New Delhi, Feb 13: In tandem with interest garnered by a statement in the foreword by Charles Chasie on the recently released book, Waiting For A Christmas Gift: Essays on Politics, Elections and Media in Nagaland (Heritage Publishing House, 2023) where he referenced commentary-based articles as being doubly postulated through the lens of an “outsider” while “not automatically discernable from the writing”, we at Naga Scholars’ Association (NSA) recognised the academic impulse to engage with the book’s author, Dr. Vikas Kumar. The idea of a talk arrived out of a need to listen and discuss at length his insights and array of perspectives on various issues primarily concerning the Nagaland state but also extending upon the states of Assam and Manipur which are equally integral to the “Naga self-imagination”. What further intrigued us was the title of the book which wove in a familiar narrative succinctly worded by Chasie as “an allusion to the Naga people waiting for the final settlement of the Naga Political issue coming before Christmas”. The latter therefore, becoming in the process the ever-eluding “Christmas Gift”. Another curious trajectory in the book that called for an explanation was its claims to hold as a “mirror” to the Naga society, in other words, a chance given to the Nagas “to see themselves as others see them”. Keeping all these deliberations in mind, we sought to gain as much as the book had to offer us while simultaneously striking up an intense engagement from the standpoint of critical scholarly exchanges. To this effect, the NSA took the initiative to organize a book discussion on the 10th of February 2023 at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Dr.A.C.Kharingpam, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, was the discussant. The book discussion was chaired by Dr. Ngoru Nixon, the President of the association.
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Spanning over forty opinion pieces, interviews, and critical essays published in various newspapers (local, regional, and national) over a decade dating from 2012 onwards, the book strives to offer a distinct perspective not limited to the insider-outsider binary. It seeks to provide a reading with “unbiased views” of the much contested Northeast region, in particular Nagaland, for the mainland Indian readers by “one of their own” as Dr. Lanusangla Tsudir, the publisher stated. While the reviews are mixed, it is necessary to recognise the tangible contribution it has made, she pointed out and added that padded with factual data, pictorial evidence, and in-person engagements with the socio-political and cultural milieu of the land, Dr. Kumar’s book is a “meaningful” one at the least. In his overview of the book, the author explained the meaning of his work’s title as having a political edge with “Christmas” becoming a byword– the marker from where “change” will emerge (so often promised during elections!). Divided into 6 sections under sub-themes of politics, elections, the role of media, the neighbourhood, and subsidiary (yet noteworthy observations) commentaries on Northeast personalities extending up to an idea of North East beyond stereotypes, the collection of his work is a reflection of the misconstrued versions of the region. Nagaland (being the main context in the book) has often been sensationalized by narratives both within and without. In the first section “Finding Land for Naga Lands”, Dr. Kumar perceives Naga-land as a space much beyond Nagaland highlighting in the process, the arbitrariness of boundaries as opposed to lived realities of the people. He observed that Nagas across borders hold a strong sense of solidarity while equally balancing a strong tribal affinity. These, he added, embolden community spirit as much as it contradicts the same in instances. Another noteworthy point was his take on technology and media. The emergence of media in Nagaland, he reasoned, has been entwined with the emergence of key players in the English language such as The Morung Express, Nagaland Post, and Nagaland Page to name a few. These media houses (alongside journals and newspapers written in indigenous languages) have attempted over the years to deliver unbiased opinions “out of their comfort zone” through dedicated editorial columns. He emphasized two points: 1. Since the 2000s, news dailies in Nagaland have begun writing in an “uninhibited” fashion evolving from focalised zones to a more contemporary one, 2. Editorials have set an emerging standard of new literature in the region. Taking their contributions into consideration, it is only obvious that one needs to document/examine news media— its proliferation, audience, readership, and performance.
Dr. Kumar also commented on the limitations of academia at times: “Academia is wary of contributing to news media because of the possibility of editors rephrasing your words/changing your ideas to some extent. This hesitation is not uncommon. However, while academia is interested in a long gradual process of publications that are peer-reviewed and scrutinized, newspapers offer another alternative”. Responding to questions concerning certain phrases and categories mentioned in the book, he urged readers to deeply contextualize the climate in which it was written. For instance, the phrase “frontier Nagaland” in one article was presented to him that way when he first did his survey. Today that narrative has changed. Another example drawn was the difference in opinions between elder and younger dobashis of the same village! The author has clarified that “the book has preserved a lot of mistakes [he had] made”. He further states that “perhaps it is necessary to document these errs because it shows/documents growth. It allows the readers to say that there are layers that need to be explored further”. In light of this perspective, the author put on record that he had opted not to “edit” but rather allow people both within and outside the state to see him making those mistakes since it shows a certain moment/a specific perspective of how the state itself was presented to him, an outsider. Ending his overview, he remarked on the cover of the book. The collage of photographs “are reminders of how real people went about attempting to repair everything”. He concluded finally by reiterating that history needs to be read in a reparative way.
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The discussant, Dr. Kharingpam entered the discussion straight on by addressing the elephant in the room i.e., the tag “outsider” and the need to “expose” ourselves as a community to become aware of the “other” existing perspectives. Addressing the importance of felicitating those who have taken the courage to speak and to document, he took cognizance of the Heritage Publishing House as the “guardians of our knowledge” further extending the tag “chroniclers of chronicles” to all publishing/printing houses. Commenting on the title as “romantic” in some sense, he observed the usage of “Christmas” as an overall metaphor for the existential reality the book hopes to communicate. The discussant made us aware of the two frameworks he had in mind while reading the book: 1. He was wary of the author’s position as an “Indian” attempting to “territorialize” this space that is “Nagaland” and 2. He was concerned if the author was writing from only his own perspective. A few pressing questions were on the author’s privilege of writing about the “other” and his (the discussant) own looming fear of becoming just another subject matter. Queries such as “What is the role of the writer?”, “Are the writers themselves independent of the reader?” were put forward for discussion. He also felt that in certain instances, crucial events were fleetingly mentioned while an extensive commentary on them could have been taken into account considering the complex and layered socio-political scenario of the state. Broaching on the politics of number games, the contested debate on women, and the Reservation Bill against the backdrop of the incoming state elections, the discussant and participants engaged in a series of conversations. Dr. Kharingpam drew examples from the Manipur state also. Viewing the conceptualisations of “big” and “small” within statistical data as relational and deeply politicized, he asked, “How do we rationalize this divide? When development is tied down to representation in politics, how do we look at the valley-hill divide?”
In the extended conversation through the Q & A Session, a participant responding to the book pondered if the author’s viewpoints/ perceptions have undergone a shift since the commentary stretched to a timeline of ten years. Additionally asking, if the inclusion of fresh perspectives alongside already published commentary would perhaps have given a nuanced perspective and a more wholesome reading. The session proceeded further with queries on the author’s selection of who/whom to ‘listen’ and ‘write’ about; can mainstream/mainland media houses be trusted to deliver fact-finding authentic news of the region when the current phenomena is to buy them by those in power with political agenda; did the author struggle as an “outsider” writing about the Naga society?; and finally, was it possible for the author to remain objective through his surveys or was he swayed by the ‘“insiders” views. A similar comment also speculated if the author’s “outsider” position was subsumed by the “insider” one hence leading to a loss of his objectivity.
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In response to these questions, Dr. Kumar spoke of the need to constantly engage with the masses. He stressed the necessity of asking nuanced questions, especially in an era where media houses sometimes “print everything under the sun” leading to more confusion rather than addressing pressing social, political, and moral issues. He believed in the inclusivity of those in the margins and appreciated local platforms which are now consciously writing and telecasting themselves. Few cautionary measures such as not misspelling names of certain communities and villages should be of due importance, if not “how different will we be from the mainstream papers!” he noted. In conclusion, he stated that he was aware of certain consequences his words might have had on the readers/people on ground. As a speaker/writer located as an outsider, he has the privilege to “leave”- something his interviewees perhaps might not have access to. Bunching together all these anxieties and all these stories, the author stated that between the work’s initial vision and final execution, hopefully, readers find the book’s place. The talk ended with a Vote of Thanks by Ms. Elvina S. Amongla, the General Secretary of the NSA.
Rapporteur: Ms. Haidamteu Zeme N
Ph.D. Fellow, Department of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi
(Source: Naga Scholars’ Association)