Somaiah K, a young Indian, tries to figure out #Nagaland
Tonight too, I lay awake listening to echoes of dead birds’ songs, sung long ago;
these songs, that were once joyous celebrations of living
constantly drum the inner cores of my mind underscoring my past
— the days I took pride to serve our ‘traditional delicacies’ to family, friends and tourists
bragging “We love our wildlife best on our dining tables”.
Today I’m modern but that’s all and the tourists have stopped visiting my empty land
— a land as empty as I am.
Tonight too, I lay awake listening to echoes of dead birds’ songs, sung long ago.
these songs of dead birds, once joyous celebrations of living
are now constantly haunting lamentations and recriminations
that drum the inner cores of my mind underscoring my past
— the days I thought I could never go wrong.
(Dead Birds Haunt, Monalisa Changkija)
Kohima hosts a World War II Lee Grant Tank below Raj Bhavan, a relic of the pitched battles between British and Japanese forces. While some Nagas initially supported the Imperial Japanese Army, they switched sides when they realised the Japanese held them in disdain.
Indigenous people from Kohima transported ammunition and ferried wounded British soldiers while under heavy fire. It was they who stymied Japanese attempts to forage food from the surrounding countryside. Their role proved crucial, as starvation and disease debilitated the Japanese and facilitated British victory.
Nowadays the Lee Grant tank is a school kids’ hangout, a venue for practically tournament level school brawls. Such fights are an integral extracurricular activity occupying a distinct niche in the male student imagination. Pranksters punk the world at large by taking a dump down the tank’s hatch. This practice lends a distinctly faecal component to the stew of smells emanating from the metal shell.
While the tank may gradually become part of the hillside, its comrades in arms- sundry grenades, shells and bombs, buried across the slopes- go out with a bang. Post-war casualties include children at play, some who accidentally unearth an old bomb, others who pull out grenade pins by accident. Thankfully such tragedies are not commonplace.
WW II paraphernalia is still available in town markets across Nagaland. Although people may no longer bake cakes in ammunition boxes, as they were wont to in years past, there is plenty more to salvage. These items, such as helmets, bayonet blades and cartridges are gripping reminders of a time when the far-flung imperial interests of Britain and Japan converged upon the Northeast. INA (Azad Hind Fauj) soldiers fought alongside the Japanese. Utpal Borpujari’s documentary, Memories of a Forgotten War vividly recounts this epoch in Naga history. A review of this project is available here.
Kohima’s colonies tumble out beyond the ageing Lee Grant like the contents of an overstuffed khorü (bamboo basket): Jail, Officers’ Hill, Para Medical, Hospital. Names that reflect the annexes to the colonial layout. Even the site that Raj Bhavan occupies is the former Garrison Hill. Kohima of course has been around for longer than that. Prior to the British occupation it was known to the Angami tribespeople of the area as Kewhira. The Angami themselves belong to the Tenyimia, the peoples who share the language Tenyidie.
Dr. Duovituo Kuolie, Head of the Department of Linguistics and Tenyidie at Nagaland University holds that the title ‘Angami’ derives from ‘Ngami’, meaning ‘independent’. According to him, it was initially an exonym used by the Meitei , the ethnic majority group in Manipur, to describe this tribe of the Tenyimia to Captain Jenkin and Lieutenant Pemberton of the British Army; as a force under their command wished to pass through Tenyimia lands while en route from Imphal to Assam in 1832. Thereafter the Anglicization of the term filtered into popular usage.
Despite being the state capital, Kohima retains a predominantly Angami character. The flavour of the place is immediately perceptible to the outsider through refrains such as, “you don’t mess with Bara Bosti people”. This settlement, the largest of the Kohima Naga villages, is comprised largely of Northern Angami. It comprises of four Khels, or clans. Namely Tsütuonuomia, Lhisemia, Dapfütsumia and Pfütsachumia. Known as T, L, D and P Khel for short.
Bundled into the statement about Bara Bosti though, is the tragedy of a people’s warped self-perception. The loss of a wholesome sense of belonging leads to inner unease, which manifests in acts of othering. As you lose the nuance of your identity, half-baked but recurring stereotypes erode meaningful symbolism. This assertion is not in praise of stasis. Rather it arises from the question: what is it that tribal traditions are being replaced with?
So it is that among Nagas I sense a similar, curious admixture of pride and alienation as I perceive within the Kodava society I hail from- also known as Coorg because the British said so; Hindu because the Brahmins said so. People then fall prey to the corrosive effects of cultural identity dysphoria, which makes them even more susceptible to stereotypical profiling in order to validate themselves.
This process takes place from both within and without. Instead of reflecting upon their place within a changing world, people resort to a form of ersatz atavism. In this case the fakery of the self-perception fuels misdirected aggression. The mentality of a mob is not the same as community discipline.
The lynching that took place at Dimapur Central Jail on 5th March 2015 painfully typifies this tendency. Although the location of the incident was different, the underlying emptiness is much the same. When people lose faith in civil justice, they resort to forms of punishment that appear instantly realised, but ultimately debilitate all involved.
At this juncture, the short story ‘Nigu’s Red T Shirt’ by Avinuo Kire, seems pertinent. This tale chronicles young Neingulie’s quest to feel at home in his own skin, as he moves from Kohima to Delhi for college. In the process, he must contend with worldviews vastly different than his own. When faced with his Delhi neighbours’ standoffishness and the harsh glares of passerby at his appearance, he buys and fixates on a red t-shirt with Chinese lettering, onto which he projects his yearning for affirmation. The author fashions this t-shirt into a conceit for him to pass off as ‘Chinese’ in the capital and thereby make his life easier.
The climax of the story, when Neingulie encounters a group of actual Chinese tourists wearing the same shirt as himself, is instructive. Over the course of a photo session with the Chinese, who are intrigued that an Indian would have Neingulie’s features, the character realises the futility of his ruse. He does not fit with the Chinese; everyday Indians regard him as alien. However, his Naga heritage is worth more than a shallow melange of East Asian posturing. Thereafter, he relegates the shirt to a corner of his cupboard and begins a journey towards mature self-assertion.
With respect to Naga identity, it is worth revisiting the conflicted legacy of A. Z. Phizo. Under his leadership in the 1940s, the nascent Naga National Council (NNC) persuaded several influential tribes to stand together and assert their independence. Having said that, the current Naga political process largely marginalizes this man’s memory. Phizo galvanised the formation of pan-Naga identity. The cascading consequences of that movement shape the dimensions of the present state.
In its issue of June 9-22, 1990, Frontline Magazine published a powerful commentary on the outcomes of Phizo’s struggle following his death that year. The piece maintains that the very state of Nagaland is a monument to Phizo; in that through his efforts, the Naga tribes coalesced into a body politic after centuries of mutual conflict. The analysis is worth reproducing in full, but for now I remain content to reference the following:
“[The state of Nagaland] incorporates a disturbing negative legacy of Phizo – the persistence of [exclusionary, if not antagonistic] tribalism which in its modern, non-sanguinary, parliamentary version, may turn out to be more debilitating than its earlier, openly blood-stained version.
“The nationality formation remained infected with tribalism […] The flaw was quickly spotted by other Naga nationalist leaders such as those who split away from the NNC and formed the NSCN [National Socialist Council of Nagalim]. [Therefore] the marginalisation of Phizo in both legislative and insurgency politics was inherent in the very success he achieved, the monument he never acknowledged”.
A debilitating tribalism persists in both the legislative and resistance spheres of the Naga political process. As the article observes, in a final irony, Phizo’s body was laid to rest not at his native village of Khonoma, but next to the State Secretariat at Kohima.
As a, “sentimental outsider” of the sort alluded to by Frontline, I remain curious about the genesis and fallout of the Nagas’ struggle for political self-assertion. In that context, it is essential to note the trajectory of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN).
For brevity’s sake, I will merely sketch the outline of the evolution of the Naga National Council and the subsequent split that led to the formation of the NSCN as follows:
Naga Club (1918)
Nagaland Hills District Tribal Council (1945)
Naga National Council (1946)
NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (K) (1988)
Further NSCN splits and realignments
There are several underground factions. The two most prominent are the NSCN (I-M) and NSCN (K). I-M refers to the alliance of Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, onetime Vice-President and General Secretary respectively of the NNC. Isak Chishi Swu passed away last year. The NSCN (K) is headed by Muivah and Chishi Swu’s erstwhile partner, S.S. Khaplang. These two factions are at odds with each other.
For a more detailed timeline, please consider Dr. Namrata Goswami on the lead-up to the August 3, 2015 peace accord between the Government of India and the NSCN (I-M).
While students’ set-piece stand offs unfold around the mouldering machine, the Lee Grant’s quiet demeanour belies a tumultuous past. The tanks arrived as part of a relief column for the British troops stationed at Kohima. They played a pivotal role in busting Japanese bunkers beside the counterattacking British infantry. In time, this installation became a significant addition to hills laden with symbolism.
Other prominent government installations include the heavily fortified Ministers’ Hill and the hulking mass of the Police Headquarters. For all this dense construction, the area is renowned for its unstable topography and landslides are a regular feature. The spectres of potential earthquakes haunt the tangled town that chokes the hillsides. Does the heart of Kewhira yet pulse beneath the imperatives of the current pattern of development?
Perhaps the beginning of an answer rests in the Kohima State Museum, which is a small, well-maintained establishment. It houses impressive collections of daos, traditional jewellery and pottery. A dao is a utility blade or weapon, analogous to a Latin American machete or East African panga. It is usually set in a bamboo haft. Daos are shaped and weighted for different uses, which range from chopping trees to digging up clay.
As school tours buzz around the exhibits, I wonder what the students make of the items on display. It is an eclectic assortment, replete with reminders of the old ways and the new. From Konyak smiths’ hand crafted guns and Ao shawls awarded for feats of merit; to Dr. Imkongliba Ao’s electrotherapy machine, which arouses the viewer’s curiosity. There is a lot to take in.
Besides these collections, the museum houses a carefully curated photo gallery in its upper level, one of which stands out: S. C. Jamir, then Chief Minister of the state of Nagaland, at the inauguration of the State Library in 1981, staring impassively at the rows of naked steel shelves surrounding him.
Some say that S. C. Jamir leads a charmed life. The current Governor of Odisha’s sangfroid is especially remarkable in light of the multiple attempts on his life by the NSCN (I-M).
As a member of the Naga People’s Convention (NPC)- a body of university graduates and Naga bureaucrats under the Assam administration formed in parallel to the NNC- he was a signatory to the 1960 Sixteen Points agreement that paved the way for the induction of the state of Nagaland into the Indian Union. Opponents of the agreement claim that it was an insidious political ploy orchestrated by Indian intelligence agencies and their collaborators in order to undermine the legitimacy of the Naga national movement. In 2002, Jamir released a controversial booklet, Bedrock of Naga Society, which attempts to justify the legacy of the NPC’s decision.
Over the years, S. C. Jamir survived bullets, pipe bombs and allegations of graft to become the longest serving Chief Minister of Nagaland. Thereafter, he parleyed his proximity to the Congress-led Centre into various gubernatorial stints. As a shrewd political operator, his detractors accuse him of being a Delhi stooge. At any rate, he irrevocably altered the conduct of legislative politics in Nagaland.
There is another photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi with members of a Naga delegation that participated in the Republic Day celebrations at Delhi in 1961. As Nehru patronizingly drapes his arm around the shoulders of a Naga lady, Indira Gandhi looms darkly in the background. A portentous scene, to say the least.
The first Prime Minister of India and his cohorts kicked off a series of brute assimilationist measures to quell the so-called Naga problem. For example, the institution of the Village Guards, a force that may as well have set the template for the excesses committed by the Salwa Judum years later, in other tribal lands.
In subsequent years, Morarji Desai’s public remarks and policies towards Nagaland, including the imposition of Hindi, did not help matters. Nevertheless, they were of a piece with his predecessors’ approach of attempting to persecute the Nagas into submission. Years of conflict were fertile ground for the seeds of division. The State and the People alike reap a bitter harvest.
The mainstream Indian policy approach to the Northeast desperately needs to move beyond the farcical, Whac-A-Mole approach of constant military deployment. Further, healthy Nagaland-Manipur relations are integral to peace in the Northeast.
In that context, it is worth considering what Radhabinod Koijam, former Chief Minister of Manipur, wrote in memoriam Isak Chishi Swu. Although possessed of a decidedly statist perspective, it makes some useful points about the need for meaningful integration of the Northeast into the larger national consciousness.
Increased access to productive avenues of employment and equitable resource management are key to that end. Since Koijam is a prominent Meitei politician, one must hear his opinion in the context of protracted wrangling between the Meitei and certain Naga tribes, including the Tangkhul, in districts of Manipur such as Ukhrul, Senapati and Churachandpur.
Given the prevailing situation, the need to promote broader coexistence and defuse ethnic rivalries is paramount. In this aspect, officials must contend with the fallout of life under NEFA (North East Frontier Administration), which was a disastrous setup. Although headquartered at Shillong, it was an Assam-centric administration. This arrangement fuelled big-brother resentments across various communities in the Northeast and deepened strife arising from the bungled administrative divisions of land under the British. For instance, apart from Nagaland itself, Naga tribes are spread across Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Myanmar.
With respect to these and other hill tribes, the stopgap nature of asymmetrical federalism embodied by Article 371 (C) provide no lasting solution for how peoples in the Northeast can live together.
People in Nagaland were caught between the atrocities of the Indian state and eventually, the underground. On the one hand, the Indian political dispensation gave the army a carte blanche, through legislation such as the Assam Disturbed Areas Act (1955) and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA, 1958). Predictably, terrible violence ensued against civilians. On the other, the misconduct of underground cadre, particularly in terms of extortion, added new dimensions of suffering to the conflict.
Extortion continues to be a serious problem. Long-standing media witticisms about it being a de facto, “cottage industry” in the Northeast accentuate the numbness that occurs when prolonged political turmoil wages a war of attrition upon our consciences.
The erstwhile British Naga Hills district was at most partially administered by the colonial government. The Government of India Act 1919 and 1935 obliquely recognize this fact, successively terming Naga territory as a, “Backward Tract” and “Excluded Area”. While the British officially laid claim to the major part of the Naga Hills, there was significant difference of perception on this point among the Nagas.
When independent India and Burma were constituted, the Nagas were a liminal people- caught on both sides of the barbed wire. Their position on the frontiers of these countries made them a target to (adapting the Frontline phrasing), “split, tame and absorb”. Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu (Thakin Nu), the first Burmese Prime Minister, recognized this situation and pursued the subordination of Naga political aspirations to meet their respective nations’ territorial and strategic objectives. In an act of statesmanship, they met at Kohima in 1953 to smooth out the terms of the apportioning of the Naga Hills between Burma and India.
Ramachandra Guha narrates a moment from this episode in his book India After Gandhi, when the entire Naga audience gathered at a public meeting in Kohima in the two Prime Ministers’ honour staged a walkout. The reason was that local officials had refused a Naga delegation an audience with the Indian Prime Minister, when they wished to hand in a memorandum.
The assembled Nagas avenged the slight in spectacular fashion, apparently baring their bottoms at Nehru as they walked out. Guha adds that at this point, Indira Gandhi is supposed to have despondently remarked into a live microphone- papa woh ja rahein hain (papa, they are going).
Few on this earth know how to smoke meat like Nagas do. Even the fat on the pork has a shine to it that you scarcely see in mainland cities. My friends ascribe it to the pigs’ healthy diet. While townspeople increasingly turn to Assamese suppliers these days for pork, the quality of the meat is still a cut above. The same goes for the vegetables available on the market, which are organically grown. The wide availability of wild mushrooms is a happy sight.
One of the enduring memories of this trip involves eating slightly sweet, steamed black til (sesame) rice cakes at the Lahaurijan Sunday bazaar. On that outing we picked up fresh pork blood and liver, which my friend’s grandmother incorporated with meat into her legendary ai chou curry.
Obviously, Nagas love their food. Tribes seek to affix their stamp on certain dishes as a matter of prestige. For example, Anishi (dried and fermented Colocasia cakes) among the Ao, Galho (savoury porridge) among the Angami, Bastenga (fermented bamboo) among the Lotha and Axone (fermented soy) among the Sumi, who are known interchangeably as the Sema.
Nagas frequently cite their ‘anything that moves’ approach to food in contrast to various mainland communities’ dietary restrictions. However, I wish more of them would see that there are some of us who share this outlook.
On the flip side, more mainlanders must shed their fixation on the fact that some Nagas eat dog meat. There are too many Indian travel accounts where the narrator rudely investigates the kitchen of their lodgings or harasses Naga tour guides because they cannot abide the thought of consuming this animal. Or people who hyperventilate at the sight of dogs trussed in jute sacks for sale at the markets. If you do not want to eat dog, that is your own choice.
A quick rundown of superlative meals includes smoked beef with anishi, pork with muntsu (a variety of Schezuan pepper, the word is in Changki-O dialect), mithun tail and fiery sukhamas (dried, fermented fish) chutney. Some of the foods I tried for the first time are iripok (silkworms) and dog. One day I hope to get my hands on some lungu (red-wood worm).
The Nepali instant noodle brand Wai Wai is very popular in Nagaland, just as it is in areas of the mainland with large Nepali and Tibetan populations. The makers of Wai Wai are evidently fond of repeated phrases as a marketing device, as another popular product of theirs is the circular-sounding Wai Wai Ma Ma, which consists of chopped up, dehydrated masala noodles sold as namkeen.
Other popular snacks sold at roadside baki (credit) stores include dried and candied apricots, spiced plums and that other spicy, salty Nepali import, Lamo Chatpat. Garlands of packaged Burmese shrimp paste are ubiquitous. An equally common sight is shop doorways smeared with chuna (lime), which is an outcome of many Nagas’ tobacco chewing habit. I am reminded of the old uncle joke about JMD gutkha standing for Joldi Mura Davai or Quick Death Medicine.
In the towns, Korean food was all the rage a few years ago. The hysteria has largely died down, but some establishments linger in its wake, if the presence of Korean Uncle’s Kitchen at 5th Mile on NH 21 between Dimapur and Kohima is anything to go by. Still, my friends say that interest flares up again during the winter night bazaars in Dimapur and Kohima, where people from all parts throng the towns to soak up the gala atmosphere.
Winter is the best time to be in Nagaland, say my friends. Just to be a contrarian I landed up at their places in the summer. Kohima made good on its reputation for unpredictable weather at that time of year and a constant grey drizzle marked all but my last morning there. The mist and the chill made me long for a hearty broth, so my friend and I drove a little way out of town to Jotsoma for an early evening meal. Opposite the Kohima Science College, which is distinguishable from afar by its rocket-shaped radio tower, I got a taste of some delicious galho.
This thick rice porridge can incorporate a range of meats and vegetables, depending on a cook’s preferences. In general, galho requires sour leaves, which may include gakhruo (Roselle), gazie (Japanese Knotweed) and rümo nyü (pumpkin). There are two distinct regional styles to the dish among the Angami, namely Eastern and Western. On that day I had the pleasure of trying the latter style. The proprietor of the eatery combined beef offal and offcuts with gakhrie (mustard) leaves. That turned out nicely because stomach lining is one of my favourite pieces in a savoury porridge.
The wholesome taste of galho provided respite from the cold. Later that evening, my friend’s mother generously supplemented the wellbeing with roohi, a golden rice wine. Although Nagaland is supposedly a dry state, there are various types of traditional liquors to be had, if you know where to ask. Zutho (rice beer) is available at the Kohima and Dimapur dives. Although you should watch out for the excessively adulterated batches.
As a drinking accompaniment you might try hamuk, which is Nagamese for escargot, cooked in chilli oil. Both are available at Dhobi Nala in Dimapur, but you did not hear it from me. These snails taste way better cooked in pork fat though and you can spend hours slurping them right out of the shell under the right circumstances.
Indian Made Foreign Liquor is available on the black market. It is usually sold at night, from nondescript looking storefronts that appear unstaffed at first glance. Transactions are conducted in the back. Alternatively, people may drive across to Assam on a beer run. This segment is informational and does not constitute inducement to irresponsible behaviour.
Stories abound of tourists imbibing one too many zutho at Hornbill Festival. For that matter, people also get hospitalized with ulcers from eating too much of the fiery raja mircha, or king chilli, for which Nagaland is renowned.
Most of all, please refrain from ‘ball-dipping’ of the sort this write-up indulges in:
“As dusk descended upon the village, the ethereal sight of the red molten ball dipping in the distant mountainous horizon and the high octane cultural performance by the locals in their traditional attire, complete with bows and arrows made for a truly out of the world experience. My discerning German guests had never seen such a raw and animist tribal culture before.”
This extract exemplifies the distressing trend of traditional dancers performing in hotel lobbies for the amusement of neo-orientalist patrons. Whether in Nagaland, Goa, Kodagu or any other part of the world, local customs should not be so cheaply commodified.
If you do wish to witness such dances, please make the effort to view them in their appropriate context and setting. Hornbill is one such forum. Perhaps taking village bodies’ permission to allow respectful tourists as guests at festivals is one solution. Or else, inviting visitors to tag along to practice sessions, whereby a dance is seen as a living, breathing practice, not an exercise in taxidermy.
When a tradition ceases to hold positive meaning for the people, maybe it is time to let it go. Or, if it is vital yet, carefully consider its adaptations, lest the silence of collective loss be punctuated only by the echoes of dead birds’ songs.
Dimapur skirts the Assam border. You know you are in Assam when the yard gardens shrink and thin out in the densely-settled areas. A lovely part of life in Nagaland is that people still maintain home gardens. Even in the crowded towns, rooftop gardens with the occasional chickens and ducks proliferate.
The state’s commercial hub is its most diverse settlement. Many Nagas will admit that their state appropriated this area from Assam. In fairness, it does not even begin to address the ham-handed manner in which the political aspirations of the Naga peoples were suppressed by successive British and Indian administrations.
Perhaps the Nagaland state government decided that Dimapur would be the primary point of interface between the local and the civilian ‘plains mano’. This catch-all term is used by hill peoples in Nagaland to refer to mainland Indians. It may be used derisively, especially when alluding to perceived mainland cunning.
Although hearing this term might be hurtful to some, it is important to understand and address the underlying causes for its use. The term’s negative connotations reflect the degree to which Naga people feel marginalised from the mainstream.
There is such complexity to Naga issues that I wonder if I have not succumbed to the same tendency that Sanjay Subrahmanyam discerns in Nagaland, by Jonathan Glancey:
“No sooner has [Glancey] begun to write about some Naga subject than he is off on a tangent. These diversions accumulate to such an extent that it is difficult to follow the central thread of the narrative. For the patient reader, the book contains a wealth of scattered information, and points to a number of personalities and voices that one can investigate with profit.”
Maybe I should mention Nagas’ intense fondness for ghost stories. Then again, it might result in the thread of this piece flitting around like a transient ghost in the shell of unfinished buildings. Dimapur and Kohima have their share of unfinished buildings- the stadium near DC Court, or ADC Court as it is sometimes known; the town hall and bus terminal in the state capital too are caught in limbo, like serais for phantoms of good governance.
Here is a ghost story: pockets line themselves mysteriously, as funds dry up. Ethereal actors plot secrets of political theatre. Construction costs rise as years pass. Sixth sense replaces civic sense, as spirits play shadow games in empty stadiums. Eventually, brambles rim the edges of monumental intent. Further out, the young dance, drive and get high. A Bangladeshi man makes the rounds with momos to sell.
One must remember that people from several mainland hill communities have lived, served and died in the Naga Hills too. Soldiers of the Kumaon Regiment, for instance. The Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, the Garhwal Rifles. Their lives lost in a callous approach to ‘nation-building’. I would say precious lives, but given the track record of this country’s political masters and the desensitization of its citizenry towards their soldiers’ plight, it may sound like a tired platitude. Suffice it to say that empty jingoism will not alleviate the services’ chronic distress. Nor will it curb state excess. If anything it will aid its proliferation.
If you can imagine military occupation as part and parcel of your everyday life, you start to perceive the pain of the Naga peoples.
The chronic apathy of the civil establishment to reports of human rights abuses by the paramilitary Assam Rifles in their counterinsurgency operations is depressing. Letting the eye wink at the hand has undermined integrity within the armed forces. Such incidents are bound to occur when the army is used to enforce long-running state subjugation of citizens, as is the case in the Northeast.
In order to progress towards a more meaningful democratic framework, tribal citizens’ stories must no longer be viewed in terms of, ‘in here and out there’. Not in the reductionist sense of cultural majoritarian-ism, but to recognize the commonalities, the shared humanity within our diversity.
By that token, what about the deployment of Naga troops in Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, under the India Reserve Battalion, the CRPF, the Naga Regiment? Is this the contemporary avatar of divide and rule? Is the heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach the creeping realization that in India’s governance, brown colonialism supplants the white?
For people on the ground, the hurt comes from all sides. Does reaching out to each other offer a way forward? Seeking to understand diversity holds out hope, instead of relegating one another to the margins of our respective existences.
Stories form one avenue for understanding. Powerful writers contribute to Naga literature in English. Easterine Kire’s When The River Sleeps, about a solitary hunter’s spirit quest, was my gateway into this scene. In this interview, she casts light on her motivations for writing it.
Thereafter, my friends and their families introduced me to Monalisa Changkija and Temsula Ao. The latter’s collection of stories, These Hills Called Home, transmits an abiding vision of Naga people and a society in search of healing. One of my super-favourites is Avinuo Kire’s collection of short stories titled, The Power to Forgive.
There is a lot more out there, of which I am eager to learn. Although, within Dimapur, finding non-coursework books by Naga authors can prove quite the task. By the time I arrived in town, even the featured Signet Books had gone out of business. For that reason, I bought books from stores in Kohima. The voice of irascible author Kaka Iralu berating young Nagas to read more comes to mind.
Then again, young people are already plenty occupied. For one thing, the school fight rite of passage is supplemented with TV and movie imports. One staple of the genre is the Japanese TV series Crows Zero, based on a manga of the same name. Naga youth are connoisseurs of East and Southeast Asian pop culture. Their tastes range from Japanese anime and K-pop, to the recent flush of Filipino love dramas. For those of a less saccharine bent of mind, there are solid Thai cop thrillers.
Early one morning my friend’s uncle invited us along to witness a mithun being slaughtered. The venue was a market near one of the entrances to Duncan Basti in Dimapur. The mithun is a semi-domesticated bovine that is endemic to swathes of the Northeast. It is distinguished by its white socks. Nagas attach honour to the rearing of mithun and traditionally their consumption is a privilege.
Folks say that the animals are discerning eaters, only browsing on plants that grow above the ground. Ferns are an important component of their diet. In the area of Zila-ke, near Khonoma village, the herders blow a horn to summon mithun to the salt lick. The rest of the time, they roam the surrounding forests and scrubland.
That morning, clear silence before sunrise was punctuated by the crisp retort of a .22 rifle aimed at the mithun. Shortly after, a hollow thock as cleaver met bone. A Muslim man had come along to make the meat halal. His cut to the jugular went deep. The shot was clean between the eyes and the mithun swayed unsteadily. As it sank to its knees, knife bit flesh. When it bled out, the butchery began. The meat would be sold to Naga and Bangladeshi alike.
Marwari traders have their own section of the town, known as ‘Marwari Pati’. Some made good on business contacts in Assam under the former NEFA, coming up through market towns like Jorhat. They quickly fanned out into all areas of business, from fruit supply to hardware, cell phone stores to paan stalls. As army occupation became a fact of life, others prospered as supplies contractors.
Temsula Ao dissects this class of merchants, Marwari and Naga, in the story ‘A New Chapter’, from These Hills Called Home. She points out several avenues by which middlemen cheated civilians and soldiers alike of their dues. For instance, adulteration of meat-on-hoof contracts, where contractors substitute vegetables for more expensive meat in soldiers’ rations. As the grinding realities of occupation inured people to scruples, more dubious practices emerged. Middlemen would not pay market vendors in full. Both army and underground utilized the services of the supplies contractors.
Dimapur witnessed incidents where plains businessmen duped their Naga partners out of the power of attorney for their establishments. Conversely, incidents where Naga individuals seized plains peoples’ businesses by threat of force. The modus operandi of these sorts of people calls to mind the politicians’ tactic of settling supporters and people otherwise indebted to them around their houses. In the event of trouble, they function as a protective cordon of sorts. Also the practice of hiring young men as neighbourhood muscle during election season. In these ways new fiefs emerged, to the detriment of society as a whole.
When I asked my friend for some jokes about Marwaris, he only replied, “don’t be racist”. Touché.
Virtually the only prevalent narrative of a Naga woman revolutionary in mainstream politics is that of Gaidinliu. The story of how ‘Rani’ Gaidinliu, depending on your perspective, laid claim to that title highlights murky aspects of the Indo-Naga political dynamic. Both Gaidinliu and her cousin Haipou Jadonang, the founder of the Heraka religious movement styled themselves as queen and king of the Nagas- especially in their interactions with outsiders.
Nehru was happy to encourage this tendency and today mainstream politicians use the arbitrary title to emphasize her connection with the Indian independence movement. The first Prime Minister of India sought to leverage Gaidinliu’s movement into a toehold in Naga politics for his government. Later on the Heraka had ideological flirtations with affiliates of the Sangh Parivar.
At this stage I am reminded of Arundhati Roy’s observation in her collection of essays Listening to Grasshoppers that, “[the Congress] has done by night what the BJP does by day.”
Today, the remainder of the Heraka movement lives on mostly in areas populated by the Zeliangrong, a tribal union that consists of Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei Nagas. Within Nagaland state, the Heraka have a presence in Peren district. The Bhuban cave shrine in Assam’s Cachar district is one of their major centres of worship. Proponents of Hindutva seek to establish Vaishnavism as a basis of Heraka faith, in keeping with their assimilationist strategies for other forms of tribal worship, including Meghalaya’s Niam Khasi.
Consequently, sections of Naga society view the Heraka’s political affiliations with suspicion. This difference in politico-religious outlook has not yet led to a full-blown schism with the main body of Nagas residing within Nagaland. However, it has contributed significantly towards underlying inter-tribal tensions.
This point is borne out by certain disagreements in the Naga Hoho, which is a tribal council as per customary law, as distinct from the state legislature. Recently, the Ao Senden, Sumi Hoho and Lotha Hoho decided to disassociate from the Naga Hoho in order to protest its decision to support the state government’s decision to recognise the Rongmei as an indigenous Naga tribe.
On the subject of customary law, what the Nagas have in Article 371 (A) of the Indian Constitution is a patchwork- especially with regards to Tuensang district- but tangible recognition of their tribal rights. They have suffered greatly to secure it. Perhaps the particular circumstances of their situation along India’s frontier contributed to this achievement.
This constitutional protection faces certain challenges from within Naga society, including entrenched patriarchy that stymies fuller social representation within decision-making bodies. Also, disingenuous arguments from certain quarters for the wholescale dilution of its provisions.
By recognizing their shared liminality with other peoples in the mainland, especially tribal people, Nagas might contribute greatly towards a more cohesive national discourse. Which does not imply that the impetus for outreach must arise from within Nagas. The burden of history suggests quite the opposite. Rather, the Central government cannot continue to use the geopolitical isolation of Nagaland from mainland India as an instrument for step-motherly suppression of discontent; or inducement to inaction through cash handouts.
Whether through state initiatives towards reconciliation or direct people to people relations, we must learn from each other if we are to move forward. This imperative acquires urgency in the present context, when majoritarian goons corner the bully pulpit. Then at last we might reclaim narratives of history, identity and progress from colonial legerdemain.
Naga society is deeply patriarchal. To some outsiders, this fact may appear counterintuitive. A prevailing misconception in the sections of mainland society that are cognizant of the Northeast is that Nagas, like the Khasi, are matrilineal. Not so. For the record, as this editorial in the Shillong Times makes clear, Khasis are not matriarchal either.
On the face of it, women participate freely in public life, whether in the bureaucracy, as teachers, farmers, or business owners. The life of Neichülieü Nikki Haralu, the first Naga woman to serve as an Indian Ambassador, stands testament to this fact.
While women receive far greater respect than in many other parts of India, Naga society still treats them as subordinate to men in decision-making bodies. They are mostly excluded from traditional councils and the state legislature. Further, Naga inheritance law systematically denies women the right to property.
In an interview to the Assam Sentinel, Temsula Ao, who also heads the Nagaland State Women’s Commission, categorically advises that in order to remedy the ‘benevolent subordination’ of women in Naga society, “change has to start at the village level”.
In that regard, Kalpana Sharma features the efforts of contemporary change makers working to alleviate this situation. Apart from those mentioned in her article, Sano Vamuzo, the wife of the late Nagaland CM Vamuzo Phesao stands out for her social advocacy. Former journalist Bano Haralu garners accolades for her role in promoting the grassroots-level conservation of the Amur falcon.
Historically, mystics who shook up social hierarchies were notable exceptions to patriarchal hold over communal decision-making. Two such women are Khawhimütülü and Lhoupezoü-u Nuh, whose stories feature in the Naga Heritage Centre’s fascinating book, People Stories: Volume One. The former was an influential healer and prophet in her society. The latter was a visionary who conversed with spirit familiars and is regarded by her tribespeople as a harbinger of Christianity in the region. The book is jointly authored by Avinuo Kire and Meneno Vamuzo Rhakho.
Teli Kevilimi Kiba, the first Naga woman Gaonbura or village elder, was another charismatic leader. As Rhakho explains about the office of the GB, “every village has several clans and each clan elects a Gaonbura to represent them”.
These figures, with the possible exception of Khawhimütülü, lived at the turn of the twentieth century, a time of social upheaval that preceded the spread of monotheism and the claims of imperial powers to the portals of the Naga tribes. In these respects, Khawhimütülü and Lhoupezü-u Nuh appear to occupy a similar space in their social milieu as the kāhins, or soothsayers, of pre-Islamic Arabia.
In any event, Nagas were at a crossroads back then. They seem to be at a crossroads of a different sort now, where they must reconcile their rich heritage with the pressures of globalised society.
The writers Avinuo Kire and Meneno Vamuzo Rhakho are careful to mention that the stories in this collection are sourced from two tribes, the Angami and the Chakhesang. Hopefully their objective to collect and publish people’s stories from across a wide range of Naga tribes will come to fruition.
Incidentally, the publishers of People Stories, PenThrill Publication House, are located on Billy Graham road in Kohima. This choice of name for the thoroughfare marks the continued influence of strains of American evangelism, including televangelism, upon Christian worship in Nagaland.
English is a parallel lingua franca alongside Nagamese. As a consequence, increasing numbers of churchgoing youngsters join in inter-tribal services conducted in English. This trend is a departure from previous patterns of worship, where following the initial waves of proselytization in Nagaland, conducted by American Baptist and Naga missionaries successively, people largely stuck to their own tribe’s churches. This feature would sometimes serve as a language barrier to inter-tribal marriages, if a partner felt like they would be unable to understand if they went to another tribe’s church.
The Roman Catholic church is tolerated more now, especially for its hospitals and educational institutions. Catholic Nagas comprise a minority, in large part due to the antipathy of established regional Baptist ministries towards Roman doctrine. As Kaka Iralu explains, though churches such as the Ao Baptist Arogo feuded with the Catholic church in the past, they now seem content to let bygones be bygones.
A darkly amusing tendency among certain nonlocal teachers who work at Catholic schools is how they enlist the services of a local teacher to beat Naga students.
Today, church services maintain largely non-political, devotional orientations, even as they hold utility in terms of overall social cohesion. They provide services such as platforms to perform social work, build leadership skills and foster community relations.
Meanwhile, revival churches are growing in popularity among all age groups. Ecstatic worship is the cornerstone of these gatherings. As a result, revivals are replete with tales of speaking in tongues, prophesying and possession by the holy spirit.
Sometimes, opportunistic busybodies make use of people’s faith in these experiences to insert themselves into others’ affairs. Often by claiming that they had a vision that so-and-so will get hitched in such-and-such manner. Move aside marriage websites, for suspect prophecy is the would-be matchmaker’s delight. A strictly applied regimen of khujli patta (itchy leaf) would set such meddlers straight.
Church music is generally of a high quality in Nagaland. Some churches participate in inter-church choir competitions, for instance the one held by the Kohima Baptist Youth Fellowship. These events generate prestige for the participating churches and a chance for people to showcase their talents in the avenue of their faith.
I attended two church services over the course of my stay. One in Dimapur, the other in Kohima. The first was at Dimapur, a small inter-tribal ministry. That day, a zealous Brazilian preacher visited from Guwahati. As he pontificated for almost two hours, I got the distinct impression that few in the gathering bought his shtick.
The preacher hectored the assembly relentlessly, prodding everyone to close their eyes as he urged the young to pledge their lives to his vision of service. He wore a white kurta-pyjama and Assamese gamosa draped across his shoulders, which at one point he frenziedly threw into the audience in an attempt to drum up enthusiasm for his meandering performance. The capacity to patronize truly knows no borders.
The second was at a large tribe church in Kohima. Most of the lady congregants were out on a village service tour that day, but attendance was strong nonetheless. There are interesting dynamics at play in the congregants’ seating arrangements. Be it in terms of Who sits Where, or even the differing quality of chairs or benches, subtle gradations reveal social hierarchies. To qualify this observation, Nagas are among the most egalitarian peoples I have encountered. At least among themselves. Yet certain discriminatory practices have crept into church nonetheless.
In this case, modes of worship mirrored socioeconomic gradations. Ordinary congregants from humbler backgrounds filtered into the back pews quietly. Some well-to-do families bustled in late and still made a beeline for the front seats. As one congregant pointed out, perhaps the churches should consider the implications of such arrangements upon the congregants’ perceptions of equality of worship.
Church life is also a window into patriarchy. As Temsula Ao says, “In Nagaland we have only very few women reverends; and women are known as ‘Associate’ Pastors, not Pastors like the men.”
Strong winds blow through Dimapur in March, as they do throughout Nagaland. Strong enough to uproot trees, blow away roofing and send houseplants flying. Still, a subset of people in Dimapur collect beautiful ornamental succulents, with complementary ceramic pots. They are a pleasure to behold when meticulously arranged in garden racks. There are many nurseries that supply people’s passion for gardening. The spread of commercial horticulture facilitates seasonal trends. In winter, for example, households blaze red with poinsettia, or Christmas flower.
The town quietens rapidly after sundown. Its bustling centre cedes ground to rag pickers, itinerant drunks and stray groups of boisterous town chokras (lads). The occasional convoys of souped-up cars and bikes drive around Circular Road, usually with more sound than fury. Although, there are aficionados of drifting on the hill roads and town roundabouts too.
Meanwhile, the rag pickers, largely Bangladeshi immigrants, move from pile to pile of refuse on the streets before the store fronts. These waste collectors are either very young or very old. The generations in-between tend to work as daily wage labourers.
Immigration, especially Bangladeshi immigration, is a contemporary social issue in Nagaland as it is in much of the Northeast. Following the war in 1971, few in the international community remarked about the sheer volume of people that India absorbed as refugees, particularly in the Northeast.
In the decades since, migrants continued to pour in, seeking reprieve from miserable socioeconomic conditions. They largely eke out a living in the shadow of suspicion. They have fanned out across the country, from the peripheries of Dimapur to the bylanes of Jangpura in Delhi. Now to coffee plantations in Kodagu.
Those who do relatively well open hotels and shops. Others are condemned to hardscrabble lives, taking what they can, when they can. Out of mind if not out of sight, the problem of displaced persons continues to grow. With it come questions of integration in communities across the Northeast. On a related note, you hear dark mutterings about the floating population of Karimganj, a district in Assam known for border crossings.
Precisely because Dimapur retains a small-town atmosphere, this aspect of the economy is harshly apparent. It is not as easy to ignore as in the cities, where if the scale of the problem is too big to take in at once, chances are it will meet with eminent disregard.
Depending on the area, Bangladeshi immigrants stay at various levels of integration, coexistence and tension. They form a significant component of town economies in Nagaland, where they are largely concentrated within Dimapur and Kohima. Their presence is not as large in the countryside as in, say, Tripura or Meghalaya or Assam. Whenever there are Inner Line Permit checking drives, word gets out and Bangladeshi establishments down shutters for the day.
There are occasional fights between Nagas and Bangladeshi Muslims. Simmering tensions rise to the surface as reports emerge of certain underground factions using Muslims as tax collectors. Villages have been known to use migrants to bolster the population count in pursuit of government funding.
The waters are muddy and these are concerns of the little people. As the juggernaut of Centre-driven development agendas rolls around, one wonders what changes it will inflict upon the social fabric of Nagaland. Will the warp and weft of tradition hold as new patterns emerge? Will the weaver know the cloth?
 As an aside, what is it about social visionaries introducing brinjal varieties within the subcontinent? Lhoupezoü-u Nuh is supposed to have introduced a new variety of brinjal to her area, known as the ‘rumi khudeche’, or ‘spirits’ brinjal’. Similarly, in Tulunād, the Lingayat seer Vadiraja is meant to have introduced the Matti Gulla (‘Matti Round’) variety. Seemingly, this vegetable takes exceptionally well to paranormal propagation methods.