‘Socially, Educationally, and Economically Backward’

How Words Define Indigenous Worlds in India

Dr Dolly Kikon

On 23rd December, 1994, the United National General Assembly declared 9th August as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This was the date when the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations held its first meeting in 1982. The 2023 theme is Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change for Self-Determination. Under this theme, there are three important points highlighted for us to observe and introspect this year. They are; (a) Climate Action and the Green Transition; (b) Mobilising for Justice; (c) Intergenerational Connections. 

These themes have become important for Indigenous communities across the world. We cannot ignore the ongoing conversations on climate action when leading scientists, policy makers and policy makers inform us that we are in a period of climate crisis. We are called to reexamine our existing way of life, consumption patterns, and lifestyle. Second, the focus on mobilizing for justice is grounded on creating awareness for indigenous rights and creating wider networks. It also means resisting discrimination, and imposition of foreign languages and culture on indigenous value and knowledge system. The third theme on intergenerational connections focuses on the importance of transmitting indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Here, intergenerational connections are meant to foster strong bonds for a better future. Dialogues and conversations about way of life, history, and culture between across generations enable indigenous transfer of knowledge. 

In recent decades the Naga people have found themselves as members and part of an international Indigenous community. In this sense, our indigenous identity is both “rooted and routed”through land and social spaces, a term I borrow from James Clifford’s work on being Indigenous in the 21st century. 

This open suplarger questions about Indigenous lives in rural and urban areas, and also different kinds of experiences such as being home and then leaving home as indigenous migrants. As we try to grasp our way of life today, we are always arriving and departing (from home, villages, towns, cities, and around the world). If Indigenous mobility is an exceptional story about being indigenous in the 21st century, it is equally important for our youth, researchers, and emerging leaders and thinkers to dwell on these lived experiences. 

What is Indigenous aspiration, desire, dream, and hope? How do we navigate the tensions of loss, heritage, and tradition? I cannot answer what you feel or ought to feel, but I can share my experiences about these questions. Wherever I have gone – across different continents in the last two decades – I have dwelt on what is the center of my world. Center suggests many things, but in my context as a writer and scholar, it means how do I get a sense of being home when I am away. Many of us are away from our homesand must reflect on these questions as well. We travel for work, education, or to set up new lives and futures. Many also leave their respective villages and come to urban centers like Kohima, Mokokchung, and Dimapur to earn a living. Some of you are aware that these are topics that I have covered in my books Leaving the Land: Indigenous Migration and Affective labour in India (2019) and Ceasefire City: Militarism, Capitalism, and Urbanism in Dimapur (2021). 

The Dimapur book emerged from decades of being asked “Where is Dimapur?” No one would ask that question to my colleagues and friends from places like New York, London, or Mumbai. I understand these cities have a distinct past and historical context like the role of empire and capital in establishing these places. Yet, if we are to believe that we carry our roots – the center of our world - to places we travel in our life time, I was indeed carrying my home, people, and languageto explore the world and the cultures that I encountered in my life. I feel there is a need to situate such moments and interactions in relation to works we produce – films, books, installations, and art – such grounding reminds us that being Indigenous, and our lived experiences are intrinsically linked to the knowledge and theory we produce. In my Dimapur book I tried to locate what is means to be a Naga and what kind of relationship and predicament we face in our everyday lives as urban dwellers. 

I will share a few paragraphs from my Dimapur book to underline what I mean. This is from a chapter titled Dying in Dimapur.

Philosophy of a Coffin Maker 

Conversation one: I start my day at 5 am. I start working and then thoughts come to my head. As I polish the wood, I think about different designs, I think about new techniques. Then my mind drifts. Conversations from the previous evening come to me. Listen, this conversation we are having today will come to me tomorrow. It will come. I think about all these things. Because the process is not merely making a coffin. It is about cleaning the farm, solving disputes among friends, or managing my boys (workers). I think about the coming election and politics. I also think about death. Some of my workers have died working with me. They were buried in the coffins they had built. There is no certainty about life. I might die tonight or tomorrow. That is why we are all animals at the end of the day. Whenever boys are making the coffins, they go inside the coffins and test it. They see how it is coming along and whether the fitting is correct. The coffin has utility in our lives. We use it for our needs. Just like making a door frame, a window frame, a table, I make coffins. It is work.  

Conversation two: Listen, when someone dies in Dimapur, they will not wrap up the body and take it to the village. In many cases, when people die here, they are often in short of cash. So, they tell me ‘The other two shops are asking this much (quoting a price). But we are short of cash.’ I respond, ‘Ayah, come here. Listen. This is a one-time thing. We are born once, and we die once. These two moments are important. Look around the showroom and select the coffin that makes you happy. You pay me the money after you have completed the work (referring to the funeral) or whenever you can pay.’ 

Conversation three: When Indian soldiers die their bodies are brought to Rangapahar, the Indian Army camp in Dimapur. These corpses will have to be sent back to their families in Bihar, Rajasthan, Jammu etc. One day, the officers asked for me help. They enquired, ‘How will we carry these corpses? You must help us with this matter. We have to respect the family and show them the bodies of the soldiers.’ I replied, ‘Sure’. I thought about it and worked out an idea. I made the coffin for the deceased soldiers, and then created a lining inside the coffin with a plastic sheet that is used in construction. Then I suggested that we either use ice or tea leaves to preserve the bodies. 

These three scenes highlight the relationship between the living and dying during the time of ceasefire. The first scene is a reflection about life, death, and work; the second one is an explanation about poor Naga families who take coffins on credit; and the third scene is about working with the Indian Army. These three scenes are all part of a long conversation between a coffin maker from Dimapur. For most part of the ongoing political accounts about the ceasefire and the political negotiations. Stories following the death of a member in the family or locality are rarely discussed.
The coffin maker’s reflections give us an insight into the everyday practices of dealing with the dead. ‘Representational pathos’, a term that Michael Taussig offers, explains the dilemmas of ‘representation transgression’, by which he means ‘crafted contradictions… and unusual forms of narrative’ (2006: 161). In dealing with the topic of living and dying, the coffin maker’s experiences presentus with the contradictions and meaning of what constitutes community as he gives us a sense of death and corpses, and the symbolic meanings and values around them. The coffin maker’s work to pack dead bodies of soldiers belonging to the Indian Army and design coffins for hostile factions of the Naga armed groups presents the city as a place that renders services, which might be otherwise perceived as a transgressive action. For instance, during the pre-ceasefire period, a Naga entrepreneur from Dimapur helping the Indian Army to pack corpses of dead soldiers would be defined as a traitor to the Naga nation. Such developments are consequences of the ceasefire period where militarism and death have become mundane affairs. It is transient moments like this, when corpses require a wooden body before they (the wood and the flesh) are bestowed with meanings and both the coffin and corpse claimed by kin-folk and identified as part of them, that marks the coffin maker as an architect of memorializing the death journey. 

Naga society continues to be portrayed as an Indigenous community steeped in tradition and culture, but stories of the coffin maker from Dimapur cannot be contained within a fixed and immutable tribal narrative. The accounts of the coffin makerare an important political and social conceptualization of urban Indigenous life in the twenty first century.

Am I here to talk about death alone? Not quite, but these accounts are connected to the title of my talk today, Socially, Educationally, and Economically Backward”: How Words Define Indigenous Worlds in India.Certainly, such definitions of categorizing Indigenous people are simplistic. But more than that, they are dangerous because it rejects all other ways of being for Indigenous communities in India, which includes the Naga people. At times, the lines are blurry because the definition of “educationally backward” erases the existing traditional knowledge and community heritage about resources, way of life and values. When Indigenous communities share their food and labour – a central feature among jhum societies in Northeast India– we cannot omit them simply as “tribal practices” and end there. The anthropological classic, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies written by Marcel Mauss in 1925 centers reciprocity and exchanges as the foundational to human societies since ancient times. How do we understand obligations, honour, and sharing? Why do our tribal elders tell us to stand with our kins people during times of trouble? Why do we teach the young ones to not forget their roots? How do Naga wealthy families throw feasts and practice charity today? What are the hidden meanings behind the magnanimity of a wealthy tribal patron? 

There is a thread of continuity in the questions I offer. Somewhere Indigeneity is being articulated, and it falls on us as writers, researchers, and thinkers to translate and understand what kind of claim making is taking place in name of culture and tradition. Let me return to the jhum farming culture – a contentious farming practice that is often rejected as unsustainable but government bodies andnon-governmental agencies alike, but they are not able to convince Indigenous cultivators to giveit up. As part of my current work on food sovereignty and Indigenous food cultures, I have held long conversations with Indigenous knowledge keepers on this matter. They tell me that jhum is not a “backward” way of farming, but rather a site where our past and culture resides because it is linked to regeneration, diversity, and most importantly the rich history of the Naga people. Today, I call upon you to consider the jhum fields as living archives of our ancestors, food traditions, and way of life. Look at the lunch you will eat today, or you might have already eaten this morning. If it is a Naga plate, the herbs/ferments/vegetables will possibly take you back to the jhum fields. 

I am not romanticing jhum cultivation here. All societies are bound to transform according to the times and situations at hand, and there are challenges since jhum cannot sustain a capital-driven commodified economy. It is not possible to scale-up jhum where its produce can be packaged and sold at supermarkets. I invite you to join me and introspect how the definition of indigenous worlds in India as Socially, Educationally, and Economically Backward does a huge disservice to the wisdom and knowledge of our ancestors and pushes Indigenous way of life in India into a supply-chain profit driven market logic. There is a limit to commodify Indigeneity and Indigenous culture because there is a danger to fix our history, way of life, and visions on a linear scale of progress and development. The opposite of backward is forward, but in what ways are we meant to fit into the scale of progress in all spheres – socially, educationally, and economically infinitely? 

Before we reject these predetermined set of primitive definitions that define us, I propose we come up with our terms about what is the social world for us, what is the meaning a true purposeful education, and finally how can we – as Indigenous people – emerge as leaders, writers, thinkers, and visionaries to guide the world and this country during a time of climate crisis, during a period when the call for environmental justice and equality resonate across the globe.  

Our worlds and traditions are more than mere definitions that can be attached to words like backward, development, remoteness, or progress. On the one hand, we must contend with ancestral attachments to land, history, and culture and there is a pressure to continue with traditions and practices as though they are frozen in time. But inrealitycontemporary practices like inventing traditions and events such as the Hornbill Festival or even the improvisations of various tribal harvest festivals in urban areas like Dimapur, Kohima, Wokha, or Mokokchung with fashion shows and rock concerts are part of our tribal life. These are all forms of a dynamic indigenous culture at play. 

On the other hand, some view Indigeneity and Indigenous way of life as a modern claim that is linked to identity politics founded on exclusion, and that everything we profess is all made up. Such perceptions reject our Indigenous history of the right to self-determination and peoplehood. This position presents Indigeneity as a dark shadow that follows a supposedly more liberatory concept of citizenship. Therefore, terms like community, solidarity, reciprocity, tribal obligations, elders, or intergenerational are viewed as “confusing”. When I write such terms in my essays, reviewers often ask me to “clarify” these terms. Yet, there is never a moment of doubt when I write about “citizenship” because it appears that the expert reviewers are clear about the term. If I may add a small note here, contemporary citizenship debates in India draws our attention to the pitfalls and dangers of defining vulnerable communities, refugees, and stateless people as “illegal” and grant impunity to institutions and authorities that inflict violence on these groups. Indigenous philosophy, I believe, can offer deeper concepts about democracy, justice, and harmony.

These are complex debates but for this talk let me highlight that these deliberations and debates on Indigeneity are global conversations. Yet, it is important to underline that claims of Indigeneity are political because they are founded in histories of colonialism, resistance, and struggles against larger forces of imperialism and assimilation projects that seeks to take away our language, land, history, and philosophies of self-determination and autonomy. This is, according to James Clifford, an“Indigenous commonality” that has come up in recent decades. Today, Indigenous peoples from Australia, the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific nations can draw together these historical predicaments and form pan-indigenous alliances. An example is today. We are celebrating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, a day that came into beingOn 23rd December, 1994 because of the advocacy and time that Indigenous networks asserted about Indigenous presence and importance at the United National General Assembly. It took decades of hard work, deliberations, and dialogues for this day to be recognized as our day – the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. 

Such moments allow us to dwell on articulations. What do words that define us reflect? Do they evoke a sense of celebration, joy, self-esteem, courage, and one ness? Or do they produce and reproduce forms of violence that continue to other, discriminate, racialize and reiterate epistemological violence and hierarchies of superiority and inferiority? I was thinking of J.L Austin, the British philosopher of language classic work How to Do Things with Words when I came up with the title of this talk, “Socially, Educationally, and Economically Backward”: How Words Define Indigenous Worlds in India.Words we utter to address one another or to define communities and peoples influences the actions that follow. Naga migrants across India continue to experience racism and discrimination, a theme I have extensively engaged and written about in recent years. Given that the theme of 2023 International Indigenous Day is focused on Indigenous youth, we must recognise them as our future custodians and inheritors of our history and heritage. 

On 9th June, when Naga migrants in the state of Gujarat were physically attacked for selling non-vegetarian food, our Honourable Chief Minister Mr, Neiphiu Rio publicly condemned the violent actions and appealed to the citizens of India to “respect each other’s cultural identity and food choices.” I am not here to argue whether you should eat or not eat meat, but there is often an utterance of the words like “junglee” “tribal” or Hindi phrases like “Arrey, tut toh tribal hai, such kuchkhatehain!” (you are a tribal, you eat everything) when aggressors and perpetrators indulge in such violent acts to perpetuate racism and discriminatory behaviours. When we witness the violence inflicted on indigenous migrants from Northeast India on social media or in real life, we hear the utterances from the perpetrators that informs the audience that it is the appropriate way to behave in that situation. The aggressors are simply performing their superiority, their cognitive developed status, and their economic and social status. To be defined as backward is to declare that our lives, land, education, society, values, and histories are free to be ridiculed, appropriated, and erased. 

As Naga people, we have adopted the term “backward” to define some Naga tribes. For a small Indigenous nation like the Naga people, we need to think deep about how we are complicit in reducing our rich histories into “developed and backward” categories. I understand this has become an official term and is at the center of debates on allocation of development packages, funds, and contracts in Nagaland. Yet, our fellow Nagas in Eastern Nagaland are not backward. Funds meant for their villages, schools, and hospitals since the establishment of statehood have been misappropriated. In their desperation to educate the children - to make sure their futures are bright, and they are “socially, economically, and educationally developed” – hundreds of families across Eastern Nagaland have sent the little ones away to urban centers to study. But in reality, what do these little ones?  They have become maids and servants in Naga houses across Nagaland. If we are to believe that our Indigenous past and present will shape our future, this is a moment for us to deconstruct the state centric/dominant epistemological framework of linearity – that all cultures and people need to jump on a scale of development, progress, and advancement infinitely. It is a faulty logic because it de-centers Indigenous worlds and practices. For our people in the villages, development is synonymous to roads, health care facilities, and basic lifesaving drugs. I feel these are basic infrastructure that every citizen deserves. 

In conclusion, let me share a few thoughts from my recent piece on food and Indigenous pedagogy – something I am strongly committed to in the days to come. In my current work on indigenous foraging practices in Nagaland, knowledge keeper and master forager like Zareno Humtsoe shared with me how kin relations, personalities, and gender categories are deployed for herbs and plants in the forest. Do such stories feature on a menu, a chef’s notebook or on a food researcher’s essay? There is always risk, I feel, to erase the local context, social relationships, and histories about food cultures. However, one must be cautious of appropriating indigenous food knowledge merely as part of classroom curriculum. Such exercises erase the fundamental practices such as reciprocal relationships and collective accountability that are foundational to Indigenous food cultures. Once we consider food cultures merely as an academic exercise, an activity that is divorced from ongoing struggles of the past (colonialism), present (resistance), and the future (hope) we lose the power to envision a future and how to get there. When I enquired whether plants like Mhalivo, an edible plant that abundantly grows in Wokha district (Nagaland), would continue to thrive, Zareno Humtso said, “As long as we don’t eat the seeds. They are tasty you see, but we must allow the seeds to fall on the ground and regenerate. Foragers are aware of this, so we don’t finish the seeds.” Foraging taught me how we must acknowledge, nurture and care for the edible plants because our future is intertwined. Zareno used the word nzan (love) several times when she explained what it takes to care for the edible plants in the forest. She said, “We must love them. They are a blessing.”

Food cultures of marginalised communities are always written to reinforce a timeless primitivity and simplicity. Thus, the term food as a pre-fix to any names of marginalised and oppressed community signifies a contrarian. For example, Naga ferments like akhuni/axöne, bamboo shoot, and aneshi have recently become a topic of interest for food writers and researchers in India. As these smelly and junglee (wild) food mark their presence in the cosmopolitan food scene in India, dominant food researchers take it upon themselves to explain the taste of such food to reiterate their superior intellectual knowledge. They exhibit their power relation of connecting the causality of taste with sophisticated palette. Invented for cosmopolitan foodies and consumers, such essays, seems to note “No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself.” (bell hooks 1990: 343). Here, conversations on fermented food can be intellectually harnessed and merged within a food/cuisine narrative that explicitly assimilates the vital Indigenous world of food and community into a matter of representation. Proud and condescending, extractive food research is a testament of pedagogical violence. 

Should Indigenous land, community, and social relationships be erased and replaced with individualized taste, aesthetics, and a price tag? I envision a pedagogy that is created in collaboration with respective communities where innovation, experimentation, and a politics of restoration is practiced.All pedagogies are unfinished processes, and incomplete articulations. They are stories of politics, celebrations, struggles, mobilities, and traditions passed down from one generation to the next. In recent years food has allowed me to reflect on connections, community, and indigeneity. Naga foragers like Zareno Humtsoe teaches me how edible plants in the forest also belong to kin groups and have moods. They are like us. During a conversation, she mentioned she was uneducated,and I was embarrassed. I would be lost in the forest without her guidance. Away from the gaze of the academy where Indigenous forms of knowledge are still considered as unworthy and lacking theoretical rigour, standing next to Zareno inside the Pongitong forest, the dominant pedagogy collapses. I sense freedom in writing and teaching Naga food as part of a global Indigenous pedagogy. Montso.

A speech delivered by Dr Dolly Kikon, Associate Professor in Anthropology & Development Studies, The University of Melbourne during the international webinar on the occasion of International day of the World’s Indigenous People on August 9. The webinar was organised by Tribal Research Centre, Department of Sociology, Nagaland University.