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Genealogies of Nagaland’s ‘Tribal Democracy’

Jelle J P Wouters ( teaches anthropology at the Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan.

Compared to the bulky literature on caste and democracy, we still know little about the form and functioning of democratic politics amongst tribes. This is a serious lacuna, one which, at the level of sociology, impedes the kind of careful comparison that has long proven fruitful to capture the inner logic and intricacies of social life. If caste is deemed central to any understanding of contemporary Indian politics, what about those states and constituencies in which tribes preponderate numerically?

The author is grateful to T B Subba and Leishipem Khamrang for their useful suggestions on this article. An anonymous reviewer offered incisive comments that benefited the article significantly.

What do democratic institutions and procedures consist of, if not socially meaningful arrangements between persons concerning governance and power? What is Indian democracy specifically, if not a “human democracy” (Piliavsky 2015) at once animated and agitated by social relations? The form and substance these social relations take often vary from one state to another, but the particular mode and meaning democratic politics and representation take is everywhere formed out of historically evolved political socialities, social subjectivities, and cultural proclivities and penchants, or what anthropologists have begun to call democracy’s inevitable “vernacularisation” (Michelutti 2007).

Most liberal political theorists, and their ventriloquists, find this vernacularisation of democracy difficult to accept, even perceive, and their theories—the one more abstract than the other—often end up eliminating democracy of the sociality that, in fact, shapes it (Piliavsky 2014: 29). Empirically, democratic life in the United States (US) and Europe does not differ from Indian democracy (in the ways they so markedly do) because democratic institutions and formal procedures significantly differ, but because the social inhabitations of these democracies vary vastly. Postulating thus is not to undermine the importance of democratic institutions, laws and procedures, political parties, and ideologies for the functioning of any democratic regime, but to criticise prevailing views that essentialise democratic institutions as quintessentially formal, rational–legal, and detached “things,” rather than approaching them for what they actually are and do: real human beings pursuing meaningful social relations and goals.

Take political parties in India. Commenting on the mushrooming of parties and party-splits, André Béteille (2017: 23) notes how, across India, loyalties to family, kin, and communities frequently override party ideologies to the extent that “the shifting alliances among political parties that are a conspicuous feature of the Indian political scene are often governed by the personal loyalties of leaders and their followers.” In these decisions, political ideology, in terms of a clear-cut left–centre–right political spectrum, may only play second fiddle. Relatedly, voting preferences and patterns are often connected with pre-existent societal structures, sentiments, and struggles, which remapped themselves unto the democratic arena where they found new expressions in a language of politics, parties, and elections. As such, political and party allegiances are often no more than a “mask” behind which real social struggles operate. Formal democratic institutions, in this way, did not so much give birth to modern Indian politics as postcolonial India birthed its own distinctive versions of what democratic politics and elections are about.

Various scholars have noted how Indian democratic politics is often performative, more than ideological (Banerjee 2011); a competition between collectivities, more than an exercise of individual autonomy (Chandra 2007); a tournament between generous patrons and providers, more than a place of equality and impartial governance (Piliavsky 2014); an agitated contest between castes and communities over local territorial dominance and subordination (Witsoe 2013); and, pertinently, “substantially about access to state resources” (Prasad 2010: 142; Khilnani 1997).

As opposed to most political theorists and theories, anthropologists and sociologists have long agreed that Indian politics and its elections are deeply immersed in historically and culturally specific social processes and divisions; most prominently the fragmentations and fault lines of castes. Initially, in the aftermath of India’s independence, it was envisaged that forcing the caste system “to face and to enter politics” (Khilnani 1997: 5) would slowly but surely obliterate caste hierarchies and foster social equality driven by the great political equaliser that is universal (adult) franchise. Elsewhere, particularly in the US, the introduction of universal franchise—the political equality and individual autonomy it projects—worked to “dispose each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows,” and in deliberating his vote, “gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself” (De Tocqueville 1969: 506). But, such individualisation and detached judgment is not what came to characterise the Indian electorate.

True, democracy and elections offered unprecedented political participation and opportunities for upward mobility for the poor, lower castes, and other oppressed sections of the society (Wouters 2015: 125), but this did not rust pre-existent “primordial” social attachments, divisions, and boundaries. Instead, democratic politics solidified and politicised these. India’s democratic machinery, while upsetting some social and political hierarchies and cutting through certain old inequalities, everywhere emboldened and politicised social relations, particularly between castes and communities, rather than transforming Indian society into a nation of autonomous and equal citizens. Béteille (2017: 137) reflects thus:

with the advantage of hindsight one can see that it would have been impossible to exclude altogether the operation of caste in the political arena. But the extent to which it has penetrated that arena and become a consideration in all political calculations is unsettling.

Oftentimes, caste and community equations drive electoral politics: “politicians are obsessed with caste … Candidate selections in Uttar Pradesh are most of the time based on caste arithmetic,” observes Lucia Michelutti (2007: 645). This persistence of caste in Indian political life has been theorised—with varying degrees of celebration (as exemplifying emancipatory politics), criticism, and condemnation—as evidence of the socially enmeshed, “vernacular” character of Indian democratic life.

The history and contemporary presence of caste in Indian politics is of course widely acknowledged, and its changing modes, modalities, and moralities have been widely debated over the past decades (Béteille 1965; Jaffrelot 2003; Michelutti 2007; Kothari 2009, to name just a few). Entire library shelves, indeed, are today filled with books that link caste, politics, and democracy. But, India is not just a country of castes. It is also a place of tribes, a large and disparate number of them. However, compared to the bulky literature on caste and democracy, we still know precariously little about the form and functioning of democratic politics amongst tribes. This makes for a serious comparative lacuna, one which, at the level of sociology, impedes the kind of careful comparison that has long proven fruitful to capture the intricacies of social life. If caste is deemed central to any understanding of contemporary Indian politics, what about those states and constituencies in which tribes preponderate numerically? What shape does its democratic politics take? Has democratic politics similarly worked to politicise tribal identities? Do collectivities of tribe, too, regularly, override the normative ideal of individual and autonomous political deliberation? These are important questions to explore in order to gain a fuller and richer understanding of the societal complexities that shape Indian democracy.

The remainder of this article invites its readers to start reflecting on these questions in the context of the Naga highlands in the North East. In the colloquial, Nagaland is referred to as a “tribal state,” inhabited, as it is, by 16 state-recognised tribes. These tribes, while collectively identifying as Naga, also manifest themselves as self-directed political communities that today variously compete, contest, and conflict over territory, belonging, and (especially) access to and ownership of the state and its resources. Oftentimes, the term “tribalism” is applied locally to capture the inter-tribal competition and the occasional communalism that has turned into a distinctive, modern feature of Nagaland’s political life. “The prevalence of tribalism,” a Nagaland minister remarked a few years ago, “is destroying the social fabric of Naga society … This monster of tribalism overshadows us and curbs all minds” (Nagaland Post 2010). A caveat before proceeding. As much as inter- (but also intra-) caste relations take on different political shapes in different parts of India, “tribe,” too, is inherently plural in its local manifestations, and the following discussion on the political genealogies of Naga tribes in relation to modern democratic life may, therefore, not necessarily be illustrative for “tribal India” as a whole.

Despite popular views of tribes as antique and unchanging social groups, among the Nagas, tribes are not historically stable units, nor do they represent a “natural way” of political organisation and articulation. Further, most certainly, they—I will illustrate—were traditionally not the politically loaded entities they appear today with Naga tribes vying for power and control of Nagaland state and its institutions. Their contemporary politicisation, I pose, must be understood in relation to the modern effects of state and democracy. To trace and place the current politicisation of these tribal identities, the section that follows first takes a step back to explore, in a much abridged form, the ethno-genesis of distinct Naga tribes. Next, I discuss the colonial state-driven process of “particularising tribes,” which set the stage for the subsequent postcolonial, post-statehood, politicisation of tribal identities among Nagas as they came face-to-face with democratic institutions and competitive elections. I end with a few reflections on, what we might call, Nagaland’s “tribal democracy.”

Where Do Nagas Come From?

Where do Naga tribes come from? Are their long-forgotten homes located in China and Mongolia, from where they travelled, with lengthy stops in Burma, to their present hills, as their oral history reveals? Village elders often narrate such stories. Some of them insist on being more precise and detail how the Nagas were amongst those conscripted to construct the Great Wall of China, but managed to escape and flee southwards. Several Naga folktales, on the other hand, speak not of migration, but of an “emergence” of specific tribes from stones, caves, or holes in the ground. Either way, Naga tribes are represented as historically stable entities that either migrated or originated as preset communities. In contemporary parlance and politics, such notions are reified through the verse “since time-immemorial,” which Naga tribal leaders and scholars habitually invoke when they discuss their tribe’s past. Yet other reconstructions rely on pseudoscience and trace Naga origins to Borneo, and other islands in the southern seas—were Nagas originally a “sea-faring people?” Nuh (2002) asks—with whose peoples, British colonialists and several postcolonial scholars observed, Nagas share strong physical and cultural affinities (Hutton 1921a: 8). While steering clear of reducing these local histories to mere fancies and misconceptions (the past, after all, is wide and deep enough to accommodate multiple narratives), here I propose that, rather than antique origins, important tribal–genetic processes took place during the colonial era.

Popular historical perspectives reconstruct that the Naga highlands were made up of disparate tribes which, prior to their (partial) enclosure into the British Empire, were political communities with a history of fierce self-governance. In actual practice, however, it was seldom that separate Naga villages asserted themselves as a tribal entity that in its form and functioning was considerably constant, corporate, and cohesive. During the pre-British times, both the locus and ethos of Naga political structures and sentiments were vested not in the tribe, but in the prototypical Naga “village republic” (Wouters 2017a). In fact, as a vernacular term, the idea and idiom of tribe did not exist. “Tribe,” indeed, is an exogenous category “originally used in African contexts and was transferred to British India” (Berger and Heidemann 2013: 6). “Prior to the colonial era the use of a generic term to describe tribal peoples was, on the whole, absent,” thus rendering the formation of tribal identities a “process from without” (Xaxa 2005: 1363). Little wonder, then, that most Naga tribes do not have an indigenous term that denotes “tribe” in its contemporary sense.

Their semiotic non-existence apart, the historical absence of the idea of Naga tribes can also be deduced from the centuries-old Ahom Buranjis, or court chronicles, kept by Ahom littérateurs in the adjacent Brahmaputra Valley. Occasional entries concerning Nagas do not refer to generic Naga tribes, but mention specific Naga villages and village-clusters, or classify Nagas by the duars (the gateways between hills and plains), they frequented. In their references to upland Nagas, usually in relation to raids and retaliations, the Buranjis used ethnonyms such as Itania, Lakma, Tirulia, Banfera, Mithonia, and Joboka Nagas (Baruah 1980). These nomenclatures have long fallen into oblivion, making it hard, though not always impossible, to reconstruct to which Naga villages, or village-clusters, they referred. What they did not refer to, to be sure, were politically unified Naga tribes.

After the British ousted the Ahom kings and nobles from the Assam plains in the 1820s, and colonial officers first climbed the Naga uplands, they, too, did not encounter a set of distinct and clearly demarcated Naga tribes. What they found instead was a kaleidoscope of “ethnographic chaos” (Jabobs et al 1990: 23), linguistic fragmentation down to village levels (Hutton 1965), and complex and cross-cutting political allegiances between villages, clans, and khels (wards). Such observations further indicate that, back then, there was little sign of there being clear-cut tribes, certainly not in the sense of territorially demarcated, historically stable, culturally homogeneous and linguistically uniform political entities that Naga tribes nowadays like to introduce themselves as. What, then, catalysed the social formation of such contemporary, much more rigid, tribes?

It is here that we need to account for the orientation and impact of colonial rule among the Nagas. From the middle of the 19th century onwards, but especially after the creation of the Naga Hills district in 1866, colonial officers began to arrive in the Naga highlands. Their duty was primarily to enforce “law and order” and extract revenues, but while doing so they also engaged in the observation and analysis of the subjects under their control. The first generation of colonial officers often expressed profound confusion and frustration about the Nagas’ seemingly disjointed social and political set-up, the different languages spoken in every other village (at times even within a single village), the divisions and rivalries between villages and clans, and the vastly varying cultural expressions, customs, and religious predispositions. In their desire to nevertheless create an unambiguous social map of the Naga highlands, colonial officers resorted to the concept of tribe and sought to pigeonhole clans and villages into larger, reasonably well-defined groups.

Self Perception

For India more widely, and in the context of caste, an animated body of postcolonial scholarship argues how this colonial fascination with defining and listing communities gradually changed not only the way Indian society was represented, but also how it came to perceive itself. An influential argument holds that the colonial regime increasingly felt the need to classify, chart, and categorise Indians into distinct and hierarchically linked social groups (Inden 1990; Cohn 1997). In the process, they may not have invented castes, but certainly promoted a pan-Indian caste paradigm of social life, or what Louis Dumont (2004: 222) calls the “substantialisation of caste.” To illustrate this argument, scholars have variously highlighted the role of the census, laws, and arbitrary ethnological classifications in the colonial re-imagination of Indian society, the upshot of which was the creation of a new way of “seeing” social life that ultimately Indians themselves were infatuated with.

This debate is yet to be definitely settled, but can we imagine a similar process that lies behind the making of Naga tribes? If we can speak of Castes of Mind (Dirks 2001), can we also speak of “tribes of mind”? While postcolonial theorists have criticised the mismatch between colonial, or Western ideas, concepts, institutions, and thought, and the traditional flow of Indian social life (Chatterjee 1986; Nandy 2002; Chakrabarty 2007), they uniformly agree that colonial imaginaries and categories stayed after the withdrawal of imperial forces in 1947. Is “tribe” one such category; a fiction and figment manufactured into a political reality? A new mainstream in critical anthropology and postcolonial studies of the North East recognises that postcolonial scholarship, rather than criticising and rethinking colonial categories, reified the borrowed category of tribe. “Contemporary anthropology,” Ramirez (2014: 5) duly notes, “relies strongly on the categories provided by colonial depictions.”

Do discourse, administrative categories, and colonial imagination, then, wield sufficient power to definitely restructure social formations? Must the origins of Naga tribes, in their contemporary sense, in short, be located in the experience of colonialism? The following reflection of a former district commissioner of the Naga Hills district, 30 years after his retirement, points to this direction: “The present [postcolonial, post-statehood] administration of the [Naga] area, for one thing, have gone still further than we did in my time in particularising tribes” (Hutton 1965: 16; emphasis mine).

Particularising Tribes

If we adopt a wide historical lens, it is this state-led process of classifying and “particularising” tribes that, I argue, came to provide the social and political undergrowth for the contemporary tribal essentialism and tribalism that mark Naga society today.

To be sure, it would be rather presumptuous to bestow the colonial regime with sufficient power to invent Naga tribes out of thin air, or to forever fix tribal identities (Subba and Wouters 2013: 204). For one, important ethno-genetic processes preceded colonialism. For instance, before the advent of British rule, the Chang Naga village of Tuensang began conquering neighbouring and nearby villages, and culturally and linguistically “converted” its inhabitants into Changs (Hutton 1987: ii–iv), thus laying the rudimentary framework for the later Chang tribe to emerge. Historical conjecture, moreover, suggests that the present-day Ao and Angami Naga tribes first started to appear as unified tribe-like entities—albeit crudely so at first—in strategic response to the marauding Ahom and Manipuri (followed by the British) armies. British arrival in the Naga highlands thus coincided with several endogenous ethno-genetic processes towards political entities that began to transcend clans and villages. In the postcolonial era, such ethno-genetic processes continued—“the tribal groups of Nagaland are forming new affiliations and using names hitherto unknown to Anthropology,” Elwin (1961: 5) observed in the early 1960s—while several older tribes have split over time, or are currently on the verge of splitting. As such, tribal social formations did not begin or end with the colonial experience.

What the colonial administration did work to effectuate, however, was both the wider institutionalisation of tribe as an official category and the rise of “tribal consciousness;” an increasing cognisance of tribe as both the base of social identity and a “strategic efficacy” (Tambiah 1989: 343) for political mobilisation. As the British set out to administer the Naga highlands, they began to methodically survey the land and its people, and sought to reduce “ethnographic chaos” into a neat compendium of tribes. This was an ambitious and counter-intuitive exercise, but persisted for purposes of simplifying administration and to enumerate and classify subjects into orderly categories; a process undoubtedly grounded in the modern state’s imperative towards standardising “any social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format” (Scott 1998: 3). It was ambitious because of the dazzling diversity internal to the Naga populace, and counter-intuitive view of the Nagas’ acute political fragmentation on the basis of clans and villages. Among the Sema Naga, “the tribe,” Hutton (1921b: 121) acknowledged, “is not an organised community at all.” About the Lotha Naga, Mills (1922: 96) similarly observed how “every village is an independent unit in the tribe.” “As with all Nagas,” Mills (1926: 176) postulated more broadly, “the real political unit of the tribe is the village.” However, administrating and reckoning individual villages seemed—to the colonial government—a great deal more tedious, confusing, expensive, and, on the whole, less efficient compared to an image of the Naga highlands as a composite of neatly demarcated tribes.

This classification of Naga social groups into distinct tribes was never easy or unambiguous. Note, for instance, the following remark by Mills (1922: 2):

Yacham and their small neighbour, Yong … speak a dialect resembling Chongli [an Ao Naga language] but follow Phom or Konyak customs to a great extent. Yacham recently told me that they really did not know what they were—Aos would not recognise them as Aos and their trans-Dikhu neighbour (Chang Naga) would not accept them as kinsmen.

A critical question, here, is precisely when and why it became problematic for the Yacham and Yong villagers to not belong to any tribe. The answer would tell us a few things about the materialisation, institutionalisation, and ultimately the local fascination of “the tribe” among Nagas (Wouters 2017b: 87).

Despite such and similar ambiguities, colonial officers were to pursue in their tribe-wise reckoning of the Naga uplands over the following decades, and gradually clans, villages, districts, and administrative zones came to be based on imagined tribal territories and identities. Colonial administrators also began to conjure tribe-wise ethnological descriptions, which allowed them to single out and compare Naga tribes. Monographs, for instance, were commissioned and written tribe-wise. Even as its writers usually acknowledged the difficulties they faced in defining and delimitating the particular tribe they wrote about, the titles of these books always particularised individual tribes, for example, The Angami Nagas (Hutton 1921a), The Lotha Nagas (Mills 1922), The Ao Nagas (Mills 1926), and The Sema Nagas (Hutton 1921b), a trend later followed by postcolonial scholars.

In this process of ethnological classification, British administrators-cum-ethnographers also “discovered” tribe-specific behavioural traits. The Angami, for instance, became known for their “hospitality,” “geniality,” and “bouts of deep melancholy” (Hutton 1921a: 39). Of the Sema Naga, Hutton (1921b: 26) wrote: “In his good characteristics he is to some extent the Irishman of the Naga tribes, generous, hospitable, and frequently improvident (in which he differs markedly from the canny Lhota).” J P Mills (1922: 19), in turn, offered a comparative analysis of fidelity between Naga tribes: “The Lhota husband does not imitate the habitual unfaithfulness of the Ao, nor does he, like the Sema, boast of his immoralities and decorate the grave of a deceased Don Juan with a tally of his liaisons.” It was through this dual process—the one administrative, the other ethnological—that notions of distinct, discrete, and politically organised Naga tribes became more and more institutionalised.

Colonial officers were not the sole creators of this new social map of the Naga highlands, however. Missionaries, too, contributed to its drafting. In the wake of colonial rule, mission-stations were established in, what the colonial administration had identified as, “tribal headquarters.” The Bible was translated in the language missionaries perceived was most widely spoken in a particular region (in the process often elevating a particular dialect into a tribe’s official language), while during annual meetings, and in progress reports, missionary activities and future plans were deliberated tribe-wise, making missionaries speak about the Ao, Lotha, Sema, and Angami mission fields. Curators and travellers also followed this trend, and museum collections and travelogues soon distinguished between different tribes, often comparing and contrasting them in terms of material culture, social organisation, and customs.

But, if the British wanted clearly separable tribes for purposes of administrative convenience, the Nagas, crucially, appeared ready to construct them. As the Nagas became more cognisant of the British interest in “tribes,” local leaders, while approaching the colonial government, increasingly often articulated their interests and grievances on the basis of tribes. Local leaders also began to enact tribal associations committed to bringing education and development to their parts of the hills, so beginning to unite clans and villages and instilling in them a sense of common belonging and purpose.

Meet Imlong Chang, an influential Dobashi (interpreter, which was an official post during colonial times), businessman, and church leader during the colonial era. In 1945, on 1 April, he invited 10 elders to his residence and formed a committee called the Chang Tribal Committee. Of his motivations, S Takam (1988: 24–25), his biographer, writes:

Although he was a brave warrior, he despised war. His main concern was to ensure that the head and body were buried as one and not in separate villages (as the result of, then still occurring, headhunting episodes).

Besides effectuating pacification, Imlong Chang envisaged the committee to work towards “the advancement of the [Chang] tribe,” which included the promotion of missionary activities and education. The first important task this committee faced, however, as it was narrated to me by its current president, was to demarcate the length and breadth of the Chang tribe, which had hitherto been a fluctuating, somewhat elusive, entity. The subsequent process of “Chang-making” was haphazard and complicated by a great deal of confusion regarding which villages could be considered culturally and customarily Chang. That this was a haphazard process is revealed in that over the following years various villages initially classified as Chang changed their mind and opted out of the Chang fold to join another tribe (Wouters 2017b). In politically organising and defining itself, the Chang tribe was not unique, but part of a wider pattern in the 1940s and 1950s that saw the emergence of tribal apex bodies.

A process that began due to colonial policies was thus adopted and elaborated upon by the Nagas themselves. We must not underestimate how, through the establishment of these tribe-wise apex bodies—as a response and reaction to the colonial emphasis on tribe—the Nagas applied their agency in this process of “particularising” tribal groups and identities.

Politicisation of Naga Tribes

A process of particularising, or indeed “tribalising,” Naga society that began in the colonial era accelerated after the retreat of imperial powers from the Naga highlands. The Naga National Movement, which insisted on Naga independence, for instance, adopted the concept of tribe to arrange its rank-and-file, promised far-going tribe-wise autonomy in an envisaged sovereign Naga-land, while over time tribalism and tribal splits became the prime reason for the Naga movement’s fragmentation into rivalling factions (Shimray 2005; Panwar 2017). But, this dimension of the politicisation of Naga tribes is not the story I will trace here.

In the postcolonial era, but particularly after Nagaland attained statehood in 1963, the role of tribes in both the political process and public domain was enlarged. To begin with, constituencies were by and large delimited based on tribal territories (with the exception of the urban areas of Kohima and Dimapur, whose populace represents a mixture of tribes), resulting in tribe-wise political representation with elected politicians belonging to the same tribe regularly aligning into distinct political blocks. Development allocations and other state resources, too, became increasingly arbitrated tribe-wise, as were reservations for government jobs and university seats. It was from the mid-1970s onwards that the Nagaland government added an additional local layer to the pan-Indian reservation system by classifying each Nagaland tribe as either “forward” or “backward,” offering special quotas to the latter. No sooner that this official categorisation of Naga tribes based on their perceived levels of material development etched itself at the centre of Nagaland politics and governance did it transform into a source of strife, litigation, and contentious politics. More than anything else, it pitched tribes against each other as they competed over access to the state and its development resources.

In hindsight, it was such administrative measures that turned “the tribe” into a definite political machinery for articulating and levying demands on the state. Quite suddenly, tribe was everywhere. Tribe was everything: government jobs, university admissions and scholarships, development schemes and subsidies, political representation, identity and identification, social life itself. Along the way, tribal apex bodies, first conceived in the late colonial era, assumed more powers and proclaimed themselves to be the sole representative voice of its members. Tribe-wise youth, student, and church organisations grew out of the ground, political mobilisation followed tribal lines, outbursts of tribalism turned more frequent and ferocious, and “the tribe” became a modern way of governance and living.

This post-statehood tribal competition in the democratic arena had wide ramifications, including Nagaland’s notoriously skewed population censuses. Ankush Agrawal and Vikas Kumar (2013) showed convincingly how vastly inflated population censuses, but especially the 2001 Census, resulted from Naga tribes deliberately exaggerating their population numbers in view of an impending (but later postponed) delimitation of electoral seats, which are demarcated based on demographic figures. As different Naga tribes sought to protect and enlarge the numbers of electoral seats in their “possession,” numbers were manufactured and made up, resulting in a superficial increase of Nagaland’s population by roughly 64% between 1991 and 2001. Nagaland’s vastly skewed census figures, in short, resulted from an inter-tribal contest over political representation.

In terms of democracy and elections, what emerged were, what Witsoe (2013: 68) aptly calls for Bihar, “democratic networks of governance.” Such networks, Witsoe explains, are not democratic in a liberal sense, but refer to “networks of influence based above all on electoral considerations.” At the state level, such electoral considerations often played themselves out along tribal lines. And, for Naga politicians, the easiest and simplest way to expand their political clouts was to whip up tribal loyalties and sentiments to their support. Modern democracy met the “tribal psyche,” if there was indeed such a thing, and, in Nagaland’s post-statehood history, it was often educated politicians who proved to be amongst the worst merchants of tribalism.

The distribution of ministerial berths and portfolios particularly manifested itself as a tournament between tribes. Political power, as it is currently understood in Naga society, is not measured in the sense of ruling parties or coalitions, but in terms of the tribes that successfully appropriate influential political (and administrative) offices and portfolios inside the government. And those Naga tribes who “fail” to secure such posts readily resort to the language of “tribal discrimination” to express their grievances. It is here that we encounter the fundamentally “sectional” nature of democracy and governance in Nagaland. Elected politicians are expected by their electors to privilege “their own.” Even as Nagaland politicians became known and criticised for deriving personal wealth out of their privileged access to the state, they also became known and praised for redirecting state resources to their clan, village, and tribe. Across Nagaland, Jimomi (2009: 399) writes, “[A Minister forget[s] that he is the Minister of Nagaland, and he becomes the minister of his own constituency, minister of his own tribe, becomes the minister of his own clan.”

The Ao Naga, for instance, are today thought of as materially advanced in large parts because one among their own ruled the state as a chief minister for nearly two decades, and during his rule bequeathed Ao Naga constituencies with manifold privileges, resources, and opportunities. The Angami Naga are said to be catching up given that, more recently, an Angami chief minister ruled the state for two consecutive terms, while “eastern” Naga tribes partially describe their experienced economic “backwardness” to the feat that no chief minister has ever hailed from among them. This inter-tribal competition, which is my focus here, manifests itself at the terrain of state-level politics, not, I must qualify, at the micro-level, inside constituencies, in which inter-tribal contests descend into intra-tribal competition with politicians and electors belonging to the same social group fragmenting into rivalling political allegiances (Wouters 2014)

Thus, if the much noted “miasma of tribalism” (Horam 1988: 23) among the Nagas has been framed in terms of past headhunting feuds, communal antagonisms, linguistic incommensurability, as well as seen as a volatile source of recurrent splits in the Naga movement, in the post-statehood Nagaland democratic arena tribalism reproduced and revealed itself through tribe-wise competition over discretionary allocations of political offices, government employment, and state resources.

Nagaland’s ‘Tribal Democracy’

When one takes a closer look at the modus operandi of democracy in Nagaland, concepts like political parties and ideology turn out to be deceptive, if not outright inaccurate to analyse local democratic politics. In their functioning, Nagaland political parties have been depicted as staunchly “non-ideological in character” (Amer 2014: 6). Evidence for this is galore: frequent cross-carpeting and party-hopping by politicians, pervasive politics of defection, unlikely coalitions (Nagaland has the distinction of recently having had, if only briefly, a coalition that included both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress party), and a near cyclical rise and fall of political parties. But, while political ideology, in its conventional sense, indeed offers little to understand the inner logic and workings of democracy in Nagaland, this might also indicate the complex cultural transitivity of the concept of ideology as, amongst Nagas, a great deal of ideology is invested in protecting and promoting the needs and interests of “the tribe.” This reveals itself in demotic political judgments that praise those politicians successful in appropriating and redistributing government positions and state funds to “their own people” and condemn those who fail to privilege their own tribe while in political office as “ideologically misguided.”

To be sure, the contemporary proclivities of Nagaland’s tribal democracy were never natural or inevitable, but, as this article has shown, the product of particular social and political conditions that trace back to the colonial rule. Today’s enlarged role of “the tribe” in Nagaland’s political processes, therefore, remains best understood as a (likely unintended) effect of state and democracy. The politicisation of tribal identities that resulted from this is viewed with apprehension by liberal political theorists and proponents of “good governance” who insist that collectivities and loyalties of tribes are incompatible with the values of modern democracy. It is also viewed with apprehension by those Naga nationalists and intellectuals who want to see Naga society rise above divisions of tribe and develop in unison. Naga historian Horam (1988: 26) laments thus: “those Naga individuals who rise above tribal considerations … are considered to be renegades by their own tribes.”

While carrying out prolonged fieldwork in Nagaland, I found that acts and articulations of tribalism were also bemoaned by several of my friends and interlocutors. They spoke about tribalism as a form of societal corruption, as endangering peaceful coexistence, and for sowing suspicion, misgivings, and disunity. Yet, rather than adjudging present-day tribalism in Naga political life as the final spasms of “primordial,” “pre-modern” affections and affinities— now on the verge of being replaced through an “integrative revolution” (Geertz 1973) by the emergence of a modern Naga society steered by civic values and unity—they insist that tribal loyalties and tribalism are not just persisting in public and political life, but are actually on the rise and are saturating democracy and society.


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Updated On : 21st Jun, 2018


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