Thursday, November 30, 2023

Silenced reality

Monalisa Changkija

Recently, an individual filed an RTI query with the Nagaland State Rural Development Department about some schemes/funding of the Department in relation to his village. It is doubtful whether said Department replied to the RTI. But clearly, it responded in a manner, so to speak, because the man’s Village Council summoned him for an “explanation”, and reportedly even threatened to ex-communicate his from the village, which of course the Council later said that he was called only for a “discussion”, after the matter became public and led to much discussion in the media, including social media. Said Department responded because how else would the Village Council know about the man’s RTI query if it had not contacted the Village Council about said query? Any Rural Development Department, especially in basically rural States in the Northeast, is entrusted with numerous schemes and enormous amount of funds for rural development. This has somehow led to Rural Development Departments wielding huge influence over Village Councils, which has changed the power dynamics between a constitutionally sanctioned and protected Village Council and an agency of the Government, which is supposed to cater to and serve the interest and welfare of the Village ~ or rural area(s). This and several other reported instances of said Department allegedly not sticking to its brief in Nagaland underscore the reversal of roles ~ the server becomes the served and vice versa. Well, evidently, the hand that hold the purse strings, rules our rural areas.
This incident also underscores another very interesting feature of Naga society ~ the power of Village Councils over individuals’ rights, freedom and liberties, as enshrined and guaranteed by the Constitution. The question is: do individuals need Village Councils’ approval to file RTI queries? The RTI Act makes no mention of special requirements of Nagaland’s citizens to file RTI queries. Yet our Village Councils are all powerful and often make threats of ex-communication from the village for not toeing its line. There is an ongoing case in the Kohima Bench of the Guahati High Court regarding the ex-communication/expulsion of an individual, who refused to tow his Village Council’s line in the last State Assembly elections held in February. Unconstitutional but quite normal for Village Councils in Nagaland to “approve” a candidate from the village if there is more than one candidate from the village. So, once the Village Councils “approve” a candidate, other candidates are supposed to withdraw in favour of the “approved” candidate and everyone is supposed to vote for that candidate ~ those who don’t are warned of expulsion/ex-communication from the village for a certain number of years; sometimes forever. The State Election Commission bans such Village Council dicta nevertheless the practice goes on in some subtle form or the other.
A few years ago, one Village Council decreed that no person of the village or from outside the village can write anything about the history, culture, customs, traditions and anything political, social, etc., about the village without its permission and approval. This decree was passed ostensibly against the background of age-old clan feuds in that village. This decree didn’t make much media traction for several reasons ~ who knows if the media writes about it, we may be “summoned”. Another reason is that such decrees are considered a part of traditional Naga practice. What emerges from such practices is that disagreements are not really abided, which puts a question on the democratic-quotient of Naga society. You will remember that Nagas particularly Nagas scholars and intellectuals have always asserted how democratic traditional Naga society was ~ just like the Greek city-states?
There are also instances of violations of citizens’ right to association. It is not unusual to see press statements banning the formation of new unions, associations and organization within a colony and/or village, even in our urban districts such as Dimapur. The power-that-be in these colonies/villages appropriate the absolute power to determine who can and who cannot exercise the right to association. Or, maybe such power-that-be are ignorant of the constitutional right to association but nobody dares educate them. This brings us to an interesting ongoing discourse on whether our traditional village administration system, still in practice in our rural areas, should be implemented in our urban areas such as Dimapur. Recently, the Gaon Bura of Dimapur’s New Market area was abducted and rescued, who turned out to be a non-local, alleged to be from Assam’s Bokajan. This raised the heckles of quite a lot of people, who strongly felt that non-locals shouldn’t be Gaon Buras in Nagaland ~ although our urban administration system Act does allow non-local Gaon Buras of select non-local communities. So, should our traditional village administration system, still in practice in our rural areas, be implemented in our urban areas? Ironically, a large portion of Dimapur is cadastral land, under the Nagaland Land Revenue Act but at the time of death in the family, very often property issues are decided by the Village Council of the deceased along traditional property rights practiced in villages. So, clearly, the jury always is out on such issues because any change is considered a threat to power structures, power elites and power dynamics.
In the process, individuals, citizens ~ especially women ~ are denied and deprived of the constitutionally guaranteed rights, liberties and freedoms, well, simply because Naga society continues to remain patriarchal ~ politically, culturally and socially. So, while it is encouraging that two women were elected to the hallowed portals of our State legislative Assembly in February, on the ground, we remain breast-fed to patriarchy hence tied to our Customary Laws in our rural and urban areas. This also means that most constitutional rights, liberties and freedoms remain elusive to us. And this will remain so as long as our traditional and constitutional powers-that-be continue to be hand-in-glove in distorting both traditional and constitutional powers, roles and responsibilities to maintain the status quo in the balance of power and power dynamics. The thing is: the narrative of our powers-that-be at all levels ~ at the rural and urban areas or at the State regional and nationals levels ~ would have us believe that roads and other infrastructure indicate our level of development, progress and prosperity but the fact of the matter is that the human spirit abhors being immured in a golden cage ~ the golden cage is not our destiny. So, if individuals’ rights, liberties and freedoms, guaranteed by the Constitution, are curtailed, denied and deprived to individuals under the guise of traditional and customary laws and practices and we are silenced under the same, as also by implementers of the Constitution, what good are roads, a few Malls, branded clothes and accessories, etc.? What of justice and an unshackled life? The thing is Naga society has always known punishment for disagreeing, differing, asking inconvenient questions and speaking truth to power. What is happening in India and so many parts of the world has been happening in Naga society for a long time ~ unfortunately, our songs, dresses, dances and festivals has also always been the perfect smoke screen to our silenced reality.

(The Columnist, a journalist and poet, is Founding Editor, Nagaland Page. Published in the October 26, 2023 issue of Assam Tribune)