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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 20 New Delhi May 5, 2018

Broken Myths and Future Trajectory of the Naga Women in Nagaland

Saturday 5 May 2018, by J.J. Roy Burman

The term Naga is shrouded in mysteries. On the one hand you have Naga—naked sadhus, Hindu mendicants who prefer moving virtually naked, except for the loin that covers the ultimatum. On the other hand we have got the Naga peoples inhabiting mainly the hill areas of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh. Some of them are even on the western province of erstwhile Burma, now known as Myanmar. Interestingly a few ethnic tribes in Kampuchea call themselves Nagas.

The Nagas trace their origins to South China from where they are inderstood to have migrated through various valleys and ravines. They cannot support their claims through any written history but oral histories are galore. Their migratory trajectories are embedded on their ancient colourful shawls. Linguistically they fall within the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group. The Nagas not being in direct touch with the Hindi-Hindu heartland have consideralde misgivings—perhaps rightly so.

The Nagas certainly were not isolated people. They purchased iron metals from outsiders and so did they procure women’s beed ornaments costing a fortune from outside traders. They regularly interacted with the ‘mainland’ traders based at weekly shandies on the foothills. But these encounters barely led to any armed confabulations. On the contrary there are documents showing the Ahom royalty and Naga gentry exchanging pleasantries and joining collective fishing ventures in the buffer lands during particular days of a year. It is importantly noted that women were not left out of these ventures.

Nagas, as stated, were a migratory tribe and settled in the present locations more than 1000 years back. Time had almost been anachronistic, they continued to dwell in their age-old thatched habitats and mud houses. Christianity entered and caused severe damage to their political freedom — right to self-determination. The pastor and his retinue, the Roman Catholic Fathers as well as the Catechists, took away the power of the laity.

The Nagas by tradition were an egalitarian society. They had two systems operating simultaneously—age-grade and age-set. Putu Menden, as it is called locally in Ao Naga dialect. Any person entering into puberty—boys and girls—enter into the age-grade. Men and women both shared the age-grade all their life. They enjoyed certain prerogatives joining the age-grade, but they too simultaneously offer voluntary labour like cleaning the paths to the jhum fields, build up burnt houses, construct and protect the village granaries—sundry other activities.

So far as their political role is considered, the women play a stellar role in bridging ties between the feuding head-hunting villages. They are known as ‘Pukhreila’ in the Tangkhul language. The economic role of the Naga society is immense. Only cutting trees, lopping and making way to the jhum paths, the rest of it—sowing, weeding, transplanting and harvesting— is clearly a woman’s job. Men would occasionally go hunting and keep the wild beasts at bay. Husking, pounding too fall in the preview of woman’s job. Saleable products are few like cotton, chilli, betel leaves and to some extent have to deal with non-tribal male north Indian itinerant traders for these. Women are given such as an economic asset that during feuding days, the boys make a surrounding right around the women, so that they are least harmed. Women’s head is the prize possession.

The Simon Commission did great damage to the Naga cause. Due to lack of support from the peripheral tribal communities the Nagas became loaner and could be manoeuvred by the British as the letter felt that after executing the Tribal Exclusion Act they could directly deal with the Nagas. They simply brought the area under government rule and the bureaucrats turned the scales. The Dubhashi (translator) and the Gaonbura turned into labour suppliers and provider of free food during the marching troops and government functionaries. In the process, the impending fences became obsolete and patriarchy set in. The myth about women’s low status is a creation of British intrusion.

In the days of jhum (60 per cent still depend on jhum) women are all in all. Bosrup, an anthropologist specialising in women’s agri-culture, clearly stated jhum to be the women’s economy. Coming down to the brass-stacks, in the case of jhum there is no question of male or female land. Jhum is a family enterprise and both male and female (even children) play important roles in it. Their rights are usufruc-tuary in nature and the land is reverted back to the community after the harvest is over. Only the homestead lands are under the stewardship of the youngest or oldest male member. On his passing away the land is passed off to the new generation. He enjoys a custodial right and not a proprietary right. It is in the present day that the state and non-state workers along with multinationals are trying to get deeply entrenched into the Naga economy and political entity and setting up patriarchy. The Naga Mothers Association’s (NMA) demand is therefore based on a misplaced notion. The Naga Ho Ho, an absolute male-dominated show, has to urgently revamp. The post of Dubhashi and Gaonbura are obsolete institutions unnecessarily costing the state exchequer. Madam Rosemary, leader of the NMA, must rethink again. After all, Article 371A has to be revoked. They should not forget that these had been framed quite due to the duress of the Indian onslaught. It is time good enough to move away. Nagas should not ignore the fact that they have built up nexus with many international forums like the UNPO, UN and IWGIA. All these bodies are empathetic about gender equity in their organisations—a process without franchise.

Unfortunately many educated Naga girls find no jobs in their State and are languishing in lowly paid jobs in the dirty lanes of cities like Delhi, Pune, Bangalore and Madras. India has no answer for them. As regards Nagaland’s sovereignty, Nagas must realise that it is a landlocked entity. In that case alliance with Manipur is its best bet. This may even pave the way for many other States in the North-East and the rest of India. The Tangkhul Nagas have conveniently become oblivious of their own traditions. In the winter months, a post-harvest ceremony called the ‘Luire’ celebration is seen in which men and women make out dens for seven days and all age-grade members congregate in their respective camps for seven days. They contribute money for the sacrifice of mithuns, pigs, chicken, fish, bull, and eat with merry-making. They dance also occasionally. On the 7th day all age-grades come out in their traditional dress and systematically and silently with humming sound dance to the village centre and part with the resounding conumbrated sound ‘Viva Nagas’, whither disappearance of Naga women? This myth has to be destroyed soon to build a just society.

The present-day Nagaland is in the throes of confusion. They once had demanded a sovereign state power; on the other hand they almost expect as a part of routine that the Central Government would fully dole them out. The Village Development Board (VDB) is the notorious institution that links up the grassroots to the chains of State, Non-State and inter-national financial institutions. One fall in the string would not be able to put humpty dumpty together again. Their talk of federalism can certainly provide the cushion that the entire country will have to pull up. But then federalism connot sustain in isolation. Naga women have already revealed their resilience through the organisations like NMA among the western Nagas, Watsumundang among the Ao or Shanaolong among the Tangkhuls. These organisations rise up to the occasion when the women are in distress like being mauled by the security personnel or by their own men folk. Given the occasion, the NMA should demand the abolition of the Gaonbura system, a colonial legacy rather than asking for greater percentage sharing with the menfolk in various institutions like the Village Development Boards. Their abolition will also save a great deal to the state exchequer or the Gaon Bura or the Municipal bodies. This will greatly facilitate the various women’s bodies in mobilising mass support.

Prof J.J. Roy Burman belongs to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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