Repatriation and the Naga Case

Photo Courtesy: Twitter

Photo Courtesy: Twitter

Dr Asangba Tzudir*

Sarimaya Awunga, a Tangkhul Naga from Manipur’s Ukhrul village had to sleep alongside human skulls of enemies killed during ‘wars’ fought between rival Naga villages or between Naga and non-Naga villages to serve the purpose of preserving history of his tribe. Considered as a pride of the village for the story each of it holds, the state govt. was approached on several occasions seeking help to preserve the skulls but they were instead requested to hand over to the govt. which they refused saying that it was something they cannot part away with. (Mazumdar. The New Indian Express, 16.06.2018). There are many questions, concerns and perspectives that can be drawn from this piece of (his)tory to generate discussion. However, the key element highlighted here is about preserving history, and such ‘evidential support’ also helps attest history in context because overtime oral memory within the process of transmission becomes contested in the absence of written records or evidential support.

Advancement in technology, so also globalization has enabled not only in locating and re-locating history, but has provided a richer understanding. Photographic remnants, archival records, and cultural artefacts pertaining to Nagas preserved in ‘faraway’ lands, and for a very long time unknown to the Nagas, and finally coming to light has evoked a very deep sense of nostalgia, induced emotions of belongingness and a sense of longing. I can only be thankful for the toil and high costs of preservation in museums and libraries across the World like Ethnological Museum, Berlin; Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford; American Baptist Historical Society, Atlanta, and many more. 

Now, in July 2020, the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, after due consideration of the ‘ethics’ of displaying human remains in their museum had removed from display when the museum opened after the Covid-19 pandemic, and decided to work with different communities to return the ancestral human remains taken during the period of Britain’s Imperialism. As per the Pitt Rivers Museum record, approximately 214 Naga ancestral remains (a combination of skeletal ancestral remains and objects made with components such as human hair or bone) are in the Museum’s care.

Having given a ‘right’ so also a ‘privilege’ by Pitt Rivers Museum, Naga Anthropologist Dr. Dolly Kikon took the opportunity and reached to the museum’s director and subsequently the Pitt Rivers Museum reached out to the Forum for Naga Reconciliation and began discussion about the process of Repatriation of the Naga Ancestral Remains. This is how the word Repatriation became a part of the Naga discourse and consciousness.

For the Pitt Rivers Museum, besides the ethical considerations of displaying human remains, it also brings, so to say, a closure of sorts from their end and to create a process of healing. However, while the word repatriation is new for Nagas, the simple understanding of the word – ‘to bring back’ does not suffice or entail the associated process of repatriation. More so, the objects here are not just cultural artefacts but Naga ancestral remains and which makes the whole idea of Repatriation challenging considering the uncertain pretext of time and duration and the ‘consent of the Nagas’ within the belongingness and the associated rightful claim.  

With all the considerations, it begs whether it is really necessary for the Nagas to bring the ancestral remains to Naga homeland? And even if Nagas collectively decide to bring back, how do Nagas place the idea of closure to the whole process of Repatriation? As of now, led by FNR (Forum for Naga Reconciliation) and the Research team calling themselves as RRaD (Recover, Restore and Decolonise), has created a process to the very idea of repatriation through dialogue creating awareness on the whole idea of repatriation so that the Nagas can be better informed about the Naga ancestral remains, the Naga Repatriation, and the way forward framework within praxis.

The Naga ancestral remains evoke the horrors associated with the acts of Colonialism, even as Nagas in the larger Colonial history were shackled within the bondage of a Colonial misconstrued imaging, and it has left a deeply entrenched legacy in the Naga history and identity having placed in stereotyped identity markers and which continues to impinge to this day. And so, the surmounting question being – If the Naga ancestral remains are decided to be brought back, how then will Nagas ‘decolonize’ and create the process of reconciliation and healing? Will the Naga Repatriation help generate a new Naga discourse without any Colonial hangover or stereotyping? 

While the ‘horrors’ associated with Colonial history is one of the main talking point, one may also be reminded of the horrors and the mental trauma that the Nagas underwent during the Battle of Kohima of the World War II; the localized ‘concentration camps’ in the name of grouping and the unjustified inhuman tortures and killings met at the hands of the Indian Armies during the Nagas struggle for Self-determination. These events in Naga history not only reflect horror but the painful memories still lives afresh. The degree of atrocities committed on the Nagas by the Indian Armies is such that Nagas are yet to hear a ‘Sorry’ from their end. However, the Pitt Rivers Museum’s initiative to return the Naga ancestral remains having considered the ethicalities of displaying them and having expressed that they are sorry for their ‘wrongdoings’ creates a path of reconciliation and healing. But, isn’t this a belated realization after these many years? The ethics and the morals and the associated legality are not something new. Just that it took a long to consider dignity and the ethical implications. Somehow, I am reminded of James Joyce’s Ulysses where Mr. Deasey brings the quote by a French Celt: “The sun never sets on the British Empire”.  

In our own yard, coming from a culture of headhunting, Nagas are yet to get into the depth of history and the philosophy of the earlier practice of headhunting. However, the popularly tagged ‘enemy heads’ taken legitimately or otherwise was hung to adorn the warriors home, a symbolic accreditation of honor and social standing. As such, it was not a part of the Naga culture to return the enemy heads to the relatives, but with the coming of Christianity and missionary intervention the displayed ‘skulls’ were slowly removed unknown to many how the skulls were given a closure. 

However, narratives of feuds and warfare and taking heads among warring villages, though not in great detail, the bitter memories of which lives on. And in an attempt to forgive and forget the past bitter experiences and for seeking blessings, over the years in the recent past, many of the enemy villages of the past have come together in the spirit of reconciliation and bringing it to a ‘closure’ and thereby rewriting history within the much needed reconciliation.

Coming to the case of Naga repatriation, it is the general public that has to come ‘together’ and understand the very word repatriation beyond the simple understanding – ‘bringing back’ and try to define the process and how to put a ‘closure’ to the ancestral remains if it is decided to let the Naga ancestral remains return to homeland. For instance, the Konyak Union has recently committed in principle to support the repatriation process initiated by the FNR and the RRaD team terming the process of Repatriation important as well as historic while also calling upon the Naga researchers to focus on the historical relevance and importance of the Repatriation process. The Union also stressed on the pertinence of handling the human remains or cultural artefacts respectfully.  

Certain worldviews revolving around Naga culture and tradition, beliefs and practices continue to remain strongly etched in the Naga psyche even today and a threshold continues to exist between culture, Christianity and history. This begs the question - how will ‘Naga repatriation’ look like? A larger predicament surrounding this is the still existing belief that a decent burial tantamount to rest for the weary spirit. The spirit of the dead is believed to ‘roam' restlessly unless it is given a decent final burial. With these considerations and for the changing times, many would share the view that, human remains do not belong and goes beyond dignity to be displayed behind glass. Of the 214 artefacts, if a classification has to be made, the skulls for sure will evoke sensitivities, and differences will be there on the question of redisplaying the skulls after repatriation. Central to this is the issue of dignity especially in the evolution of human rights – living or dead. 

If a dignified ‘closure’ especially the skulls means burial, then it is also a ‘closure’ to a colonial remnant. For now the closure stands at a threshold between preservation and burial. There is also the danger of trespassing the repatriation objective of decolonizing which may find itself cast within a re-colonizing model. This is also where the terms associated with RRaD – Recover, Restore and Decolonize needs to be pragmatic away from romanticized idealism. However, the most challenging aspect will be the issues relating to consent which requires informed discussion. At stake is history, and a lot depends on the dialogue process. Irrespective of whatever final closure, what is important is for history to be salvaged.

This once again leads to FNR and the RRaD team, and for someone who is not aware of what FNR and RRaD are doing may question the credibility of FNR in taking the lead role and may even question why it was not the Nagaland State Government taking the lead? Or a ‘random’ RRaD Research team as ‘experts’ initiating the process of repatriation and be a lead research for a Naga community project on repatriation of the Naga cultural remains. One may even question whether the whole process of repatriation is community led considering the repatriation pertains to Naga ancestral remains, and whether the various Naga tribal organizations or traditional village bodies were informed or given an opportunity to be involved or consulted? 

These questions and concerns from conscientious people are critical to creating the much needed dialogue, which will then enable regeneration and recreation of meanings or even contextualize decolonization towards newer understanding, and strengthen the process of Naga Repatriation. However, one should also understand that Repatriation is a new terminology in the Naga context, and that it is an ongoing process though shrouded in various uncertainties where even after researching and engaging in the process of repatriation for many years, Nagas might even decide against repatriation. Yet, it has been some time now since FNR has initiated the process and along with the RRaD team has been reaching out to different groups of People through various mediums and formats. 

One of the dominant theme surrounding the Naga Repatriation is ‘Reconciliation’ and this is how the Forum for Naga Reconciliation took up and initiated the process, and they have also made it very clear that they are only a facilitating body trying to help the Nagas understand the issue at hand and the underlying complexities through well informed dialogues. However, ultimately, it will be the Nagas as a whole to decide about the future of the Naga ancestral remains. The research team may not be ‘experts’ nor have they claimed to be ‘experts’. However, the Naga research team which was formed in 2020, has been working in partnership with the Pitt Rivers Museum, and reaching out to the Naga communities with the aim of addressing the issues surrounding the repatriation of the ancestral remains together. That, at this juncture, just being critical without understanding that it is still an ongoing process is not going to help strengthen the process. As such, Nagas coming from various professions and different walks of life has a greater responsibility starting from sharing ideas and also offer balanced views especially in areas where there are conflicting worldviews. 

What FNR and the RRaD team have been doing thus far has largely created awareness and has provided a framework for Nagas to take the Naga Repatriation forward. And I believe when the right time comes, if necessary, a representative body or committee may be officially formed to oversee the repatriation process and also the way of its ‘closure’. The Naga Repatriation, which comes with considerations of identity – of culture, religion and history, no doubt has scope for developing an academic discourse. While Pitt Rivers Museum has already started the process of ‘closure’ by taking off the human remains from their display and thereby (somehow) bringing a closure to the violent colonial history, that is where Naga Repatriation begins within a de-colonizing framework. A lot will also depend on how the Research team builds the dialogue around the central concepts of ‘recover’, ‘restore’ and ‘decolonise’.   

Even from this lens, one may be critical of the engagement being academic in nature or overloaded with academic concepts beyond the understanding of the general public. However, an academic framework is much desirable while re-locating the concepts in the context of the Naga repatriation. It is imperative that a contextual academia is pursued with reference to the other’s more pronounced historical and emotional context but as a point of departure in defining the Naga Repatriation in our own context considering the Nagas’ uniqueness. There is also the danger of creating unnecessary complications if the concepts are idealistic. The process of decolonization and its associated closure requires a pragmatic approach.   

The framework for decolonizing and closure also needs to be placed in the context of how Nagas finds misrepresented in Colonial history wherein the misplaced context continues to trigger different stereotyped identity markers. Yes, history has happened but there are certain integral aspects of history which have helped shaped a peoples narrative and worldviews, struggles, imagination and aspirations and which also instills a sense of belongingness cannot be forgotten. Today, the Naga Repatriation has presented a window opportunity to revisit and rewrite a part of colonial history from the ‘Naga lens.’

Is the Naga Repatriation really necessary?

It is quite strange to be asking whether Naga Repatriation is really necessary. Besides other serious considerations, the uncertainties and sensitivities, and of time and duration beg such a question. The Naga Repatriation is also at a phase where it is easy to pass moral judgments. However, I believe, the ongoing process of conscientizing the general public through various mediums and formats will help broaden the perspectives in concretizing the Naga Repatriation especially its ‘closure’ within the decolonizing framework. For now, the concept of decolonization needs to move beyond the simple idea of ‘withdrawal’ and bring to a closure within the Naga context. The word closure does not necessarily mean ‘putting an end’, and which is not possible, but a closure without conflicts or differences and where Nagas can confidently come to a collective understanding in ‘re-crafting’ and envisioning Naga history of repatriation. This also requires broadening the mindsets to capture the larger perspectives. There are also ways to preserve history, most importantly to salvage history. Yes, times have changed for the living to sleep alongside human skulls. An opportunity is also presented to frame an “indigenous pedagogy” with regard to the ‘closure’ and the way forward. Naga History has been a part of students curriculum in the state, and a Naga Colonial text from within may be developed to ‘recast’ this aspect of history to help undo, unlearn, and re-imagine the past Naga history. How Nagas ‘Recast’ it today is going to reshape, reorient and reignite a new Naga consciousness, identity and history while also re-locating the colonial ‘imaging’. 

Coming from a culture of headhunting, the violence of colonial history may not generate painful feelings or provoke violence today, but the Naga ancestral remains will ignite a spectrum of memories to create a new Naga consciousness. As such repatriation of Naga ancestral remains or the artefacts becomes crucial for the salvation of Naga history and for the future of Naga generations. It is not the case that Naga culture, history and identity becomes complete or sufficient only if the Naga ancestral remains are brought back, nor is it about the question of completeness or becoming sufficient. Bringing back the Naga ancestral remains to Naga homeland is not some kind of romantic imagination but in praxis, it adds to the larger discourse on Naga history.

Today, as an observer, Nagas are confronted by a new and a rare exercise, and the Naga repatriation is currently ‘processed’ in a dialogue, and the process considering the challenges will take a very long time. While availability of resources is critical to the process, every stage of the process is significant and the initiative of FNR and RRaD as facilitators creating awareness and trying to bring Naga communities together need the support of the Naga people in aiding and facilitating the process even as they try to critically engage the Naga community with informed knowledge since the approach was collaborative. In future, depending on the process and the outcome, if necessary, even the state Government can be approached for collaboration in creating meaningful enterprises. However, while trying to understand and engage in the repatriation process is desirable, any attempt at depoliticizing the process will only unnecessarily stretch the process or even derail the process completely. On the larger whole, the ‘dead’ speaks in many ways and forms, and Nagas should create pathways to envisage and decolonize, and that history is not ‘killed’ in closing.

* Dr Asangba Tzudir has a Ph.D in Socio-Political and Ethical Philosophy from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He had earlier worked as an Editor with Heritage publishing house, and currently teaches Philosophy in Dimapur Government College