Scrolls of Strife attempts to probe the tumultuous history of the Nagas - arguably the most distinctive but misunderstood race in India. Seen as a belligerent people who authored the most intractable version of insurgency in Eastern India, the Nagas' relationship with the 'outsider' from the 'mainland' has been fraught, to say the least. It's not just that a non-Naga feels like an outsider in Nagaland, the Nagas also claim to have similar experiences when in the other parts of the country. However, the Nagas' sense of apartness does not stem from the apparent prejudices faced by them. Rather it is the very distinctiveness of these people that, in many ways, lie at the core oftheir alienation from the rest of India. In fact the bewildering diversity of customs and languages, as also a history of tribal warfare, serves as a faint dividing line even between the several Naga tribes.
The stressed relationship with their Assamese neighbours, the lasting impact of the British colonialists and American missionaries, and the tragic misunderstanding between the Naga and the Indian leaders - all combine to make the history of the Nagas deeply intriguing and endless.
Homen Borgohain is a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer who has written novels, short stories, social and literary criticism, poems and a memoir. He has also won the Haranath Ghosh Medal of the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad, the Joikrishna Ramdayal Award for excellence in journalism and the Asom Sahitya Sabha Award. He has edited many anthologies and encyclopedias. He is works have been translated into several Indian languages. Presently, he is the editor of Amar Asom, a Guwahati-based Assamese daily.
Pradipta Borgohain holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois. His articles have been published in reputed journals and anthologies. He has also written a novel in Assamese and has translated extensively, winning the Katha Award for best translation in 1997. Presently, he is an Associate Professor of English at Gauhati University.
If there is a group of people who knows the answer to this question only too well, they are the people of the Northeastern region of India. Collectively, as a race, they are different from what may be called 'mainland India': they look different, they sound different. Indeed, when Northeasterners find themselves travelling through the rest of India, they inevitably experience a sense of non-belonging - of being marked off as outsiders about whom not much is known, nor is it even necessary to be known.
Northeasterners often find themselves answering some variation of this question: Are you from Thailand? Or Vietnam, perhaps? Korea? Sometimes there is innocent earnestness in those who ask; at other times, however, there is only mockery, causing a wound that is not visible yet pains.
People from the hill states, in particular, are still largely regarded as 'quaint' and 'exotic'. They rouse mild curiosity and are not accorded any sustained, empathic engagement. Overall, there seems to be a curtain of ignorance and indifference hiding the people of the Northeast from view. The Northeast - barring Assam, to some extent - remains akin to the Conradian 'blank space' that the narrator Marlow identifies in the novella Heart of Darkness, a patch of territory prompting a spirit of conquest rather than true exploration.
The Northeast is a vast land mass of nearly two-and-a-half lakh square kilometres. Hundreds of years ago, the first waves of immigrants from Central and South Asia began inundating the region. Today
there is a fair amount of heterogeneity among the populations of the region; by no means can it be said that it is a monolith, whether politically, socially, or culturally. In Assam, one of the region's key states, there is also a substantial non-Mongoloid presence. Still, the people of this region have found it necessary to keep in sight their distinctive Northeastern or even Mongoloid origins. Militant groups based in most of the seven Northeastern states choose to assert an ethnic or sub-nationalistic identity, intermittently jousting with Central Government forces.
Apart from the crude kind of abuse that Northeasterners encounter and that makes them feel like aliens in India, there is also the matter of detachment from the wellsprings of an Indian tradition which rarely reflects the experiences or aspirations of their people. The thoughts of the black American writer, James Baldwin, are relevant here. He says, for example, of the literary and artistic achievements of the West: 'These were really not my creations; they did not contain my history. I might search them in vain for any reflection of myself." One thus needs to exercise a great deal of caution when dealing with the Northeast and its people. However, such caution or tact has evidently not been practised.
The recent history of the region provides a sobering picture of the consequences of misinformation and the unwillingness of the macro-communities at the Centre or close to the Centre to educate themselves about the periphery. Some may be aware of what all this has led to. Widespread ignorance and indifference has almost shut out the strategically crucial border regions from the mainstream- consciousness with telling - and often tragic - consequences.
Sometime ago, the chief minister of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, provoked a heated debate about the alienation of the Northeasterner when, in an international seminar in Singapore, he publicly accused other Indians of ' racism'. It is worth remembering that a few decades ago, another Mizo leader, Pu Laldenga, had managed to light the spark of revolt in his state by invoking what he called the 'necessity and rightness' of a Mongoloid resurgence in the region. Today Mizoram is held up as a model state as it has shaken off the specters of insurgency more comprehensively than any other state in the region. The allegations made by the most important political leader in this state should, therefore, be heeded with at least some alarm and disquiet. Ironically, it was Pu Lalthanhawla who stepped down as chief minister after the Mizo Accord in 1986, paving the way for the rebel leader Laldenga's return to the mainstream. That gesture was instrumental in bringing about stability in the region.
In this respect, the Assamese occupy a unique and ambivalent position: fairly securely part of mainland India, and at the same time possessing almost an additional citizenship of the 'misty, mystical' Northeast. Thus we, along with other writers from Assam, possess a dual perspective of being, as it were, both insiders and outsiders. It is a highly advantageous vantage point from which to view the experiences of other Northeastern races. True, the Assamese have also been marginalised in the past and are eager to tell tales of neglect and apathy and occasional ill-informed curiosity. The question of the Assamese's 'non-belonging', however, drops to a comparatively lesser degree when seen in the context of the harsher experiences of other Northeastern peoples such as the Nagas and the Mizos.
This study deals with the relationship between the people of the Northeast and other Indians, focusing on the perspectives and experiences of the Nagas. The reasons for concentrating on the Nagas are many. First of all, an examination of all other Northeastern races is not feasible within the ambit of a single study. How the Mizos and the Manipuris and the various races of Arunachal Pradesh look at the outside world can be deferred for the moment while we tap into and analyse the experiences of one of the most distinctive peoples .in the world, the Nagas, who along with the people of Manipur occupy the easternmost frontiers of the nation. While no disrespect is meant to the rest of the Northeast, the Nagas almost choose themselves when one starts looking at the thorny and challenging topic of the relation between the rest of India and the races from the Northeast. The Nagas are an extraordinary people with a vibrant culture and a very deep attachment to their origin and ways of life. Their unique racial profile does not just make the study fascinating and challenging; it enables one to zero in on most of the critical factors that have shaped India's responses to the Northeast. If we talk about the outsider narrative in the context of the social and political history of the Northeast, the story of the Nagas bristles with a host of interesting situations that demand careful scrutiny and interpretation and also call for meaningful prognoses for the future of the region as a whole.
We can posit a rather extreme and dramatic scenario and then see what modifications are possible: while any non-Naga is an outsider to a Naga, a Naga in his specialness and extreme consciousness of a rich heritage, is content to be an outsider to the rest.
To be able to live to their fullest potential and be just themselves, without being messed around with by uncomprehending 'aliens' =this perhaps is the dream that lurks in many a Naga heart. If only things were as simple as this! Such a pristine and unproblematic ideology would allow the Nagas to lead a pastoral existence and follow their own chronology, uninterrupted by the processes of modernity or other conventional measures of the passage of time. The Nagas, being outsiders in that special sense, would disable the basis of this study. The fact is that, however, like in the case of many other insular peoples, the Nagas have had to contend with the intrusion of outside forces. In fact, the 'endlessness' of the history of the Nagas is precisely because they have still not managed to come to terms with such outside forces.
A paradoxical twist to this is provided by the fact that the Nagas are made to feel like outsiders in a different, disabling sense: not in the mode of being unique and having nothing in common with the other Indians, but in the sense of being made to feel like second-class citizens. Here they share experiences with many others from the rest of the Northeast.
Our story is that of the strife-torn history of the outsider on Naga soil but the initial provocation for it stems mainly from the way that the Naga has been made to feel like an outsider elsewhere in India. As General Thinoselie M. Kayho, former commander-in-chief of the Naga Federal Army, said during a memorable conversation with him, India hates Nagas more than the Nagas hate Indians.
It is true that the modern world makes ample allowance for different races and communities to arrive at mutual accommodations and compromises without relinquishing what is special about themselves. Also, if history has somehow welded these different races and communities into one nation, the sharpness of sub-nationalistic identity profiles have to be muted or blunted in the interest of the quest for a working whole. To put it more explicitly, 'Indianness' does not really have a place for the concept of an 'outsider', if by that we mean a distancing and differentiating status that one group of people confers on another group of Indian people, under whatever circumstances. Nevertheless, the rhetoric of the outsider is being easily appropriated by politicians of all hues all the time.
If we did not believe that the entire issue of the 'outsider' did not have a pan-Indian resonance, this study would have lost some of its validity and force. Nevertheless, we do not wish to deviate from our focus in the main part of the argument, which is the consideration of the outsider in the Naga context. Nor do we want to trivialise the issue by placing the problem of migrant workers from UP and Bihar facing the wrath of the locals in Mumbai and Punjab on the same plane as that of the outsiders in Nagaland. While there are certain parallels between the situation of such a migrant worker in Mumbai and the dkhar in Meghalaya, the story is different in Nagaland.
It is difficult to pin down an Indian with 'alien' (that is, non- Mongoloid) looks as the crux of the problem, although such a figure is starting to loom darkly in the consciousness of some urban Nagas. Only, the alien is not an Indian; he is Bangladeshi. This issue will be examined later, although it is somehow marginal to the main theme. Actually, when we talk about the 'outsider' in Nagaland we want to evoke a historical legacy of slow, relentless seeping in of the wider world beyond the hilly horizons of the some forty-odd tribes that comprise the Naga race. There is no question of the story of one or even a few communities such as the Bengalis and the Nepalis or the Biharis standing for the drama of the outsider in Nagaland. As earlier indicated, what merits an involved study and interpretation is the gradual - and in some ways, sequential - intrusion of the outside world where one people or one body of people has probably played a greater role than others in the lives of the Nagas.
Earlier historians have done the job in their own ways, illuminating various aspects of the troubled history of the Naga Hills. But they have not brought to bear a specific and intense scrutiny of the figure of the 'outsider' or the 'other', as we hope to do here. The outsider story is not really about flinging a stone or hurling accusations at a despicable bidesi or dkhar whose home or shop is vandalised because he is posing immediate and concrete economic threat to the indigenous populace, as has been the case in Meghalaya and Assam. In the case of the Nagas it is more about how a unique race struggles to cope with the world beyond its myths, memories, and totems, its customs and conventions, and other traditional props and pillars in the inevitable plunge to modernism. It is a process that has not yet come to an end; hence, our choice of the expression, 'endless history'. But as already indicated, this endlessness also has to do with the frustrations of the Naga people in their attempt to resist or reach some understanding with the alien worlds and forces that have intruded into their lives. Our narrative takes note of how the mainstream perhaps demands unquestioning participation in the 'inside' without really creating conditions which would abolish the outsider status for everyone - the Naga or any other Northeasrerner in his sojourn in the rest of India, and the non-Naga when he travels through or settles down in Nagaland.
Like most great races, the Nagas have an ancient if obscure heritage. But the provocation of this 'outsider' story is a little more recent. In fact, it has to do less with a hostile reception meted out to an Indian in Kohima or Mokokchung and more with the souring experiences of the Naga in his dealings with the so-called 'mainland'. We would, in the course of this work, interrogate the concept of Naga identity which the tribes proudly flaunt, and that would in turn entail asking tricky, embarrassing questions about whether or not the Naga tribes are in many ways still outsiders to one another. But to begin with, let us consider how a Naga is made to feel like an outsider in Delhi or even Assam. The non-acceptance or stigmatisation of the Naga, the denial of his dignity, is critical. A Naga does not really feel alien in Assam because of ties forged since time immemorial (although there remain stumbling blocks to the development of a proper relationship); in Delhi, however, he is often a fish out of water.
Much of it boils down to an outright rejection or brutal treatment of the Nagas and other tribal people from the Northeast, who are quickly identified to be of different ethnic background due to their looks and speech accents. There has been a recent spate of incidents involving the rough treatment of Northeasrerners, with some even leading to their gruesome deaths. The worst among these recent attacks were the rape and killing of a little girl from Dirnapur and the murder of a Naga woman by an IIT student. While incidents of violence may be occurring every single day in the country's capital and victimising random individuals regardless of their ethnicity, people from the Northeast are particularly vulnerable. There have been several instances of local residents roughing up students when they protest against maltreatment in the hands of landlords and shopkeepers. According to a survey by the Northeast Support Centre and Helpline, some 86% of the people from the Northeast living in Delhi and NCR faced racial discrimination in 2009. The discrimination ranged from showering of derogatory remarks such as 'Pahari, 'Nepali, and 'Chinki, to outright physical violence. What is disturbing is that cases of rape, molestation and assault show a rising pattern. While strict instructions have been issued to the police to deal with these crimes, stories from ordinary Northeasterners living in the capital offer enough proof that these official pronouncements are not being taken seriously.
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