Monday, February 06, 2017

The curious case of Nagaland unrest

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Nagaland Map 
It is very rare to see a news report on the North east of India in the mainstream Indian newspapers, except to depict violent incidents, a sentiment deservedly reciprocated by the average North-easterner who refer to ‘India’ as a foreign country in their daily conversation. So often when they intend to visit Delhi or Chennai, they say they are heading for India. Often too when you land up, say in Mizoram, you are an Indian arriving ‘abroad’. The attitude varies from state to state of course. Recently, a newly appointed governor to a North east state even claimed that the Indians know more about the USA than their North east neighbor. It would be a tall order in such a case to expect Indians from other states to be aware of the diversity within these states in terms of tribal groupings, languages and religions.

The situation with intelligent news coverage may be getting even worse now as it becomes difficult to find reliable news in print or on TV even about one’s immediate neighbourhoods in India and the North east does not look like a great exception anymore. Reports emerging from Nagaland in recent days however seem near unanimous in informing us that ‘Angry mobs protesting against holding of urban local body (ULB) polls with reservation for women burned down several government buildings in Nagaland’s capital Kohima on Thursday, prompting the administration to clamp prohibitory orders and deploy additional security personnel.’ This report is part of a series in local and mainstream newspapers that suggest a deep rift within the Naga society. The same report goes on to state ‘Nagaland’s powerful tribal organizations are opposed to holding of ULB [urban local bodies] polls with 33% reservation for women. They say it violates Article 371A of the constitution that grants special status to Nagaland and safeguards its traditional laws. Tribal laws do not allow women in administrative positions.’ So the question naturally occurs – are the Naga tribes even more patriarchal than the people from the plains such as Bihar where the men are coming to terms with reserved seats for women in local and state bodies?

Things as usual are not as simple as they seem. Patriarchy or not the fact is the Naga tribes look at a very seminal intervention in their social system and norms by the Indian state as entirely welcome. This is what makes them angry to the extent of burning government buildings and public properties, not the patriarchy on its own. This is not the first time that we see deep seated political anger find expression in a somewhat convoluted way. The problem in Nagaland and other areas of the North east gets further compounded by the internecine conflicts within the societies both among the tribes and communities as well as within them. This has often led to the creation of partisan factions with loyalties that undermine inter-tribal unity and prevent the rise of leaders of greater stature who may rise above the narrow interests of the smaller groupings. The way democracy often plays out in such contexts is that the smaller groups are left disgruntled and are often driven to violence. The Indian state has not been much help in this regard – if anything it has had a tradition of playing one group against the other to retain some semblance of control over these sensitive border areas. So by way of rhetoric what we often end up with are scenarios of highly complex conflict – men against their own women, tribal bodies against elected representatives, and eventually the state versus the nation at large. No wonder that in the midst of the emotionally charged and historically convoluted context any talk of fresh beginning simply means going back to square one. This is why the latest reports indicate that the Nagaland Congress party has appealed to the centre to declare president’s rule in Nagaland and announce a fresh round of general elections, measures that seem more like a distraction than a remedy.          

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