The tragic fire that devastated the beautiful Dzuko Valley has been contained, though not before it caused extensive damages to the hillsides, especially on the Manipur side of the border. According to those who went to control the fire as well as assess the situation, it will take decades before the unique ecosystem of this little but enchanting valley is healed. Dzuko, as we know, is wedged between the Isii ranges on the Manipur side and the Zapfu ranges on the Nagaland side therefore overlaps both the states on one hand, and the notion of traditional territory of the tribes living on these two ranges, in particular Mao on the Manipur side and Angami on the Nagaland side. Amidst the tragedy that unfolded, we also witnessed the ugly incident of a tussle when a group of Angami people objected to the Manipur fire-fighting team’s presence in the valley without prior permission from them, claiming the valley is theirs. Highlighted in the process yet again is the gulf that exist between traditional notions of territory and the modern boundaries. Or, if you like, between the ethnic homeland and the modern state.
It is unfortunate that such frictions should still exist long after all concerned have awoken to the new reality of the modern state, and that the give and take compromises necessary in any such a transition remains at best incomplete, and at worst not begun at all. Even at their very basic, the difference between the two notions is stark. In a sentence, understanding of territory in “homeland” is about belonging and attachment to one’s land as one would be to one’s home. This sense of belonging has indeed been aptly defined as the source of identity of the indigenous person. By contrast, territory from the point of view of the modern state is about possession of the land and its resources. I have argued before that is is because of this that notions of homelands can without difficulty overlap between different tribes and communities without difficulty, but state boundaries cannot. As we are also witnessing, troubles in much of the indigenous ethnic landscapes generally begins when modern boundaries are sought to be drawn around traditional notions of homelands.
Preserve or Exploit Dzuko
It is easier said than done, but nonetheless it must be said. It is now time for all to acknowledge the inevitability of the shift in paradigm. Dzuko in fact will be a good point to begin this initiative for a larger reconciliation. The process can begin with a consideration of the thought that true natural heritages should belong to the entire world. As a beautiful valley high up on the mountains, Dzuko should be one such too. It cannot be good for the valley itself or for anybody if anyone were to own it in the sense of a property. 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 from the modern capitalist vantage, is meant to be “exploited”. In this at least, the traditional, indigenous approach to nature as something to be lived in harmony with, or at the most reap its bounties, is far more spiritual and meaningful. True to the unconscious statement of intent in the modernist approach, 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 and other life forms; as a consequence food and drinking water crises are looming everywhere. On the other hand, as the current COVID crisis has demonstrated, 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; and the list of woes is endless. 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.
Of late there has been much talk of why Mt. Everest should be left alone too, and expeditions to it closed forever or at least for some 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 the sense that Schumacher described it – “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 sensitive moral mind is humans, at the idea of “exploiting” and “conquering” nature.
Let this relook at the idea of natural heritage be our approach to 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 Mao and Southern Angami people are lucky to be born on the laps of such a beautiful place. Let them 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. Let the attitude not be of “exploiting” or “possessing” the place, and instead be of partaking together in its beauty and other spiritual bounties. Let the place remain the vale in the wilderness where nature loving trekkers can come and exposed themselves to its beauty and feel the awesome silence and lonesomeness of nature. Why even build a road right into it or construct guest houses and hotels inside it and spoil it irreparably?
We will be the happiest if the Mao and Southern Angami people sit together and decide on leaving the valley alone. They can benefit together from the indirect revenues generated in terms of services provided to nature loving visitors, and this is not going to be insubstantial as the popularity of the place grows. 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, therefore a treasure belonging to the entire world, and be proud as the people who gave the world the internet, or built the Taj Mahal would be, though they no longer are the sole custodian of what they created. This can give to the economy all the communities lucky to be living in its vicinity benefits 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 of the baby each. One woman said yes the other was horrified and said no, and would rather have the other woman keep the child than cut it in half. The king at once knew the woman who wanted the child unhurt and alive, even though she was willing to give up its possession 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