Friday, September 17, 2021
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The Sumis And Naga Labour Corps (NLC) [1917-1918]

History will recall that the Sumi Tribe comprised approximately 50% of the total strength of the Labour Corps drawn from the wilderness of Naga Hills by the British during World War-I to assist the war efforts of the Allied forces in the Western Frontier of France…as labourers. The Nagas would have accounted for just a small percentage against the overall amassed strength of 50 thousand heads drawn from all over the British Colonies across the globe including the Indian Subcontinent. It is conceivable that the Hindus and Muslims of India would have conformed to a recognizable presence among other races in that mammoth entourage. Now, there is perhaps nothing really significant that would necessitate the glorification of the overall contribution of the Labour Corps in that War effort other than the individual cases of valour during the encounters perhaps, if we look at this event from a purely shallow perspective of ‘labourers’ in someone else’s war. In the case of other races, this supposition may more or less hold true but for the Nagas, this was history in the making. It was the defining moment in a journey of self-discovery.
What needs to first be kept in mind was the fact that the Nagas were still head-hunters during this period in 1917-1918. All one has to do is take a careful look at the group photograph taken during this episode. Headhunting tradition had yet not been completely abandoned. It was still a time when a Naga would have met another Naga, only during the head-hunting expeditions, when someone would have surely lost a head during their kind of ‘social’ interaction. Therefore, we need to perceive the reality that a harmonious intra or inter-tribal socialising or communication between the tribes would have been inconceivable. Such a civilised interaction would have been absolutely minimal or non-existent. For an entirely different reason however, this was an unintended landmark event circumstantially presented to the Nagas for the very first time. They got a nonviolent opportunity to meet, communicate and socialise with one another without taking the heads of one another. Each tribe discovered their own dialect-speaking comrades in a more sociable environment. They further discovered other tribes verbalising in different tongues, yet with so much of affinities to their own tribe in terms of attitudes, customs and traditions. The feeling of camaraderie and oneness amongst them would have naturally multiplied many folds…especially when they were all so far away from their natural comfort zone habitat and additionally finding themselves thrown into the company of thousands of strangers, whose very ways of existence were so totally alien to their own. It would have been a simple progression of overflowing human sentiment that would have naturally spawned and bonded them together as a common race when pitted amongst strangers in unfamiliar surroundings. The term ‘Naga’ at that stage was perhaps just a casual referential identity but for the two thousand Nagas being bonded together, it must have given them a greater discernment of who they really were. They qualified themselves as Nagas collectively and was now galvanised by real feelings of oneness thus giving them a more meaningful sense of an identity based on conviction as never before. Stories of their bewilderment in the unknown world and their amazement at the social incompatibility with other advanced surroundings are aplenty as recounted in the pages of the Sumi NLC Centenary Commemoration publication. For instance, the Nagas nurtured a notion that the white men were invincible. However, this belief was dispelled during their journey across the open sea when white men also drowned in some incident of a shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea. They further saw white people dying in battle in their thousands. It dawned on the Nagas that these white people were no different from them giving them a sense of confidence that they were all equals as human beings. The Nagas also often saw the ‘Whiteman’ gathering around and singing strange but beautiful sounding songs unheard by them before and someone in the crowd would speak to an unknown entity before breaking up the congregation. At that time Nagas were obviously Non-Christians therefore did not fathom that the Whiteman were Christians having a prayer meeting and singing hymns and praying. On the other hand they would have had no choice but to intermingle with the Hindus and Muslims along that long journey and during mass deployment at the field. The Nagas were designated as the 21st Naga Labour Corps. By all accounts each race was encamped separately with rations being issued accordingly. Among other elementary rations, the Nagas were occasionally given live cows and pigs to slaughter for their community kitchen which they would relish at every given opportunity. This eating habit was offensive to both the Hindus and the Muslims: The Hindus shunned the Nagas for eating beef on the one hand and Muslims loathed the Nagas for eating pork on the other. This unpleasant experience of being hated by both the communities would have had a lasting impression on the minds of all the Nagas who were present in that war. It was well and truly engrained in their minds on their return. This unhappy exposure ultimately manifested itself in the greatest document that the Nagas ever produced in due course of time…a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 that one usually refers to as the “Magna Carta” document of the Nagas presented to the British Government in their search for self-determination.
This brings us to the subject of the formation of the Naga Club. There seems to be no clear authentic record to conclusively pin down the identity of all the original members of the Naga Club. In the absence of indisputable evidence, the proposition that the Nagas took a queue from the British Officers who ran their own exclusive club for socialising amongst themselves as the sole emulating factor for the formation of the Naga Club, sounds plausible enough…but was that the only reason? Were some members of the Naga Labour Corps equally responsible as an inspiration in the formation of the Naga Club at Kohima? This is a question needing conclusive answer either ways. The important issue here however, is not quite whether the members of NLC directly took the initiative to establish the Naga Club. The relevance of NLC lies in the fact that they were thickly involved in the deliberation of drafting the memorandum to the Simon Commission under the aegis of the Naga Club…as members.
It would have been but natural that every other Tribe would have eagerly dispersed to their respective villages on their return from abroad after a long hazardous year of absence from home just as much as our Angami brothers would have done. During the early 1929, Kohima would still not have been as cosmopolitan a station as it is today. The presence of other Tribes would have been minimal, mostly limited to those who were serving under the British Government in various lower capacities. It comes as no surprise therefore that a significant majority of signatories of the famous memorandum were from the Angami tribe. However it appears to be an undeniable fact that some members of the NLC who had been to France had a serious role in steering the thought process in the drafting and the final submission of the memorandum to the Simon Commission on 10th January 1929. According to the authenticated oral stories relayed down the generation, member of the Naga Club had an intense debate before the draft memorandum was inked. That would definitely be an expected necessity. In that deliberation, it has been recounted that many a member opined that Nagas would not be able to survive on their own without proper educational background and still widely dependent on a barter economic base. It is equally a widely retold story that among others, Nizhevi Sema, DB, who too was a participant in that “debate of the century” in the Naga Club and as much a signatory of the final memorandum was also a member of the NLC entourage that had been to France, firmly sealed the argument that day…yodelling and ferociously stomping the ground…as a Sumi warrior of their time invariably would…declaring that the Nagas had never ever been subdued or dominated by any foreign entity and had lived independently over the century and would continue to survive on our own even in the future. This obviously became the consensus verdict of the Naga Club as enunciated in the document itself when they reflected: “we should not be thrust to the mercy of other people who could never be subjected, but to leave us alone to determine ourselves as in ancient times”.
It needs also to be remembered that there were not too many educated people among the Nagas at that time. Exposure to larger Indian community would have been extremely negligible. In the first instance therefore, even if we were to presume that the Hindu and the Muslim religious literature did exist in Naga Hills at their times, the notion of the Nagas of that era educating themselves about the Hindus or the Muslims would totally be inconceivable. Considering that many educated Nagas are not too inclined to reading even in the present day, expecting that uneducated generation to have done so would unbelievably be out of reality context. It goes without saying that Nagas would neither have had the depth of insight as to who the Hindus were nor the Muslims vis-a-vis their respective religious perspectives. But the confident declaration in the memorandum to the Simon Commission that: “We are looked down upon by the one for “Beef” and the other for our “pork” and by both for our want in education, is not due to any fault of ours” can never be construed as an expression emitting from an inexperienced, uneducated and unexposed mind. Such a simple yet profound argument of conviction had to be borne out of ‘hands down’ sufferance experienced by members of the NLC during their exposure abroad. It was not necessary that each and every member of NLC should have been involved in the deliberation on that fateful day. It takes just one of them to stand for the rest and leave an everlasting footprint in the history of our people. That was just what Nizhevi Sumi, a mere DB, did for the rest of the NLC brotherhood, for Naga Club and for the Nagas as a whole. This is not an attempt to magnify one individual against many other equally illustrious personalities of their time. This is not an attempt to undermine any other Tribes. Each Tribe will certainly have similar stories of their own to tell. It is for them to tell it truthfully just as much as the Sumis are making this necessary effort to acknowledge the past. This is not an attempt to subvert or distort history in any manner. This is an affirmation of truth as had faithfully been relayed down the generation and safe vouched by peer posterity of those who went abroad to France in 1917-1918. This is an affirmation of a Naga history…eulogising the collective spirit and strength of the Nagas daring destiny together.
Khekiye K. Sema IAS (Retd)
3rd Mile Thilixu Village, Dimapur.

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