Sunday, August 21, 2011

Independence Day in Nagaland

I ought to make a point of learning the words to the Indian National Anthem.  Having never participated in anything nationalistic before, it was an interesting experience to stand in solidarity with the staff of the North East Zone Cultural Centre early on Monday morning for the flag raising ceremony to commemorate Indian Independence, though when it came to the National Anthem, the best I could do was hum along. I hadn’t even noticed the flag pole standing in front of the Centre before, and now there was a colourful crowd gathered respectfully in front of it.  With impressive back up from the home guard,  the Director of the Centre, Mr. Som Kamei, dressed in formal suit and tie saluted the flag as it unfurled, and I reflected on other possible ceremonies of this style that might be taking place today, and the flags receiving salutes from senior representatives of the Indian Government.

I looked around at my companions; the crowd consisted of the families of the staff of NEZCC – wives dressed in their Sunday best and children in fluffy, frilly white dresses - but there was also a special Naga flavour provided by cultural troupes that had been invited and were decked out in their bright tribal costumes.  The cultural programme was inaugurated with a prayer by Rev. Lipok Jamir from the Ao Baptist Church and it was followed with a speech by the Director.  The Lotha Students Union from Diphupar performed a harvest dance in which Lotha Naga maidens sing a song that gives signals to their admirers about their ability, beauty and strength, and the message that they will be inspired to be as loyal as the Hornbill bird.  The Rongmei cultural dance by the Tragopan Cultural Club that followed is usual during the post harvest festival.  I was surprised and pleased to meet Lani, a student from the Rongmei tribe who had participated in the animation workshop organised in 2009.

I hear that Nagaland Independence Day is remembered on 14 August.  The Naga National Council (NNC) became the umbrella organization for the fight for Naga independence, declaring independence for Nagaland the day before India declared Independence from the British in 1947. Angami Zapu Phizo was elected NNC president in 1950.  Charles Chaisie writes:  “S.S. Khaplang, Th. Muivah and Isaac Swu broke away from the NNC and formed their own National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in January 1980. The Accordists, as they came to be called, were, literally, hounded by those who opposed it and several killed.  But, differences within the NSCN split the organization further into the Khaplang faction and the Isaac-Muivah group in 1988”, adding that  “…by the turn of the present decade, the Naga Undergrounds were divided into four factions.”  Over the weekend the local newspapers have carried emotional declarations by the members of the “Underground” factions about poignant Naga issues that have fuelled insurgent activities for decades.    On this day in memory of India’s independence from British rule, what are the implications of Naga independence?  B.G. Verghese writes about Phizo - “Liberal Naga leaders criticized him for changing the meaning of “independence” from “freedom to enjoy our Naga way of life” to sovereign statehood.”

“Politics and religion are the two obsessions of the Naga” writes Charles Chaisie, and I have certainly
observed that politics is a favorite past time in these parts.  Spending time with a group of Nagas the conversation is likely to turn to politics, and no doubt there are plenty of strong feelings on such matters, but I have yet understand who would benefit from independence.  The impression is that Nagas have the best of both worlds, receiving lavish benefits to cajole them in solidarity to the Indian nation and yet largely left to their own devices as a result of obvious restrictions imposed on outsiders.  
As the Secretary of the Adivasi Arts Trust and all too aware of countless injustices inflicted in history on indigenous people, I support indigenous rights: Here are a people who will not allow their culture to be submerged by the majority.  These Nagas are stubborn, and history has shown that they would prefer to die than surrender and the notorious war-like past still echoes in the Naga Hills today.

A friend of mine in Kohima tells me that Nagas are good storytellers but are less adept at working hard.  They love to enjoy themselves and the tradition was to show off through lavish displays of generosity. Feasts of Merit were given to gain prestige in the community and this extravagant display of generosity would inevitably lead to shortage of resources and a drive to raid and loot neighboring villages.

I suspect that that independence is a sublime state of mind; in a world where we are all increasingly dependent on each other, can we be independent of media and peer influence or the government?  Here in Nagaland, government jobs are cherished for the promise of security. “To reduce the flight of central funds into the pockets of a few corrupt individuals, lakhs of government jobs have been created in every field of endeavor and millions spent on their wages without any work”, writes Verghese, adding that,  “…nearly 10 percent of the Naga population has been provided government employment.  The total salary of these employees accounts for 75 percent of the total budgetary provisions”.
The criticism goes further, expressed by Verghese when he writes that “the refusal to develop themselves and the incessant pumping of funds by the government of India has resulted in the inevitable: extreme sloth.  This lethargy and disinterest in ‘earning’ an honest livelihood has encouraged patronage and corruption.  It has also created a government monopoly in employment, which again has destroyed the work ethic necessary to build a modern economy.”
Without skilled labour or entrepreneurial skills, a generation gap exists with today’s youth who are scornful of traditional mores and structures but lack opportunity.  With just eight percent  of the economy as state revenue, my friend Richard thinks that independence is only viable when Nagas can earn their own income,  “Are we fighting for Independence, or are we fighting to get back to our roots?” He asks.

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