Jun 10, 2013

Nagalim: Reflection On The Nagas' Plight

M. Sashi Jamir reflects over the history of his people, the Nagas, in India.

Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century and later Michel Foucault in the 20th century philosophized, contra the European Enlightenment philosophy, that there is no “reality” beyond human mind and that human knowledge was driven by the “will of power.”  One way of understanding their arguments, is that the ebbs and flows (or meta-narrative) of any civilization were controlled by those who were in power to further maintain and nurture their own status quo. Thus, Nietzsche and Foucault were critical about the understanding of laws, systems and authorities as perfect, universal and, perhaps, sanctioned by a higher ground. Many of us are aware that their construal of knowledge has nihilistic and relativistic ramifications for metaphysics and sociology. Yet, I believe, there is a dimension of truth in their philosophies when their arguments are juxtaposed in conjunction to the philosophy of European Enlightenment. Here I want to explore this truth in relation to the plight of the Nagas.

For the greater part since the European Enlightenment of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries our world history has been dominated by the philosophy of Enlightenment (also called as modernistic philosophy).

The notions of European Enlightenment were soon applied to academic studies such as study of man (or anthropology). At first the Europeans applied these theories by analyzing their own context; but, beginning with the age of exploration, Europe was brought into contact with many different cultures and peoples. Thus the study of anthropology was reduced to the study of “Others” and “Otherness.” The general understanding of the European anthropologists during this period was that the “Others” were humans but in lower stages of biological and cultural progress. The Europeans were considered rational, scientific, and educated whereas the “Others” were ignorant, superstitious, and unscientific. It is this kind of understanding that ironically legitimated the European colonial venture as not oppressive but a benevolent act to bring progress to the uncivilized and savage people. It is here we notice that the articulations of Nietzsche and Foucault were right on target.

How did this philosophy of European Enlightenment affect the Nagas? Colonialism brought Enlightenment philosophy not just to the homes of the Nagas but it impacted the mind of the Nagas forever. It has to be mentioned that Nagas were either in confrontation or under the British domination for more than a century (1832-1947). Very often many young and adult Nagas are ignorant about this fact never mind the psychological implications. One big reason could be educational syllabus (personally, in my education from high school through college I never studied anything about the British rule of the Nagas in Indian history).

As noted above British colonialism of the Nagas brought us in direct confrontation with the philosophy of European Enlightenment. It is interesting to note that the famous British district commissioners to Naga Hills and authors of the books of Naga tribes J.P Mills and J. H. Hutton were thorough bred of the Enlightenment philosophy. Nagas were considered by the British as savage, uncivilized, unscientific, superstitious people and that the Nagas needed to evolve culturally like the West. The fact that many of us will agree with the then British opinion about our fore-fathers and mothers indicate how entrenched our minds are in the brand of philosophy that Westerners espoused. Of course modern development such as hospital, better road and communication, made en route to the Nagas through British colonial ruler. Moreover, the treacherous practice of head hunting was abandoned. However, and this is crucial to acknowledge that the modern development came at the high expense of our rich culture and tradition. The British colonial ruler within the framework of Enlightenment philosophy and under the banner of progress and development completely paralyzed Nagas’ creative ability to act and transform ourselves within our own culture and tradition.

This is what Henry Balfour, an anthropologist and the first curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum (of the prestigious Oxford University), said in 1923 after his brief visit to the British colonized Naga Hills: “We must always bear in mind that tampering with long-established and deeply-rooted customs is apt to be dangerous, and although the ideal aimed at may be perfectly sound from our point of view, the metamorphic results arrived at may prove disappointment and very different to those which theory leads us to expect.”  Here Balfour is talking about the danger of replacing the Nagas’ long standing culture and traditions by that of European culture of progress and development wrapped under the cloth of the Enlightenment philosophy. Balfour has been quite prophetic in his analysis. Words such as “dangerous” and “disappointment” are sadly the reality of the present Naga society.

If British colonial ruler installed the framework of the philosophy of European Enlightenment, then it was the American Baptist mission that effectively carried out the project of European Enlightenment among the Nagas. I need to be chary here because I am not saying that Christianity is bad for the Nagas. In fact, the greatest event that has happened to the Nagas is the introduction of Christ among us through the American Baptist mission and for that we will be always indebted to them. However, in order to understand our present Naga plight we must be critical about the impact of Christian mission.

Paul Hiebert (professor of mission and anthropology) calls the period from 1800-1950 as the era of non-contextualization, an era where colonialism had proved that Western civilization was the highest civilization in the world and it was assumed that “others” should embrace both Christianity and the “modern.” Within this understanding it did not make sense to contextualize the Gospel because all the “other” cultures were evolving towards the highest culture—Western culture. Thus it was only right for the missionaries to do away with all our Naga traditional customs and culture. Consequently, the Nagas were left without any of our cultural content to reflect and act upon. This has deep implication for the present Nagas’ mind. Metaphorically speaking, we were reduced to half-cooked rice: neither here nor there. In other words, we have sort of abandoned our traditions and culture; yet we are left far behind our surrogate Western culture. Thus we are in a half-cooked rice situation: neither uncooked nor cooked. If we ponder a little bit more about this metaphor, we will realize that we are indeed in an extremely grievous circumstance. Because we know that half-cooked rice is useless and unproductive unlike uncooked or cooked rice. This metaphor, I believe, teases out the implication of the problem of the so-called identity crisis. This vulnerable plight of the Nagas has been intensified by two more factors: first, the Indo-Naga conflict (an endogenous factor). Second, the inevitable expansion of the phenomenon of globalization and neo-liberalism has penetrated the Nagas (an exogenous factor). As a result of such intensified and complex problem, Nagas appear to vacillate according to which way the wind is blowing.

How do we response to our bleak and undesired condition? There is no easy answer to this question especially when it demands practical rather than mere theoretical deliberation. As difficult as it is, still there should be a beginning to address our bleak situation. The first and important starting point is to acknowledge our present plight as grievous and strive to understand how we have landed where we have landed. Once we do this, we must be ready to commit wholeheartedly to the task of bringing authentic social change to our state.

There are two erroneous ways of addressing our given situation. The first approach is to attempt bluntly in reviving our ancestral culture and traditions. However, this might simply mean romanticizing the past without making any relevance. The second approach is to shed our old traditions and strive to achieve the Western status. Again this might end up being superficial. An alternate approach should be a critical realistic approach. This critical realistic approach should understand human culture as dynamic and not dogmatic and that culture evolves in time as well as when it comes in contact with another, perhaps, dominant culture, as it happened with the Nagas. The present Naga culture is a hybrid culture—mostly an amalgam of other cultures (Western, Indian, and so on). Yet the critical realistic approach should recognize this hybrid culture as the reality. The crucial aspect of this approach should be to revive the critical and creative mind of the Naga people so as to act imaginatively upon their hybrid culture and bring relevant and intentional transformation. This implies the task of breaking the spell of our present mind which has been cast by the coercive intervention of the dominant philosophy of European Enlightenment.

Let me return to my metaphor of half-cooked rice. There are two more possibilities to look at in this metaphor: first, whether cooked or uncooked or half-cooked, rice will remain rice; second, half-cooked rice has the potential to be fully cooked, and there is ample room for whoever handles that. He can use fire wood, a gas stove, an electric stove, or some other means to cook the half-cooked rice. In other words, to be fully cooked does not necessarily mean to be fully Western but an authentic Naga culture that will act as a platform through which Nagas can define themselves to the world. This task is imperative, serious but noble and, indeed, God given. Nagas should transcend above our present shortcomings—corruption, greediness, nepotism, tribalism—and exhibit some genuine and godly purpose in life to address this task.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well” (R.W. Emerson).