Nehru in Kohima: The visit that turned into a farce

I present a few reflections on/retellings of the infamous visit by Jawaharlal Nehru and the Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu, to Kohima on 30 March 1953. The incident is too well known to require introduction. Or maybe I will add one in future! The reflections/discussions are arranged chronologically. One notable instance missing is B. N. Mullik’s account from his book My Years with Nehru: 1948–1964.

[1953] Jawaharlal Nehru

Letter to Jairamdas Daulatram, then Governor of Assam, written from Aizawl on 3 April.

At present. I am writing to you only about a few selected matters. One of these is the incident that happened at Kohima when the Prime Minister of Burma and I went there and the Naga District situation generally.

I have given a good deal of thought to this Naga District situation. The incident, when a large number of Nagas left our meeting at Kohima was significant and I have been thinking as to what we should do about it. We cannot just ignore it. At the same time. I do not wish to make too great a public fuss about it.

I suggest that you might do two things about it: (i) that you should send for two or three of the Naga leaders who were present at the Kohima village meeting, at which U Nu and I were welcomed on behalf of the Naga residents of the village, presented spears and other emblems in token of friendship and made to drink Tzu in sign of friendship, etc. Affirmations of friendship were made by them, to which I suitably replied. Two hours later, these Naga leaders and others walked out of the meeting where they had gathered. They went out just before U Nu and I arrived at the meeting, or rather as we were arriving. I think that there might have been better management of this on the part of the D.C. However, that is a small matter and the D.C. was new to the place.

I want you to send for these Naga leaders and tell them yourself that we take a grave view of the discourtesy offered by them to a most distinguished guest of ours, namely the Prime Minister of Burma. Quite apart from political or other questions, it was wholly unpardonable for such a grave affront to be offered to the leader of another nation who was our distinguished guest. (I should not like you to lay any stress on the affront offered to me also on this occasion). Tell them further that we had always thought that, with all their failings, the Nagas were a brave people whose word could be relied upon. By the way they have behaved, however, they have shown that no faith or reliance can be placed on their word or assurance. They invited U Nu and me to their village and gave us gifts in token of friendship and made assurances of peace and goodwill. Only two hours afterwards, they forgot or deliberately broke those assurances and pledges and insulted our honoured guest. No decent people and no one who cares for his word could have acted in this way. It was bad enough to show this discourtesy, but to do so soon after giving their pledge of friendship was a double insult and was hypocrisy and fraud. We want to make it clear to them what we think of this action of theirs as well as of those who sided with them. We do not wish to punish them for this, because we feel that they are misled by others, but we intend taking a more serious view of any misbehaviour in the future.

Selected Works, 2nd Series, Vol 22, p. 221–222.

[1956] Rishang Keishing

Rishang Keishing was an MP from Manipur. He made the following statement while participating in a motion moved in the Lok Sabha by Jogeshwar Singh, another MP from Manipur, concerning “the situation in the Naga Hills area in Assam”. This debate took place in 23 August 1956. By this time, armed repression of the NNC had greatly intensified although officially it started only this year. In fact, that occasioned the motion in the first place: Singh’s convoy, as he states in his speech, had been ambushed just below Kohima on 11 June.

However, there was one more chance for rapprochement and that was when the Prime Minister visited Kohima in the early part of 1953 when as many as 15,000 people collected to present their viewpoint before him and then to listen to him. But the entire situation was mishandled by the local authorities and it was a sad day when they refused to allow the Nagas to present their representation to the Prime Minister. These people are very sensitive to the question of their prestige and they thought when the Prime Minister was not ready to listen to them, why should they listen to him. And they walked out from the meeting en bloc.

I would quote in this connection a letter which was sent to me by the late Shri Sakrie, the then General Secretary of the Naga National Council, for whom the hon. Home Minister has regard as is shown by the way he has referred to him during the course of his statement in this House. He wrote to me on the 8th April, 1953 immediately after the visit of the Prime Minister to Kohima. I quote some portions of his letter.

“Dear Rishang,
We want your help and we know you will give it. I write in connection with the recent visit to Kohima of the Prime Minister. The visit was an utter failure. We regret it sincerely. Our visit to Delhi to wait on him is always made so difficult that we heartily welcomed his visit. We welcomed it because we felt we would get the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart discussion on all outstanding questions between the Nagas and India. That opportunity came and went like a mirage.”

Referring to the walk-out, he wrote:

“The Nagas walked away because the Nagas wanted to speak to him and give him also their written thought. They were prepared to listen to him if he was prepared to listen to them.”

He further mentioned that their honour and self-respect had been challenged. He wrote:

“Because of the walk-out, some 80 of us are to be arrested. We are being charged under sections 143 and 427 of the I.P.C. Please do something.”

This is what Shri Sakhrie had written to me.

The least that this letter shows is that among the Nagas there was a spirit of peaceful negotiation, but this spirit was never recognised. It was after this sad occurrence that the Assam Government took police measures and repressions started. The police indulged in ravaging houses and destroying crops and there were cases of raping as well. It is important to remember that in spite of all these provocations, there was no organised violence on the part of the Nagas till the middle of 1955. The movement was non-violent and peaceful, and yet persistent, up to the middle of 1955. During that period, repeated attempts were made by the Naga National Council to have discussions with the Government of India and especially the Prime Minister, but I am sorry to say that the Government of India always put some condition before the meeting could be acceptable to them. I have always felt that the demand for complete independence by the Nagas was not at all feasible, but I have also been feeling that Government should not have been reluctant to start noncommittal talks and discussions with the Nagas in order to iron out the differences.

Lok Sabha Debates, Series 1, volume 6, number 27, columns 4201–03.

[1956] Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru’s statement during the same debate.

There was one occasion to which reference has been made by Mr. Keishing; he said something about an incident at Kohima, where, according to him, the Nagas came and were prevented from giving me an address, and therefore they became angry and walked away. The facts are not quite that.

The facts are, I went to Kohima; to begin with, it was not a normal visit to Kohima. The Prime Minister of Burma had come over; flying across the frontier, he met me at Manipur, I think, and we were going to Burma a day or two later. I thought I might utilise that opportunity to go to Kohima. We went to Kohima and we relaxed. I suggested to the authorities there that some kind of a welcome might be given to the Burmese Prime Minister. He was our guest and the people gathered to say a few words. So, it was not a normal occasion on which I go there.

What I found later was that the Nagas there wanted to read out an address to me. The Deputy Commissioner told them, “You can hand it over to the Prime Minister afterwards; I cannot allow your reading it out to him at a meeting when the Prime Minister of Burma and others had come”, so that, it is not correct to say that I refused to take the address. As a matter of fact, at Kohima on a previous occasion, a year before or so, I had actually met the Naga leader — Mr. Phizo was not there — discussed the matter with them and taken a long document from them just a year before.

So, it is not true to say that I refused or even the Deputy Commissioner came in the way of the address being given to me. But, he did come in the way of that being read at the meeting. I did not know it at that time; I knew only later. Then, when U Nu and I arrived at the meeting place, these Nagas who were present, about a hundred or may be a thousand, got up and walked away. I was very distressed at this, not because of me, but here I had taken the Prime Minister of Burma, an honoured guest of ours, and for him to be treated so discourteously hurt me very much.

Lok Sabha Debates, Series 1, volume 6, number 27, columns 4229–30.

[1974] Asoso Yonuo

On 30 March 1953 a flagrant accident struck at a public meeting arranged by the Nagas to welcome the Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru and the Burmese Prime Minister, Thakin U Nu. The two Prime Ministers accompanied by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, T. N. Kaul and B. N. Mullik had come to Kohima after their visit to Imphal. The Nagas gathered there in order to give a rousing public reception on their arrival.

On this occasion, the Nagas also attempted to submit a memorandum and speak to Nehru about their demand for independence. The Assamese Deputy Commissioner, Barkataki disallowed any address either in speech or in writing at the public meeting, and told the Nagas to listen what the two Prime Ministers would say and forbade them to meet and talk with Nehru. The Nagas raised hue and cry against the Deputy Commissioner, became furious thinking as if it were Nehru’s words not to grant them audience and hysterically walked out of the meeting at which the Prime Minister Nehru was about to speak before the Nagas. Pandit Nehru felt shocked and put the blame upon the Chief Minister, Bishnuram Medhi who in turn fired the Deputy Commissioner.

In this way, the meeting ended in hurly burly. It was one very good occasion of establishing a rapport with Naga people but was lost chiefly because of bureaucratic bungling under the shabby policy of Assam government and because of the demonstration of the Nagas’ age-old suspicions and animosities against the Assamese than an insult to the Prime Ministers. Then from there they flew to Singkaling-Hkamti, headquarters of the Burmese Naga Hills district and stayed there for two days, during which they met the head-hunting Nagas and observed the Naga oaths sworn by touching a tiger teeth and chewing a bit of the bones of their ancestors and pledged not to wage war again.

After this frigid episode the Central government was taking the chance to deal with the situation itself. But the worst came when it was in the air that the police were preparing a list of suspects to be arrested for the maintenance of law and order. This invidious rumour allied with fears, forced the Naga leaders to go underground. Accordingly the police raided the house of Sakhrie, the Secretary of the Naga National Council on the night of April 4.

Τhe Rising Nagas, pp. 204–05.

[1978] Nirmal Nibedon

So when Nehru came to Kohima, the Nagas were ready with their answer. They welcomed the Prime Minister, but they wanted to submit a public petition to the Indian leader. The local authorities were in a dilemma. Naga deputationists were told that no more than three persons could present the petition and that too after the public meeting. Actually, the Naga demand for independence was reiterated in the document. It was the strangest situation in the history of free India. Nehru was a little late in arriving and the partisan crowd was restive. And as Nehru and his cavalcade started moving towards the podium, the Naga assemblage started moving out. All efforts to restrain them failed. And to top it all, the Nagas left in full purview smacking their bottoms. This gesture of the Nagas is a sign of their complete frustration and disdain. This symbolical gesture of smacking one’s bottoms should have been taken seriously by the local authorities. For it denoted the utter sense of frustration in the tribal ranks. Never before was a visitor so contemptuously treated by the Nagas — never before were the Nagas in need of sympathy and guidance. It is more than a coincidence that Nehru did not visit the Naga hills ever again.

The Naga logic was simple. If the leader of the Indian people would not hear them, nor would they. Nehru addressed empty stands that day. The Nagas were already looking towards the hills where freedom freedom beckoned. A decision had to be taken whether to court arrest or go underground. That the official machinery was gearing for a major swoop was made amply evident to the rebels. Sakhrie’s house was raided on the night of April 4. Several top NNC personnel disappeared in its wake. Guerrillas led them to their hidden bases in the forests. Within days, the Angami Naga villages of Viswema, Jakhama, Kigwema and Phesama were raided by armed police who seized matchlocks and arrested people. In May, Phizo’s stronghold, Khonoma was raided.

Nagaland: The Night of the Guerillas, Kindle Locations 765-769

[1979] Sarvepalli Gopal

In March 1952, Nehru met Phizo and told him bluntly that he would not listen to any talk of independence; but he was prepared to help the Nagas to maintain their autonomy in cultural and other matters and he would see to it that there was no interference. As this did not satisfy Phizo, the authorities, instead of waiting for the independence campaign to fade away, had to take steps which would weaken the support for Phizo among the Nagas. Nehru had no doubt that it was right in itself as well as politically expedient to create among the tribes a feeling of kinship with the rest of the country. ‘The movement for independence among the Nagas is entirely based on the assumption that Indians are foreigners ruling over the tribes. Our policy must be aimed at removing this impression. They should feel part of India and sharers in its destiny, but free to live their own lives, with opportunities of advancement along their own lines.

To give a lead to this policy, in April 1953 Nehru, accompanied by U Nu of Burma, toured the Naga areas. A group of Nagas ostentatiously walked out of a public meeting, which was being addressed by the two Prime Ministers, in protest against an official order prohibiting the presentation of petitions. This deliberate discourtesy, not so much to him as to U Nu, stiffened Nehru’s attitude. The Naga leaders were sent for and informed that by such behaviour the Naga National Council had put itself outside the pale and the government would not hereafter recognize or deal with it. Immediate counter-measures would also be taken in case of any unlawful action.

Jawaharlal Nehru – A Biography, vol 2: 1947–1956, p. 202.

[1997] Gita Mehta

So a number of press photographers were accompanying Prime Minister Nehru when he made a much publicized visit to the northeastern hills in 1957. As the airplane circled the valley, between the beautiful but increasingly denuded wooded hills, several hundred tiny figures could be seen waiting — tribals who had journeyed from their inaccessible homelands to greet the Prime Minister.

There were chiefs with huge headdresses of feathers and beads and horns, like dignified lines of Eastern Montezumas. Young women with long black hair cascading down their backs. Tribal matrons with woven shawls and sarongs. Handsome younger men with smooth, hairless faces and elegantly slanted eyes, lithe bodies visible under the stiff tribal cloths that covered one muscled shoulder, leaving the other bare, free to handle a spear or a bow.

The airplane landed, a great white bird with the symbol of the Indian nation, Emperor Asoka’s pillar of truth, blazoned on its side. Would the childlike tribals be frightened by this miracle of aerodynamics descending from the heavens with its cargo of democratic divinity. Would they run for cover? But no, they were standing steady under quivering headdresses watching aircraft personnel leap out to fix the steps for the Prime Minister’s descent and press photographers push forward for a clear view through their lenses.

Finally the great man himself appeared — to be received by a reverence so profound that even the accompanying journalists were silenced. Possessing a sense of history, the leader solemnly descended the aircraft steps, assuming this warlike people wished to give him a colorful guard of honor.

I suppose they did. Because as soon as he was on terra firma, they all turned with regimental precision and lifted their colorful sarongs. The Prime Minister of India found himself taking the salute of hundreds of naked tribal behinds

Snakes and Ladders, pp. 125–27.

This account is perhaps more creative than actual. The year is said to be 1957. Nehru and U Nu are said to have flown into Kohima. According to Chandola (see below), they seem to have driven to Kohima. But the singularity of the event in Kohima seems reason enough to believe that that was what Mehta was describing.


[2000] Kaka D. Iralu

The only image that confronted them now was clouds of war rushing into the Hills of Nagaland from the distant horizons. However, one last appeal for a negotiated settlement appeared on the horizon when the Nagas heard that both the Prime Ministers of India and Burma would visit Kohima on March 30, 1953. At last the two Prime Ministers of the newly independent countries into which Nagaland had been dissected were finally coming to Nagaland on a joint tour. The Naga leaders thought that where the appeal to a single Prime Minister had failed, an appeal to both Prime Ministers might succeed. The NNC therefore prepared a very warm reception for the two Prime Ministers.

Around fifteen thousand people had assembled at Kohima to welcome the two leaders and appeal to them through memoranda to be submitted. However, to the utter dismay and surprise of the fifteen thousand assembled Nagas, they were told by the Indian administration at the last moment that no address either in speech or in writing would be allowed during the meeting. This was communicated to the NNC just ten minutes before the function was to start. This was a most grievous offence to the Naga sense of hospitality. To be told that a Naga guest would not talk to his hosts was simply unbelievable to the Nagas. As a result the hosts as one man rose and walked out of the public meeting place — the outdoor stadium at Kohima. Nehru and U Nu were left to address only a handful of government servants.

This was a most humiliating experience for Nehru who had never ever experienced anything like this in his whole public life. Immediately following this incident arrest warrants were issued against eight NNC leaders. The Assam Maintenance of Public Order Act of 1953 was promulgated in the Naga Hills District and sensitive areas were declared as “disturbed.” Following the raids on houses of Naga leaders many went into hiding. The Assam Police and paramilitary forces began to arrest many people at random. Properties of leaders were confiscated and auctioned, crops in the fields were destroyed and wives and children of several leaders were arrested and detained in jails. There were also unfounded charges that American missionaries were behind the movement and all American Baptist missionaries were driven away from Nagaland. Collective fines were imposed on entire villages and leaders from all villages were arrested and jailed. As a result, even the Gaonburas returned their prestigious red blankets and went into hiding. Things now began to move at a very fast pace.

Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears, pp. 64–65.

[2009] Sajal Nag

Then the Kohima incident happened. Nehru had gone to address the Nagas along with U Nu, the Burmese premier, at a public meeting in Kohima. The Nagas embarrassed him by walking out of the meeting and even reportedly showing their bare bottoms! It created a huge controversy. Soon after this incident the district administration cracked down on the NNC members as they were held responsible for the fiasco in Kohima. To cover the failure of the district administration in handling the prime minister’s visit, the NNC members were tracked down and arrested, which prompted a number of the Naga leaders to hide underground. The Nagas who went underground eventually took up arms, formed a Naga government in exile and began to attack the symbols of Indian presence in the Naga Hills. The army had to be called in to tackle this new challenge. Thus began the first insurgency and counter-insurgency of Independent India.

It was Nehru’s first encounter with violent revolt too. Nehru initially blamed the Assam chief minister Bishnuram Medhi and the local administration for mishandling the situation. The chief minister in turn sacked the deputy commissioner. Trained in constitutional politics and Gandhian methods of resistance Nehru had not expected such a turn to the Naga situation. Nehru was convinced that “if the government keeps its head cool and restrain its hand the whole movement may gradually fizzle out”. In fact, even after the Kohima incident, he still was sure that “the Naga situation would have been better if it had been handled a little more competently by the local officers and if some officers who were notoriously unpopular had not been kept there”. The sudden recourse to violence by the Naga leadership left Nehru with few options. He was against a military solution because he knew that “the Nagas were a tough and fine people and we may carry on [fighting] for a generation without solving the problem”. But confronted with an open armed rebellion in which Indian soldiers were regularly being killed, the government had to seek the assistance of the military to control the situation.

Nehru and the Nagas, pp. 50–51.

[2012] Harish Chandola

March 30, 1953 was a bright, sunny, spring day. Travelling on loot from distant villages, Nagas of the Angami, Chakesang, Mao, Lotha, Ao and other tribes, in their colourful hand-woven shawls, different headgear, large and heavy ivory bracelets on arms, red and black rings of fine cane on their ankles, stood in orderly rows on both sides of the road coming from Imphal, the capital of Manipur, to Kohima — to welcome Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru was coming to Kohima the first time, accompanied by his friend, U Nu, the Prime Minister of Burma. He had come from Delhi to return to Burma the Kabaw Valley, annexed by Manipur many years ago. The two Prime Ministers had gathered in Manipur for the ceremony of returning the valley.

Before their arrival, the Deputy Commissioner of Kohima, Satyen Barkatoki, came up with men of mounted police. Intelligence men had told him that the Nagas lining the road may try to present a memorandum to Nehru, to say they had always lived their own kind of life, which they should be allowed to continue, free of Indian rule. Barkatoki felt that a memorandum of this kind would be an insult to Nehru and decided that a chance to present it should not to be given to Nagas. He ordered the mounted police to drive the Nagas away, with their whips.

The Nagas could not understand why they were being beaten and driven away. Didn’t they have the right to stand on their own land? Did Nehru not want the welcome they were giving him?

The news of the police assault on Nagas standing on the road spread like wild fire through Kohima. Among those come to welcome him were members of the only Naga organization, the Naga National Council (NNC). Their able leader and General Secretary, Theo Sakhrei, after consultation with his colleagues decided that the people need not bother to wait to hear Nehru, after the police’s barbaric behaviour.

The Kohima football field was crowded with waiting Nagas. Sakhrei spoke to them and said: “It seems the authorities do not want us to hear Nehru. Our people standing on the road to welcome him have been whipped and driven away. You too should go home!”

As soon as the Nehru–U Nu entourage reached Kohima and the Prime Ministers, in high spirits, began ascending the steps to the platform, they saw people getting up and leaving. The Prime Ministers did not know why. Why were they going away after waiting? Nehru seized the microphone and started reasoning with them: “Please sit down! I have to speak to you! Sit down!”

But the football field became empty. A few government interpreters remained, clad in their red blankets. For the first time in his life Nehru faced such a situation. He had never felt so humiliated, and that too in the presence of his old friend and neighbour, U Nu!

Later, the affronted administration mustered a gathering of its Naga employees, interpreters, village chiefs and others, and had Nehru address them. That small crowd looked like mourners.

The whiplashes of the mounted police had broken the link of fellow feeling between the Naga and Indian people. The Nagas found what their leaders, like Zapuphizo, had been saying all along, that Indians were bereft of kindness and only sought to rule them was true.

Nehru and U Nu drove back to Manipur.

A number of persons had come with Nehru, including some journalists. But the news of thousands of Nagas boycotting his meeting was suppressed.
…The Assam administration, of which Naga Hills were a part, came down on the Nagas heavily for their boycott of Nehru’s meeting. Barkatoki decided to teach the Nagas a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. He sent out police to raid and ransack Naga villages to capture Sakhrei and his mates who had boycotted Nehru’s meeting. Arrests were made. Some government employees were also locked up. In the tiny Kohima town several arrest warrants were issued. Following arrests, members of the sole Naga organization, the Naga National Council, began going underground. In Viswema, Jakhama, Kigwema and Feysama villages, the police carried out raids, confiscated licensed guns and made many arrests.

On Nehru’s return to Imphal, the police entered villages and began beating people. They wanted to teach the villagers a lesson. How dare they disregard Nehru’s plea to remain seated? How dare they walk out?

Some got killed. The bodies of a villager, Beechatami of Meema, near Kohima, and of Lopeelu Tami, were tied with ropes by the police and dragged through streets, to put tear in the minds of onlookers.

Nor fear, but rage rose in people’s minds. They wondered, what kind of people are these new rulers, who humiliate even the dead?

The Naga Story, pp. 15–19.

This book was translated from Hindi. Many of the the spellings of proper names do not correspond to current usage. Partly, this is a defect of transliteration. Partly, it is because, as the author clarifies, he has spelled them as they appeared in “papers and documents”. The reader is left to judge for herself if these excuses are adequate.


References

Asoso Yonuo, The Rising Nagas: A Historical and Political Study (Delhi: Manas Publications, 1971).

Gita Mehta, Snakes and Ladders: Glimpses of India (New York: N.A. Talese, 1997).

Harish Chandola, The Naga Story: First Armed Struggle in India, trans from the Hindi by Raji Narasimhan and Harish Chandola (New Delhi: Chicken Neck, 2013).

Kaka D. Iralu, Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears, 4th ed. (Kohima: Author, 2017).

Lok Sabha Debates, First Lok Sabha, Thirteenth Session, 23 August 1956.

Nirmal Nibedon, Nagaland: The Night of the Guerrillas, Lancer Publishers LLC, Kindle Edition. Originally published in 1978.

Ravinder Kumar and Sharada Prasad, eds. Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 22, (1 April 1953-30 June 1953) (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1998).

Sajal Nag, “Nehru and the Nagas: Minority Nationalism and the Post-Colonial State,” Economic and Political Weekly 44, no. 49 (2009): 48–55.

Sarvepalli Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography 1947–1956, vol. 2 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1979).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s