Naga Society Lies Wounded Again

Charles Chasie


The night of February 2 was reminiscent of “The Night of the Guerrillas” during the late 1950s and early 1960s yet again. Kohima lay burning while the Naga public, by and large, stayed cowering in their homes. The difference was that this time, it was the Nagas themselves who did the burning while the Indian Army stood by, ready to intervene should they be called upon to do so.


So, what brought this incident about? Immediately, the “issue” was the holding of elections to the urban local bodies (ULBs) in Nagaland with 33% reservation for women and the ego clashes between the various Naga tribe organizations and the State Government. People in other parts of India all think Nagas are suppressing women’s rights. The main issue is that Naga tribe bodies have been opposing the Municipalities Act from the time it was promulgated. The tribe bodies have been asking the Government to postpone the elections so that proper consultations could take place. On the other hand, the Government took the view that consultations had already been held. The spoiler in the equation was the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), and their joint action committee on women reservation, who saw the entire issue only through the prism of women rights, and precipitated events with their petitions in the courts.


What everyone failed to realize were the undercurrents that had been at work in Naga society even if these may not have been visible to many.


First, most Nagas have become disappointed with the failure of the Indo-Naga talks not yielding results even after 19 years. The disappointment is not with Government of India alone. The disappointment is also with the Naga political groups not being able to work out their differences and coming together to thrash out an acceptable and workable solution. Their refusal to budge from their positions have angered and frustrated all Nagas. Strong feelings were simmering just below the surface.


Second, following from the above, most Nagas have realized that they needed to protect whatever little protections they have under the Indian Constitution. This was where Article 371A became so important to them. Delhi’s arrogant attitude, particularly after the BJP came to power, did not help to assuage or calm Naga feelings. The summary extension of the AFSPA and the fencing on the Indo-Myanmar border without any consultation are just two examples. Demonetisation and the suffering this caused only added apprehension. “If Delhi can do this to the rest of India, what about us?” seemed to be what was in everyone’s mind. And while the State Government is composed of Naga politicians, most Nagas have lost faith in them and cynically think all of them are there only for the money and would willingly dance to Delhi’s tunes if they can get money.


Third, it did not make too many waves to the same degree among all the tribes, but accompanying the ULB elections, under the same law, was the issue of taxation by the new municipalities/Town committees particularly if Smart Cities and Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV) were also involved. Taxation has always been an abhorrent issue where Nagas are concerned. It led to the killing of the first British Political Officer in the Naga Hills in 1879 and the war against the British that followed which ended in 1880 at the end of the Battle of Khonoma, with a British soldier being awarded the Victory Cross (VC), the first in the Naga Hills. Taxation was again a large part of the reason for the rise, and sustenance, of Naga Nationalism although other reasons were there. “Ura Uvie!” encapsulated the basic idea. The new Indian law about attaching personal assets for failure to pay taxes would seem to give credence to this original fear of the Nagas! Again the Nagas have been vehemently opposing the forcible taxations imposed by the Naga Political Groups (NPGs) although the NPGs claim they are fighting for the cause of the Naga people. The NSCN-IM’s manifesto about nationalizing private property, particularly land, only gives rise to more apprehensions about their leadership. Land, particularly village land, gives identity to Nagas and without this they would become non-entities.


Fourth, the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), and particularly those leading on the women reservation issue, totally failed to grasp these undercurrents or even take into consideration their own cultural values. Possibly affected by modern feminism, they may have thought they were championing the cause of Naga women and that they would be remembered as pioneers of women emancipation in Naga society. They only managed to jump in where even Naga men fear to tread by going against their own village communities and tribe bodies.


According to newspaper reports, the tribe bodies were not against women participation in decision making. For example, Angami Public Organisation president was even quoted as having suggested that women be nominated to these urban bodies even up to 40% or 50% (Ref. Nagaland Post, January 29, Page 1). But the women had made up their minds and were not willing to listen to other views. They were content with intimidating the State Government and with their petitions in the High Court and Supreme Court. The result was not just the loss of lives, property and misery all over Nagaland but the Naga Mothers Association now lie broken and in tatters, with several tribe women bodies having withdrawn from it and the committee on women reservation itself being dissolved. Far from advancing the cause of Naga women, their position may have actually been set back for several decades.


Fifth, the State Government became obtuse to the pleadings of all sections of Naga society. Tribe after tribe opposed the immediate holding of elections, asking only for deferment so that proper consultations could take place. The Government kept harping on Constitutional obligations to holding the ULB elections, seemingly totally intimidated by the women and court decisions. They even went back on an agreement inked with the JCC and the NBCC on the eve of the elections. What was forgotten in all these was that first and foremost, the Government is accountable to the people without whom there would be no parliamentary democracy in the first place.


What we have today is a further division of an already fragmented Naga society. Far from being encumbered, the Naga women seem to have proved how powerful they can be by intimidating the State Government and dividing Naga society as they like.


There seems to be two things that are out of character. First of all, Naga women have always been known for their “healing touch”. Throughout Naga history, while the men were out making wars, they took care of the family. When their men died or they came back wounded or disabled, their responsibilities grew. In many ways, Naga society survived because of Naga women. In traditional Naga society, even in the Angami one, women have always occupied a special place. Even in Khonoma, considered by many as a place where women did not count at all, the women were held in esteem. It was only that Khonoma people considered there were areas of responsibility for men and women, both separate but equally important. This is not understood by those from outside. But an easy example is that at any important ceremony, or feasts of merit, without the woman, the ceremony could not be fully carried out. There are also safeguards for their protection as any insult to them is considered an insult to the family/clan. There is, of course, no gain saying that they are the hardest working and most contributing members of the community which everyone acknowledges.


Even in NMA and in recent times, the women had gained such high respect with their social activities and particularly their “Shed No More Blood” campaign among NPGs. Every Naga respected them and they were held in high esteem. But this time, they lost sight of the ground realities and their footing. They have managed to do immense damage to a society which has been wounded and hurting and which they had been helping to heal. Their loss is the loss of Naga society too because they formed just about the only neutral and objective organization left in Naga society whose voice was respectfully listened to. What a tragedy; A hope-filled story has become divided and disintegrated. It must not end here. The big question is who will pick up the pieces?


The other story that seems out of character is that of TR Zeliang. I am not here to make excuses for him. When you are at the top, you have nowhere else to go but to take whatever is thrown at you and say “the buck stops here!” Blaming anyone or making excuses can only make things worse. And procrastination has never solved anything.
T R Zeliang became a surprise chief minister of Nagaland. Surprise because he came from one of the “backward” and smallest tribes and districts of Nagaland – Peren District has only two MLAs – and would not have made it to the CM’s seat under ordinary circumstances. Obviously he was a compromise candidate but even if this was true it still showed ability and acceptability on his part. His government also managed to survive till now despite challenges and personal attacks. He went on to achieve some firsts – partially due to benefits accruing from previous government/s. All in all, T R Zeliang had shown he was a shrewd politician.


But in this case, something apparently went very wrong which is out of character. Everybody knew there were a lot of differences within the ruling Naga Peoples Front (NPF). Was the problem from within his inner camp? It could not have been just the 33% women reservation or any possible intimidation from the Naga women? More people are willing to believe that the State Government only wanted the money that would come in the wake of the ULB elections. But it is still not totally convincing because the consequence would be political suicide and hara-kiri by someone who has proved himself to be a shrewd politician? Was he being the fall guy for some political play that had gone awry?  What happens now will depend greatly on the chief minister and the party president.


Naga peoplehood today, lies in tatters, worse than ever before. Naga society needs to do serious reflection on what is happening to it and what are its priorities. The biggest gap in society is that there is no longer a single Naga organization that can think for and speak with objectivity, rationality and without fear or favour and be respected by the Naga public for its views. It is of no use talking about who destroyed such institutions and other structures of our society; we all contributed directly or indirectly. Will this be the next first step towards our peoplehood as Naga people learn baby steps to start walking again?

Naga Society lies wounded… Part 2