Sunday, 17 January 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 1

Wise words in Wokha

J: You will reach Kohima at around two in the morning. Don’t worry, its safe here. There are Army guys everywhere.
Me: Are you mad? I am not going anywhere near the Army.
J: You are an upper class Brahmin and you don’t look like a Naga, so they dare not touch you.
Me: I am not ‘upper class Brahmin’.
J: Oh. Then God help you.

The conversation with J, my friend who is studying Peace and Conflict, bordered on being a joke, yet somewhere it wasn’t. The media with its sporadic reports on ‘insurgency’ in the state, has successfully managed to create an image of an unsafe volatile state with people up in arms against the Army. Travelers who visit the state do so mostly during the Hornbill Festival, which quite many Nagas would agree, is just a performance put up to boost tourism. The loss however is ours, the rest of India, for not making efforts to go beyond the Hornbill Festival and media reports to understand these resilient and amazing hill people who have throughout generations experienced so much, yet come so far in their collective journey.

My arrival in Kohima at 2am was not as dramatic as J had joked. He along with his friend M were there to pick me up at Learie Point, a CRPF Camp area but with no army personnel around at that time. On the eve of Christmas, when we were exploring the town, eat Naga food and understand a bit of its history, an usually unruffled J suddenly spat out, “Its one of the most disgusting line I have ever read anywhere”. Written on the wall in huge letters was the Indian Army’s tagline for Nagaland – Friends of the Hill People.

Nagaland, it might seem, has always been a ‘conflict’ zone. The tribes, before adopting Christianity, practiced head-hunting as each village/clan functioned as an autonomous unit and therefore the need to guard against its ‘enemies’ and/or forge friendship treaties with other villages. Then came the invasion of Japan into their territory in 1943. Just as they were picking up pieces of their lives, the Indian Army moved in after India’s independence to quell the movement for Naga independence or ‘insurgency’. The Indian Army ended up committing more atrocities on Naga people than even the Japanese who were known for their horrific war crimes. Some of these stories though reported in mainline dailies were lost in the inside pages. More than fifty years of Army presence and a deeply corrupt state government have led to issues or crimes which were unheard of in the state once – drugs, HIV, rapes, migration. Perhaps it’s the strength of the Naga women, who like other women in conflict zones, bore the brunt of it, the resilience of the village structures, and/or their faith in Christianity that have helped the Nagas overlook all this and continue with normal life.

“They are all chasing after the wind.” C, my guide in Khonoma for the day, replied to my queries on the Nationalist Movement. C studied in Kohima and was home for the holidays. While the entire village was engaged in church work on the 1st of Jan, C agreed to take me to the adjoining forest because he thought churches are ‘just man-made structures’.

“What freedom are they talking about? We are free, we have our Naga identity and we have a state to our own. What they want is not politically feasible now. And we are Nagas; once we get our ‘freedom’, we will start bickering and fighting with each other again”, C continued, stating largely what the current generation felt about the ‘Nationalist’ movement. They wanted to move on, forget the past and build a better future for themselves in Nagaland.

The Nationalist Movement had started with the idea of a larger Naga identity – a free country for all Naga tribes, including those living in Burma (Myanmar) and parts of Manipur. The movement like many others, now seem to have lost its key focus, spilt into sub-groups on tribe/clan lines and now perceived mostly as extortionists who do not want the state or its people to progress. There have been incidences of them killing their own members who had tried to find a common ground for all and/or advocate a different path.

On the way to Pfutsero, relatively better roads than anywhere in Nagaland

CY, another student from Wokha who has a keen interest in the movement’s history, said that it’s difficult to support any of the groups because all of them are just as corrupt as the government. The sense of restlessness seemed strong in the youth who wants to do so much but are not able to do so, not even voice their opinions openly. They want to leave their past behind and forge a new identity in the future. For the older generation who once strongly believed in the ideology, suffered the impact of the conflict and faced so much hardships over decades, their identity is deeply tied with the past. They are unable to forget and simply let go.

Socio-politically, Nagaland is in a state of flux where the problems are not as simple as stated above but layered with complexities. In its heart lies the quest for an identity, the definition of which have been shifting and evolving over the years. As my friend K, who is deeply involved in church and community work said, perhaps the first step is not to forget but forgive.

Between the Indian government, the Army, the state government, the nationalist movement, the ideologies of the older and younger generation and Christianity and tribal roots, the past continues to weigh heavily while the future is itching to unfold.  

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