The Nagas: People Without a State


The independent Nagas fought the British from 1833 to 1879 in defense of their sovereignty. Finally, by [the] 27(th) March, 1880, an accord was reached with the British as per Naga customary practices and norms. A circle was drawn on the ground and the representatives of the British and the Nagas got into the circle. A cat was brought whose head was held by the Naga representatives; the British representative held the body and the cat was sliced [at] the neck. That was to signify that there would be no more fighting between the parties and whichever party was treacherous to the other party...would meet the same fate as...the cat. Since then, the British were verbally allowed to establish military bases in the land of Nagas as their friends and guests; there was no question of surrendering [Naga] sovereignty. The Naga had no treaty with the British and the British government had officially made [this] clear on Record. (Federal Naga General Mowu Angami's version of the outcome of the Anglo-Naga war)

The two million Nagas belonging to 27 groups called tribes are the indigenous peoples of the mountainous frontier between India and Burma. During the colonial era, the British appropriated huge tracts in the lowlands of Naga lands for commercial exploitation; a great deal of demographic manipulation followed. As an insurance against reassertion by this head-hunting warrior society, the British carved out a quarter of the highland Naga territory (the Naga Hills District) as a settled British territory; the rest of the Naga areas fell under the crown's jurisdiction. In this settled district, the Nagas found their world immensely changed with the arrival of white men. A Khonoma man recounts: "They saw the unfurling of the union jack in the District Headquarters and wondered if the authority of a nation could be proclaimed by a flag. They looked about with uncertainty and pinched their ears to be reassured that all this was really true." Without so much as a ritual, the British had assumed sovereignty over them.

A Matter of Self-Determination

India regards self-determination as inapplicable outside the colonial context. It has declined to give the Nagas recognition of their right to self-determination, and India envisages a relationship that emphasizes other options.

Two specific attitudes are found crystallized around the Nagas. One view considers them "backward Hindus" and "religious deviants" because of their "mistake" in becoming Christians and imagining a national society of their own. The other view, which has become the cornerstone of state policy, is the oft-quoted Nehru-Elwin doctrine, which explicitly acknowledges their unique status. Naga traditional identity and status as conceived in the Nehru-Elwin doctrine are now being re-acknowledged in the evolving international principles on indigenous peoples' rights.

The establishment of a legalistic custodianship of Nagas through the 6(th) Schedule has ensured that the term "scheduled tribe" is no longer just a folk category, but rather a legal category which imposes limitations and facilitates state control. The state now possesses the right to define Naga history, Naga identity, and Naga aspirations. As a form of internal colonialism, it seeks to dissolve Naga cultural distinctiveness.

Contemporay tribal welfare (advocacy and implementation) has contributed to Naga wellbeing, at least in theory, but it has never promoted tribal self-determination and is incapable of doing so. Tribal advocacy is not a unitary theory; disparate programs, schemes, and ideas have emerged within various institutions or "tribal states." Two dominant, dialectically-related policies on tribals in India can be identified. One policy is based on integration or assimilation and the other on ethnic (tribal states) or "Naga particularism." Both policies have as their bases a categorical classification of tribals, assuming that there must be an "upward" mixing of tribals with the rest of the citizens in order to overcome their "backwardness."

This appropriation of tribals as cultural and historical figures (necessarily backward) empties tribal history of its past and reduces it to a series of legal interpretations that are mouthed by state spokespersons unconvinced of their validity. This conflation of history and history-as-culture mystifies historical relations between tribals and the Indian majority, replacing fact with essentialist nonsense.

Dependency between tribals and "tribal states" or welfare departments creates a context of partial -- if not notional -- recognition of tribals as a collectivity, not in the sense of having a collective right, but as an aggregate or a category, i.e., as scheduled tribes. This category provides for selective or positive discrimination without providing for recognition of scheduled tribes' inherent rights. These tribes are instead considered deviations from a statistical norm, requiring special welfare measures to emerge from a deprived social aggregate to become full-fledged individuals within the so-called mainstream.

A true clash of cultures exists. The "safeguards" in the Indian Constitution are either denatured caricatures or misplaced notional consolidations. Harvard anthropologist David Maybury-Lewis (1992) aptly sums up this impasse:

When the United Nations was founded in 1945 and came out with its ringing Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it talked a lot about the rights of individuals. It was meticulous about the rights of the state and the rights of individuals within states but said nothing at all about the rights of peoples who did not happen to be in the mainstream of, or control of, a state. That is the difficulty -- it is the lack of correspondence between states and peoples -- or between states and nations, if you will -- that we are dealing with in the modern world.... People [have been] clinging to their own groups for their identity ever since the beginning of human history and they are going to go on doing that as far as I can see. The problem in the modern world is not "tribalism." The problem is that we have so systematically and unsuccessfully attempted to suppress these units of identity that human beings appear to need.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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