Nagas and the Pursuit of Blind Progress

Tezenlo Thong

Because of its widespread use and seemingly obvious connotation, the term ‘progress’ has become commonsense and its legitimacy is assumed in everyday discourse. Sydney Pollard argues that “most hold it [progress] unconsciously and therefore unquestionably.” Nonetheless, in scholarly discourse, progress always evokes passionate views and equally passionate questions. “When progress is analyzed closely,” says Timo Airaksinen, “it becomes elusive in its meaning, application, and moral evaluation.” As for example, let us ask the following questions: What constitute progress? Has humanity made progress? In what way(s) can we claim that humanity has made progress? Is progress morally neutral? Does the claim of progress (originated from the West) have a universal or cross-cultural relevance or validity? Is progress material, mental, or both? If it is mental or intellectual, could the ascendancy of individualism be considered progress? If it is material, can the invention of technologies that makes life easier but also damage the environment and causes danger to life be considered progress?

Perhaps, to a certain degree, many of us will agree with what Ruth Maklin has to say about the degree of progress. Maklin has  argued that “it is wholly uncontroversial to hold that technological progress has taken place; largely uncontroversial to claim that intellectual and theoretical progress has occurred; somewhat controversial to say that aesthetic or artistic progress has taken place; and highly controversial to assert that moral progress has occurred.” 

It is necessary to interject here that I am not -- to use the phrase of David Brown -- “blindly against progress, but against blind progress.” Blind progress is but mimicry at one’s own peril. It is a servile imitation that brings destruction to oneself and one’s culture, society and environment. Blind progress is the pursuit of modern western lifestyle, culture or development that negatively impacts us and endangers our very existence. Such blind pursuit lacks a critical examination of the pros and cons and wise choice of the application of modern inventions, especially with regard to the context and environment in which they are being applied. Blind progress makes life miserable. In other words, it does not bring ease and comfort but adds misery to life. As a case in point, we need not look any further than to simply reflect on the daily excruciating experience of living in Kohima or Dimapur today.

Mahatma Gandhi has identified two types of progress -- “economic progress” and “real progress.” By economic progress, Gandhi means “material advancement without limit,” and by real progress he means “moral progress.” He rightly believes that material progress does not necessarily generate moral progress. Among Nagas, as among any others today, the measure of progress is very materialistic, which is consequentially detrimental and immoral. Intense possessive materialism of the modern West has come to grip our society. In other words, we understand progress only in terms of tangible personal property and ephemeral material accumulation.

Additionally, we pursue development for the mere sake of development, without taking into consideration the long-term health, sustainability and stability of people, their land and environment. Unlike our foreparents, we attach monetary value to every thing around us, such as tree, rocks, and land, and create imbalance among people and between human beings and nature. Taiaiake Alfred has, therefore, forcefully argued that the colonized indigenous peoples, or for that matter all human beings, need to decolonize ourselves from the mentality and structure of intense possessive materialism and the short-sighted generation of wealth.

What are some of the signs of blind progress that contemporary Nagas are undertaking? The first sign of blind progress or a blind pursuit of progress is the exponentially increasing number of automobiles in Nagaland. Today, we have reached a point where an airplane is required in order to get from one point to another in Kohima or Dimapur, because it takes an hour to drive a distance of a kilometer or two across the town. A lot of suggestions and calls are being made for road expansion and addition, because it is impossible to have vehicles and not have roads. However, the idea of expanding and/or adding roads with the hope of accommodating the rapidly increasing number of vehicles is not feasible, because our precarious hilly settlements are already crowded beyond capacity, and there is very little possibility for additional roads or road expansion. 

Cars are killing machines and are especially dangerous and deathly for roads and landscape like ours. Besides, they are environmental hazards in several ways. Despite the hazardous consequences, among contemporary Nagas owning a car is a symbol of having made progress or advanced socially and economically, irrespective of the means through which it is acquired. Whenever any social, political, tribal or village gathering takes place, the measure of success of the gathered crowd or the gathering itself is determined by the number of vehicles brought for the occasion. Likewise, the success of a family is measured by the number of cars parked in front of the family house. Consequently, every little space in front of a house in our crowded towns is crammed with a car or two.

Second, Nagas have a tremendous penchant for imported products, especially personal belongings such as shoes, clothes and gadgets, because having these items in one’s possession is a mark of having advanced socially and economically. These items are well within the reach of many. Expensive but more useful modern machineries or tools are still way beyond our reach, because most of us are still too poor to afford them. Also, let me interject here an insight with related to imported products. In rich countries, imported items are cheaper and meant for the poorer section of society. In contrast, locally produced items are more expensive. As such, when we purchase an imported item at an exorbitant price and export our manufactured goods at a throw-away price, we subsidize rich nations at the expense of rapid depletion of our resources. Consequently, we will remain poor as long as we spend so much to buy products from richer countries and sell our items to them at a much cheaper price.

Besides, there is an incongruity and mismatch between what we wear and where we live. Our fashionable and posh outfits do not match our dusty, dirty and stinking towns and roads. Our crowded towns are littered and filled with sewage water. In utter contrast to our trendy and elegant personal belongings such as clothes, shoes and gadgets, our living condition or ‘ground reality’ is still very ‘ancient’. Our infrastructure is far from modern. As for instance, the moment you take a step or two, your expensive shoes are muddied and classy outfits are dustied. The contrast between what we wear and where and how we live is significantly horrendous and ignominious. However, this reality does not deter us from competing to posses the most expensive and trendy outfits and gadgets.

Third, development that would have communal effect or benefit is absent. While we compete to increase personal wealth, our common or communal property is being neglected and misappropriated for personal gain and ownership. For example, while privately owned schools are mushrooming, public schools are being neglected. The same is true with public health-care system. With the public health-care centers disregarded and almost abandoned in terms of service and utility, individual clinics or health-care centers, owned by ‘government doctors,’ are booming and thriving. Likewise, the condition of roads is pathetic, because no one owns or can own them for personal gain. If roads could be owned individually for profit, we would have had the best road in the world. As a matter of fact, we don’t have roads. We have only rutted tracks, most of which were constructed during the British colonization. So to call these tracks roads is a misnomer. Similarly, if electricity could be privately owned for personal gain its supply wouldn’t fail us.

Our collective possession or property such as roads, electricity, education and public water and health-care systems are neglected beyond comprehension of a normal and sane mind. Lavish funds, meant for the construction, maintenance and improvement of these communal goods, are stolen for augmenting personal property, because progress is perceived as an ‘individualistic’ material accumulation by whatever dubious means. Therefore, the continual insatiable desire of a section of Nagas is to purchase the newest model car, add another parcel of land or to build another ‘RCC’ building at the expense of and by pilfering the community. We will have achieved true progress, or at least be on our way to attain one, if we put the welfare of the whole and seek the greatest good, justice, equality and happiness for all.

Fourth, contemporary Naga leaders are obsessed with ‘honorific titles’ that many have forgotten the virtue and responsibility of serving or providing quality service to the people they serve. There is a stiff competition for ‘designation wearing or display’ among the Naga leaders. Religious leaders are no exception. As for example, distinguishing titles, such as ‘Rev. Dr.,’ are flourishing among Naga church leaders. Other titles such as ‘En.’ (Engineer) and ‘Ar.’ (Architect), which are not only weird but unknown anywhere, are frequently used among Nagas. Cars with red labels that read ‘President, ABC’ or ‘Secretary, XYZ” are very common sights. Our elected public leaders and bureaucrats compete for VVIP sirens, lights, escorts and name plates, because having in one’s possession such a title not only helps in getting pass ‘check/collection’ points or in avoiding frisking and harassment, but is also a sign of having progressed and advanced ahead of others. They are indications or symbols that one is above the common people and that one has entitlement to certain opportunities and privileges that the commoners do not have.

In order to ameliorate the crisis facing Nagas, our leaders need to reorient their philosophy of leadership with the concept of servant leadership. We need leaders whose hearts are filled not with personal greed and selfish desires, but with a yearning for the welfare of the people. Nagas need leaders who will model leadership that reflects the practice of humility, truth, honesty, integrity, justice, equality, transparency and credibility at the highest level. We need leaders who do not sit ‘high up there’ and throw down crumbs to the common people to feed on, but are willing to bend over, live and work with the masses at their level. 

Our understanding of progress is lopsided. Therefore, our pursuit of it is blind and destructive. Possessive material has come to enslave us and has created dysfunction that undermines the stability of our social fabric. We Nagas, especially our leaders, need to get one thing right – i.e., progress, properly understood, is qualitative rather than quantitative. Real progress should be measured by the degree of justice, equality, peace and advancement of moral virtues in a society. True progress is an advancement of common goods, communal peace and happiness and a moral improvement, rather than selfish material buildup of ill-gotten gains. Progress is not acquiring everything we want that we have no need for. Rather, it is having an adequate supply of what we need and jettisoning our wants, which will inexorably result in equitable economic distribution and benefit, more happiness and ease in life for all.

Having said what I’ve said and with the current existential reality of the Nagas in the back of our mind, let me conclude by asking the following questions: Can we Nagas claim to have made progress? Are we in control of progress? Or is progress in control of us? Has progress brought us happiness and advancement in moral virtues? Have we made progress in material accumulation, but regressed in moral advancement? Put it differently, has the quality of our moral standard degenerated because of our enslavement to the modern culture of materialism and consumerism?