Letters: Tribalism Without the Tribes

Manash Firaq Bhattacharya and Pradip Phanjoubam respond to Richard Kamei's objections over their portrayal of tribal history and use of the term 'tribalism' in their respective articles.

Manufacturing and Distortion of Tribal History and Struggle

Richard Kamei

In the opinion piece titled ‘As Dust Settles on Nagaland Power Struggle, Questions Over Governor’s Intent Remain‘ (July 22, 2017) Pradip Phanjoubam stressed on the background of current chief minister of Nagaland, T. R. Zeliang – who belongs to the Zeliangrong group of Naga tribes. While describing the tribe, he stated that a section of Zeliangrong people follow Heraka, and went on to call Heraka a pre-Christian indigenous religion which overlooks the movement led by Jadonang and later taken over by Gaidinliu.

There are various research articles on Jadonang and Gaidinliu that mention religiosity as the central theme in the movement in the face of changes taking place in their country. Zeliangrong is an umbrella of tribes comprising of Zeme, Liangmei, Rongmei and Inpui tribes, but it was later restricted to Zeme, Liangmei and Rongmei tribes following the recognition of Zeliangrong in the year 1947.

The Jadonang movement emphasised the need to reform indigenous religion to fend themselves from the spread of Christianity and protect their culture. Much later, Gaidinliu reformed the indigenous faith (including abandoning of sacrificial practice of animals), and named it Heraka where its major followers reside in Zeme tribe. Heraka – a reformed religion – came into being long after sections of Nagas were converted into Christianity. To call Heraka a pre-Christian religion is incorrect as the existence of Heraka is an outcome of its confrontation and resistance to Christianity.

Another issue with the article is the portrayal of movement led by Gaidinliu. At the helm of her movement, she opposed the work of missionaries spreading Christianity among the people. Her opposition was restricted to spread of Christianity to safeguard culture, tradition, religion and customs. The movement was not against any group of Naga tribes. She resisted the might of the British, in the line of Jadonang’s resistance to the British and Manipur king.

Freedom for people is the aspiration built into the Zeliangrong movement led by Jadonang and Gaidinliu. Her opposition to Christianity should not be read into as opposition to Phizo and Naga National Council. In fact, she had a cordial interface with Phizo. Both had aimed to come together though circumstances led them to different paths.

Misreading Gaidinliu’s opposition to Christianity is what has happened in recent years, when the Gaidinliu memorial sanctioned in Kohima has been opposed by civil society and religious bodies on the grounds that she is anti-Naga. In this regard, Pradip’s manufacturing of Gaidinliu legacy as being opposed to the Naga movement led by Phizo can do damage to the already fractured situation of Zeliangrong people.

In ‘The Lynching of a Nation‘ (June 25, 2017) Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee casually uses the term ‘tribalism’, and a photo from Dimapur, in the context of recent incidents of lynching. I get the urgency of the article in view of intolerance rising into violence in India. But the term tribalism be given a fillip at the cost of its context to tribal society.

The intention of the article may be to present the reality of right-wing vigilantism. Yet the inclusion of ‘tribalism’ to highlight a culture of intolerance is worrying. Anthropologists have already made a case against the term, in the category of viewing indigenous society from the point of ethnocentrism. The connotation attached to ‘tribalism’ has a tone of racism derived from the inability to understand indigenous society; this reduced the unknown as subordinate, inferior and uncivilised in their worldview.

‘Tribalism’ refers to how indigenous societies uphold and defend their culture and resources from being exploited, assimilated and appropriated. They fear their way of life and freedom being taken away by unrestrained contact with outside world. Steps taken by indigenous people are a matter of survival, for which outsiders loosely use the term ‘tribalism’, reducing them to uncivilised and irrational beings.

I have been reading The Wire since its launch, and always turn to it for providing space for diverse voices. I feel that the recent expansion of The Wire has led to issues like these. I am sure that The Wire in its strive for informative reportage and opinion will continue to make room for rectification of such errors.

Manash Firaq Bhattacharya responds:

I completely understand Richard Kamei’s concern regarding my use of the term ‘tribalism’. I used the term not unaware of the implied pejorative meaning in the words ‘tribal’ and ‘tribal society’. We also have scholars today critically examining the concept of ‘primitive’ and ‘primitive accumulation’. I believed I could use the term ‘tribalism’ as something that defines the politics of majoritarianism in ethnic terms. Ethnic nationalism, or nationalism based purely on identity, is a problem we face in the world.

Ernest Gellner has used the term ‘tribalism’ in his famous work, Nations and Nationalism, to mean precisely this modern form of ethnic nationalism. So to me, ‘tribalism’ stands for a larger context, having nothing to do with so-called “tribes” per se, but a certain idea or claims based on ethnic grounds. I used it as something that goes beyond the ‘indigenous’, and takes on a more complex, modern meaning. I am critically disposed towards this particular form of territorially defined nationalism.

In fact, I thought I disturb the word’s etymological location vis-à-vis ‘tribe’ by relating it to an ethnically heterogeneous community imagining itself in a homogeneous manner. But I concede the term may perhaps still retain the problems Kamei mentions and needs to be used with caution, and explanation. Regarding the photograph, it was chosen by The Wire, but as far as I am aware, it wasn’t put in relation to the term ‘tribalism’ at all, but because it was a rare photograph of a lynch mob attacking a victim.


Pradip Phanjoubam responds:

I am quite surprised by this response to my article in The Wire ‘As Dust Settles on Nagaland Power Struggle, Questions Over Governor’s Intent Remain‘.

First of all, those who read the article will know it was not at all about the history of the Heraka movement. It was about the ongoing power struggle within the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), and how T.R. Zeliang staged a coup against the then chief minister, Shurhozelie Liezietsu, and with the help of the governor A.B. Acharya succeeded in ousting the latter.

My focus was on the impropriety of the governor invoking the power of the assembly to settle what was essentially a strife within the NPF, which ought to have been left for the party’s internal conflict resolution mechanisms, such as arbitration by the party high command or a decision of the general body to settle. If the party had split and its majority status in the assembly came to be uncertain, then the constitutional crisis would have warranted the governor to step in, but this was not so then and still is not so now.

My brief reference to the Heraka movement was towards the end of the article, and in passing, with the intent to explain the indignation in the tone of the ousted chief minister Leizietsu who called his nemesis Zeliang a “Heraka boy” working with the governor, a former BJP worker, to have a saffron takeover of Nagaland in the assembly election scheduled February next year.

This too would be quite obvious to anybody who has read my article – unless a reader is so determined to discover hidden meanings between the lines that they miss out much of what was actually written. The fact is, the indignation in the dismissive “Heraka boy” address, though not overt, was always, and still forms a dull background texture in the attitude towards the Zeliangrong tribes in Nagaland. I do not share this outlook, but the letter writer seems to think otherwise, and this I suspect is a clear case of misreading.

In colonial times, these tribes were referred to as “Kacha Nagas” and the same indignation is inherent in this very nomenclature. A towering, bold and honest intellectual of the same community, the late professor Gangmumei Kamei had no problem admitting this when he prominently wrote at the end of the excerpts printed on the back cover of his book, Jadonang, A mystic Naga Rebel, that ‘Kabui and Kacha Naga are now known as Zeliangrong’.

When I referred to Heraka movement as pre-Christian, I, of course, did not mean this messianic cult predated Christianity, but that it was followed by the Zeliangrong tribes even as Christianity began rapidly spreading amongst neighbouring tribes. Zeliangrongs are among the last to come into the Christianity fold and many, particularly amongst the Rongmeis, have not embraced Christianity yet.

Again, I did not bring in Jadonang in my reference to Heraka was because I was talking of the post-independence period, when Rani Gaidinlui was the leader of the movement. Haipou Jadonang lived during 1905-1931. When Jadonang was executed in Imphal for opposing the government, Manipur like the rest of India, was a British surrogate, and the charges against Jadonang included human sacrifice.

Nehru honoured Gaidinliu after independence, but Gaidinliu’s loyalty may not exactly have been with India but her community and the Heraka movement only, for it is also a fact that Gaidinliu again went underground to lead her Heraka resistance movement in 1960. This was during the peak of the Naga National Council’s movement for Naga sovereignty under A.Z. Phizo.

The NNC did try to make common cause with the Heraka resistance, but in vain. As an Indian Frontier Administration Service officer during the time, S.C. Dev wrote in Nagaland: The Untold Story, “…frictions between the two groups were frequent. The Federal rebels made repeated attempts to win over the followers of the Rani but without success.” (Page 69). Dev, who was an additional deputy commissioner in the Naga Hills at the time, also noted that the antagonism became stark when “…sometime in early 1965, while trying to collect ration and money from Zeliang people a group of hostiles sent the Rani a specific proposal urging her to merge her movement with that of the Federal regime. The fate of the proposal soon became evident as all the nine hostiles in that group were done to death…”

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