthly paper in the 1940s that reflected the thoughts of Naga leaders at a crucial time in their history. Indeed, it was the only platform where the Naga leaders voiced their opinion, their ideas on social, political and economic issues pertaining to the Nagas, and the vision they had for the people. Initially called the Times of Kohima, after an interesting public discussion it was renamed The Naga Nation in October 1946. The aims and objectives of the paper were clearly stated in the October issue of 1946, specifically that 'the paper aims to unite our Naga Hills' among other things. The NNC proposed the setting up of an interim government of the Naga people for a period of ten years under the guardianship of India in the early part of 1947. A memorandum was thus submitted by the NNC to the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten and the Central Government of India, in which they categorically stated that:  

1. The interim Government of the Naga people will be a Government by the Naga people over all the people of Nagaland, having full powers in respect of legislation, executive and judiciary.

2. Nagaland belongs to the Naga people and will be inalienable.

3. The interim Government of the Naga people will have full powers in the matter of raising and expenditure of revenue, an annual subvention to cover the deficits by the Guardian Power.

4. For defence and for aiding Civil power in case of emergency a force considered necessary by the NNC will be maintained in Nagaland by the Guardian Power. That force will be responsible to the NNC who will in turn be responsible to the Guardian Power (Iralu, 2000: 63-64).

33. In June 1947 the NNC and the colonial government, represented by the Governor of Assam, entered into an agreement called The Nine-Point Agreement. One of the important provisions which later became the most controversial was the ninth point, which states:

The Governor of Assam as the Agent of the Government of Indian Union will have a special responsibility for a period of ten years to ensure the due observance of this Agreement; at the end of this period, the Naga National Council will be asked whether they require the above Agreement to be extended for a further period, a new agreement regarding the future of the Naga people arrived at (Nine-Point Agreement, 1947).

However, soon after the agreement was signed, and barely a month after a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in Delhi on 19 July 1947, the NNC, on their return back from Delhi, declared Naga independence on 14 August 1947. This claim was rejected by independent India and since then a struggle for independence has continued, making it one of the longest existing political movements in the world.

34. With this brief depiction of the origin of the Naga political movement, my aim now is to analyze the Nagas effort to regionalize their space, an attempt that also reflects the nature of the margin's power to resist and defy modern state powers. It can further be argued that through this attempt the Nagas confronted the state's definition of people, identity, boundary and history, re-visioning them.

35. To begin with, the 1948 letter of A.Z. Phizo [11] to H.E. Sri C. Rajagopalachari, the then Governor General of India, reflects Phizo's understanding of the Nagas spatial location and their marginal position in the modern spatial arrangement. He wrote: '[in] this transitional period of history we the Nagas are in a very delicate position ... We occupy a territory at a point of transfusion and we cannot permit our Naga territory to become a political polemic [sic]' (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 53). Furthermore, Phizo in the same letter categorically states that 'to settle the present difference it is not a question of people but a settlement of land, that belongs to the Nagas ... The land that will form the basis of the settlement entirely belongs to the Nagas' (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 53). These statements reflect how Phizo imagined their marginal position in the spatial order and thereby attempted to spatialize the problem as a matter of 'land' and not 'people' per se.

36. This letter also vividly reflects the re-construction and counter-imagination of the colonial spatial arrangement. One can see how Phizo attempted to regionalize certain spaces that were in the margin.

Situated as we are, surrounded by the biggest nations in the world like India on the one hand, in the west, on the other hand China in the northeast, and a most determined people like the Burmese in the east and Pakistan [now Bangladesh] further south ... placed as we are in such a situation, we cannot ignore existing facts and overlook remote responsibilities. So we have a special responsibility to consider the welfare of our future generations and for maintaining tranquility for a lasting peace where we have been sandwiched in an inextricable position with diverse nations on all sides (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 62).

The statement 'sandwiched in an inextricable position' reveals Phizo's attempted to situate the undeniable fact of their marginal position. This form of counter-argument against the constructed region by the margins is an attempt on the part of the margins to contest the dominant spatial ordering and to regionalize the space. In the case of the Nagas it was a contestation against the colonial drawing of the space and controlling it on the one hand, and the Nagas attempt to regionalize the space on the other.  

37. In their attempt to regionalize the space, the Naga regionalists constructed an imaginary map of the Nagas. The purpose was to demarcate a particular space so as to regionalize it. In his 1948 letter to H.E. Sri C. Rajagopalacheri, Governor General of India, Phizo states:  

The Nagas were divided by the British administration into three major units. About one-fifth of the Nagas populations with that much in proportion of our land were administered from British India. About the same proportion was administered by British Burma. And approximately sixty percent of the populations occupying a territory of about seventy percent of Nagaland were absolutely independent having no homage to pay to any other country and no country has the right to encroach on their territory (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 62).   

Further, in the Memorandum of the Case of the Naga people for Self-Determination (1947), the NNC under the sub-title 'The Land and the People' wrote:

Anyone who turns his eye on the map of India will find Assam as the easternmost province of this sub-continent, and one of her eastern districts is the present Naga Hills. The Naga people are spread over a wider area, and they are to be found in the Naga Hills District proper, the unadministered area between Assam and Burma, in the small native state of Manipur in Assam, in the North Cachar Hills, and area in the contiguous parts of Burma ... The Nagas people were independent and their country was not subjugated by the Ahom Kings of the Assam valley, who rule for seven years (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 63-64).

38. These statements again drive home the point that regionalizing space was the priority for the Naga leaders of that time. The 'region' in question is defined as 'the Naga Hills District proper, the unadministered area between Assam and Burma, in the small native state of Manipur in Assam, in the North Cachar Hills, and area in the contiguous parts of Burma'. I have earlier argued that regions are produced in the interplay of space and power and as a particular way of partitioning space and control and exercise of power over it. The assertion that 'the Nagas people were independent and their country was not subjugated by the Ahom Kings of the Assam valley' can be interpreted as an assertion of power over space.

39. I have also argued that to regionalize space, regionalists need to adopt diverse ideologies and projects. In the case of the Nagas, 'nationalist' ideology was used to garner unity, solidarity and belongingness. This is clearly shown in Phizo's Plebiscite Speech of 16 May 1951, where he asserts that:

The Nagas have nothing to do with India. And the Indians have nothing to do with Nagaland. This is the exact position. Historically, Nagas and the Indians did not have a common tradition. Racially, Nagas belong to the Mongolian family while the Indians belong to entirely a different race of their own. Politically, neither the Nagas nor the Indians know each other, that is why trouble is just about to start. Legally, it is nonexistent. There is absolutely no link. Culturally, the Nagas and the Indians never had occasion to meet each other; and, there is nothing in common. Socially, the Indians abhor the Nagas and the Nagas despise the Indians. It is better to face fact now. Religiously, the Indians are Hindus; and the ancient Naga religion is 'Animism' having nothing to do with Hindus. As it is, there is nothing in common between the Nagas and the Indians. The difference is too varied, the feeling is too deep, and the attitude is too wide and too malignant for the two nations ever to think to live together in peace much less to become 'Indian citizens'. The only way to live in peace is to live apart. Economically, Nagaland had never been dependent on India. All these have been so ever since and long before human history began. Nagas and Indians do not speak the same language. Why, we do not eat even the same food. It was very good that the Indians never allow the Nagas to go near them because they hate our people (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 130).

40. The letter of T. Aliba and T. Sakhrie [12] of the NNC to Lord Simon on 27 March 1947 also reflects the Nagas attempt to regionalize their space. They argued:  

No argument is needed to show that Nagas are a separate people, with their own customs, tradition, cultural; and to say that the British Government have decided to hand over to the Indian hands complete authority for governing of even Nagaland, is complete inconsistence with the policy of administration hitherto followed in the hills and in violation of implied but clear pledge in the past years, without even asking the Nagas is not only unjust but immoral (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 30).

Further, in their letter to Sir Akar Hydari, Governor of Assam, T. Aliba and T. Sakhrie asserted:

The Naga National Council stand for the solidarity of all the Naga regions. The present Naga Hills district has arbitrarily been carved out for administrative convenience only. it is now our desire that your Excellency take all steps to bring all the Naga regions together, for they all naturally have a desire to be together (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 72).

Finally, some of the ideologies that were projected by the NNC included 'race' and 'freedom':

The tillers of the soil who had grown and lived of the land know the precious value of the land to which they are affectionately attached. Living their lives in their mystic mountain homes, the villagers had felt a threat to their old way of living, their freedom, their valued traditions, their customary laws, their land and their very existence. They wanted to preserve their race, their land, their freedom, and everything that was their's but began to wonder if, in the changing context of things would be possible any more (Sakhrie cited in Elwin, 1961: 78).

41. These conceptions of themselves and the position taken vis-à-vis the 'Other' - here India and Burma - demonstrate that it was not only the making of Nagas identity and their homeland at stake, they were also articulating counter arguments to the dominant establishment from their own marginal context. These articulations challenged the modern constructed spatial arrangement and political order. The Naga statements defy the colonial spatial construction of boundaries of India and Burma, indeed attempting to re-construct the existing order by constructing their homeland and to regionalize it. The underlying argument of the Nagas has been based on the premise that the Nagas were never subjugated or conquered by any power before to the British rule. Here, it is important to point out how the margins produce notions that oppose the core or dominant notions. In the Memorandum of the Case of the Naga People for Self-Determination, the Naga National Council argued that:

The Naga Hills never formed part of Assam or India at any time before the advent of the British. Little was known of Naga Land when the British obtained suzerainty over the Assam Valley by the Treaty of Yandabu .... in view of the isolated geographical position of the Naga Land, and taking into consideration the unique characteristics of Naga polity and the compact block of Naga Land ... This Memorandum is placed with the authorities for setting up of an Interim Government, with financial provisions for a period of ten years, at the end of which the Naga people will be left to choose any form of Government under which they themselves close to live (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 64, 66).

42. In the 1951 Plebiscite Speech, Phizo said, 'Nagas shall not buy friendship with their territory'. As he asserted there:

Whether we call a national state or a country, both concerns the same thing: it concerns the territory of a people. Nagaland is the land of the Nagas; it is Naga country and nobody else. We are not refugees or immigrants in this beautiful land. Our own language tells exactly what a country is. We call country 'Ura' which literally means 'we are first' (u, we; ra, ria, first). The root meaning of territory also developed from the same word; namely, 'theria' meaning 'self first'. And our Naga language is certainly as old as human tradition and history cannot contradict us. No man can argue with fact and existence of Nagaland (Nagara) is a natural fact (Nuh & Lasuh, 2002: 129).

Phizo thus categorically spelled out here that the issue is 'territory' or 'land'. He argued that whether it was 'national state' or 'country' it referred to the same meaning and that for him it concerns with the 'territory'. The very name 'Nagaland' or what he calls 'Nagara' suggests the relationship of the 'land' and 'people'. For him the name 'Nagaland' means the land of the Nagas. These statements reflect how the margins contest the dominant political and spatial powers through the nature of their marginal location and position. It also indicates how the Nagas, located in the colonial constructed margin, could re-imagine a new 'region' in opposition to the established order. This brings me to the crux of my argument that the margins invest certain power in the power-relation between the core and the margins.

43. The Nagas construction of the modern Naga identity was based on the construction of a place called Nagaland. By identifying with this place identity, the modern Naga identity was interpreted and defined. A meaning attributed to this place and the struggle over it produced an identity called 'the modern Naga identity'. The above argument is anchored on the idea that politics of identity cannot be properly understood without problematizing the space/place and nature of location.


44. This paper has attempted to provide a theoretical framework in understanding the politics of identity in the context of the Nagas identity construction. By re-defining 'region' as a particular way of partitioning space and the control and exercise of power over it, I have stressed that to regionalize a space involves political interests to control, to access, to govern and to monitor. This definition demands that there must be a political agent/actor to regionalize a space, who can be labeled as a 'regionalist'. In the colonial context, I have argued that in order to regionalize certain spaces, colonial rulers, (here the regionalists) constructed and delineated frontiers and boundaries. In the process, frontiers became margins in the modern politico-spatial arrangement. The constructed margins are not only on the fringe of the dominant political power but also at the edge of the spatial arrangement. 

45. However, by re-conceptualizing 'margin' as the line of contradictions and contestations, I have argued that the margin has the power to counter the modern dominant spatial and political arrangements, ideologies, and practices. This relative freedom is not because of the weakness of the core rather it is because of the nature of the margin. Margins can therefore, produce ideas that oppose the modern dominant notions. Lastly, I have argued that the Nagas, located in the 'margin' of a constructed 'region', contested and resisted this positioning in the first half of the twentieth century. The assertion of the Naga identity can thus be interpreted as an attempt to regionalize space. This produced the Naga 'regionalist', who adopted cultural ideologies and political projects in the form of politico-cultural nationalism. More specifically, their assertion of 'distinct cultural' and 'free political history' was used to achieve the end of controlling and governing that space. The Nagas thus defied the colonial spatial construction through the production of their homeland by re-imagining the spatial order thereby transcending the modern dominant state's constructed arrangements.

46. In the discourse of identity politics, this paper attempts to provide an alternative paradigm in the theorization of the politics of identity. The making of identity, in the case of the Nagas is construed as the production of Nagas 'homeland'. Hence, the making of identity is interpreted as the making of 'place' and the politics of identity is understood as the politics of space.


Kekhriesituo Yhome has recently submitted his Ph.D thesis titled "The Making of the Modern Naga Identity: A Historico-Geographical Dimension" at the University of Hyderabad.   Email:


I am thankful to the two anonymous referees for their critical comments on the paper. I also thank Dr. Jane Mummery for the valuable suggestions and comments in drafting the final version of the paper.


[1]. In this paper the names 'Myanmar' and 'Burma' have been used interchangeably without attaching any political connotations.

[2]. For a detailed study of the Naga political movement see:   Kaka Iralu (2000) Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tear ; Murkot Ramunny (1988) The World of Nagas; Asoso Yonuo (1984) The Rising Nagas: A Historical and Political Study; Sanjib Baruah (2003) 'Confronting Constructionism: Ending India's Naga War'.

[3]. I have borrowed the phrase 'blank-space' from Edmund Leach's article 'The Frontier of "Burma"'.   Leach has employed 'blank space' to refer to the geographical space of "Burma" before the colonial rule. For this paper the 'blank-space' refers to the blank-areas in the early colonial cartographic works. This blank-space in the map suggests the lack of colonial geographical knowledge of these spaces in the early nineteenth century and it also suggests that these spaces were outside colonial control during this period.

[4]. For similar arguments on 'imperialism', 'developmentalism' and 'new regionalism' see Wendy Larner and William Walters. They argue that like 'imperialism' and 'developmentalism', the 'new regionalism' is 'one contemporary reconfiguration of international space ... Supra-national region are not simply "imagined communities" they are also specific ways of constituting spaces and acting on and through them' (Larner & Walters, 2002: 92-393).

[5]. See, for instance, Arjun Appaduria (2003) 'Sovereignty without Territoriality: Notes for a Postnational Geography'; Akhil Gupta (2003) 'The Song of the Nonaligned World: Transnational Identities and the Reinscription of Space in Late Capitalism'.

[6]. Here, the term 'region' refers to British India which the colonial rulers were constructing in the nineteenth and twentieth century. 

[7]. The East India Company first took control of Lower Assam under Bengal Province in the year 1765. However, it was only the ending of the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26 with the Treaty of Yandaboo that unlocked the Company into this zone.  

[8]. Colonial power perceived this zone/tract as a natural barrier for geo-political reasons, later strategically referring to it as 'frontier'.  

[9]. For this paper, the terms 'tract' or 'zone' shall be employed to refer to those spaces before they were politically constructed as 'frontier' or 'boundary' of British India.

[10]. Murkot Ramunny has served in Nagaland for about thirteen years in different capacities from 1953 to 1975 and retired as Advisor to the Governor of Nagaland.

[11]. A.Z. Phizo, is considered as the 'Father of Naga Nation' by the Nagas. He was elected as the President of Naga National Council in December 1950, exiled to London from 1960 until his death in 1990. In the 1950s he spearheaded the Naga movement and was instrumental in the demand for a separate 'nation' for the Nagas.

[12]. T. Aliba and T. Sakhrie were both Joint Secretaries of the Naga National Council in 1947.


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