On Being a Naga

Dr. Temsula Ao  

It is ‘a complex fate’ being a Naga. But in our context, it is a double edged sword because the complexity lies not only in the way ‘outsiders’ view us but also in the way we see ourselves…. Being a Naga has never been easy for us. The mystique and negative power of the ‘savage’ has always fascinated the western mind and when we were ‘discovered’ by anthropologists and ethnographers in the 19th century, we became exotic and exciting specimens for them to study, but from their perspective only. Our material culture seems to have caught their imagination in such a manner that the best specimens were spirited away to their museums without any qualms because they were the ‘finders’ and therefore the ‘keepers’. But fortunately for us, though we were stripped of our external Naga-ness, the essential core of our being Nagas could not be obliterated and this consciousness has remained firmly rooted to the soil of our origin.  

Then came the British administrators, with their policy of identifying and dealing with ‘primitive’ subjects and we were isolated from the rest of their dominion by restricting access to the hills where we had lived almost forever. The Christian missionaries came more or less at the same time with their zeal for proselitization and sowed the seeds of doubt in our minds about our own intrinsic worth. However it has to be admitted that they also brought literacy, though it was with the sole policy of ‘educating’ the savage in the right path towards eternal life by empowering them to read the Good Book. At this stage of our history, being a Naga became an apologetic acknowledgement of a seemingly inferior individual.  

These onslaughts on our territory and our way of life, now in retrospect seem like continuous waves of aggression against a people who had never imagined that such ‘others’ even existed! Our transition from our insulated ignorance to knowledge of the outside world by such alien methods was so abrupt that it shook our worldview to its core. The turmoil and turbulence in the land was inevitable. The rebellion was born essentially in retaliation against the attempt to belittle us in our own estimate and it was conceived as an effort to wrest back our identity, self-worth and sovereignty from the intruders in our own land. But it has also to be said that we were not ready yet to claim our rightful place in the assembly of nations not only because of the many divergences in our perceived homogeneity but also because of crucial economic and political circumstances over which we had no control to emerge as an ‘independent’ nation. Into this state of un-preparedness and general confusion the concept of a state as the viable alternative was injected and accepted, though not without stiff opposition from the Naga freedom fighters.  

We tried to catch up with the rest of the country by importing ‘national’ norms in governance, education and other important sectors for the sake of mere ‘uniformity’ in progress. If we claim that this is the progress we have achieved, it has been done at a tremendous cost because we are no longer a self-reliant people, we have ceased to be fighters and achievers, and have become mere loungers on stipends, concessions and sub-contracts. The political aspirations had initially set out to establish the intrinsic worth of our being, our Naga-ness. But the result we see today is a pathetic blend of greed, self-centredness and mutual suspicion.  

In the quagmire of uncertainties that beset Naga society today, the most essential question that needs to be asked is: What does it mean to be a Naga? Is the word Naga merely a political blanket term to designate the countless tribes living in a more or less contiguous territory of the country? What is the ‘commonness’ shared by these tribes that they have been bunched under this umbrella term? Is it a common language? No, because there is no common Naga language. Then is it a common culture? If so, what is it? Can we specify it? Can we retrieve it and is it desirable to do so? But we will discover that it is not the mere geographical location of the tribes, racial traits and history; nor is it a common language that lies at the heart of this blanket identity.  

Now to the question of how we see ourselves. Among the many divisive elements that add another dimension to these questions, is the tribal divide that has had the most devastating effect on the political scenario both overground and underground. Even if there are professed political parties within the electoral system that is current in the state, when it comes to crunch time, people’s mandates are swayed either by tribal or clan affiliations; party ideology seeming to have no influence at the crucial time. The same trend is reflected in the convolutions of the other movement also. During elections candidates are known to seek help from their underground brothers who conveniently forget that they are helping the followers of a system that they are ideologically opposed to and will oblige if the price is right. The elected representatives of the state too turn a blind eye to blatant demands of ‘tax’ from the people, and not only that, they are also often accused of facilitating a percentage from all government projects! When such a compromise prevails in the state, cries of lasting peace and amity become less than a whisper in the wilderness where principles no longer count. Have the Nagas entered the twilight zone? Is there any hope for a clear-cut enunciation of honest intents and purposeful actions?  

The superficial affluence brought in by the imported system seems to have left the village folk far behind and there is an ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is the real paradox of our existence as a people: the divide between the village and urban ethos. Though all the new money, political influence and modern life-style seem to reside in the urban areas, the real essence of our Naga-ness still remain in the heart of the land: the villages. To ‘belong’ in a village is the first requisite of an individual in building up the notion of identity as a Naga. To be banished from one’s village for grave wrong-doing is the ultimate punishment and insult to a Naga male, rendering him a man without a country; he ceases to belong in the most basic unit of his existence with a recognized identity.  

And then, when we look deep into our hearts and try to compare ourselves with our fellow Nagas, we come to the realization that we do share an intrinsic one-ness in our way of thinking and living. That is why, in spite of the many surface differences we have continued to exist as a coherent group of people. If that be so, can we build on the ‘common’ factors, no matter how intangible they may seem at present?  

Throughout all these upheavals in our history, what has remained a constant is the amorphous nature of our identity, of being a Naga. There can be no single definition or prescription for constructing or de-constructing this problematic identity that we have been encumbered with. But we have also to admit that the naming ceremony was done centuries ago and we have legitimised it by agreeing to become Naga-land! So we have to go back to the idea of the ‘intrinsic one-ness in our way of thinking and living’.  

It is therefore clear that whatever identity we are trying to forge for ourselves cannot be attained through academic and empirical research alone which can at best lend some authenticity to sites of origin and trails of migration. But it will only be a historical account of the evolution of the Nagas through the ages. Today, identity formation for Nagas has to be in consonance with our present circumstances and informed by a spirit of inclusion of all superficial differences; the diachronic discourse must include the synchronic paradigms that draw the Nagas together at a stage in the history of mankind when the whole of humanity is being inexorably propelled towards the vortex called globalization where identities are made, un-made and re-made. What we ought to do now is to exercise some ‘intellectual flexibility’ and hold on to the essential values that made us what we are as a people, holding us together through countless generations. The envisaged identity has therefore to be based on the principle of ‘oneness’ that is inclusive of both commonality as well as differences and has to be introspective and inter-relational because the identity perforce will always be multi-layered. Only when we acknowledge these inalienable facts of geography, history and culture that have imposed this pseudo-homogeneity on us and accept the multifaceted identity that we share as a people, the ‘complex fate’ being a Naga will perhaps no longer be so ‘complex!’  

Extract from Temsula Ao, On Being a Naga Essays, Heritage Publishing House, 2014  

Dr. Temsula Ao is a noted Naga Academician, poet and a prolific writer. She is presently the Chairperson of Nagaland State Commission for Women.