Thinking Through Naga Identity in the Past and Present

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The British as well as the Indian colonial ambitions have been to subjugate and assimilate Naga lifeworlds, forcing several cultural, linguistic, and social forms of Indigenous knowledge into precarity. Richard Kamei outlines a brief history of the ongoing struggle for Naga sovereignty, questioning also the “civilizing mission,” which legitimizes an active stealing of the community’s land, life, and resources. 

A village spread out among a mountain, with other mountain ranges and a blue sky behind.
The village of Khonoma village, birthplace of Angami Zapu Phizo. Photo by Richard Kamei (December 2016).

Nagas inhabit two countries: in India, across the present states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland, and in Myanmar, the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing state and Kachin state. They comprise forty to sixty different Indigenous communities, and pride themselves in leading one of the longest-running movements for sovereignty in South Asia and South-East Asia. In the past, they demanded freedom from British rule, a struggle whose form in the present continues to be informed by the ideals of Naga nationalism, as proposed and led by Angami Zapu Phizo. The movement centers around their identity and nation, strengthening their assertion as independent people.  

Akin to Indigenous communities across the world, the Nagas also derive the commonalities of their identity in shared ancestors, origin, culture, and relationships with nature. They  continue to attach their belongingness to their lands, as well as the rituals and ceremonies taking place on it. They are non-literate communities that pass down their stories and knowledge through oral traditions across generations until today, sustaining their cultural customs and lifeworlds. The existence of morung (dormitories) serves as a school of life where life skills and responsibilities towards community are imparted. However, all such shared practices have been negatively connotated through the lens of ethnocentrism and saviorism. They have been seen as illiterate and inferior in the British colonial period, in the “post-colonial” period, and even in contemporary writings about the Nagas. The stereotypes constructed are still repeated in academic writings today, where they are essentialized and are being described as lacking any agency.

These negative portrayals and transformations of their lifeworlds have their roots in the early 19th century. The year 1832 marked the start of the colonial encounter with the Nagas, which upon first contact later led to the construction of a road connecting Silchar to Imphal, where several of them were coerced into contributing labor. Due to the expansion of their colonial rule in the region, the British faced hostility in the form of raids. They responded by sending out several military expeditions to where the communities lived, resulting in a series of horrific crimes against the Nagas, from the burning of their villages and granaries to the murder of several men, women, and children. With each expedition, there was Indigenous resistance against the British. These expeditions were also conducted to send a message that there would be punishments for the raids. As the Nagas were further exposed to colonial intervention and subjugation, they were also exposed to new diseases, including venereal diseases, smallpox, and cholera.

As part of their colonial rule, the British also introduced and expanded tea plantations, bringing people who constituted the labor force from outside the northeast region. The introduction of tea plantations aligns with the expansionist policy of the colonial empire wherein the villages of Nagas were conquered and controlled. The expansion of these plantations intruded onto Naga lands, especially areas that were used for shifting cultivation. The Nagas retaliated by raiding a tea plantation with violence, an action that was followed by the British introducing the Inner Line Permit as part of the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation of 1873, in order to protect the interests of their empire. This permit system continues until now, but with a different purpose—an indication of the many legacies of British colonialism which have been carried forward into the unequal configuration between India and the Nagas.