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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 40 New Delhi September 24, 2016

Contours of the Naga Society: Some Important Missing Flakes Unfurled

Saturday 24 September 2016, by J.J. Roy Burman


While dealing about the Naga problem, I wrote in a previous article that one of the most important political parties of the Nagas, the NSCN (IM), is a fascist party by nature. I failed in my efforts as an anthropologist to define the reasons for such a state. The Nagas by themselves are a peaceful society and even during the head-hunting days the raids were negotiated and pre-announced. I have myself received utmost love, care and supreme hospitality even in villages where I was a complete stranger, something absolutely unimaginable in mainland India. I must have also been unjust to my Naga students whose affections have drowned me in bliss, imposing my ethnocentric biases. I might impress them by my knowledge of the area but could not fully fathom their life in totality. I could sense some sort of unhappiness in them which they did not dare express.

I trace the roots of the Nagas’ sense of intense insecurity vis-a-vis the Indian nation-state. The parliamentary democratic order itself is one of the prime factors for the present imbroglio and also the historical heritage of the entry of state power which is equally responsible, if not several times more.

First of all, the Naga identity-formation itself owes to British colonisation. The term Naga was popularised by the British. Secondly, it is wrong to presume, as is often articulated, that the British did not intervene in the internal administration of Naga villages. After external military conquests, the British forcefully recruited the Naga men in the Royal Army to fight in Europe during the First World War. It is these soldiers who played a major role in forming the Naga Club in 1918 along with other service-holders under the patronage of British administrators. The Naga soldiers realised that the world was not that small as they imagined and they got the flavour of nation-states and even got to know about the other regions that form the parts of present India and maybe the adjoining lands as well.

The sense of hatred against the Indians developed ever since the Nagas were conquered by the British. The Royal Army may have been led by a few White officers but the guns were shot by overwhelming numbers of brown foot-soldiers—Hindu, Muslim and even Meiteis and Nepalese. Their woes were compounded by the brown traders who fleeced them in the bordering markets of the plains. They could also understand the derogatory remarks passed on them by the Assamese as Kukurkhua or dog-eaters. The other physical posturing and insulting demeanour towards them also did not go unnoticed. These are some of the dominating factors which encouraged them to invite the Christian missionaries to their domains. Godhuli, a person of Assamese origin, was the first missionary to enter into a Naga village after being invited by some AO Nagas visiting Jorhat. Prof Willamson Sangma, a famous Garo scholar, too had commented that it was the natives (Garos) who had invited the missionaries to their villages instead of the other way round. This view contradicts the general allegations made by mainland Indians.

I have written in many of my earlier articles that Christianity had a tremendous positive impact on the hill tribes of North-East India and one of them had been referred to by M.M. Thomas, the erstwhile Governor of Nagaland, in one of his public speeches. A Christian nun of Mao origin, Lotsuro too had referred in her book Naga Christianity, which I reviewed, that the missionaries did not provide any material incentive to convert the tribes and that their actions by and large had not led to any significant economic change that may catch the eye, and jhum cultivation continues to be the predominant mode of livelihood. I had also praised the missionaries as, like many others, they brought in the modern Western education system and introduced the sense of hygiene and Western health care practices. But as of now, I realise a different interpretation of all these phenomena. The much-praised Western education demolished the traditional system of Naga education—dealing with the nature and humanely relations, based on the principles of receiving and reciprocating, inculcating respect towards all—man and man and man and nature; a cosmocentric orientation, institutionalised with utter discipline in the morungs or youth dormitories.

The modern education has rendered the youth useless in their own domains and the so-called educated boys and girls do not return to their villages and even prefer serving as bartenders, mall girls and waitresses at distant cities under alien conditions earning insignificant emolu-ments risking their lives. My own Ph.D student, Zingran Kengoo, a Tangkhul Naga hailing from Ukhrul, Manipur, was found murdered in his own flat located in some sort of a slum close to a posh colony of South Delhi. He found no regular job and was struggling for survival as a free-lance researcher. He could not have a family of his own and was a confirmed bachelor. Back in the villages you only find dumb boys running errands for the elderly bullying Village Council members. Else you get to see several school dropouts often attracted to the jungle life of the militants, risking their lives for a couple of thousand bucks. This maleficence ultimately ends up with engaging strangers migrating mainly from Bihar, UP, Nepal, Cachar and even Bangladesh to work on the agricultural fields, farmyards, dairies or even menial work. The Naga pride prohibits them to work as scavengers, porters or rickshaw-pullers. The Inner Line Permit is hardly effective in checking the illegal immigrants and reportedly many of the Naga contractors themselves are complicit in such crimes. It was found that between 1991 and 2001 Nagaland witnessed the highest decennial population growth among all the States of India. The Western education introduced by the British, to think back, perhaps was more with the intention of coopting the peoples into the colonial dispensation rather than simple benevolence. The missionaries unintentionally fell into this sinister trap and became an instrument of cooption into the colonial state. They even at times received grants from the colonial government.

The missionaries are also credited with popularising Western medicinal practice among the Nagas as in other places of the North-East. They opened many clinics and hospitals in different parts of the region. They also taught the people to have proper sanitary practice and imbibed a sense of hygiene. But again reminiscing I realise in reality this alien system undermined the indigenous traditional know-ledge base and made the natives feel ill at ease when the government PHCs malfunctioned and this compelled them to travel to distant places even for minor illnesses and cough off much of their life savings. Their knowledge-base about local herbs and shrubs got gradually obliterated. It is on record that even about ten years back Nagaland registered the lowest death rate and highest longevity rate in the country. I have come across several men of around 100 years old sturdily moving around joking with small children or even cleaning the church premises on social work days. The available flora and fauna in the adjoining forests were the source of their life potions and elixirs. Today the multi-national companies are minting profit in tons by making the people drug-dependent. These agencies are also notorious for experimenting freely on the innocent people.

The Church too blundered by spreading the message that alcohol intake was an anti-Christian act (ignoring the fact that the best Scotch is produced in Scotland, a hardcore Christian land, and that the best Champaign is produced in France) and banned production and intake of rice beer. Rice beer provided the best nutrition after a day’s hard labour in the jhum. Today the people have been turned into criminals for procuring liquor under cover due to the government policy of prohibition and the high cost of drinks, unaffordable to the youth, has turned them into substance abuse and the spread of deadly HIV Aids. No wonder, realising their folly the Church in Mizoram adopted a far more flexible attitude and the State Government has recently withdrawn the Prohibition Act.

The Church has also strengthened patriarchy by not providing any important position to the women in the Church management. The record of the Roman Catholic Church is even worse where the priests maintain celibacy and the parish Fathers are assisted by male Catechists. The Protestant Churches have at least the Church Community comprising female members as well. Also the girls are nowadays able to avail school education like the boys, and in fact it is on record that more numbers of women are presently availing higher education than men and many of them are not tying the knot till the middle ages.

The Church has not done the mistake of eradicating the clans attached to the concept of totems and associated taboos. Clan exogamy is maintained very strictly in spite of conversion to Christianity. Gennas are very common in the Naga villages and it becomes virtually impossible to intrude into them during the period without getting badly bashed up. The Church has also not prevented the people from celebrating the cultural festivals associated with the agricultural seasons. In fact, for the Nagas dwelling outside in different parts of the world the rituals are observed with even more gusto. The Naga Students Federation in Delhi is found to be extremely immersed in such celebrations and collect large donations to enjoy these with tremendous fun fare and frolic. The Feast of Merit, once discarded, is being revived again.

The submission of a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 for assisting the right of keeping away from independent India, unknowingly proved disastrous for the Nagas. As a response to this memorandum the Naga Hills District was declared as an Excluded Area in 1935. This Act resulted in isolation of the Nagas from the other tribes of the region who continued to be members of the Provincial Council. Even as of now the Nagas continue to be a detached lot. The NSCN (IM) could make alliance only with a few militant groups in the region, that too, tentatively. They entered into a bitter battle for long with the Kukis inhabiting Manipur. The Nagaland Assembly has not a single member in the Opposition. Most interestingly, the Tangkhul Nagas inhabiting the Ukhrul district of Manipur did not sign the memorandum submitted to the Simon Commission. This is surprising since the NSCN (IM) is now the leading voice of the Naga movement.

The author belongs to the faculty of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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