‘Beyond Tribal Seduction: A Personal Reflection’

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By Rev Dr Wati Aier


Historically, among the Naga Nations (I am using the words “nation” or “nations” in its right place, from our heyday, as opposed to “tribe” or “tribes” given by outsiders), the term “tribe” gained currency with the advent of the colonial enterprise. The lived ethos of the tribe then, the nostalgia of the tribe after, and the academic romancing of the tribe now, have been clouded with thick layers of a priori concepts and colonial interpretations, often biased and naively arrogant because, tribal identity was assigned to a particular nation with the imputed connotation of primitiveness and backwardness. I like to think that such popularization of the term by colonial anthropologists is a particular corpus and not a general pattern. Nevertheless, with anthropology being one of the “premier colonial sciences,” the currency of the “tribe” is floated through cultural and social instruments to this day.


Our challenge, accordingly, is to look beyond the singular use of the term “tribe” and the ensnarement that follows it. I begin with this remark because in the Naga context, our ideal calling is neither for rationalization nor justification of the self, but for a simple human understanding that in this age, Nagas should acquire a history and a character that heightens the health of our personality and safeguards an identity reflective of the Naga imagination. Simply put, our challenge is to sustain the Naga ecology of belonging.


It is in this context that tribalism lurks as a notorious seducer of community. Today, tribalism is a tool of self-exclusion and communal division and can too easily be used to incite one against the other, often leading its victims to an embattled withdrawal of sorts. Psychologically, turning inward will only resurrect outmoded spirits and the dominant modes of the past that turn us against our own. This is dangerously in the making today.


The “tribe” has become a double-edged means by which social iconoclasts seduce the public for numerous reasons and ends, often at the expense of the public’s chance to act generously for the common belonging. As such, this seduction repeats itself by situating the “tribe” in the past (where we once again find ourselves operating within the same cycle of narrow definitions and singular perspectives), ultimately reducing the nation (tribe) to a mere political entity in the midst of an overarching Naga belonging – the larger entity.


Notable Naga pioneers of the early twentieth century, on the other hand, were ahead of their time and their generation. With their innate imagination, these pioneers knew of the seduction of the “tribe,” of imperial policy of situating the “tribes” in the past, and of the danger of romancing the “tribe” by “others” in the guise of anthropological epistemology. More importantly, I presume, they knew that the meaning of independence in our context lay in protecting and preserving our common identity.


Dr. A.Z. Phizo and others traversed the length and breadth of the “Naga-lands,” as opposed to the Indian State of “Nagaland,” meeting every Naga nation and constructing the pan-Naga identity and movement. This was no easy journey for Phizo as the history of humanity and of nations is a history of construction. Indeed, the constructionist movement of the Naga people is no less than the sum total of the world’s socio-political movements. To be human is to construct and to flourish, and Nagas have no less right to do so.


Analytically, the de-constructionist malignancy of the tribe is one of the reasons for our present socio-politico-theological fragmentation and hostility. Lest I am one-sided, by the same token, this tendency is prevalent not only among the nations, but also the Naga national groups’ hegemonic attitude towards Naga nationalism. It seems that we are incapable of moving past our usual, tired patterns of reactive justifications and defensive reactions. For once, can we truly say “forgive me, I have made a mistake and I ask for forgiveness from God and my brothers and sisters”?


Naga people want to see wisdom in our leaders – a wisdom that assures us that our lives and communities will not be used as mere objects of interest. Throughout  our modern history, the politics of divide and limit and subtle domestication has only led to one group scapegoating the other, and has only fanned the flames of mistrust and violence. This kind of politics is the fastest way of isolating oneself from the whole. It has not worked in the past and it will not work in the future.


We must also note that within the larger entity of Naga belonging, regional interests in transformative culture, educational advancements, protection of human values and rights, and the overall flourishing of people must be encouraged and supported. In contrast, we need to be wary of the undertakings that are immaturely, and deviously, conceived and borne out of socio-political relativity. While these undertakings are all too prevalent and normalized in our society, they are ultimately limiting and shortsighted. Most often, social iconoclasts convince people that it makes no sense to sacrifice for the common belonging. On the contrary, it should make no sense for us to forfeit ourselves for a unit that is not willing to make sacrifices for the common belonging. From this present “senseless comedy” of social-cultural-political folly, often devoid of aesthetic quality needs immediate redirection on the stage of the Naga world view that is being observed and watched by the world at large.


A Call


We require imagination to awake from the current ethos of numbness and the violence of the Naga spear that is at the centre of our belonging. An idea is ontological and it is most potent either to create a finite good or to annihilate.


To many of us, it seems that we are destroying the “thing” we all want. What an irony! Paradoxically, at least, no one is letting the “thing” go, and I take this state of “not letting go” to be ironically, our strength. It is two facets of the same quality. We must remain imaginative by creating new possibilities of untapped potential within us and build around the primordial idea of belonging. Now, we must not look backward by trying to resurrect the past. Within this backward-looking view of history, the Naga narrative has been seductively immobilized, often to the point of tragedy. Believing in our creative energy, we must accordingly forge an alternate history, one that rises above the prevalent defeatist frames of our cultural ethos.


What is this alternate history? It is the history of common belonging, and a history constructively woven into an identity called “Naga” that is spread across lands beyond the present state of Nagaland. Hope, illumined by the spirit of God, is the secret of this alternate history.


Naga historical and political rights with all its human finitude, is a de facto within history—a Naga history and political stamp in time. Needless to say, historical moments should not be treated as a tool for employing the rhetoric of backward-looking ideologies of the past that will only lead to never-ending conflicts. We must move on without departing. Nagas, more importantly people in respective positions and people in academia, must come to terms with the fact that we all need one another, and we also need competent people with new ideas, models, and visions if we are to come of age as an enlightened, democratic society.


Crucially, the question Nagas should be asking ourselves is how we go about resolving our malignant internal conflicts. No matter how daunting this task, part of the solution lies in overcoming these conflicts with a sense of urgent acceptance. We can only begin to construct the alternate historical imagination once we fully commit to the reality of our situation.


There is today, a voice of fury from within the Nagas at the way things are, and at the same time, a hope calling for a realistic change of mind and thereby, a chance for the emergence of a mediating factor. When it is clear that Naga political history remains the only memory of common belonging, culturally it remains a taboo to quash this de facto in favor of a mythological memory that has no history. Such a cult of rationally-developed theses cannot be the plumb line for Naga people.  Nagas who remain aware of the sacredness of Naga history must vigilantly safeguard against the desperate rationalization of any bedrock.


Difficulties exist in the imaginative formation of effective relations between Naga groups as perceptions of the “other” continue to escalate among the Nagas. Though hard to accept for some, we must understand the fact that the Naga groups are functioning institutions in their own rights. By the same token, Naga groups are hesitant to form “relationships of cooperation” because of their accumulated ills and mistrust of one another. But on the subtler side, each group has become too comfortable within its own boundaries that even a slight note of change is taken as a threat. Nonetheless, it must be made clear that the idea of relationships of cooperation do not mean that the Naga groups will mitigate or diminish their institutional responsibilities and obliterate themselves. Indeed, the complex backdrop of mistrust, differences, and years of hurt complicate the potential dynamics that Nagas need now through relationships of cooperation.


At the end, it is the Naga groups, with peoples’ solidarity, who will have to steer the Naga people to the finishing line. This is a reason enough to embark on relationships of cooperation. Functioning Naga institutions share aspects of their respective socio-cultural-political ethos and the Naga spirit in a subtle manner, oftentimes without any formal acknowledgement, and are therefore connected to each other without any political awareness. To say the least, this subtle connectedness between the Naga institutions creates an inevitable inter-dependence. The sooner the Naga institutions learn of this intricate formula, the clearer our path ahead will be. Clearing the air of fear, mistrust, and all stereotypes, Naga institutions and citizens must scale higher planes in inter-relationships. Our future, though not fully understood now, is intertwined.


Mutual interests of peace and flourishing are our common goals. Naga institutions and citizens yearn to use our assets effectively and efficiently, provide a safe and fruitful environment for all people in our lands, and safeguard natural resources and sustain vibrant economics. A successful paradigm can be forged when Naga institutions move beyond sectarian mentalities and invest in relationships of cooperation. Only then will we witness a heightened awareness of our respective obligations as Naga institutions and as intelligent, responsible citizens.


Rev Dr Wati Aier is the Convenor of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation and the above discourse was presented during the Annual Chalie Kevichusa Memorial on November 24, 2018

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