Who Deserves Independence?

A historian spotlights the backstories of nationalist groups that were passed over during the post-World War II wave of decolonization.

India map of states and disputed territories

By Lydia Walker

Twentieth-century global decolonization changed the map. In the thirty years after the Second World War, sixty countries—mostly in Asia and Africa—became independent from colonial powers. During the high point of accelerated decolonization in 1960, the United Nations recognized seventeen independent states. At times it seemed that there was a new country every week. 

This narrative of progressive national liberation ignores two important implications. First, it overlooks the existence of people who claimed—yet did not receive—independence during this period of heightened possibility. Second, it elides the fact that international recognition required an external audience—sometimes the United Nations, or a former colonizer, or a great power backer—to determine which ‘people-territorial match’ was a nation deserving a state, or a minority requiring protections, or indeed, a group of humans needing rights. Recognition signifies seeing a people as a state, considering a people as a political unit that ‘deserves’ statehood, and therefore being willing to hear their claim in international politics. The unspoken presence of a silent, sometimes shifting entity that bestowed international recognition suggested that it was incumbent on the nationalist movement to demonstrate its legitimacy, and construed the granting of statehood as a moral rather than a strategic question. 

The Role of Advocacy

In order to demonstrate their legitimacy to audiences with power—or those with access to circles of power—nationalist claimants relied on advocates to assist them in their petitioning and fundraising. 

These advocates were a strange array of missionaries, anthropologists, activists, and newspaper reporters. Their petitioning set the stage for nationalist claimants to pursue international recognition, and the possibility of moving their claims onward, to the attention of organizations like the United Nations or the Rockefeller Foundation. 

During the early 1960s, claimants from groups that were often considered minorities used nationalism to frame their demands of resistance. They did so because this made their claims internationally and legally legible, and therefore ‘legitimate’—i.e., understandable to their advocates (and through their advocates, potentially to audiences of power). Studies of the nationalist claims of the Kurds, Tibetans, and Palestinians, of the peoples of Biafra and of Western Sahara, among many others, show how advocacy—sometimes called rebel or insurgent diplomacy—worked as an avenue for understanding the aspirations and actions of a range of nationalist movements that did not achieve independence during the postwar era.1 Nationalist claims moved, mutated, actualized, and dissolved through networks of advocacy, through the efforts and activities of concerned individuals and organizations with connections to media, corporations, and influential government figures. 

But enough theory—how did this operate in practice? 


Photo of the Naga Hills

In June 1960, the nationalist leader for the Naga people in northeast India, Angami Zapu Phizo, arrived in London after a two-year secret journey that took him from East Pakistan through Zürich on a fake El Salvadorian passport. When Phizo reached London, he had travelled nearly 10,000 kilometers undercover from the Naga Hills, in the Indian Northeast, the part of India that hangs over (then) East Pakistan, bordering (then) Burma with whom it shared an unfixed frontier until 1952. While this territory became the Indian state of Nagaland formally in 1963, Nagas continued to live in contiguous parts of Burma, Assam, Manipur, and the North East Frontier Agency (which became the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh). According to Naga accounts, in 1952, there were approximately 800,000 Nagas across all the Naga territories.2 

Foreign intervention in Nagaland began during the Second World War. The Allied Forces halted the Japanese westward invasion in the Naga Hills, at the Battles of Kohima and Imphal, in neighboring Manipur. Battle and bombing modernized a region left purposely undeveloped by the British Raj, since it was cheaper and easier to govern with a light footprint. Few Nagas actually fought in the war. Only one is buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Kohima. And not all chose the Allied side; Phizo himself allied with the Japanese. 

War was not the only foreign intervention in the region. From the 1870s onward, a small group of American Baptists converted many people in the area to their religion. After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian government selectively refused to renew visas of missionaries departing for home leave, arguing that they undermined Naga loyalty to the Indian Union; by 1953, there were no more Americans in the Naga Hills. Still, American influence persisted. Today, the Indian state of Nagaland is 90 percent Christian and 75 percent Baptist.3 Percentage-wise, it is the most Baptist ‘state’ in the world, after the American state of Mississippi.4 
Besides war and religion, social scientific study also connected the Naga Hills to the Western world. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century anthropology had depicted Nagas as premodern headhunters, as an uncivilized tribal people in a forgotten corner of the world. Anthropology not only defined Nagas this way in scholarly monographs, but also in the Indian constitution. Verrier Elwin, a British anthropologist who took Indian citizenship after independence, advised on special provisions for tribes within the Indian constitution. He believed that the tribal areas of the northeast should be kept separate from the rest of India for a time so that the peoples that resided there could be slowly modernized and Indianized in the “right” way, and also lured away from what he perceived as their racial affinity with China and affective sympathy with the British Empire. 

Quest for Independence

Phizo himself, the Naga nationalist leader, was a member of the Angami tribe from Khonoma village. The Angamis of Khonoma had held off the British twice in 1847 and 1879.5 Phizo embodied a nationalist call of historic and current resistance with populist credibility. In 1954, he went into the forest to lead an insurgency against the Indian Army. Two years later, when the war in Nagaland did not go in his favor, he sneaked into East Pakistan in order to pursue international support for Naga independence. The Pakistanis looked on the Naga cause with suspicion and kept Phizo in bounds. Neither Pakistan nor China, however inimical to India, would seriously foment separatist sentiment in the region, when they had their own national-separatists in nearby East Pakistan and Tibet with which to contend. 

Making his way to Zürich, Phizo was stranded. Through family contacts, he came to the attention of Reverend Michael Scott, an Anglican clergyman and anti-apartheid activist who worked with the Indian delegation at the United Nations on questions of national liberation in Southern Africa. 

Reverend Scott knew that taking up the Nagas could upset his important working friendships with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Nehru’s sister who had been the Indian ambassador to the United Nations and was high commissioner to London in 1960. But he felt that there might be something major to the Naga plaint, which argued through history that Nagaland had never been really part of India, and through data by presenting lists of Indian military atrocities against individual Nagas.6

So Reverend Scott went down to Zürich in June 1960 and brought Phizo to London. Under the label ‘former imperial citizen,’ Phizo was provisionally admitted into the UK.7 Scott gave Phizo an office at the Africa Bureau, a nongovernmental organization focused on African anticolonial nationalism in the heart of London. Phizo quickly got to work writing a booklet on the history and politics of Naga nationalism, and appearing in public forums to personally demonstrate the Naga cause to a potential international audience.

Photo of personal papers of Zapuvisie Lhousa, Naga nationalist insurgent

People or State?

Phizo’s arrival in London during the summer of 1960—a year when seventeen colonies became independent states—posed the quandary: When were a people deemed a minority deserving protections versus a nation requiring a state? With his adherents, Phizo consciously placed the Naga claim within the context of African decolonization, and reached out to Reverend Scott because of Scott’s longtime role as spokesman for anticolonial nationalist claims-making for South Africa and Namibia. 

While at times Naga nationalists used their status as a premodern tribal people to appear harmlessly apolitical to Indian authorities, they also subverted the stereotype with their reams of typed, English-language petitions protesting India and asserting their national sovereignty.9 They consciously presented themselves as modern and therefore respectable to international and Indian audiences. Elwin, the British anthropologist, complained that the Nagas in London were “dressed up like members of the YMCA,” and Indian commentators groused that the Naga nationalists wore the clothes of “life insurance salesmen.”10 Naga nationalists made a point of displaying themselves as English speaking, Western-oriented, and most importantly, Christian—in contrast to the rest of India. 

Image of old newspaper clipping about Naga nationalists

Nationalists of all sorts made important sartorial and linguistic choices in physically demonstrating their claims in person, on paper, and in their environment—from Yasser Arafat wearing Fidel Castro’s military fatigues (and aligning his cause visually with left-wing revolution) to the renaming of cities, streets, countries, and even people by new nationalist elites. Usually this nationalist branding occurred in reaction to Western-ruled imperial pasts or current colonial opponents. For Nagas, however, India had a vested interest in portraying them as an exotic, premodern tribal people, the “spear-and-feathers contingent.”11 In opposition, Naga nationalists emphasized their “Western-ness” in clothing, language, and religion. A contrast that deliberately set them outside of India’s own international political self-presentation of sari-clad Indian Ambassador Vijayalakshmi Pandit speaking in the United Nations on behalf of disenfranchised South Asians and Africans in South Africa. 

From Decolonization to International Recognition

Decolonization transformed sovereignty for regions in the Global South by recognizing many former colonies as independent states. Yet even as the UN General Assembly declared and accepted national self-determination as a norm, as it did in 1960, that norm did not meet the standards of political practice. In practice, international recognition favored communities that had already begun to take over the infrastructures of authority under colonial rule, and acquired leverage with the colonial power—or alternatively had the military strength and regional allies to command dominance when colonial powers withdrew. In either process, successor regimes were able to secure the acquiescence—forced or grudging—of their departing colonizer and its great power allies (usually, but not exclusively, the US) on their route to international recognition. 

The contradiction between the norm of national self-determination and the practice of international recognition arose for communities with national aspirations who mobilized later, or, like the Nagas, were considered by both colonizer and successor state to be incapable of the development and ‘civilization’ necessary for nation building. Because of the solidarity of statehood, UN member states—almost all of whom included minority peoples claiming different levels of autonomy—stood to gain little and lose much by providing claimants within each other’s territories the recognition of a public hearing. 

Indeed, in spite of his many letters and journeys, Phizo never reached the United Nations to publically present the Naga nationalist claim. The Naga demand for an independent state, like those of many peoples within or straddling the borders of preexisting states, came up against the limits of a system of international order designed to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its members. 

The constraints on nationalist claims-making for so-called minorities show not only the complexity of decolonization, but also its structural shape—a shape defined by that which it excludes. The narrative of Naga nationalist claims-making is full of secret journeys, stalled endeavors, refused hearings, deportations, and exile. These disappointments all express the parameters, and therefore the boundaries, of what is a legitimate national claim, who can provide recognition, and the process by which that may—or may not—be achieved. 

Viewing the political transformation of the 1960s from the perspective of nationalist claimants within postcolonial states shines a spotlight on decolonization’s unfinished pieces. This perspective reveals the process of decolonization outside of the celebratory narratives from dominant nationalist movements or those of imperial apologia, and maintains that the question of how groups are organized and recognized is political—determined by power relationships—rather than moral. ‘Who deserves independence?’ is the wrong question to ask. A better question might be, ‘why is independent statehood framed as a reward or prize, for a which a people must demonstrate their legitimate candidacy?’ And ‘who profits by framing the question in this manner?’ A system of international order has much to gain by reading political questions that have the potential to undermine the territorial integrity of its member states in terms that make them unrealizable or invisible. 

Photo of looking out a window at Nagaland

—Lydia Walker, Postdoctoral Fellow, Dartmouth College

Lydia Walker is a former Graduate Student Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs who received her PhD from the Department of History at Harvard University in May 2018. She is a researcher and historian of decolonization and the Cold War, with a regional specialization in South Asia. Currently, she holds positions as an affiliated scholar at the Weatherhead Center (summer 2018), as a postdoctoral fellow at Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding (2018–2019), and as a Past & Present Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London (2019–2021). This essay is drawn from the research for her book manuscript, States-in-Waiting, elements of which will also be published as an article, "Decolonization in the 1960s: On Legitimate and Illegitimate Nationalist Claims-making," forthcoming from Past & Present in February 2019. Find out more about Lydia Walker and her research on her website


1. South Asia Showing India with States and Disputed Territories. Created using India with States (Disputed Areas) and South Asia with Countries by FreeVectorMaps.com. Credit: Kristin Caulfield

2. The Naga Hills. Credit: Lydia Walker

3. Personal papers of Zapuvisie Lhousa, Naga nationalist insurgent, in Mezoma, Nagaland. Credit: Lydia Walker 

4. Naga nationalists Yongkong, Kaito, Mowu, and Yanthan with one of their advocates, Ursula Graham Bower Betts, on a London park bench. Nagaland, The Daily Herald (UK), September 1962, DO 196/62, held by The National Archives, Kew. This information is licensed under the terms of the Open Government Licence.

5. The view from Mezoma, Nagaland. Credit: Lydia Walker


1. Alex de Waal, “Genealogies of Transnational Activism” in de Waal, ed. Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism (Zed Books, 2015) pp. 22–27.

2. Unnamed Naga tribal spokesman to Hindustan Times, 12 March 1952.

3. Indian Census, 2011.

4. Mississippi is 34% Baptist according to Paul Harvey, Freedom’s Coming: Religious Culture and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2007) pg. 255.

5. Sanjoy Hazarika, Strangers of the Mist: Tales of War and Peace from India’s Northeast (Penguin, 2003). pp. 95–6.

6. A.Z. Phizo, The Fate of the Naga People: An Appeal to the World (London: self-published, 1960).

7. Pieter Steyn, Zapuphizo: Voice of the Nagas (Keegan Paul, 2002) pg. 106.

8. Phizo, The Fate of the Naga People

9. There are a massive number of similar and copied Naga nationalist documents listing atrocities allegedly committed by the Indian Army found in collections ranging from Naga villages—I visited personal and church collections in Kohima, Mezoma, and Toulezoma outside Dimapur —to the Bodleian library in Oxford, UK.

10. Elwin to Hutton, 20 October 1962, Elwin Papers Subject File 16, Nehru National Museum and Library, New Delhi; Shankar’s Weekly, April 1966.

11. Ursula Graham Bower Betts to David Astor, 15 July 1966. Guthrie Michael Scott Papers Box 35, The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford.