It is a very long trip to the Indian Northeast, a singular region connected to the rest of the country by a mere strip of land that skirts Bangladesh. Few foreigners go to the area or get to know its ethnically distinct people. So for Athili Sapriina, a local human-rights advocate, it was also a long journey from his base in Nagaland, one of the seven Northeastern states, to Columbia University. The road led through the United Nations.
Sapriina, a leader of the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, has spent the fall semester at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia. As one of 14 participants in the institute’s Human Rights Advocates Program this year, he attended classes and workshops teaching skills from public speaking and fund-raising to stress management. In between, he also met with human-rights organizations based in New York and Washington.
Many outsiders are aware of the separatist movements in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir because of Pakistan’s involvement in helping to fuel what was at heart an ethnic and cultural campaign for the autonomy of a formerly independent princely state. The ethnic politics of the Indian Northeast are more complicated, with a myriad of armed and unarmed movements in the area. But generally their struggles are as old as that of the Kashmiris on the other side of India. They share the sense of being under occupation by the Indian military and a central government far away in New Delhi.
Naga Voices Are Heard
What they have lacked is access to an international audience and world opinion to make their cases. A UN forum and help from private supporters is gradually changing that, aided by communications networks they can be trained to use effectively. The Nagas are now in the loop.
“Nagas were never part of India,” Sapriina said in an interview, so secession is not what they want. For them, the issue is that Nagas inhabit a wider region than the Indian state of Nagaland, so they want to unite their communities in a homeland in the section where India, China and Burma meet.
“Nagas are saying there is no way to peace if the Nagas are not integrated physically,” Sapriina said, echoing the pleas of numerous other ethnic communities around the world divided by colonialism or the creation of modern nation-states.
India has been adamant, since the end of British rule in 1947, that a Greater Nagaland will never happen. The current Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, said that unequivocally again this month on a visit to the restive region, after Nagas in the neighboring state of Manipur mounted a series of economic blockades to protest not only Indian policies but also the incursion over decades of another ethnic group. A recent paper of the Institute of Conflict Management, an Indian think tank in New Delhi, called it an “ethnic turf war.”
Inroads Through the UN
Sapriina and the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights have never taken part in violent rebellion, though other Nagas have, he said. The human-rights campaign has always been one based on Gandhian civil disobedience, he said.
It was through its links to regional and international human-rights groups – Sapriina was a founder of the Asia Pacific Indigenous Youth Network — that he made several journeys to New York, culminating at Columbia. In Nagaland, where many local people are Christians, Catholic and Protestant, human-rights advocates have also won support from the Baptist World Alliance and other groups.
When a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was created at the UN in 2002, it offered Sapriina the chance to meet many other activists from around the world. He could also engage with the UN special rapporteur on indigenous issues and officials in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The forum is now an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, where Sapriina is a delegate from Tribal Link, a nongovernmental organization in New York, founded in 1993 by Pamela Kraft, which provides a global communications network for indigenous people. Tribal Link also supports the attendance of indigenous people at UN events and offers capacity-building courses in cooperation with the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Sapriina says he is returning to Nagaland, where he has a wife and a 2-year old daughter, with a commitment to developing an effective media campaign.
“Today I feel the urgent need of engaging the local media,” he said in a recent paper he wrote describing the Naga cause. “I feel there is nothing more important than an objective media, which helps promote open dialogue to address even the most difficult problems between nations and peoples.”
He also goes home with an invaluable book of contacts and many new friends.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.