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A Land Where Roots Run Deeper Than Oil

India's Naga tribes have no intention of selling the land their ancestors died for without some guarantees for their children's futures.

September 16, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

WOKHA, India — The Nagas of northeastern India, warriors for centuries, launched the country's oldest insurgency nearly five decades ago -- a few years before their last tribe gave up headhunting.

They have been poor for much longer, but they are in no hurry to tap the oil riches lying roughly a mile beneath their feet. Protecting the land their ancestors died for is more important, said Nyanbeno Ngullie, leader of one of the ethnic group's 16 major tribes.

"When the oil extraction starts, there will be displacement of our people," said Ngullie, whose Lotha tribe dominates oil-rich western Nagaland.

"Although we are ignorant people, we have come to know at least something: The intention of these oil companies is to get money, as much as they can. That is their problem. And our problem is: After us, where will our younger generations live?"

Nagaland state sits on a multibillion-dollar reserve that would give this energy-hungry country -- imports are expected to rise 11% in the next year -- some relief from high global oil prices, fueled in part by India's growing thirst for foreign crude.

Despite decades of pressure, and the promise of great wealth, the Naga tribes have refused to allow anyone to develop the oil fields, which could yield up to 85 million barrels of petroleum. India imports more than a million barrels of oil a day, less than a third of what it consumes.

Naga leaders say the oil will stay in the ground until they have guarantees that anyone forced to move will get new land, not just cash. They also want assurances that their lush jungles, rivers and rice paddies will be protected against oil spills and other environmental hazards. And they want a share of the profit to go to tribal councils for local development.

Resistance runs in the blood of the Nagas, who have battled invaders for centuries.

Many Nagas see India as an occupying power that merely took over from Britain, which had managed to conquer just a part of Nagaland before withdrawing from the subcontinent in 1947. Nagaland declared independence the day before the British gave up India, and after peaceful efforts to separate failed, an armed rebellion began in 1956.

U.S., Canadian, German and French oil companies have expressed interest in buying the rights to develop Nagaland's reserves, along with India's state-run Oil & Natural Gas Corp. Any approved partners would operate in a consortium with ONGC, state officials said.

But student protests, and the threat of guerrilla attacks, forced the companies to back off, leaving the oil trapped in a dispute between tribal leaders and rebel fighters on one side and the state and Indian governments on the other.

As the state's former elected leader, Sanaiyangba Chubatoshi Jamir spent more than a decade trying to negotiate a deal to develop the oil fields. He says Nagaland will suffer as long as the black gold stays locked up.

"Unless we exploit our mineral resources, the state will always be a beggar," he said.

The origins of the oil dispute, and possibly the seeds of its resolution, are written in an obscure clause of India's Constitution, which gives Nagaland exclusive control over its natural resources, the only Indian state with that status.

But Naga nationalists want a complete break from India, or at least an autonomous state that would include predominantly ethnic Naga areas in three bordering states: Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur.

Nagaland is in a remote corner of northeastern India, on the border with Myanmar, which also has a Naga minority. On a map, since the 1947 partition, the northeast looks like an afterthought, linked to the rest of India by a narrow stretch of land that runs between Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Separatists argue that India's 3.5 million Nagas -- who are generally East Asian in appearance -- are so obviously different and far removed from the rest of the country's 1 billion people that Nagaland should be recognized as a nation. That is the only way to protect the Nagas' culture and economic interests, they say.

The Indian government says such a move could encourage other rebellions.

In a country dominated by Hindus, most Nagas are Christian, the legacy of American Baptist missionaries who began spreading the Gospel in the remote mountain jungles more than a century ago.

Some Naga tribes, which are believed to have ancient roots in northwestern China, were headhunters. The practice was common in Nagaland until the early 20th century, but the last reported case was in the 1960s.

The Nagas took up arms against India's government 48 years ago, when the rebel National Socialist Council of Nagaland began its war for independence. The rebels have split into two factions, and they kidnap and assassinate each other's members even as they struggle against Indian rule.

A curious hybrid faith in both Karl Marx and Jesus Christ inspires cadres of the largest faction, the NSCN (IM).

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