Friday, June 2, 2023

On culture

The year was 2007. A naïve, starry-eyed young woman in her mid-20s bursting with hope and optimism, was invited to be photographed and quoted for a calendar. That was me and I said something akin to:
“I feel the history of Nagaland is still unfolding. We haven’t experienced movements like the Renaissance or the Reformation. The present situation may look bleak, but I am very optimistic. I believe our young people are very capable; they will bring about changes in the present situation, maybe even create a movement”.
It was an exhilarating experience!
What is evident, however, is that the issue of Naga identity and its trajectory continue to remain relevant; and has become pronounced over the years, if at all. The outrage that erupted because of social media posts – firstly by an animal rights activist claiming that Nagaland has eaten all its dogs, and secondly of e-retail stores selling costumes deemed to be traditional Naga gear – are such reminders. However, confrontations on social media platforms and opinions garnered solely on Twitter are short-lived. The superficiality and anonymity of such battles make them eventually futile, no matter how noble the intent. To defend a culture because of a social media post gone viral, or the waking of the internet generation due to a factually inaccurate representation of traditional gear puts the spotlight on the existing vulnerabilities giving rise to the imperative need to address them. The haziness of what comprises non-negotiables for a society, and just how pure, legal and authentic are the brave battles and the grounds on which they stand, serve as a foreground. Even more so for a culture with a history of oral tradition with little documentation to build on.
The corollary question is: who decides what stays and what needs to be discarded? Is the older generation wise enough to be the only defining authority? Or, is the younger one more equipped and knowledgeable to grasp the nuances of the relevancy of a culture and contribute to it? Knee-jerk reactions will be what they are – exposing a weakness at a deeper level, demanding valid and honest scrutiny of the past, present and future which is candid as well. Somewhere along the way, fault lines that had been created are crying out now for an urgent need to take collective responsibility for the good, the bad and the ugly.
The Past
Nagas are neither the first nor the only people group to face subjugation – this is a critical historical aspect that needs a reality check as well as an acceptance that is, at best, matured and measured. Indigenous populations all over the world have experienced similar violent history and brutal injustice, having had to defend their freedom on their ancestral lands and being labelled as savages for fighting what rightfully and historically belonged to them. In his published diary, John Carey Cremony – which was maintained to record his meetings with Native American Apache and Comanche Tribes in the mid-19th century – casually describes Native American Tribes as savages and himself as a part of the enlightened race. His encounter started in 1847 when he was engaged as a negotiator to ward off a possible violent event that erupted between the Mexicans and the Comanche warriors along the Rio Grande, and later as a member of the United States Boundary Commission ; he continued his association with the Native Tribes up until the late 1860s.
The once mighty sovereign and distinct Tribes and Nations namely the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas – who once freely and proudly wandered the vast, splendid mineral-enriched landscape – were allegedly discovered by the so-called superior Europeans and were wrongfully overtaken by the colonial settlers over centuries. Under the aegis of Pope Nicholas V in 1452, the first papal bull granted the former a domain beyond Europe by authorising Portugal to reduce Muslims, pagans, and other non-believers to perpetual slavery and seize their property. The subsequent bull – Inter Caetera – was issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. It granted the newly discovered lands to Spain. In 1565, the Spanish were the first to set up a permanent European settlement, in what is now the United States. It functioned as a base camp for further incursions on the continent. Since then, the indigenous people of the Americas have been colonised, threatened, tortured, raped, exploited, discriminated against, suppressed, and silenced over centuries…this continues even today.
Brenda J Child, in her book that is part family history and part memoir, recounts the stories of the Ojibwe people from the Great Lakes and records that ‘reservation’ was the aftermath of catastrophic dispossession . She briefly described how the newly established State policies patently ignored prior treaty rights and the inherent sovereign and aboriginal rights of the original indigenous landowners. Treaties were dishonoured, and the Native Americans became a regulated population defined by an alien law imposed on them by a foreign Government.
This struggle reached the international platform only in the early 20th century. In 1923 , Deskaheh, Chief of the Younger Bear clan of the Cayuga Nation, became the first indigenous man to travel to Geneva on a passport issued by the Six Nations Council of the Iroquois – the Mohawk, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, the Seneca and the Tuscarora. His purpose was to bring his people’s case before the League of Nations (the present United Nations) and to plead for recognition of the sovereignty of the constituent members. His above petition was unsuccessful; Deskaheh and George P Decker, who travelled together to Geneva (the latter being the Counsel appointed by the Six Nations) hired the Salle Centrale and held a press conference to present their case. Here Deskaheh repeated the passage from the Treaty of 1784, which was worded by Sir Frederick Haldiman, Governor-in-chief of Quebec. It read:
“I do hereby in His Majesty’s name, authorise and permit the said Mohawk Nation and such others of the Six Nations Indians as wish to settle in that quarter to take possession of and settle upon the banks of the river commonly called Quse or Grand River… which them and their posterity will enjoy forever”.
Deskaheh returned to the United States, a disillusioned and discouraged man after 18 months. An exile from Canada and the Nation, he thought himself a failure. He gave his last speech on the evening of March 10th, 1925. He died alone on June 22, 1925 following a serious attack of pleurisy and pneumonia. The Canadian Government did not grant permission to his brother, wife and children to cross Niagara Falls . His valiant bid sparked the rise of the voice of indigenous populations on an international platform, leading to the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples in 2007 almost a century later.
If history can be manipulated and legally recognised, treaty rights altered and obliterated; if proprietary land rights can disappear and entire Nation Tribes displaced and relegated into reservations, then a symbolic recognition of uniqueness can be pushed to oblivion, and history can thus be repealed, re-drafted, edited, and its people diminished – culture becoming an unacknowledged and barely discernable casualty – with the immense potential to gradually and rapidly fade away.
The Present
Constancy would be retrograding for a culture that is threatened from within and outside. This is the context in which the modern-day 21st-century Nagas are growing up and navigating a precarious environment. The older generation had an altruistic cause that kept them occupied and angry; that status quo continues even today. Today’s youth does not emotionally associate with it, not having witnessed the blood and gore, the anxiety or the heartache, the ambush and the insult, the betrayal and the pain, the loss and the death. However, emotions do not and cannot exist in a vacuum.
The one-point agenda model that the older generation was handed down, which made them focused and sometimes even successful, is no longer in existence. Growing up, they faced the ‘do or die’ situation; consequently and naturally, they became survivors and thrived.
The present-day youth are caught in a self-conflicting zone what with the bombardment of a diversity of choices being continually hurled at them. The excesses available to them today serve as a double-edged sword that reduces them to distracted apes, save for a few discerning individuals who duck the snare and evolve. With the internet-fuelled media exploding at an unbelievable pace, the erstwhile wide difference between wisely acquiring knowledge and randomly collecting facts has been entirely blurred. Moreover, we live in times where we have been convinced that not only an opinion can be formed based on headlines but also having the information, regardless of whether it is true or fake. Neil Postman, in his seminal work , observed that ‘the news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination.’ He argued that ‘in the 18th and the 19th centuries, print put forward a definition of intelligence that gave priority to the objective, rational use of the mind and at the same time encouraged forms of public discourse with serious, logically ordered content’ . That, in the 20th century, photography and telegraphy together became the language that denied interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued the irrelevancy of history, explained nothing and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence . Though this was written in the mid-20th century and from a purely American milieu, it squarely applies to the global environment of today, and the 21st-century Naga society is no exception. Postman set forth his argument when television overtook the age of typography and print media. And it could not have been more prophetic of what was to come – judging by the consequences of the onslaught of the internet taking over every form of conversation.
A case in point is Savarkar who has been hailed a hero several times over, more so in the past eight years. However, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s views on the cow are not hash-tagged, media sourced or publicly fed, making it unavailable for public discourse and inaccessible to a generation dependent on internet spoon-feeding. According to him, elevating an animal that eats garbage and indiscriminately passes excreta anywhere and everywhere to the status of a goddess was insulting to humanity and divinity. He argued that on the one hand, scholarly personalities like Ambedkar and saints like Chokha Mela were considered impure due to their caste, and on the other, the urine of an animal was found suddenly soul purifying. He questioned if this was not a great fallacy and contradiction in Indian society . This view, and the factum concerning his sexual orientation , are not even whispered in the dark, dingy, shabby corners of any popular media platform available today. If the narrative of public discourse is being steered and manipulated by media and over the internet today, what popular media does not want us to know is then kept in the dark. There is a high probability that truth is not out there with the greater possibility that wisdom and discretion are not being preached anywhere anymore. And in the midst of it, indigenous culture belonging to minorities has been suppressed, compromised, belittled, diluted and is in the process of being made a forgettable victim.
Antoine De Saint Exupery writes that what is essential is invisible to the eye. To value, cherish and preserve what is vital to our roots and our identity will require a little more than a shout-out from social media platforms. It will need both hearts and brains to work together towards a specific goal. Together, both the old and the new generation will be required to make an intentional choice to rationally use their minds to intellectualise the Naga existence as a people group; to make a loud and clear declaration that is unfazed and undistracted by the social media narrative. While staying rooted, it will be both an act of resistance and responsibility to declare the ‘non-negotiables’ and weed out, reinstate and redefine what Naga culture means and what it stands for.
The Future
The adult 43-year-old me cringes at the seemingly wise words quoted by the 27-year-old me. Terms like Reformation and Renaissance, which beheld my imagination and my world then, now seem fanciful and something like a figment of my imagination. Was I naïve to be hopeful, dreaming of a land overflowing with creativity and change? I somehow dared to imagine that her creativity would be triggered and invigorated by her struggles making her resolute, daring and victorious. Do I dare to dream now? Is our history still unfolding, and does what remains matter?
In one of her essays , Susan Sontag writes: ‘Art is seen as a mirror of human capacities in a given historical period, as the preeminent form by which a culture defines itself, names itself, dramatises itself.’ So much art existed in our culture; in fact, our culture is art, and our art is culture. Our forefathers created substantial art, and they posited themselves firmly cementing our identity and the uniqueness of their past and our present. In an interview, Ai Weiwei , the Chinese contemporary artist and activist, mentions that ‘an artist is not a fire-fighter, or a doctor working in the intensive-care unit. An artist is concerned with human awareness, emotion and imagination. Any artist who doesn’t care about the crisis our society is facing is not an artist, but someone decorating and trying to profit from the existing rotten system.’
The question then is whether art is being created. And, if what we are is reflected in the quality of that art, is it rotten, or is it questioning and challenging who we are? We may not have Reformation or Renaissance as we understand them, but Nagas will require their own quiet, stubborn revolution of self-awakening, self-determination, self-definition.
In her famous book, Simone De Beauvoir wrote: ‘If women discover herself as the inessential and never turns into the essential, it is because she does not bring about this transformation herself.’ Although written in a gender context, I am curious if it rings true for any minority indigenous group, including the Nagas; and whether we need to ponder upon the plan of action even as we discover ourselves as inessential. Perhaps there is a need to see ourselves as relevant and essential; to value and work towards preserving, refining, re-defining and re-establishing so that we remain significant now and in posterity.
Nagas are an ancient and modern people group having to live its history, present and future – all at the same time. It is both advantaged and disadvantaged, placed uniquely in time and history because, while the present and the future are being debated, its past is still seemingly within its grasp. It is obvious that for Nagas to have this vantage point would mean having power and the ability to weave a conscious narrative by treading the familiar path which their indigenous brothers and sisters have journeyed centuries before. To march on with the advantage of hindsight would necessarily imply being equipped with centuries’ worth of lessons and wisdom without having to re-encounter the mistakes and the tragedies.
In 1961 Joan Didion wrote in her acclaimed essay that ‘to have the sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.’ Knowing one’s intrinsic worth, then, will give us the courage to love justice and righteousness, to discriminate against corruption and to be indifferent to the temptations of quick fix short-lasting highs. If as a people group, we have self-respect then it is possible to boldly grow and insulate ourselves without self-damaging; without a false sense of pride in self; and, last but not least, to both persevere and transform in the full awareness of our monstrosity without shame but gracefully.

K Enatoli Sema
(Advocate on Record, Standing Counsel for the State of Nagaland,
Supreme Court of India)