Faber, Rs 650
Review by Uddalak Mukherjee
Of the nine chapters written by Jonathan Glancey, the fourth, with its innocuous title, “Headhunting and Basket Weaving”, disturbed me the most. Unlike some other chapters that contain graphic accounts of brutalities perpetrated by the Indian army on the Naga people — the fall-out of a bitter, violent, decades-long war of independence that the Nagas have been waging intermittently against the Indian State — this chapter has been enriched by anthropological tidbits. Nagaland is home to 16 Tibetan-Burmese tribes whose ethnic roots, although fuzzy, are far removed from those shared by Indians on the ‘mainland’; the headhunting practice of the Nagas, although on the decline, reveals their cultural ties with some Indonesian tribes; Nagaland’s literacy rate in 2002 was 67.11 per cent; the average life-span of the Naga people is 73.4 years; women enjoy equal rights as men in Naga society. I quote these nuggets in detail because like many other citizens, I had not known, or even cared, much about Nagaland and its people. The paucity of knowledge and concern has resulted in the creation of a collective indifference, which, Glancey suggests subtly, has bolstered the Indian State’s sinister attempts to portray the Naga people as primitive souls who spend their time (head)hunting, dancing and singing. The irony that a Briton’s sojourn should serve as a compass to guide an Indian reader into a corner of India that remains hidden, and wilfully forgotten, even six decades after Independence leaves one feeling guilty and, hence, troubled. And herein lay the source of my discomfort.
The feeling of guilt is further enhanced when Glancey holds up a mirror to the political questions behind the insurgency in Nagaland. Two attributes make Glancey’s efforts praiseworthy in this context. Unlike Indian readers and armchair analysts, he has a far deeper understanding of the complexities that have undermined efforts to find a political solution to the conflict. Yet his tone is never preachy. Second, he resists the temptation to offer yet another myopic solution to a seemingly intractable problem.
Glancey does a thorough job of untangling Nagaland’s complex political history. The British had subjugated parts of the state after the decisive battle at Khonoma. Skirmishes continued sporadically, although many Nagas had sided with the British to keep Japanese intruders at bay during the epic siege of Kohima. On the eve of Indian independence, Jawaharlal Nehru demanded imperiously that the state be handed over to India. He was rebuffed by the Naga National Council, which declared independence a day before India was free. (The Naga Club, a body that pioneered nationalist, and not tribal, demands, had informed the Simon Commission way back in 1929 that the Nagas would like to retain the independence they had lost in a revised political map of the subcontinent.) Nehru’s failure to break the deadlock during his Kohima visit, coupled with the provocative tactics adopted by the NNC, resulted in another armed intrusion, this time by the Indian army. It is estimated that about 100,000 to 200,000 Nagas lost their lives in the conflict between 1952 and 1997. Brutalities such as the one in Oinam village in 1987, where the Assam Rifles went on rampage for four months, killing the village chief, forcing women to give birth in front of jeering soldiers, burying men alive and then smashing their heads to pulp with heavy army boots have also been inflicted on several occasions. Significantly, as is the case in other parts of the Northeast, draconian legal aids, the Assam Disturbed Areas Act in this instance, have been pressed into service, handing the marauding forces a legal shield behind which to commit the atrocities. Peace accords have been ineffective; hence the promise of peace remains fleeting. The Shillong Accord inked by the NNC was contested by a crop of leaders who went on to form the “Christian-Maoist” National Socialist Council of Nagaland. Eight years later, the NSCN split into two rival groups. Today, blood continues to be spilt among the various splinter groups under the watchful eyes of the Indian army. The international community, including conscientious Britain, chooses to highlight the plight of Nagas only when it suits its interests.
Glancey makes us ponder three critical questions. Given Nagaland’s strategic importance, demonstrated by a key battle fought during the Second World War, as well as by India’s eagerness to use the state as a buffer between ambitious neighbours, such as China, and the heartland, it is obvious that the Indian State would be unsympathetic to Naga assertions of self-determination. But it is important for the rest of democratic India to participate in this debate to decide, peacefully, the fate of the Naga people. For that, they would need to remain informed of the ground realities. Glancey’s instructive book — and not colourful tourist brochures — could be of some use to forge views that are independent of State propaganda. Second, can efforts to transform a society based on a complex network of tribal identities and ties into a modern democratic entity ever bear fruit? The missionaries may have given the Nagas a common language. Their experiences of the World War may have also stoked in the Naga people a desire to attain nationhood. But the fluid nature of the Naga identity has foiled attempts made by Britain, India and even the fractious Naga leadership to resolve the issue permanently. Finally, Glancey reminds us that the violence in Nagaland has depleted the state’s once-abundant natural resources. Tigers are rare, wild dogs have become extinct and virgin forests continue to fall with each passing year. Is it not the duty of the State, which has no qualms about calling Nagaland its own turf, to protect and replenish what is left for the future?
We also come across several endearing characters in these pages. Two of them — Gaidinliu, the 16-year-old girl who led a year-long rebellion against the British and Ursula Graham Bower, the “pert, pretty” archaeologist, believed to be an incarnation of Gaidinliu by some Nagas, who set up defence and intelligence units during the Great War — are particularly memorable. The legendary A.Z. Phizo, whom Glancey met in London, also leaves a mark with his quiet dignity and fortitude. It is surprising to find a hard-nosed journalist such as Glancey going dewy-eyed upon discovering relics of the raj in Calcutta and Kohima. But then, ancestral ties — Glancey is the third in his family to have been bewitched by Nagaland — are difficult to ignore.
It is not just the internecine warfare that Nagaland has to contend with. Patchy development, the result of money lining the cavernous pockets of officials, and a rocky relationship with modernity have accentuated the complexities in a society undergoing a slow, painful transformation. Perhaps redemption lies in the hands of a young and ambitious generation, but the burdens of history can be surprisingly tenacious.
The dream of Nagalim, Glancey admits, may remain just that: a dream. But the iron curtain that obscures Nagaland will have to be lifted as a result of India’s domestic compulsions, for the contours of the Look East policy pass through this land-locked, strife-torn state. The discovery of oil in Wokha would also tickle the interests of New Delhi, Washington and London and, in all probability, hasten Nagaland’s grudging integration into the grid of India’s mental map.
Tourists are flocking to Kohima, Naga men and women are travelling to the mainland in search of an education and jobs, and the jungle is giving way to highways. But the stories of the Naga people — such as the ones chronicled by Glancey — and the lessons that ought to be drawn from them need to be rescued lest they get lost forever under the debris of development.