The Naga story in the Indigenous Peoples movements: NPMHR

“It is for this reason that our forebears have valued and cherished their village institutions in the form of the village republics for thousands of years, where our elders also emphasized humility, integrity and reconciliation, because it is only through radical humility that we come to realize our ignorance and gain true wisdom”

Report- part 2, The Morung Dialogue.

The Chair, Dr. Ngully, narrated “there is a story that my elders in the village used to say, that if we as a people don’t defend and protect our dignity and humanity, then a time will come when we would be transformed into miniature tiny creatures climbing on the chilly and brinjal plants thinking they were trees,” and posed “I wonder at what stage of the that ‘prophecy’ we as  a people have reached.”

The 2nd panelist, Gam A. Shimray was introduced by the chair as a “devoted human rights activist for almost 30 years who has held important positions and was part of several civil and democratic rights initiatives and envisions contributing in advancing the pursuit of indigenous peoples’ rights and deepening of democracy in Asia.” Gam currently serves as the Secretary-General of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) and has both rich knowledge and keen interest in issues of biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge, and self-determination. He was also involved in peace-building initiatives in India and has authored publications relating to human rights, environment, and ethnic issues.

Gam began by picking the strand from Ghazali’s talk that “claiming the right of self-determination for the IPs is the beginning of claiming our human rights,” and that according to him it is a “social necessity, because without that political space we cannot exercise many other rights.”

His attempt to locate the Naga story in the IP movement was built on a point: “our ancestors did not believe in power struggle, but our ancestors deeply believed in reconciliation.” He shared that our ancestors chose the ‘reconciliatory approach’ when they dealt with the outside world and referred to the “time of the British, where this approach was somewhat achieved in a temporary sense, as the British were left us alone as long as we gave our allegiance and loyalty to them,” which according to Gam was a ‘sort of ad-hoc arrangement.’

“Some Nagas who joined the Labour Corps in WW1 saw that the world was deeply entrenched in power struggle and the need to control one another, and this gave them insights into how the world was progressing. This resulted in the Simon Commission memorandum, making it clear that ‘nationhood cannot exist between peoples who have no shared culture and beliefs’.”

Gam stressed that “our ancestors were not academicians or theoreticians, but this view on nationhood is closely shared by J.S. Mill who, writing on nationality, stated that ‘free institutions are impossible in a country made up of different nationalities’.” Gam went on to say that though the world has witnessed progress of all sorts since then, and various methods have been used to achieve this progress, it still stands that in essence and in intent, what Mill had said remains true to this day.

After the British left the Naga areas, and India took over, numerous human rights violations were committed. This, he said ‘was part of our history,’ and the reason why many Nagas refer to the Indians as the ‘enemy.’ “Nevertheless,” he continued “some of our elders saw the need to reconcile with the people of India because they believed that we must make friends with the enemy. For this reason, in the early 1970s, the Naga leaders, who were students at that time in New Delhi, took part in the struggles of the marginalized sections of Indian society and they identified with their pains and sufferings. Further, they took an active role in responding to the first-ever act of heavy repression that came as a fallout of the ‘Emergency’ declared during the time of Indira Gandhi. This was an eye-opener for Indian civil society and leaders because, at that time, Nagas perceived India as the enemy, and the Indians perceived us as ‘savages’ coming from the deep, dark areas of the frontier areas.” This, he said, was a ‘breakthrough’ and ‘friendship developed,’ adding that NPMHR was also born during 1978, as a result of the history of this period.

The Naga elders continued to make friends, and alliances grew. Till this day those friends remain committed to the rights of the Nagas, he shared. Gam continued, “from there, we reached out to the Indigenous Movements across Asia and slowly that is how the AIPP, where I’m working, was established in 1992.”

Retelling an important historical journey, Gam shared “in 1993, the Indigenous leaders from Asia were invited to the Vienna World Conference, which is still a landmark today in the International processes, because we were not only invited to give a statement but also to speak to the international audience for the first time, and from there our elders participated in the process of the UN Declaration of IP.” This declaration was important, he said. He shared the context of that time when “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was pitched strongly on the idea of individual rights centered on the contributions made by Western civilization.” Therefore, there was a competing priority between individual rights and collective rights. Besides which, some peoples were excluded from the right to self-determination, because the predominant narrative at that time, he said, was that the principle being applied should be the ‘saltwater’ theory, meaning, it applies to colonies across the ocean. The adoption of UNDRIP was the fruit of the efforts made by the Indigenous elders, and is significant because, according to Gam, it resolved two things;

1.      It makes it clear that there is no disharmony between individual and collective rights and that these are mutually supportive of one another. This, he said, was a major contribution of the Indigenous leadership and vision.

2.      It led to a moral reform in the International Human Rights standards, because it included Indigenous peoples outrightly, and succinctly stated that we have the right to self-determination.

The door still remains open for further reform. He pointed out that the contribution of our elders came from their conviction that reconciliation must occur on the global scale as well as the local level, in order to reduce violence, conflict and bloodshed across the world. In the Naga context, he recollected, “when the ceasefire occurred, a ‘journey of conscience’ was initiated by the Nagas in January 2000, to speak to the people of India: to reconcile, that we can no longer continue to keep on fighting, and that we need peace, justice and a new vision.”

The Nagas reached out with this message across the country, including the neighboring communities in NE India, he said. The Indian civil society also reciprocated, and they came to Kohima in March 2001, to talk to the Naga people, and to say that they were sorry for what was happening, what the military did to the Naga people and that reconciliation should happen through an honorable round of political settlements between India and the Nagas. This was the message for which we were proud, he said, but the journey was not smooth and remains incomplete to this day, he rued.

He posed “Why did our forebears believe so profoundly in this message of reconciliation?” and continued that “it is because without a reconciliatory approach to life, there can be no peace, justice, bonding and love. That is why they believed in the Supreme order of the Creator, for the natural order and human order to be in harmony. This was acted out in the sacredness of the customary practices conducted at the founding of every Naga village. Those who are familiar with this Naga practice know what I am talking about and I cannot delve into that now, but what this demonstrates is that they possessed all the prerequisites for the setting up of free institutions.” Gam went on to clarify that by ‘free institutions’ he was referring to what J.S. Mill was talking about, which is that free institutions must be based on a consensual order that is moral. ‘Consensual’ according to him meant ‘every individual is counted as a free individual, with equal reciprocal rights and duties.’ These equal reciprocal rights and duties, he said, shapes and gives meaning to the self and the collective self, and bases them on a strong moral grounding. This is what the UNDRIP is talking about, he said, reiterating that there is “no conflict between the individual and collective, rather, they make each other complete.”

“It is for this reason that our forebears have valued and cherished their village institutions in the form of the village republics for thousands of years, where our elders also emphasized humility, integrity and reconciliation, because it is only through radical humility that we come to realize our ignorance and gain true wisdom” he said.

The downside of this, he added, is that “we realize our ignorance, but the upside is that we know what our weaknesses are and how to strengthen ourselves and grow,” reasserting that this is why humility is what “our forefathers emphasized, and it is through wisdom that we understand how to reconcile with others and with nature,” and “why our justice system was always centered on restoring harmony in our community and our obligations to nature, the land, etc.”

Furthermore, he added that “it is only through integrity that we can uphold the moral order of the community and prevent corruption from seeping in. Therefore, leadership and selfhood were about integrity, and the responsibility of maintaining peace and harmony.” He stressed that because “there was an embodiment of such leadership” and because “the belief was acted out by them,” it gave our people social and political stability.

He concluded his talk by pointing out that the current political negotiations are also about reconciliation. Pointing out a common refrain of people who say that the times have changed and therefore Nagas need to change and progress together, he said that this is a legitimate question. This, however, is a question that must also be answered by India. He posed “Has it changed? Have both sides changed so that now they are ready for reconciliation? Can it be that the Indian Constitution is the source of the free institutions that the Nagas are dreaming of?”

“Politically speaking,” Gam continued, “India has hardly changed,” and explained that the Constitution was framed with an understanding of ‘state sovereignty’ of the decolonization period where sovereignty meant a superstructure that controls everything else. The architecture of the Constitution was framed with several flaws he asserted, and cited an example of how India talks of unity and diversity, but there is no social and political space for linguistic groups to flourish, and instead the approach is all about homogenization and occupation.

The principle of federalism, he said, is not applied and “has never been debated since Nehruvian times….and there are dictatorial characteristics inherent in its political and administrative institutions such as in the party system, civil administration and powers of the constitutional heads, as seen in recent events in Nagaland, such as the Governor’s actions.”

With all these troubles, he asked whether we could reconcile. For the Nagas, reconciliation also means that the constitutional morality of the Indian constitution must be reformed, he asserted, and that this can be done because the constitution is not the source of rights. It is instead the consequence of the rights of the individual, and the moral order.

A question that Nagas must ask ourselves, he said is whether, “we as a people are ripe for free institutions as our ancestors did? If so, then the sovereign individuals must be the architects of the Constitution that we are talking about today, so it cannot be devoid of the people, and I believe this is the Naga story in the IP Movement. This should also be the story of the Indigenous Peoples across the world, so that in the future to come, we may contribute with a vision, and an approach of reconciliation… so that reconciliation may be built throughout the world. That is our message to the globe. This is the mission, vision and story of the Indigenous Peoples and the Nagas” he concluded.

The Morung Dialogue is a talk series organized by NPMHR, Delhi with the objective to strengthen the power of conversation, sharpen and share ideas and views on issues that affect our lives and contribute to democracy, Justpeace and social justice.

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