The blockade along National Highway-2 by the Southern Angami People’s Organisation, SAPO, has been suspended. This is welcome, but nonetheless the sorry episode highlighted once again the problematic nature of reconciling traditional boundaries between communities which are by nature notional and amorphous, with the precise and demarcated boundaries of the modern state. What this episode and many more such before it, also indicates is the need for an understanding of boundaries that take into consideration both outlooks.
In the present case, the dispute is over the Dzuko Valley and its surrounding area, referred to by different names Kezoltsa or Koziirii or Kazing or Dzükou by the different tribes living in its vicinity, among them the Southern Angamis, Mao, Maram and Zeliangrong. All consider this strip of uninhabited, pristine and spell bindingly beautiful landscape as part of their heritage, but till the advent of modern times without too much friction or contradiction.
One needs to be however careful in idealising past relationship among these tribes or villages, for that bygone era too had its own share of problems and frictions. From folklores and other vestiges of memories preserved in oral traditions of these villages, there were also very much a hierarchy of power amongst them with the stronger domineering over the weaker. Not just physical boundaries, but it is also a fact that the shifting sands of identity consciousness have always through the ages redrawn people’s sense of community, making formerly warring tribes, brothers, and formerly brothers, bitter rivals. Nothing to say the present friction over Dzuko has been any different.
But on matters of land, as in most of the indigenous world, it was more about belonging than possession, therefore the absence of contradiction when same strips of lands occur as part of the heritage of many different tribes. It is when this notion of “belonging” and attachment to land has been made to transform to “possession” in the modern sense that trouble began. The difference is, while everybody can have a sense of belonging and love for any particular piece of land, when this attachment begins to be interpreted in terms of “possession”, only one can possess it, therefore the rise of conflict situation.
This, is not exclusive to the present arena of fiction, but also the reality in most other cases of boundary disputes in the Northeast region. Much has been written about the modern boundary disputes and wars, and how most of these are directly or indirectly the consequence of the introduction of the European notion of national boundaries, which are delineated and demarcated closely with boundary pillars and military posts etc. Lord John N. Curzon also noted in his 1907 Romanes Lecture titled “Frontiers”, such boundaries were unknown in the Asiatic world, and indeed the rest of the non-European world, before colonialism brought it to them.
Very broadly, a traditional non-European nation is marked by a closely administered centre and in concentric circles, a progressive loosening of the nation’s administrative grip till it comes to the frontiers where the administration has virtually disappeared and the frontiers of another nation begins. In the modern European nation-state model, the centre and the borders are administered with equal intensity, and often the border areas are guarded and administered more closely than even the centre. No ambiguity is allowed to remain in lands belonging to different nation-states, and each of their territories are as different from each other as day and night.
My contention is, now is the time for the indigenous world to redefine the notion of land boundary. Take as much of the modern boundary notion as it suits relationship and administrative efficiency, but also retain those attributes from the traditional amorphous notions of land-people relationship to ensure that conflict of interest or ego to the extent possible. As optimists, all should believe nothing is impossible.
True natural heritages should belong to the entire world. The beautiful valley high up on the mountain Dzuko should be one such too. It cannot be good for the valley itself or for anybody if anyone were to own it exclusively. If at all this ecological hotspot has a spiritual owner, it must have to be the one who would rather leave it alone so it can in its isolation, remain beautiful forever, and not somebody who thinks in terms of exploiting it for personal benefit.
British Economist E. F. Schumacher articulated this thought beautifully in his 1973 classic “Small is Beautiful” saying the modern consumerist world’s attitude to nature is all wrong. Even the terminology used in describing this relationship points to this he says. Nature therefore is to be “exploited” when it should have been about living in harmony with it, or at the most reaping its bounties. True to this unconscious statement of intent, the earth’s ecology today has suffered dangerously from over exploitation. It’s forest cover is depleting; species of plants and animals are disappearing at alarming rates; climate is changing for the worse threatening to no longer support life if the trend continues; rivers, lakes and even the seas are being emptied of fishes; as a consequence food and drinking water crises are looming everywhere.
On the other hand, new strains of deadly viruses are surfacing at increasing frequencies; old viruses which have been tamed with antidotes too are mutating to become more dangerous to man; there cannot be a louder testimony than the COVID experience that humankind is currently going through. The list of woes can never be exhaustive and it is ever on the increase. It will do well to remember, most of this have come about because modern man has been not content with living in harmony with nature, but has been out to “possess”, and “exploit” it, rather than be simply happy belonging to it and be happy in being blessed with its mysteries and magical beauty.
Of late there has been much talk of why Mt. Everest should be left alone, and expeditions to it closed forever or at least for a couple of decades. The knowledge that there is such a beautiful peak is itself beautiful even if unvisited, and also much better than its beauty destroyed by those who seek to in Schumacher’s sense “conquer” it. The realisation now amongst many mountaineers is that this annual “conquering” has done the beauty of Everest no good. Every year tons of not just bottles and other artificial climbing paraphernalia but also plain human excreta litter the base camps. The idea that prompted such a proposal is again the fatigue of the moral mind to “exploiting” and “conquering” nature.
This should also be the philosophy with which we approach the Dzuko issue too, and for that matter all other pristine forests, peaks and vales. Let it in spirit belong to every lover of beauty. The communities lucky to be born on the laps of such a beautiful place be custodians of the beauty but not owners of it. They can both reap the harvest of the popularity of the place together by being its joint keepers. To reiterate the point, let the attitude not be of “exploiting” or “possessing” the place, and instead be of partaking together in its bounties. Let the place remain the vale in the wilderness where nature loving trekkers can come and have a feel of the beauty of the awesome silence and lonesomeness. Why build a road right into it or construct guest houses and hotels inside it and spoil it irreparably?
We also suggest the Nagaland and Manipur government sit together to come to a similar resolve. Instead of fighting to possess it, they should be striving together to have the place declared a world heritage site, therefore a treasure belonging to the entire world. The fillip such a status can give to the economy all the communities lucky to be living in its vicinity will be several folds more than extracting the valley’s natural resources directly and destructively.
Remember King Solomon’s judgment. When two women claimed to be the mother of an infant, the wise king ruled that the child be cut in half and the two women be given a half each. One woman said yes the other was horrified and said no, and would rather have the other woman have the child. The king at once knew the woman who wanted the child unhurt and alive even if she were to lose possession of it was the real mother. There is a big lesson for all in this contest for Dzuko’s possession too.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author