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Secret of the Nagas

Two books that cover the history and worldview of the Naga people while breaking free of stereotypes

books Updated: Feb 24, 2012 17:42 IST
KumKum Dasgupta, Hindustan Times


Jonathan Glancey

Faber and Faber

Rs 650 pp 268

A few months ago when Naga militant groups blocked National Highways 2 and 37 for nearly 100 days, I met a former bureaucrat from the Nagaland cadre. As television channels flashed the news of the drama, our discussion veered towards the officer’s career in the state. “When I first learnt about my posting, I howled,” he recalled.

“Today I feel my stint there was one of the most-enriching experiences of my career.”

A couple of days later, I narrated this story to a Naga friend. He was unimpressed. “I know such central officers. They are so full of themselves about serving in Nagaland. They talk so much about their contributions, the same way the British did about [serving in] India,” he said with indifference.

Such is the sour and sweet relation that exists between the state and the Union, between the Nagas and ‘Indians’. This state of unease has come to define the politics of Nagaland and the persistent feeling of the Nagas being ‘outsiders’. To understand the Naga ‘problem’, it is imperative to understand the world according to the Nagas.

In Nagaland: A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier, Guardian journalist Jonathan Glancey quotes a 2009 speech of a Naga academic on what it means to be a Naga: “Being a Naga in the world sometimes feels like an ant among elephants in the forest. You feel tiny, vulnerable, almost non-existent.” This feeling is neither new nor sudden. It started with the British — especially after their departure in 1947 without ‘solving’ issues pertaining to independent India — and continued with post-independence Indian leaders going back on their promise of an independent Nagaland.

Sahitya Akademi recipient Homen Borgohain and his son Pradipta’s Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas is more focused on the Naga insurgency and deftly explores the complex relationship that exists between the ‘North-east’ and ‘mainland India’.

Between them, the two books cover the whole range of Naga history: their relations with British officers and missionaries, the rise of Naga nationalism and insurgency, the people and natural resources, and their worldview.

While Glancey’s book is part-travelogue, part-history and is a treasure chest of information, the Borgohains’ book has a better focus. But the British journalist sometimes loses focus, moving from one issue to another somewhat too quickly. This is possibly because Glancey’s narrative is primarily borne from his sentimental attachment to Nagaland — his father and maternal uncle stayed and worked in the area as officers of the British Raj. For him, the state holds a ‘nostalgic’ value.

Both the books try to break free of stereotypes about Nagas and are replete with anecdotes. Interestingly, Glancey explores the idea of Nagaland as it exists in the mind of Indian officialdom, a nagging source of many problems. He refers to a ministry of information and broadcasting website on Nagaland that, after a long exposition on the Naga ‘racial stock’, climate, fashion and natural beauty, ends with typical babu-flourish: “Nagas by nature, are lovers of fun and frolic, and here [in Nagaland], life is one long festival.” “I have no idea exactly where this Nagaland is,” writes Glancy.

In the chapter ‘Burning Hills’, the Borgohains recount what happened on July 17, 1947, when a nine-member delegation of Naga leaders met Mahatma Gandhi. After listening to their plea for full independence, Gandhi said, “Nagas have every right to be independent… If you do not wish to join the Union of India, nobody will force you.” A year later, Gandhi was assassinated.

After independence (and this is where the story picks up pace in Scrolls of Strife), Naga-Indian relations took a nosedive thanks to botched efforts at coming to an agreement and misinterpretations by both sides. The traces of which linger to this day.

First Published: Feb 24, 2012 17:42 IST