This review was first published in the current (August 28, 2001) issue of ‘Economic and Political Weekly’ under a slightly modified headline. The EPW story can be read at: Read here
Jelly J.P. Wouter’s picturisation of the future of Nagaland and its people in In the Shadow of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India is grim. The author’s treatment of the subject is empathic but detached, and his assessments of this deeply wounded and inherently broken society is often brutally honest. The despairing vision is, the Naga’s effort to come to terms with the modern, burdened by memories of a fading ideal but still under the looming shadow of an unresolved insurgency, is horribly flawed. A mutant culture of several normalised abnormalities, including corruption is the result.
The author says he lived for close to two years in two villages, Phugwumi of the Chakesang Naga and Noksen of the Chang Naga and was even adopted into a clan of Phugwumi. It is from this vantage, and as a trained ethnographer, he did his field work for his doctoral thesis which ultimately became this book. The book thus is an insider view of the vexed six decades old Naga problem, moderated by a disciplined academic observer’s overview.
The book is in seven chapters. The introductory chapter lays out the canvas, sketching a broad panorama of life in Nagaland in the last six decades of the Naga struggle for sovereignty. The second, is the densest. Here the anthropologist gets under the skin of the Naga society to survey their understanding of identity, ethnicity, indigeneity etc. It is also a retrospective study of the evolution of the Naga identity, now very definitely commanding a sense of peoplehood but not so once. Naga identity he shows has often been a function of extraneously introduced political enclosures, a process which began from the time of the British colonial administration dawned and progressively secured its hold in these hills. Till then, identity perception rested on the village as an autonomous social formation and seldom extended beyond it. In some cases, there are evidences of several villages of aligned tribes forming rudimentary confederacies in the face of common adversaries, in “negative solidarity”. This has also meant that when common extraneous threats diminish, this “negative solidarity” wears off. Several earlier ethnographers have also noticed this quality of the Naga village, but Wouters’ valuable contribution to this discourse is in weighing in the influence of the shadow of Naga insurgency.
Some of the notable extraneously introduced political enclosures causing reciprocal shifts in Naga self-perception are the creation of the Naga Hills District in 1866, its incorporation into the British Assam province in 1912, and in the postcolonial era its merger with Tuensang and Mon area of the then North Eastern Frontier Agency, NEFA (present day Arunachal Pradesh) in 1957 to ultimately become Nagaland state in 1963. Wouters contends, as with many other communities in the Northeast, the Naga identity too has been more “adopted than inherent, temporary more than permanent”. This being so, the reverse process of voluntary withdrawal of identity affiliation by smaller tribes from bigger ones, especially when such withdrawals were seen as advantageous in entitlements from the state’s resources, has not been uncommon.
Wouters also suggests it is the waning of the phenomenon of “negative solidarity” which has caused Naga insurgent groups to splinter during the two spells of ceasefires the Naga struggle has seen. By inferences, the readers are shown the grave challenge likely in a post-conflict future of the Nagas. When the binding threads of “negative solidarity” provided by a perceived common adversary disappears, would there be any strong enough sinew left to keep Naga unity intact? This problem would be compounded by new contests for the state’s available resources among the tribes. The next five chapters are elaborations of this.
There are a few contestable presumptions however. Although the focus of this book is on the failures and successes of Nagas in their response to modern challenges of statehood and democracy, it is a little unsettling that the author accepts rather uncritically the much-touted idea of money being “pumped” and “poured” into Nagaland after the creation of the state of Nagaland in 1963 as a ‘seduction’ to wean the Nagas away from the path and ideology of the insurgents. My reservation is not so much on the content but the context of the proposition, for this rather unkind sketch is also often made with a tinge of patronising condescension in an accusatory tone of the recipients being ungrateful. It is confounding that none of the writers and newspaper columnists who conjured up this picture first to influence future writers have ever thought it important to also quantify the amounts thus “pumped” or “poured” in.
Again, the resort has been to use per capita investment as alibi. However, per capita calculations can be tricky considering the differential in the population of Nagaland and large states of India. Yet again, in infrastructural investment, the quantum more than the per capita investment makes sense, for a bridge or road of the same specifications constructed in a remote village Nagaland would cost the same as in the heart of a metropolis like New Delhi, regardless of whether the first is used by a few hundreds and the latter by several thousands. Of course, Nagaland as a full-fledged state after 1963 would have become entitled to a much bigger budget than while it was a district of Assam and the handling of this money has left much to be desired. But this budgetary allocation may also be all the money “pumped” in.
Nonetheless, Wouters’ does show how this money has not resulted in any meaningful creation or upgradation of democratic institutions and infrastructure, and has instead led to the emergence of an extensive corruption nexus now touching the entire hierarchy of Naga society. This includes the Village Development Board, pioneered by bureaucrat A.M. Gokhale for which he received a Padma Shri, and the Nagaland Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act, 2002 which came into vogue during another bureaucrat R.S. Pandey’s tenure as chief secretary. The author demonstrates these wrongs through interviews of several representative subjects as well as his own commentaries. In the shadow of insurgency, the ordinary Naga’s effort to come to terms with the onset of modern economy and democracy has led to a grotesque mutation of Naga cultural mores and morality.
In Chapter 3, Wouters argues that the current ceasefire is war by other means. Cadre recruitments by insurgents have not stopped just as “tax” (extortions) continues unabated. Of concern is also the fact cadres recruited during the two decades of ceasefire are also now poised to replace the old guards altogether, resulting in a drop in commitment. Interviews by Wouters, reveal most new cadres had joined as job seekers rather than fired by ideal. The picture is, even as the Indian Army withdraws into barracks, so have the Naga nation to “their more primal association of tribe, and focused on strengthening its status and standing in relation to other tribes, leaving the Naga nation for what it was, a semblance”.
The next two chapters, take on how Naga worldview came to be degenerated by developmental money. Siphoning off developmental money, already prevalent before the ceasefire, now was a collaborative plunder in which the entire Naga social structure has become complicit. This plunder begins at the top from where insurgent tax collectors were diverted to project execution agencies like Village Development Boards, VDBs, and individual contractors. Insurgents make tax demands on VDBs, the VDB authorities bargain and get discounts. The top bureaucrats cover their cuts using insurgent extortion as excuse. VDB authorities inflate claimed amount of insurgents and keep their cuts, the insurgent collectors claim huge discounts given to desperate villages and keep the balance. The entrenched vested interests in this unholy affair nexus is widespread and the author is apprehensive it may even stand in the way of a final peace deal.
A skewed understanding of legality and morality also come to be internalised. Money from India is portrayed as compensation for decades of military oppression therefore plundering it has come to be seen as not carrying the same moral weight as hard-earned money from traditional Naga occupations. But the problem is, Naga youth now are abandoning traditional occupations to join occupations that have a handle in this new plunder economy. The irony goes deeper. Those who make the biggest plunders, allow others to have their cuts, donate liberally to local churches, throw lavish parties etc., earn reputations of generosity and resourcefulness for themselves, in a skewed semblance of olden days when a rich man who holds “feasts of merit” and was honoured by his village with memorial stone monoliths.
This warping of Naga morality is also seen in the manner another innovative administrative scheme under Communitistion of Public Institutions Act 2002, which sought to take advantage of the “rich social capital, available in amazing abundance in Naga villages” functioning like “village republics” by handing them administrative responsibilities. The scheme no sooner became instruments for shielding absenteeism and non-performance of clansmen and women in government services, completely overturning, the author argues, the Weberian notion of the modern state characterized by impersonal rules which explicitly define duties, responsibilities, standardized procedures and conduct of office holders.
Chapter 6 deals with how competition for state resources between tribes make matters worse. The gravest consequence is a centrifugal tension now threatening to splinter Nagaland state. Six Naga tribes want a separate state called “Frontier Nagaland” formed of four districts they inhabit. These four districts were formerly part of NEFA, before being merged with the Naga Hill district in 1957 to become Nagaland state in 1963. This demand is under the banner of the Eastern Naga People’s Organisation, ENPO, which claims this is to end their alleged common exploitation by more advanced western Nagas. The tension is however not new. To address this, in the 1970s a local layer was added to the reservation for scheduled tribes, and Nagaland reclassified its tribes into ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, setting aside 25 percent reservation for “backward tribes” and later increasing this to 37 percent. The ENPO was however unhappy as more tribes other than them were in this “backward tribes” category, and demanded another segment, “very backward tribes” within this category. In response, in 2003 Nagaland administration established the Nagaland Department of Underdeveloped Areas, DUDA, to level the playing field. The ENPO rejected this to insist on a separate state.
In the final chapter Wouters shows how even the practice of democracy has come to be grotesquely reinterpreted in vernacular idioms in Nagaland. In the 2013 Nagaland Assembly elections he noticed many abnormalities resulting from the Nagas’ belief not in the need for them to adapt to democracy, but for democracy to be adapted to their traditional power structure. Hence bogus votes of “double entries, names of villagers long deceased or of persons who no longer resided in the village or never lived there”, which each village commands, have come to be seen as a right of each village. In Phugwumi village, of its 5500 votes, 2000 were bogus. The village unfortunately had two aspirant candidates that year, and when no consensus candidate could be worked out, the village votes, even the bogus ones, were split between the two. Neither however won. It was also discovered that between them they ended up sharing only 85 percent of the village votes, the other 15 percent having found “escaped” from the binds of the village. Without saying it explicitly, Wouters leaves the readers to guess if Nagaland’s best hope for the future would not be in the expansion of the world the 15 percent escaped voters chose to belong to.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author