Self-Definition, Land & Culture

Today, Nagas and their ancestral land continue to languish under borders that were created for administrative conveniences by both colonial and post-colonial powers. Under these conditions, the focus remains on territory and State boundaries, rather than on the Peoples. These conditions have severely limited their right to self-definition, which has resulted in the people’s under-development that has fragmented their land, identity and culture. This fragmentation has generated not only conflicts between State and Peoples, but also between Peoples and Peoples and created new trajectories of development that have ensured a relationship of dependency.   The Naga historical experiences and political situation have ensured that the primary challenge of land development invariably involves their right to self-definition.   Like other Indigenous peoples, land, for the Nagas, is not a commodity; it is intimately inter-woven into their identity, culture, spirituality and way of life. Land is central to the Naga people’s ability to cultivate, to interact with the land, working with it for production. In essence, it involves human action to interact with the world through their collective wisdom, tradition, history and worldviews. In this manner, land provides the means through which the Naga people are makers of their own culture.   The profound connection between land, identity and culture is crucial to the Naga worldview. Imbedded in this closely knit relationship is the moral and ethical notion of human dignity; because, the qualities and values are shared with all humans through the pursuit and realization of human dignity and human worth. A dignified right-relationship is a core aspiration wedded to the politics of human existence and human relations. Most assuredly the right of self-definition is invariably directly connected to how the Nagas relate to the land and all humans. Unless the Nagas exercise self-definition, their capacity to identify, prioritize and decide what is best for them is overpowered by those who define it for them.   A right-relationship for Nagas involves removing the colonial categorization of ‘tribe and tribals.’ It is critical that Nagas no longer identify themselves as ‘tribes.’ Not only are they colonial in construct, but being categorized has negative implications and damages a people’s self-worth. Being freed from the colonial construct of ‘tribe’ would be a critical leap forward, away from the label of ‘tribalism,’ that reduces people to a non-human entity even beneath or outside the so-called ‘untouchables.’ The Naga imagination can create options to embrace more appropriate concepts such as ‘first nations’ and ‘Indigenous peoples,’ or another term that will more fully represent who the Nagas are.   The right to self-definition in transcending all colonial constructs needs to acknowledge that the name Naga as a generic term that represents the self-conscious collective political identity of sovereign “village-states.” While each of these ‘village-state’ (which were later grouped and categorized into ‘tribes’ by the British) has their own language, culture and social system, they have, by way of historical forces, been consciously representing their “common public character” through an active self, namely Naga. Therefore, having a common past and historical inheritance, the Naga “cultural community” by virtue of exercising their right to self-definition is transformed into a “political community.”   The implication of self-definition means that the people will determine the destiny of the territory, and not the other way round where the territory as defined by the State determines the people’s destiny.

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