In “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar” by Vasant Moon, the book begins with: “No one can choose where and in which family one will be born. By birth, one acquires a family, caste/tribe, religion and race none of which can one disown. But a person’s identity is determined by his accomplishments. His actions can lead him to the lowest of low notoriety or to the highest peak of fame.” These lines made me felt more blessed to be born into a Naga family, particularly to be born in one of the Naga villages.
Several titles for this article under the heading of protective thinking flocked to my mind, for instance ‘Understanding the Uniqueness of Naga Villages,’ ‘Villages and Nagaland State,’ ‘Village Polity of Nagaland,’ etc. However, I decided to go with “Unlocking the Dark Side of Naga Villages” to help people understand the multiple roles played by Naga villages in shaping Naga history. The village system, directly or indirectly, continues to dictate much of Nagas’ socio-political norms and mores. In my opinion, we’ve so far overlooked the negative impact and the unfavourable condition for growth and development created by the village polity where the Socio-Economic and Political life of the Nagas have come to a standstill.
Due to lack of space, I cannot present in full details the dark side of Naga villages especially empowered by a powerful primitive institution in the character of Clan and Khels. Instead, I shall deal with the inevitable consequences brought about due to the primacy of village identity and its polity in the lives of the Nagas. And to truly understand the mindset of the Nagas, first and foremost, one must try to understand the village polity by studying the histories, traditions, and customs including the clan structure. In other words, the basic components of a village are further divided into Khels determining the spirit and functioning of a village. And to support my theory, I will highlight the following points:
1. When Naga villages of the old world Meet Modernity:
By ‘old world,’ I mean the period before Christianity and establishment of Colonial British administration in Naga Villages. It is essential to remember that prior to India’s Independence; the present Naga tribes were not recognized and sub-categorized as we’re now under the category of Scheduled Tribe by Union Govt. of India. In other words, Naga Nationality was brought under the category of Scheduled Tribes by virtue of Schedule Tribe Order 1950, where all the Naga Tribes derive benefits and survive economically by virtue of this recognition alone. I have to speak in this tone since most of us, being emotional, will blindly speak on Naga Nationalism without even checking the ground reality. Now going back to the old world, a village was the state and country itself with its own territory and borders; and the people run their respective village administrations through the traditions and customs of their forefathers. Every aspect of life revolved around one’s respective villages. Each village, small or big, was independent of each other’s domination and each loved the freedom and protection given by one’s respective villages. And for the love of this freedom and the failed inter-relationship due to disputes of varied nature, the dreaded head-taking practices engulfed the entire Naga villages where village supremacy and power were determined by the result of the battles the villages fought and won. Inter-village wars within a single tribe (village to village) and inter-tribes wars clouded entire Naga village socio-political environment till the establishment of the British administration and the embracement of Christianity by almost all the Naga tribes.
We also have records of some Naga villages supporting the British expedition forces, led by Political Agents while carrying out punitive expeditions in the then Naga Hills, in defeating rival Naga villages for the sole reason of the past animosity between villages—such events are another text-book examples of the bitterness between different Naga villages. Such historical background paved the way to current tribalism, where the present Naga tribes keep indulging in a cheap political gimmick. For instance, the more organized tribes play bullying politics with other less organized/weaker tribes who in turn continuous to play bullying politics within their respective tribe circle. The final result of this entire cheap political gimmick shows that the Nagas as a nation remains bitterly divided and disorganized as ever. All the Nagas, irrespective of territorial boundaries, exclusively think on the basis of their clan/tribe, even though they may say they are against “ism.”
2. Naga Villages Struggle in the New World Order:
And now when suddenly transported to the new world without any preparation and experience to live in this sophisticated and politically advanced world, Naga villages and people became the first victim of the western administrative system. Though the villages and its people are taught/forced to live a civilized life according to the rules and standards laid down by the western education and administrative system, a political community—that would enable Nagas to follow democratic norms without any primary allegiance to clan, village, and tribe—was not constructed or failed to emerge. In other words, a foreign political system was imposed on us from the outside. A system that is alien to the Naga village system (In this regard, Karl Marx rightly pointed out, political life is constructed, not given). At the same time, Nagas could not renounce the old practices of mobilizing respective clans/khels when any major decisions, whether social or political matters, had to be taken. This is evident even in this day and age. The new political system was neither suitable nor in sync with habits, traditions, and customs of the people. And in the absence of an effective political system to serve as a guide, Naga villages and its people have gone wrong countless times then and even now, jeopardizing everything in their way. Such tragedies happen when political system is given and not constructed, viz. a political system that has evolved from the society. Thus, in a modern world, we are living with an old, outdated mindset.
3. Drawing a line:
To make my stand clear, I am not against the village identity and its existence, rather I am solely against the destructive political activism at the village level which is largely facilitated by primitive institutions of clan and khel that are now equipped with mushrooming of clan, village, range, and tribe organizations. Our revered institutions such as Clans and Khels along with Morungs—which were earlier used to preserve lineage of respective clans, to educate the young boys and girls the art of living, etc. and maintaining friendships between different clans and families—are now used for political adventure which not only corrupts the village atmosphere, but also creates huge social divide between the rich/poor villagers along clan and khel lines. Village polity differs from tribe to tribe, region to region. In some villages, the institution of clans/khels exists where various clans and khels routinely indulge in a power struggle by forming alliances (constantly shifting alliances) to head and run the village administration. In other villages, the institutions of village-chief exist to run village administrations whose decision is final and binding. In some cases, families and clans members are bitterly divided along party lines.
No doubt, individual/clan rivalries for village leadership are not unheard of, but major damages were done after the introduction of Indian democratic election system which parachuted family/clan rivalry into a perilous level. This clan alliance system, when it reaches the district level, develops into a village alliance that in turn develops into a tribe alliance when it finally reaches the state level; and in the process, destroys every aspect of a political community. Such outdated practices now mixed with a newly introduced system of election and foreign administrative procedures easily enable the big fishes to eat the small fishes in the small muddy pond of Nagaland. Yet the people continue to live on as if everything is alright. People by nature are resistant to change since elites and middlemen benefit from the present system. In such cases, the leaders as well as the citizens, will be of the same character, though every now and then a self-claim messiah from an elite background may rise up claiming to wash-off the dirt polluted by corruption and tribalism. Yet, such messiah will only play divisive politics, though he may deny. Such is the nature of Naga politics. I am here reminded of another irony: Since the establishment of Nagaland statehood till the present, we’ve heard of MLAs, Ministers, Bureaucrats, and Directors appointing close relatives, clansmen, one’s own village people and own tribe’s people to government jobs. The question here we need to ask is, what category does this practice come under? Is this how Nagas make use of Article 371A? Therefore, it is high time we decide to choose either the primitive institution of a clan as a political platform or restore the primitive institutions to its original place of being an educative centre to teach and remind the younger generations of old traditional values and kinship. But, the moment this primitive institution tries to perform multiple roles, it will continue to destroy Naga society beyond repair.
4. Who shall govern:
By now we must be very clear on the meaning and definition of who shall govern and under what political system and authorities do the Nagas want to be governed, say for instance a Democratic form of Government or according to traditions and customs by each respective Tribal Bodies. It is imperative for the people to realize that we have too many rulers and no subjects. No doubt, we seem to prefer a democratic form of government, the very reason Nagaland State came into being. Ironically, Nagaland state government has been deprived the constitutional rights to govern fully from day one until now for various reasons. After choosing a democratic system, it is futile to resort to customary tactics just for selfish interests by citing village and tribe customary laws and land-ownership rights to hijack the constitutional rights of a democratic state government. If we really do care about our customary laws, why not all Naga Tribal Bodies entrust law experts to formulate supreme and binding Naga customary laws to govern the Nagas as a whole, irrespective of tribes? If we truly want to preserve and practice Naga Customary laws, it is not late to prepare from now on. The sad reality is that all Naga tribes would seem reluctant to neither disagree nor compromise on anything worth doing for greater good citing numerous reasons basing on each tribe interests. Such unfavorable political weather is in large created by village polity in the first place. If we continuously fail to push for reformative measures by checking the ground reality, the dark side of Naga Villages will damage our society beyond repair. And to avoid repeated historical accidents, we must give up the practice of interpreting customary laws and democratic norms for our own benefit. We ought to stick to one progressive political system instead of continuously flirting between an alien democratic system and an out-of-place traditional customary system.
The dark side of village polity cannot be covered within these five points alone for there exist voluminous subtleties and complexities that require more detail study in order to illustrate the nefarious implications they have on Naga Polity. The Nagas as a whole have seen destruction after destruction; yet, we continue to remain disorganized as a nation. As mentioned earlier, the dark side of Naga Villages persists to impede Naga Unity and blocking the road to progress. In the end, the Nagas’ political journey will end at village level; after all, it started from a village.