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Naga Tribal Councils

A Formidable Political Force

G Kanato Chophy (kanatochophi@gmail.com) is a New India Foundation Fellow, Bengaluru. Avitoli G Zhimo (agzhimo@anthro.du.ac.in)teaches at the department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, New Delhi.

The Naga tribal organisations’ opposition to reservations for women in urban local bodies had drawn condemnation from many quarters. But their hold on modern Naga society remains exceptional. Who are these Naga tribal bodies? And what makes them formidable in the Naga political arena? The social processes that contribute to the predominance of tribal bodies in Naga society, and the unresolved women reservation issue from the perspective of the civil society are examined.

In a controversy about reservations for women in Nagaland’s urban governance bodies, tribal organisations opposing the move were widely criticised for being traditional.1 They were accused of defending older structures of power and patriarchal authority that were out of sync with modern notions of democratic representation and gender equality. However, this controversy is no clash of tradition versus modernity. Contemporary Naga organisations are themselves a product of new circumstances in which Naga society finds itself, and these developments point to new emerging trends in Naga identity politics.

Most of the contemporary tribal apex bodies and frontal organisations were constituted towards the latter part of the 20th century, but they cannot be disconnected from the colonial history. The history of modern Naga tribal organisations can be traced to the formation of the Naga Club in 1918 (Elwin 1961: 49), which was propelled by the notion of a collective Naga identity. The Naga National Council (NNC), which succeeded the Naga Club as the premier Naga tribal organisation, was formed on a similar idea of pan-Naga identity (Zetsuvi 2014: 124). In comparison, the identity politics underpinning contemporary Naga tribal organisations is far more fragmentary and complex. This condition is reflective of the Naga society’s response to modernity and democratic ideals, especially individual liberty and freedom of expression, ushered in by the Indian state.

In the past, there is no evidence of any tribal confederacy among the Naga tribes. Alliances were formed in times of war, but such alliances were temporary in nature and contingent on the goals, and the cooperating parties many a time would resume the internecine warfare once they disbanded.2 In this context J P Mills (1926: 176) rightly observed that, “with all Nagas the real political unit of the tribe is the village”; and importantly, villages were self-sufficient units for identity mobilisation. This does not imply that Naga tribes lacked larger identity consciousness, but up to World War I there was no tribal confederacy or organisation worthy of mention in the colonial writings. The origin of Naga tribal organisations has roots in colonial experience, and it heralds the onset of modernity in Naga society.

Naga writer Thepfulhouvi Solo (2017) observes:

The idea of forming Naga Club ... was formed seeing the European Club at the Kohima Town Hall (now renovated Committee Stone Building) where all the white people in the HQ in those bygone days used to gather every evening for drinking, dancing, singing and spend their leisure together in recreation; the Doss & Co supplied the drinks and the provisions the Club required.

Interestingly, the writer tries to draw attention to the stakeholders, who were not necessarily Labour Corps returnees from France, but colonial government employees having the first knowledge of modern institutions. He further mentions,

No Non-Whites, Indians or the Naga were ever allowed into the white Club. It was exclusively for the Europeans only. The Native Government Servants took the cue to form a similar native Body.

This observation raises a significant question as to whether the formation of Naga Club was contingent on the Naga Labour Corps’ sojourn to Europe? Certainly, the exposure to the outside world did have impact on the collective Naga consciousness, but the British set the Naga on the path to modernity when they assumed active political rule in 1881 (Reid 1973: 99), and one of the important outcomes was raising a class of Naga intellectuals.

The formation of the Naga Hills District Tribal Council (NHDTC) in April 1945 gave a platform to the tribal apex bodies like the Lotha and Ao tribal councils formed in 1923 and 1928, respectively. These tribal councils had mass appeal in the respective communities, but did not have official recognition (Sema 1992: 143). It was Deputy Commissioner Charles Pawsey who brought various tribal councils under the same umbrella with the aim of uniting the Naga tribes. However, on 2 February 1946, the NHDTC met at Wokha and changed its nomenclature to “NNC,” and the rest is history (Sema 1992: 151). It is important to note that the tribal councils, spread across the Naga Hills District, were the bulwark of the NNC; the Naga plebiscite of 1951 and the boycotting of the general elections in 1952 were largely successful because of the tribal councils working at the grass roots. Thus, when the government outlawed the NNC for anti-state activities, many of the tribal council leaders went underground.

The NNC was blacklisted as a secessionist group, and consequently the different Naga tribal councils and courts were dissolved on 12 August 1953, due to their political involvement (Chaube 1973: 153–60), and what followed was a dormant period for the tribal bodies. These tumultuous years also witnessed the rise of civil society, but the tribal bodies—which were constituted on the basis of individual tribal identity and aspirations—remained out of the public space until the 1970s and 1980s. Here, the resurgence of different tribal apex bodies, such as the Angami Public Organisation in 1972, Ao Senden in 1980, Chakhesang Public Organisation in 1979, Lotha Hoho in 1978, Sumi Hoho in 1979, and the Konyak Union in 1980, had changed the contours of Naga identity politics.3

Significance of Tribal Bodies

Critics question the legitimacy of Naga tribal frontal bodies on the grounds that they are not constituted according to the customary law, and thus cannot behave as its custodians. This is a valid argument, but in essence the tradition of selecting representatives was a village-centric affair, and in the present context Naga villages are no longer independent political entities. This process began when villages lost their independent status and got subsumed under the colonial administrative structure. The villages retained some autonomy with regards to customary law, but one important sign of surrendering to a higher authority was discontinuing the long-held tradition of fortifying villages. This transformed not only the dynamics of warfare and peacemaking, but also, when the walls came down, the village social networking widened remarkably. This culmination of villages as autonomous bodies engendered a need for people to become a part of a larger identity group. The Naga tribal bodies tapped this need for the assertion of a larger identity and brought villages under a common platform, although the governing centres remained in the respective tribal district headquarters in urban areas.

The formation of tribal bodies and organisations is a consolidation of tribal identity in a society that is becoming more politically conscious due to the influence of modernity. Also, the resurgence of tribal organisations in Naga society is an outcome of complex ethnic relations. The intertribal relations require an interpretation of local customs, history and traditions, and this necessitates arbiters who are insiders and with whom people can relate. This has enabled tribal bodies to assume an important role in the society, since they are perceived to be representing the community interests at a larger platform. Interestingly, the tribal bodies also behave as cultural custodians and, in the context of a fast-changing society, their narrative of culture preservation has garnered them mass support. However, the important leverage of tribal bodies in the public space remains their role in conflict management.

Intertribal conflicts many a time cannot be settled subscribing to a uniform customary law owing to diverse cultural practices, although perennial conflicts over land and resources within a particular tribe are primarily settled in the customary courts. The limitation of traditional courts is also exacerbated by the increasing complexity of contemporary conflicts having roots in modern exigencies, which fall mostly outside the purview of traditional laws. The tribal bodies have defused inter-village conflicts and brokered peace between feuding tribes. They have also, in their own capacity, played a role in the Naga peace process, although some accuse them of harbouring parochial interests. However, their role in mediating conflicts between the Naga insurgent groups and the Indian state has garnered them political mileage and authority. The insurgency problem has brought various tribal organisations together on the issue, since the frontal organisations are seen as representing the voice of the masses. However, the tribal frontal organisations also have disagreements when it comes to asserting the interests of a particular tribe.

The ethnic divide in Naga society is a constant reality, which debilitates the notion of a pan-Naga identity. In such a political milieu, the consolidation of tribal identity for common goals has given the tribal apex bodies a much-needed space for grass-roots mobilisation, but the rise of various tribal bodies and frontal organisations also creates a situation where each vies for supremacy in a politically charged society. This has also contributed to the contention of ethnic pride rife in Naga society. Even the state politics is divided along tribal lines with politically more powerful tribes having precedence in decision-making. In this context, the tribal bodies promote their own self-interests, which undermine the idea of an overarching Naga identity. However, this does not imply that there are no Naga tribal bodies that reckon the pan-Naga identity; organisations like the Naga Hoho, the Nagaland Tribes Council (NTC), the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (ENPO) and the Central Nagaland Tribes Council (CNTC) are all constituted based on identity construction that transcends individual tribes. However, when it comes to asserting the aspirations and interests of a particular tribe, the tribal apex body acts as the representative of the entire community. Thus, it does not come as a surprise when the Ao Senden, the Ao Naga apex body, excommunicated P Chuba Ozukum—who belongs to the Ao tribe and is the president of the largest pan-Naga tribal organisation, the Naga Hoho—“to safeguard the rights and prestige of the Aos” (Nagaland Post 2017a). This is indicative of the rupture that can emerge among tribal organisations due to clash of interests.

Although most tribal apex bodies are identity-based, there are also issue-based organisations, which at times bring unlikely parties together in pursuit of common goals. In general, the issue-based organisations are tribal coalitions involving two or more tribes such as the ENPO comprising the Chang, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Phom, Sangtam and Yimchunger tribes, and the CNTC comprising the Ao, Sumi, and Lotha tribes. But, these issue-based organisations can also be power blocs at loggerheads with other tribal blocs. For instance, one of the reasons for the formation of the CNTC in 2016 was to counter the increasingly influential Angami bloc.4 The rise of power blocs is also one of the contributing factors to the growth of Naga tribal organisations.

Clash of Civil Societies

The tribal apex bodies comparable to any modern bureaucratic system have established a modern tribal institution with centralisation of power, which has made mass mobilisation conducive. Every person born in a particular tribal community by default becomes a member of the apex body, although there are also regional tribal organisations, which come under the purview of the parent tribal body.5 This approach of inclusivity hinging on birth and ethnicity has made the tribal bodies a dominant institution.

The women’s tribal apex bodies also have a similar organisational structure, although their affiliation lies with the all-male tribal apex bodies. But, it is a myopic understanding to relegate their role to women’s issues only, since women’s tribal bodies also fight for collective rights. With regards to the controversy over women’s reservation in urban local body (ULB) elections in the beginning of 2017, some of the tribal apex bodies directed women’s tribal bodies to sever ties with the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA). This move could have dismantled the NMA’s organisational structure because the women’s tribal bodies are the backbone of the NMA, since the NMA is constituted on the principle of reckoning the larger Naga identity. However, there is no question of delegitimising the NMA as a common platform for Naga women, since it is a sum of parts of various Naga women tribal organisations.

The NMA maintained that women reservation in ULBs does not infringe on the Naga customary law since the power vested in the town and municipal councils pertains to urban development. This is a valid argument since the Naga traditional laws do not extend to municipal elections and town planning. But, some of the tribal bodies argued that they were not against reservation for women, but against the constitutional amendment, which will debilitate Article 371(A); although this opinion was drowned out by threats, intimidations and irresponsible misogynistic remarks, which also created a furore in the mainstream media (Chankija 2017). The argument was that more concessions will have to be entertained in the coming days: thus, if it is women’s reservation today, tomorrow the government might introduce more constitutional amendments, which will slowly chip away at the special status of Nagaland enshrined in Article 371(A).

In this context, 40% nomination for women in ULBs as opposed to 33% reservation—to repudiate Article 243T of Part IX-A of the 74th Amendment—was also deliberated, although this did not seem feasible since the issue of fairness and women’s right of participation persisting without proper legal protection in place was worrisome; and it still is a contentious issue if the Nagaland government comes up with a revised version of the Municipal Act (Nagaland Post 2017b). The regrettable outcome of the political impasse was a rift that developed between the two important stakeholders—the NMA and the tribal frontal bodies—who had shared common goals and aspirations over the years. But, despite the continuing contestations, critics of Naga society must reconsider that it is also a case of messy conversation in a fledgling democratic set-up, and not only see the society as an impending graveyard for women’s rights.

The Loophole

What had escaped the notice of many during the ULB election controversy was that the Nagaland Village and Area Councils Act, 1978, which has enacted 25% reservation for women in the management committee of the village development board (VDB), makes the issue more complex. Although poorly implemented due to the state government’s apathy and lack of awareness—and in some cases unscrupulous village chiefs having denied women their due—this act has enabled women to participate in decision-making pertaining to village development (Zhimo 2011). This raises an important issue because the VDB, which functions under the directives of the village council, comes under the purview of village self-governance, and the village councils act was passed to edify the village traditional laws under the aegis of the village council, since Naga villages are bastions of customary practices. This government policy, which makes provision for women’s participation in decision-making at the village level, is a new concept since women’s participation in the decision-making bodies is rarely heard of. This means that the village customary laws have been made amenable to modification with changing times.

Meanwhile, in towns the traditional customary practices over lands and resources blur the urban–rural divide. Historically, most townships were established on land purchased from the surrounding villages or in some cases donated by powerful chiefs, wealthy landowners or influential clans. Thus, in the urban areas, government establishments built on such lands many a time are at the mercy of the landowners who exert their claim of traditional ownership, since the notion of ancestral land and inheritance law like primogeniture still operates. Here, encroachment on government lands and property is a common sight. Thus, any insinuation of paying taxes on their own land can complicate matters. The issue of taxation in the municipal act could have been negotiated, which the state government shoddily attempted after the damage was done, but lack of conversation, misinformed interpretation and inept policymaking as demonstrated in the rip-off Nagaland Municipal Act, 2001 added to the conundrum.

Also, whatever the interpretations of Article 371(A) may be, for many Naga, this constitutional safeguard evokes an emotive imagery of their unique history and identity, which they think must be protected at all costs. In the process, there is a reckoning of the past—even going back to the colonial period—narrating how their forebears fought hard to safeguard the interests of the future generations. Thus, the perceived fear of selling out the rights, as the popular narrative tells, to the Indian state is also part of the dispute. For some, the apprehension also pertains to a larger political ploy lurking behind the garb of women’s reservation. For us, as academics, who positively view women’s reservation, this seems implausible, but cynicism against the Indian state runs deep in the Naga society, which is being effectively capitalised by the Naga tribal bodies and organisations.

The isolationist tendency is still prevalent in Naga society and, therefore, the uproar at the mainstream level will not matter much in the Naga world; almost seven decades of insurgency movement can attest to that. Also, the Naga tribal bodies and organisations have an inordinate influence at the grass roots and they make for a formidable political force. And, in the context of the ongoing cacophonous democratic conversations, they are indispensable on the Naga political stage and cannot be written off easily.

The conflict over women’s reservation in the ULBs brought the state government to heel and the municipal act has been lifted for further amendment. But, in all this, the Naga tribal bodies still remain the foremost stakeholder in making women’s reservation a reality, since the issue of land, property and taxation is inherent in the municipal act, but one can hope that the Naga tribal organisations will take a prudent decision and give precedence to Naga women for active participation in all spheres of life, since the issues of human rights and gender equality are important features of any democratic society.

notes

1 The municipal election was scheduled on 1 February 2017, but the state government scrapped the elections after two persons lost their lives on 31 January during the protest.

2 For instance, an alliance of 13 Naga villages besieged the British garrison at Kohima in 1879 to expel the British from the hills during the Khonoma uprising (Sema 1992: 19), but the alliance got disbanded once the rebellion was quelled.

3 The data on the tribal bodies and organisations are based on fieldwork account, and the year of formation of the tribal bodies has been verified from the respective members.

4 This bloc, also known as the Tenyimia group, who claim a common ancestry, includes tribes like the Chakhesang, Rengma, Pochury and Zeliang, although the Angami remain the foremost stakeholder.

5 For instance, the Sumi tribe has regional organisations like the Eastern Sumi Hoho, Southern Sumi Hoho, and Western Sumi Hoho, which all come under the apex body, Sumi Hoho.

References

Chaube, S K (1973): Hill Politics in North-east India, Calcutta: Orient Longman.

Chankija, M (2017): “Pride as well as Prejudice,” Hindu, 11 February.

Elwin, Verrier (1961): Nagaland, Research Dept, Adviser’s Secretariat, Shillong.

Mills, J P (1926): The Ao Nagas, London: Macmillan & Co.

Nagaland Post (2017a): “Senden Excommunicates NH President P Chuba Ozukum,” 11 April.

(2017b): “Important Events Pertaining to Elections to ULBs,” Department of Municipal Affairs, Government of Nagaland, 10 February.

Reid, Robert (1973): History of the Frontier Areas of Assam (From 1883–1941), Delhi: Eastern Publishing House.

Sema, Piketo (1992): British Policy and Administration in Nagaland (1881–1947), New Delhi: Scholar Publishing House.

Solo, Thepfulhouvi (2017): “Story of Naga Club and Simon Commision Petition,” Eastern Mirror, 23 June.

Zetsuvi, K S (2014): The Angami Nagas Under Colonial Rule, Dimapur: Heritage Publishing House.

Zhimo, A G (2011): “Customary Law and the State: The Case of the Sumi of Nagaland,” PhD thesis, University of Delhi.

Updated On : 14th Aug, 2018

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