Friday, 16 December 2011

“Scrolls of Strife: The Endless History of the Nagas” by Homen Borgohain and Pradipta Borgohain

Well known Assamese writer Homen Borgohain and his son Pradipta have come up with an excellent book on the Nagas, one of the most distinct ethnic groups within the Indian sub-continent. With a past that is shrouded in mystery and smoke from the fires of Naga insurgency yet to disappear completely, the proud Nagas have been misunderstood by mainstream India and its politicians. Scrolls of Strife makes a valiant attempt to reverse this position.

Naturally, the Naga quest for independence from India forms the crux of this book. The Borgohains try to examine this struggle from the Nagas’ point of view as well as from the other side. Since the Borgohains are not Naga, a fair amount of space is devoted to explain how the Nagas view them. Do they see them as Assamese or as fellow North-Easterners with a common Mongoloid heritage? Homen Borgohain is an Ahom (which makes his son Pradipta half-Ahom) and we are told that Homen finds easy acceptance in various parts of the north-east, especially in Manipur and Mizoram where he is mistaken for a local.

The Borgohains give various reasons why people from the mainland find it difficult to understand the Nagas or to accept them as one of their own. Food habits are an important reason. The Nagas, like the Mizos, are die-hard carnivores and eat anything and everything, including dog meat and bat meat. Their popular drink ‘Ju’ is form of rice beer, which attracts insects which lay eggs and spawn maggots and has to be drunk with the live maggots inside. The average Indian from the mainland with so many dietary restrictions would just not be able to share a meal with the average Naga. The Indian army has been present in Nagaland for many decades now and for many Nagas the Indian soldier epitomises India. However, the Borgohains are careful to point out that the Nagas have troubles not just with Indians from outside the northeast, but also with Assamese and the Manipuris.

The Nagas have a love-hate relationship with the Assamese since the region that is now Nagaland was once part of Assam and many of the bureaucrats who governed the Nagas were Assamese. The Borgohains narrate numerous examples of the animosity towards the Assamese – for example cars with Assamese number plates are much more likely to be vandalised in Nagaland. On the other hand, many centuries ago, the Nagas had learned to get along with the Ahoms who were almost as egalitarian as the Nagas. Since the various Naga tribes speak distinct languages that are mutually unintelligible to each other, a pidgin called Nagamese has evolved, which is largely based on Assamese. We are told the story of an Angami Naga who married an Ao girl. When asked what language he proposed to his future wife, the man replied, ‘Why, in Assamese, which is the language of love for all Nagas.

After Nagaland was formed in 1963, many Nagas like the Tungkhul Nagas were left out of Nagaland, which has given rise to the demand for a greater Nagaland or Nagalim. The Borgohains tell us that until 1971 when Bangladesh was created, Pakistan did support the Naga insurgency from bases in East Pakistan, but doesn’t do so any more. The Chinese had an affair with Naga insurgents, but devout Christians and communists make strange bedfellows and after the Chinese failed to persuade the Nagas to link their insurgency with the Naxalites of West Bengal, they became disenchanted with the Nagas.

The Nagas fought the British but later grew to respect and even like them. During the British rule, American Baptist missionaries converted most Nagas to Christianity. Unlike mainland India where the people had organised religions which prevented conversions on a large scale, the Nagas’ animist faith did not stand up to missionary zeal. We are told that the Baptist missionaries had either the active or tacit support of the British government, but the reason for their overwhelming success was their dedication and single mindedness. Christianity tamed the Nagas who till then were head-hunters. However, it also unalterably changed the Naga character. Until Christianity was introduced to the Nagas, each Naga village was a sovereign state and each Naga home a castle. Christianity took away that village/clan/tribe based identity which the Nagas had.

Naga insurgents have tried to use Christianity to whip up support for their movement. ‘Nagaland for Christ’ is a catchy phrase, but do Christian missionaries actually support the Naga insurgency or the demand for independence? Apparently, there has been only one instance of a foreign missionary assisting Naga insurgents.

One of the best things about Scrolls of Strife are details of how various Indian leaders got along (or did not get along) with the Nagas. The Borgohains tell us that Mahatma Gandhi, Jai Prakash Narayan and Rajaji understood the Nagas and were very sympathetic towards the Naga cause. On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru was not, especially after the Nagas staged a walk-out in 1953 at a meeting in Kohima where the Burmese Prime Minister U Nu was also present. Indira Gandhi is supposed to have given the Nagas a patient hearing and they liked her. B. K Nehru did the opposite.

Just as interesting is the description of various Naga leaders like Zapu Phizo, T. Sakhrie, Thuengaling Muivah, J. B. Jasokie etc., their struggles and ideologies. The story of how T. Sakhrie took the path of peace and was beaten to death by Phizo’s men is as heartrending as the various tales of army brutality and discrimination faced by the Nagas in other parts of India.

These days many Nagas live and work in different parts of India where they sometimes feel discriminated against. The insurgency against India has been put on hold and the uneasy peace is likely to last for a while. Nevertheless, the Naga continue to be proud of their tribal identity, their culture, their (relatively new) Christian faith as they ponder their future in an ever changing world.

If there is one thing I didn’t like about this book, it’s that there are numerous references to the Battle of Khonoma where the Angami Nagas apparently put up a terrific fight against the British. However, the actual battle is not described and I could not even find it on the usually reliable Wikipedia. You can read about it on this blog though I can’t vouch for its veracity.

On the whole, this book is an excellent read and ought to be widely circulated within the Indian mainland – just so that fellow Indians know each other better.

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