From Customary Law to Constitutional Rights: Eastern Naga People’s Unified Pursuit of Frontier Nagaland Territory

BY | Monday, 10 June, 2024

Author: Dr. Aniruddha Babar, Senior Faculty, Dept of Political Science, Tetso College, Dimapur, Nagaland. Director, Project Constitutional Justice

In the annals of political theory, the agency of individual choice and collective conscience is often highlighted as a pivotal force in shaping the actions and orientations of larger social entities. This dynamic interplay is vividly illustrated in the decision of the Eastern Nagaland Peoples’ Organisation (ENPO) to abstain from all centre and state elections. This decision reflects a profound embodiment of “bottom-up” decision-making that aligns with Eastern Naga customary traditions and is safeguarded under Article 371A of the Indian Constitution. This abstention underscores the importance of the voice of the local, grassroots populace, showcasing how genuine demands and aspirations of individuals, reflected in community conscience, can influence and steer political participation and collective action on a national stage.

The ENPO’s move not only highlights the unique political landscape of Eastern Nagaland but also exemplifies the significance of their demand for constitutional autonomy and regional self-determination through the creation of “Frontier Nagaland Territory ” in the state of Nagaland within the democratic fabric of India. This decision reflects the enduring strength of indigenous governance systems and their capacity to shape political outcomes in a way that respects and preserves local heritage, traditions and customs. Article 371A grants special provisions to Nagaland, recognizing and protecting Naga customs, practices, and traditions. This constitutional safeguard underscores the significance of customary laws and practices in the governance of the Naga people, allowing their traditional decision-making processes to flourish within the broader Indian democratic framework. By affirming the autonomy of Naga customs, Article 371A ensures that the cultural identity of the Naga people is preserved and respected.

The ENPO’s abstention is a quintessential example of how individual choices coalesce into a collective mandate for Frontier Nagaland Territory. Despite lacking a formal enforcement mechanism, the ENPO’s call for abstention was met with unprecedented 100% (hundred percent) adherence during the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Furthermore, this election can be seen as a pivotal moment akin to a “referendum” regarding the Frontier Nagaland Territory. The Eastern Naga community recognized that abstaining from voting in the election equated to endorsing the concept of “Frontier Nagaland Territory.” Hence, the complete absence of participation in the Lok Sabha election can be interpreted as resounding support for the Frontier Nagaland Territory.

This unique phenomenon, observed for the first time in the modern political history of Nagaland, can be understood through the political theories of participatory democracy and collective action, where the power of the collective emerges not from coercive structures but from the voluntary and conscious choices of individual citizens. The overwhelming response to the ENPO’s call indicates a deep-seated resonance with the people’s individual sentiments and aspirations, highlighting a collective conscience that transcends mere organisational directives.

In addition to these significant cultural and political dimensions, the ENPO’s abstention also brings to light critical socio-economic factors driving this movement. Eastern Nagaland has long faced developmental challenges, including inadequate infrastructure, limited access to quality education and healthcare, a lack of economic opportunities resulting from fractured governance and apathy of the Nagaland state government. By abstaining from elections, the ENPO underscores the region’s frustration with the status quo and its demand for the creation of Frontier Nagaland Territory. This abstention highlights the Eastern Naga community’s desire for a governance model that prioritises local needs and harnesses the region’s unique potential. The creation of Frontier Nagaland Territory is not merely a political aspiration but a call for socio-economic justice, aiming to address historical neglect and ensure sustainable development tailored to the specific needs of the Eastern Naga people. This perspective adds another layer to the ENPO’s movement, illustrating that their push for constitutional autonomy is intricately linked with aspirations for improved livelihoods and a better future for their communities.

The unity demonstrated by the voters underscores a shared commitment to a common cause, revealing the intrinsic power of unified action in shaping political landscapes. The ENPO’s influence, therefore, lies not in hierarchical imposition but in its ability to tap into and amplify the collective will, showing that true political power can stem from grassroots mobilisation and the alignment of genuine individual intentions and aspirations toward a common purpose.

In examining this scenario, one is reminded of the theories of social contract espoused by thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argued that legitimate political authority arises from the collective agreement of individuals (this specific statement needs to be examined and understood by interpreting the enabling provisions under Article 371A by applying all four rules of Interpretation of Statute- that is-The Golden rule, The Literal Rule, The Mischief Rule and The Rule of Harmonious Construction ).

The ENPO’s abstention, driven by the people’s will, echoes Rousseau’s notion of the “General Will,” where the collective decision reflects the true will of the people, both as a group and as individuals. This alignment between individual conscience and collective action reinforces the legitimacy and constitutional as well as legal validity of the ENPO’s stance, positioning it as a genuine expression of the people’s individual as well as collective will.

In this context, the ENPO’s decision not only aligns with the philosophical underpinnings of social contract theory but also underscores the importance of grassroots democracy, where the voice of the populace is paramount. The resonance of Rousseau’s ideas in this situation highlights the enduring relevance of his thoughts, suggesting that contemporary political movements continue to draw inspiration from these foundational principles. By adhering to the collective will, the ENPO exemplifies a modern manifestation of Rousseau’s ideals, demonstrating how historical philosophical concepts can find application in present-day political landscapes.

Moreover, the ENPO’s role in this context can be seen as one in which leadership and authority are established through ideological and cultural consent rather than through force or coercion. The ENPO’s influence stems from its alignment with the cultural and traditional values of the Eastern Naga people, ensuring that its decisions reflect the community’s collective conscience. By deeply embedding itself within the cultural framework and ethos of Eastern Naga society, the ENPO can foster a form of leadership that is organically accepted by the Eastern Naga people. This organic acceptance amplifies the ENPO’s ability to act as an authentic representative, highlighting its effectiveness in embodying the people’s collective aspirations and securing a harmonious consensus within the broader framework of the Constitution of India, particularly Article 371A.

This form of leadership underscores the ENPO’s position as a true representative of the people’s will, seamlessly integrating traditional values with contemporary governance, particularly in the context of its stance regarding the “Frontier Nagaland Movement”. The Eastern Naga people’s decision, as articulated in historic “The Great Chenmoho Resolution,” to abstain from centre and state elections echoes Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance. Gandhi, advocating for collective non-cooperation, highlighted the power of unified action in asserting political and moral agency. The Eastern Naga People’s abstention embodies non-violent resistance / protest under Article 19(1) (a), symbolising a unified stance asserting autonomy and dissent in response to perceived injustices or political estrangement in fulfilling the demand for the creation of Frontier Nagaland Territory.

This strategic deployment of “abstention” as a lawful political tool underscores the ENPO’s firm commitment to representing the collective conscience of the people through peaceful and democratic means, akin to Gandhi’s principles. The abstention of the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organization (ENPO) finds resonance within the framework of deliberative democracy, underscoring the pivotal role of public reasoning and collective deliberation in democratic governance. This stance is not a haphazard one but emerges from extensive consultations and discussions within the ENPO community, embodying a participatory ethos fundamental to the principles of deliberative democracy. The unanimity of the abstention serves as evidence of a decision that has been carefully crafted through thorough and inclusive discourse, thereby reinforcing the democratic ethos deeply ingrained in Eastern Naga customary traditions.

It is also pertinent to note the impact of such collective actions on broader democratic principles and practices. The ENPO’s abstention sends a powerful message about the importance of genuine representation and responsiveness to the people’s needs, desires and aspirations. This bottom-up approach challenges the often top-down impositions of political decisions, advocating for a more inclusive and participatory form of governance that respects and integrates local customs and voices. The international community, especially our Naga brothers and sisters across the Indo-Myanmar Border  also watches closely, as the creation of Frontier Nagaland Territory will bound to have a constructive, positive economic impact over all the Naga communities living in “Naga Self-Administered Zone” located in the Sagaing region of Myanmar, amplifying the ENPO’s inevitable influence beyond national boundaries.

The ENPO’s decision stands as a compelling demonstration of the potency of grassroots movements in shaping the contours of national political arenas. It is a poignant illustration of the remarkable influence wielded by collective action, steeped in tradition and driven by the deliberate choices of ordinary citizens. This act of ‘unified’ abstention not only reflects a deep-seated commitment to historical practices of Eastern Naga populace but also serves as a compelling reminder of the enduring force inherent in individual and collective agency to mould and redefine the fabric of political landscapes, shaping and transforming the trajectory of governance and societal evolution in the ‘enabling’ provisions under Article 371A within a strong, protective framework of the constitution of India.   .

In conclusion, the ENPO’s decision to abstain from all centre and state elections exemplifies the strong influence and constructive impact of individual choice and collective conscience in political decision-making. Firmly rooted in Eastern Naga customary traditions and protected by Article 371A, this abstention reflects a bottom-up process where the will of the individual citizens drives collective action. The ENPO’s role, devoid of coercive enforcement mechanisms, highlights the power of cultural hegemony, participatory democracy, and non-violent resistance in shaping political outcomes. Through this lens, the ENPO’s abstention stands as a validation of the enduring strength of individual agency and collective conscience in the pursuit of political and cultural autonomy.

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