Rising from death, debris, and destruction

We are all familiar with the narrative of how as a collective population, us Arunachalis are perhaps the most patriotic lot in the entire country. Any and every time politicians from New Delhi come calling, it has become mandatory for them to invoke the same repeated line that Arunachalis are so patriotic that they greet each other with calls of ‘Jai Hind’.

Whether that is true or not is beside the point. While the ‘Jai Hind’ rhetoric may simply be just rhetoric (and an example of jingoism), the fact is that Arunachalis really are a patriotic lot. In a region of the country where ethnic and tribal divisions mark out clear cut interests, and where sub-nationalism is a strong defining character and occupies much space in the public discourse, Arunachal Pradesh is somewhat of an anomaly.

So famous is the proverbial patriotic Arunachali that even the former chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, cited it in a recent meeting.

The how and why this distinctive characteristic came into being require a discussion for another day. In light of the recent events that brought the state capital to a standstill, what is needed now is an explanation and introspection on how even the ever-patriotic Arunchali turned against the state.

THE IDEA OF IDENTITY

Where and how does an individual, a group, or a community draw its identity from? How do we distinguish the ‘us’ from the ‘them’? Is identity fluid? Are we members of a tribe for most parts of the year and don the suit of the collective anonymous Arunachali when we require it?

The issue of giving permanent residence certificates (PRC) to non-Arunachal Pradesh Scheduled Tribes (APST) is hardly a new one. It is a demand and a topic of debate and opposition that has lasted for decades.

The recent protests, violence, deaths, and excessive display of force by security personnel were played out amidst growing concerns that the state government was seriously mulling awarding PRCs to the six non-APST communities in question.

Although the Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) was to submit its report and recommendation that PRC should be awarded but with certain riders, there was never a Bill that was listed for passing in the Legislative Assembly. The chief minister later did say that the report was listed for discussion only.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the JHPC had recommended issuing PRCs (with or without terms and conditions) did not sit well with not just organised unions and bodies but also with the general tribal populace of the state.

For tribal communities, the idea of identity is one that is drawn from the land that they belong to. Without getting into the philosophical aspect of whether we belong to the land or the land belongs to us, suffice to say that as a collection of tribes, we are of the land, for the land, and from the land. It is the land that gives us a sense of who we are.

For communities like ours where even stretches of rivers and entire mountains can belong to an individual or a clan, the connection to the land and the people are inseparable. Is it really surprising then that the idea that we may have to share this land and its resources with those perceived as not being indigenous to the land ignited the kind of reaction that it did?

THE ‘OTHERS’

Much of the anger that fuelled the protests came from the perception that the six communities in question are ‘others’; that they do not fit into our idea of who is indigenous to the land.

The question that we must ask here is what factors go into deciding what makes someone indigenous to the land and someone else, not.

Representatives of those communities argue that they have been living in certain parts of present-day Arunachal Pradesh for generations and that all that they are asking for is a proof of address that they are domiciles of the state. That they have been living inside the political boundary of the state of Arunachal Pradesh when it was a union territory, separate from Assam.

Of course, the issue is not as simple as that and that PRCs will simply make it easier for members of the communities to apply for central government jobs (since they are already issued temporary residence certificates).

Acquiring PRCs will also bring with it other benefits and ease businesses for the communities in question. The JHPC on its part did say that awarding PRCs will not equate to extending tribal rights. The Committee even went further to add in a clause that the communities will not make any demands seeking APST status or seek benefits meant solely for APST persons such as reservations in state government jobs and educational institutions in the future.

One of the arguments from the other side has been that there is no guarantee that the communities now seeking PRCs will not demand APST status in the future. Indeed, one of the communities- the Deoris -did temporarily hold APST status until large-scale protests led to a retraction two decades back.

Perhaps it is ironic that some of the same people who argued against awarding APST status for the community are part of the JHPC that recommended awarding PRCs.

Another oft-cited argument is that awarding PRCs will lead to an influx of members of those communities who are living on the Assam side of the interstate boundary.

A state where large swathes of uninhabited fertile land exist, the idea of migrating here is an enticing one. While the JHPC recommended adequate checks to ensure that it does not happen, every true-blue Arunachali and anyone familiar with the astronomical levels of corruption that exists in the state knows that such measures will be compromised at the slightest of chances to the highest bidder.

WHAT NOW?

The violence that took place in Itanagar and Naharlagun has certainly left citizens shell-shocked. Perhaps only once before in recent history has such violence taken place that left the capital paralyzed the way it did. That protest too ended in death, as has this.

Whether the protests were sustained by motives other than those of pure emotions is something that may perhaps be revealed at a later date. What is undeniable, however, is that the anger was palpable. There is no doubt that anger had been fermenting for quite a while now and that anger spilled over to the streets.

As people took to the streets and damages were brought to several government and commercial buildings, security forces indulged in excesses and actions that should have been avoided. As of now, it is unclear what laws were invoked to incite such military action and as to who ordered the firing on the crowd of protestors in several places.

Amidst the protests that left at least three young men dead and several others injured, a number of people saw the chaos as an opportunity to update their wardrobe and electronic appliances. Cartful of clothes were being rolled away from one shopping centre while some made good with LED TVs and refrigerators.

On the other end of the two towns, the families of those who had died mourned.

So, where do we go from here? Is the outright rejection of the JHPC recommendation a permanent solution to the decades-old question? For now, the issue may have been diffused and the capital may be limping back to normalcy but it is bound to dominate discussion and debate come election season. And it is an issue that will be raised sporadically.

Can the issue be wished away? Or is greater debate, not destruction, required lest we want to see more young lives laying waste to the barrel of the gun?

Advertisements

It happened one night

NOTE

This is one of the pieces for Basar Doyi (Basar Tales) that was the result of my month-long stay in Basar, Arunachal Pradesh as part of the Artist Residency for the 2018 edition of the Basar Confluence. For more info about the festival, head over to Instagram.

Based on the retelling of Migo Basar’s attempt to escape the capture and certain death from Yapoms that chased him for close to 12 hours, the style employed for this story was an attempt to capture the sense of urgency that he felt that night.

I hope I have done justice to his harrowing experience.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

My gratitude goes out to Mr Migo Basar from Gori-III village who gave such a detailed description of the events of that night that I barely had to take any creative licence.

I am also grateful to Mr Minjo Basar who helped with the translation whenever my limited knowledge of the Galoo language would fail me.

I would also like to thank my editor, Mr Anup Kutty, for understanding the essence of what I was trying to create with this piece and for proof-reading and making the necessary changes.

 

 

It happened one night

1983, barely 17, clear March afternoon, I was returning from school,

weary, dreary, and ready to drop after

a long day of algebra, and a language imposed by the government, and

a sudden burst of fever, high body temperature, my physical self dropped, I lay still on the bamboo floor of our kitchen, two hours until

I awoke suddenly, feeling cold and the warmth of a parched throat and a wet body made me head to the water tap outside of our home in my white school shirt and navy blue trousers, an Assamese gamusa, a pair of Hawaii sandals with white inner sole, and matching blue under sole and straps, with my head thrown into the water pouring out of the brass-hued tap and the coldness of which almost caught me off guard, as I steadied myself and grasping the air around me I lifted my head while the water from my wet hair that now ran across my forehead petered down to my clothes when familiar voices of men and women from the village around me and in front of the house or on my sides, calling out my name, accusing me of some crime as they screamed,

‘We know what you did, pelting stones at people’s homes, breaking their windows,’

which I did not understand since I had done no such thing but to plead innocence would be a futile exercise for although I could not see them or where they were, the intent to hurt me in their voices was made clear abundant and so I bolted out the back fence of our tiny home and hopped over the bamboo barricades of our neighbours who looked at me as if they had seen a madman escape his cell from the Tezpur madhouse but, I could care little for what occupied my thought and heart at that moment was the voices of our elders, some whom I had known since I was a child, nearing even as I ran as fast as my young legs could take me but, their accusatory voices kept creeping up on me, even when I found myself behind my own school when the sound of their screams seemed to grow even louder,

‘We will have you punished for what you did,’

they said as I wondered who could have possibly filed a false complaint against me with the police as I was now convinced that the people from my village had been joined by men in khakis wielding sticks and stones and weapons of their own choosing and I ran, as fast and far as I had to, even dashing over the slippery water-supply pipe and faced a seven-feet tall barbed fence which I climbed over and for the first time since the chase began did I momentarily get a glance at those chasing me as I began to descend the fence on the other side but, instead of seeing the faces of any men or women whom I knew, all I saw was silhouettes of a cluster of people with no discerning features and hence I continued to run towards a light that I knew shone from the Basar police station where I could finally escape to safety, and for the first time since the ordeal that began four hours ago, I ran with the intent of actually going somewhere, reaching somewhere that could offer me refuge and somewhere where the people would help me, but as I flung open the door and grabbed the first havaldar on whom my eyes landed and pleaded,

‘Help me, there are people after me who I know will kill me when they catch me,’

I cried when he said “What people are you blabbering about, you idiot,’ looking around as if to convince himself that there wasn’t anyone chasing me, and so instead, he chased me away and told me to go home on the way of which I saw the same devoid-of-any-discerning-features silhouettes once again, and I could tell that there were around 20 of them, all of which were bent on making me their prisoner and ending me as I stood on that dusty road that led to my home, going towards which was now not an option as they stood ahead of me, blocking my path, leaving me with no option but to try and make good my escape by heading towards the ITBP camp and beyond till Aalo, if the need arose, and I would have had I not seen those same silhouettes suddenly appear a few hundred metres ahead of me so, I turned the road and headed to a paddy field through which I knew I could take a shortcut all the way back to the village and the safety of my home but the night had other plans for me and it seemed as if there was much that needed to transpire before this nightmare would even come close to an end, for barely had I stepped inside the golden-hued paddy field that in a distance I saw two women, all dressed in green from their galey to the clothes they wore to hide their bosoms, who were the perhaps the most kaken as I had ever seen until that night and they were women who I knew were not of this realm but were the first faces with features that I could make some semblance of besides the havaldar who chased me away and had it been a different day and varied circumstance, I would have followed these women to the deepest parts of the river who called me out to come with them but something inside of me told me not to, saying,

‘I’m not coming with you, go away,’

clearly offending them enough to make them reach inside the uduu that they were carrying with them and fling its contents on me as I managed to dodge whatever it was that carried their malice and turned right and straight into a forest of thorns with creepers that hugged and kissed each other, bleeding each other and waiting to do the same to anyone who crossed their path but since the only direction that I could head towards was the one in front of me, I had no choice but to enter what would otherwise have been forbidden territory on any other night but I knew this was no ordinary night, and the sight of the two beautiful women was a mere mirage, a trick because as soon as I entered the forest of thorns, the voices became clear once more as they neared, shooting arrows with intent and such strength that the sounds they made when they travelled and sliced the air on its path was not the sounds that arrows of men made,

‘Bhook, bhook,’

the arrows sounded as they came for me, carrying with them an ounce of my own fears, narrowly missing me each time and my fears only growing to a crescendo, especially when one of them almost sliced me into two with his rokse, at which moment I felt as though I had turned to water and meandered into the concrete road once again only to see more figures who now seemed to be getting closer with each step that I took to try and run away from them but, the faster I ran the closer they got with their torchlights that they shone on my face, trying to block my view of the road ahead which I could see only when lightning struck, which was odd considering it was a clear day and I could see the stars as clearly as could be, that being an afterthought, of course, for my concern then was to stay alive, escape whatever was chasing me but it was no easy task because the road I was on kept going astray and I kept losing my way, only to suddenly find a river on my path, in which I did not hesitate to jump right in as the silhouettes hesitated even less and followed me to the other side where I was momentarily stuck between two bamboo plants out of which I nudged myself out and made my way to the Medical Line and into the front yard of a Bihari workers house who asked me where I was going and offered me some tea which I could not considering the state that I was in considering it was three in the morning now and I had been running for my life for almost 12 hours and as I stumbled my way out to the main road bare feet and tattered white shirt and torn navy blue pants my cousin shouted,

‘Where were you?’

he asked with anger and concern but I had no answer or explanation to offer at that moment, so he took me home to a worried family who told me to get some rest but I had to clean myself up, especially since I was bleeding heavily from my nose and when I slowly walked towards the water tap the opu fell and from behind it emerged a large black silhouette, devoid of any features as the ones that tormented me the entire night, and easily leapt over an eight feet high wall, and while I thought that would have been the last I would have heard of them, since the nyibu had performed the Yapom Guula to cleanse me off of the effects of that night, the tormenting never stopped, especially immediately after that cursed night, when on many times as I slept I would continue to feel the slithering of snakes under my blanket but see nothing when I tried to catch them, and to this day, I hear them when I am awake, calling me to come with them,

them, who offer me riches and comforts of life but all of which I do not wish to attain from them, for why should I because,

since the events of that night, I have felt no fear,

no fear of the tools used by men or those who wish to call themselves mighty…

 

Quenching a forest’s thirst

Back in 2008, an official with the Arunachal Pradesh government’s horticulture department noticed that the water streams and rivulets that fed a number of villages were drying up near his hometown. In a place that has been blessed with natural bounty, water scarcity was a phenomenon that the tribal Galo people in Basar were unaware of. Now, that had become a very real danger.

Nestled at an elevation of 2,299 feet in the recently created Lepa Rada district in central Arunachal Pradesh, the Basar administrative circle has a population of 12,224, per the 2011 Census. Home to the Galo people, the town of Basar and the adjoining villages is criss-crossed by three rivers- Kidi, Hie, and Bam Hila.

The breathtaking view of Basar Valley from the hill.

While these rivers serve as a primary source for water supply, much of people’s water needs are satiated by rain-fed streams and rivulets that bring groundwater from the green hills to the villages that dot the landscape.

That began to change ten years back when unabated and unsustainable farming practices began to have an adverse impact on the life of the villagers.

“Around that time we realised that the villages were staring at water scarcity,” says Egam Basar.

The 43-year-old head of the State Horticulture Research and Development Institute is a native of Soi village in Basar. A decade ago, he was transferred here when he noticed that the streams that fed his and surrounding villages were drying up.

The man himself- Egam Basar.

Together with his nephew Gomar Basar, who was a student then and is now an assistant registrar with the Rajiv Gandhi University near the state capital, they formed an environmental group that would later go on to become the EB Project (EB as in his initials).

Egam had a plan to revitalise the streams and the rainwater catchment area in his village by digging “recharge pits” that could hold water that will seep into the soil and keep the fields irrigated.

Large-scale jhum cultivation practices and unchecked felling of trees meant that the hills could no longer hold rainwater and would just flow down.

The first hurdle that Egam faced was gaining ownership of the lands.

Funding was difficult to come by and so he had to purchase the lands from the money that he had saved up over the years.

Egam, who has a penchant for hats which he says he wears to hide his greying locks, doesn’t indulge too much into the details of how much of his personal income was spent in acquiring the lands that would eventually become the EB Project.

In total, he acquired 60 hectares of land and stopped jhum cultivation and deforestation. Since the project started, Egam and Gomar said that the forest and wildlife has been rejuvenated.

On the climb up the hilltop we were informed that there has been an increase in the wildlife population in the area with barking deer, clouded leopard, and reportedly even a tiger now call the place home.

Apart from the wildlife, Egam informed that there now plans afoot to introduce rare medicinal plants in the area.

Along with his advisors and support staff, the more immediate goal now is to reach the 1000 pits mark.

Digging of the metre-deep pits began in 2011 but it would take seven more years before the stream in Soi village did not dry up in the winter months.

There are currently 200 such recharge pits and plans are underway to adopt the system in other villages and their surrounding hills as well.

“Sustainable development,” Egam says, “is not possible without sustainable irrigation”.

– – –

This feature was first published in The Citizen.

Debating the deities

Someone please explain to me why illuminated red Devil’s Horns are a thing during Durga Puja. How is it that on a festival that literally celebrates the killing of a monster, the go-to symbol of evil has become the in thing to sport? Like, how?

The wearing of Devil’s Horns is just one of the several questions I have about Durga Puja and its celebrations in Arunachal Pradesh.

How is it that in a state in the far remote corner of India that is home to close to 30 indigenous tribes (a majority of who originally practiced animist faiths), Durga Puja is even a thing?

Let me put out a disclaimer and say that I hold absolutely nothing against the celebration of Durga Puja or any other festival regardless of its religious affiliation. I also realise that since the state actually does have a large non-tribal population for whom the festival holds great significance, Pujo time is a rather big deal.

IMG_20181017_204756

Make-shift stalls serving snacks pop-up everywhere in Itanagar during Pujo time.

The grandeur of the festival is no surprise either because obviously, people chip in to fund the beautiful pandals that abound the streets. Such a large population also translates into a possible vote bank and it makes sense to make sure for the powers that be that the people have fun at least once a year.

Still, I wonder how young and beautiful teens influenced by modern Korean culture who spend the majority of the year greeting each other with ‘annyeonghaseyo’ and ‘oppa’ can suddenly be so fascinated by the kirtan.

How do you go from watching surgically-enhanced K-pop stars to being transfixed by the neighbourhood mechanic as he performs to the beat of the dhol that we, for some reason, are all familiar with? Like, how?

One of the ‘must-do-things-during-Puja’ is to buy new clothes. I’m not exactly sure if that is a brilliant marketing ploy thought of in the office of an advertisement agency with pretentiously minimalist interiors or if the Goddess herself ordained it, but nevertheless, it’s a thing that is not restricted by communal lines.

Tribal, non-tribal, rich, poor, everyone is up for buying new clothes during Pujo.

In fact, my Adi colleague currently sitting on my left watching a YouTube series is wearing a newly-purchased patterned-dark blue shirt. I ask him if he buys new clothes during Solung and the answer is in the negative. He makes some lame argument about how he had to buy a new shirt anyway but I’m not convinced.

IMG_20181017_204905

A ‘band’ from Siliguri was invited to provide the beats for the kirtan and Pujo at one of the several pandals here. I asked them how they landed up here and the cheeky one in the group said, “by car”. Not Amused. Not. Amused.

It isn’t the celebrations of any festival that makes me question things but as a person with conflicting ideas of self-identity and lack of knowledge about my own community is what concerns.

Puja celebrations shouldn’t die down. Nor should the celebrations of any festival regardless of the religion it originates from or the community that it ‘belongs’ to. In fact, if there is great leveller and breaker of barriers between communities as us Arunachalese, it is Durga Puja.

All of us visit at least one pandal every year but when was the last time you joined in on the celebration of a ‘central’ festival celebration of any other tribe that you don’t belong to unless you were specifically invited by a friend.

Nahi, hum toh woh tribe ka nahi hain na, hum kyun (insert tribal festival name here) mein jaiga (No, I am not from that tribe, why should I visit the celebration of [insert tribal festival name here],” is something I’ve heard way too often.

As stated above, I hold nothing against the celebrations of any festival that offers people an opportunity to come together and revel in merry-making. I will also continue to hold questions about how Pujo got so ingrained in Arunachali culture.

While some will argue that its part of the greater identity of what makes us Indians, I will say its a form of unintended indoctrination. Others, as I learnt last year, are at the pandals for the kheechdi!

K4 Kekho: Small man casting a long shadow

Sporting two long fringes that run down to his ears and despite not being the tallest man in most rooms, Kekho Thiamkho casts a large shadow. But then again, it was not his looks that shot him into semi-stardom.

Kekho Thiamkho, better known by his stage name K4 Kekho, hails from the small hamlet of Chinghan in Tirap district along India’s international border with Myanmar in Arunachal Pradesh. A relative unknown in a state with a population of around 15 lakh until two years ago, K4 Kekho became a viral sensation when his song, ‘I am an Indian’, began circulating on WhatsApp.

Sung partly in English and a dialect of Hindi unique to Arunachal Pradesh, the song deals with issues of racism and ignorance about the state and the Northeast that people from the region often face in ‘mainland’ India.

Although the song deals with serious issues, it is the satirical tone of the lyrics and the catchy tune that leave a lasting impact on listeners.
The song opens with K4 Kekho’s signature ‘ollo’ (more on that later) and introducing himself before he goes on to the first lines of the song: Arunachal Pradesh ka mein. Kya yeh jegah China mein (I’m from Arunachal Pradesh. Is this place in China)?

K4 Kekho during a performance. (PC: 4K Studio and CCRD)

The ‘China’ reference acts as a double innuendo on China’s territorial claims over the state and sets the tone for the rest of the song.

Midway through the song, Kekho sings: Institutions lok hum logo ko yaha mein padhne ao boltai. Phir roadside mein koi-koi lok jegah se jao boltai (Educational institutes induce us to join their academies. But people on the street tell us to go back).

Those lines are an expression of what many from Northeast, especially those who venture out to pursue higher education, continue to experience in places like New Delhi and Bengaluru. Incidentally, Kekho never spent any significant amount of time outside the state for his education, having completed his graduation from Don Bosco College near Itanagar. However, he had heard enough from his friends to feel confident to write and rap about the issue.

“I used to listen to my friends who were studying outside talk about their experiences. They were so angry and frustrated with what they had to undergo at times,” he said.
On January 27, K4 Kekho was at the lawns of the Hotel Donyi Polo Ashok in Itanagar for the launch of a six-part poetry-themed web series called The Vivid Project where he is one of the six featured poets.

Post a brief appearance on stage, K4 Kekho took time out to wander around when I introduced myself as a fan and told him that he was the reason I came for the launch.
During the conversation, he talked about how he was introduced to music through his father’s collection of old Hindi film songs on cassettes. He even sang one of those songs on stage one year in school.

“The teachers and the older people in the audience liked it but the young students were bored,” he said. The next year he switched to rap music as a more immersive art form to connect with the younger crowd. That decision appears to have paid off.

He is now somewhat of a minor sensation in his home state (‘minor’ meaning that he isn’t exactly getting swamped by fans on the streets looking for selfies or autographs). While he does seem to be living the good life now with him becoming a regular at local gigs, life wasn’t always easy.

Kekho said that as a child he had to walk for two hours from the administrative circle of Lazu to reach his home. Not much has changed as motor-able roads still haven’t been made that find their path to Chinghan.

Kekho doesn’t rap much about subjects that do not have social relevance in his eyes and cares for issues that are close to his community and his home.

He comes from the small Ollo tribe of Tirap district in the eastern part of the state that has been inflicted with insurgency and opium addiction among young men for years. Kekho said that he is currently working on songs that address these issues.

That evening, he gave us a sneak peek to a new song he is working on.
It begins: Ollo. I was born in a village called Lower Chinghan, located in the border of Indo-Myanmar, where one cannot speak for the rights he deserves, afraid of AK-47 loaded real guns. Ollo!

The ‘Ollo’, he said, is a tribute to his tribe and can mean anything from ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and ‘friend’.

By this time, a few of his ‘fans’ had become part of our conversation and listening intently to what Kekho had to say.

Continuing the conversation, he maintains a humble demeanour while his hands constantly wave about front and back, left and right, as if he’s engaged in rap-battle and says that his limited English-language vocabulary makes it difficult for him to freestyle. He also informed that a video for ‘I’m an Indian’, the song that birthed the K4 Kekho sensation, is in the works.

By the end of the evening, our conversation steers towards his height.

“I’m not quite five feet tall. Around 4.8 or 4.9,” he tells us.

One of the people listening in on the conversation quickly adds, “You may be small but your words are big.

PoV: Hornbill, Nagaland

 

Held for ten days beginning on December 1 that marks Nagaland’s Statehood Day, the annual Hornbill Festival is an extravaganza that showcases the culture of the 16 tribes that call the state home. While the festival has put the state on the global map, attracting tourists from near and far, the realities of the state marred with crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption has left many local residents giving the festival a miss. (Photo locations: Kisama, Kohima and Dimapur.)

 

Image 1

A view of Kohima town.

 

Image 2

Monpa Yak Dance performers from Arunachal Pradesh alongside the Zeliang of Nagaland perform in sync at the Hornbill Festival.

 

Image 3

Young Naga men watch cultural performances at the amphitheatre in Kisama Heritage Village, the site of the annual extravaganza.

 

Image 4

A man from the Konyak tribe stands guard outside the representational Morung- dormitories traditionally meant for bachelors- at Kisama.

 

Image 5

Konyak Naga warriors.

 

Image 6

A traditional rice milling apparatus of the Kuki tribe made from wood.

 

Image 7

Women of the Pochury Naga tribe from Meluri Village weaving clothes at the Craftscape section of the Hornbill Festival. The cotton processing system is called Akükhie Ngunü Küto.

 

Image 8

A photo exhibition providing a glimpse of the contents of ‘The Konyaks- Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’, a book by Phejin Konyak and Peter Bos chronicling the last batch of Konyak Headhunters and women from the community who would tattoo their bodies in the days of yore. A practice that was abandoned after the introduction of Christianity.

 

Image 9

The Kohima War Cemetery honours the memory of over 2000 men who laid their lives in the Battle of Kohima, fending off Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Battle of Kohima is often termed as Stalingrad of the East and lasted from 4 April to 22 June 1944 and saw heavy casualties from both sides as Naga tribesmen fought alongside British-Indian forces. Had the battle fallen favourably for the Japanese forces, the global map as we know it, may have looked very different. This, along with the Battle of Imphal fought in Manipur, has been recognised as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the British National Army Museum.

 

Image 10

Some graves at the Cemetery are unmarked and unnamed but not forgotten. Most died when they were barely into their twenties.

 

Image 11

A woman selling hens and roosters beside a street in Nagaland’s capital Kohima. As with most tribal and indigenous societies across India’s Northeast, it is the women who keep the local economy running through their hard work.

 

Image 12

While the Hornbill Festival dazzles tourists with colourful cultural displays, signs that not all is glorious with the state of affairs of Nagaland are also visible. Student bodies have been at loggerheads with the state government since last year over delays in disbursement of students’ scholarships. The state government has cited lack of funds as causing the delay and has begun rolling out stipends in instalments.

 

Image 13

A poster on a monolith in Kohima reads (written in the lingua franca- Nagamese): Directorate of Higher Education, Students are suffering. Where is our stipend? – Eastern Nagaland College Students’ Union.

 

Image 14

Road conditions in the state leave much to be desired and the annual layering work done before Hornbill Festival hasn’t impressed citizens. Many young people call it ‘applying lipstick on the road’.

 

Image 15

Apart from the condition of the road, traffic is a perennial problem in Kohima and traffic jams can sometimes last for hours and stretch for more than three kilometres.

 

Image 16

Rains had left large stretches of the Dimapur-Kohima road muddy leading to many taxi drivers hiking up rates for passengers or simply refusing to go at all. While the road was reportedly ‘repaired’ just days before the festival began, construction work meant that it was bound to be prone to slush.

 

Image 17

Along the Dimapur-Kohima highway are several basic restaurants that serve some of the best food one can find. The menus of some places even list ‘rural meat’- code for game meat that can include anything from wild boar to venison.

 

Image 18

As in other states of the Northeast, the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (whether real or perceived) is seen as a major threat to indigenous communities in Nagaland too. Referred to as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs), calls for deportation of the alleged illegal immigrants have been gaining momentum of late. However, proving the nationality of those perceived to be illegals is easier said than done and is made more complex by the large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who work in Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur where citizens from outside the state do not require inner line permits.

 

Tattooed Tales: Behind the Apatani tattoo

In the kitchen of the home-stay that she and her husband run, Narang Yamyang said that the woman who tattooed her face refused to continue if she showed any signs of experiencing pain. Left with no choice, she remained motionless through the entire process.

Until the early 1970s, it was common practice for Apatani girls of Ziro Valley to get their faces tattooed and sport nose-plugs. The process was conducted in the winter to quicken the drying process, was often long and always painful.

The tattoos, called tiipe in the Apatani language, on a woman usually run from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, complemented by five strips starting from the edge of the bottom lip to the end of the chin. Some also pierced their noses and over the course of time larger nose-plugs made of cane called yaping huto would be placed. The ink that was used is basically soot (called chinyu) collected from the bottom of heavily-used cooking utensils. And no fancy tattoo needles here; what was used as a ‘needle’ was made by tying together a bunch of three-headed thorns called iimo-tre. A small stick hammer called empiia yakho helped produce the necessary pressure to pierce the skin and hammer in the ink.

Once a defining character of the Apatani people, the practice was banned by a tribal youth organisation in 1972; the penalty for which was almost equivalent to the price of an adult mithun at that time.

Yamyang said she got herself tattooed sometime after that but was not fined because her father had passed away and the implementing organisation spared her the penalty.

Narang Yamyang with her husband Tam at their paddy field.

Having been socially abolished over four decades back, getting a glimpse of the tattooed women of Ziro is becoming a rare sight. Everyone who sports them is at least over 50 years old. It has completely disappeared among young Apatani women.

Tattooing has existed in different cultures throughout the world. From the Polynesians to the yantra tattoos of the Tai people, tattoos have been always part of human civilisation and have survived till the 21st century with varying degrees of prevalence. Closer home, tattooing was common among the Baiga people of Chota Nagpur Plateau. In the Northeast, among the Naga tribes, it was a matter of pride for men to sport certain tattoos as it was an indicator of their martial skills. Unlike most modern-day tattoos, in the lives of indigenous communities, tattoos usually signified a rite of passage and a coming age for young men and women. So why did the Apatani women get them done?

At the very outset, it is important to note that it is not just the women but also the men who once got facial tattoos made, although the men only drew one thick line down the middle of their chin. Regardless, both men and women only got tattooed after they had reached puberty. It is when trying to unearth the reason why the practice started is where things get interesting.

Images of smiling women with blue-hued tattoos and nose-plugs abound the internet. The most repeated (and most believed) story of why the women had them made was because the Apatani women were so beautiful that the men of the ‘neighbouring tribe’ would repeatedly raid their villages and kidnap them. While this does not explain why the men got tattoos, many people, including those of the aforementioned ‘neighbouring tribe’, still believe there is credence to the story.

Yamyang’s husband, Tam, said that the story probably began once young Apatani people began to move out of the Valley and felt “awkward” when people, especially the plainsmen of Assam, would stare at them.

In the absence of any documented evidence of mass kidnappings of Apatani women ever having had taken place, the story is apocryphal at best and what anthropologist may describe as a type of cultural cringe where people are made to feel that certain aspects of their cultural practices are inferior and must be discarded.

Tam said that earlier it was essential for an Apatani to have a tattoo as it was a mark of their identity. “People would not even get married if their faces were not tattooed in the old days,” he said.

There are other explanations offered by the older Apatanis and the women who have the tattoos.

Tilling Rilung, an agriculturalist and wife of a gaon bura (village headman), said that the tattoos were made to distinguish between the Apatani people and the neighbouring Nyishis, indicating that it acted as a marker of tribal identity.

Like most other women who spoke of their experiences, Rilung too had to be held down on the floor when she was getting her tattoo made.

IMG_20171008_194905

Duyu Dinsung got her tattoo at her father’s behest who told her that it was an important marker of the Apatani identity.

Duyu Dinsung is another woman who said it was a painful experience and resonated Rilung’s explanation that they were made so as to distinguish between the Apatani and Nyishi people.

Hage Tado Nanya, a progressive farmer and a pioneering face of women’s engagement in Apatani society who also happens to be the reigning Mrs Arunachal, said that she was among one of the last batches of girls who got tattooed after the ban was imposed.

As with those who actually had had their faces tattooed, she too dismissed the kidnapping story and even claimed that the practice existed among the Apatani before they migrated to present-day Ziro centuries ago. In fact, she claims that the seeds of the iimo-tre plant were brought during the migration period.

The story behind the Apatani tattoo may have gotten lost in recent years and replaced with another. While there is no consensus over the origins of the practice, what everyone- tattooed or not- does agree on is that it is good that the practice has stopped.

Burning grass and breaking down walls

Sitting by the hearth of her home in Hari village at Ziro Valley in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Hage Tado Nanya animatedly narrates how she along with around 30 women burnt large heaps of marijuana that was being illegally harvested a few years ago.

“Some of us even got high from the smoke,” she says.

Being one of the last generations of Apatani women to have tattooed her face as was customary, Nanya has crossed many milestones in her life. Last year, she shot into the limelight when she was crowned Mrs Arunachal- Mother of Substance.

Speaking of her time at the pageant, she explains that she was under the impression that it would be a one-day event, unaware of the grooming and continuous judging process.

“They would ask us to sing and we would. They did not tell us but they were judging us during that period too,” she says.

While her win thrust her into the public imagination, Nanya has been in the forefront of breaking barriers for the past four decades.

A loquacious woman, Nanya takes pride in her work and doesn’t shy away from speaking about them.

Back in 1976, her father had given her a handful of fish to clean and cook. But when time came, she was overwhelmed to see the fishes trying to breathe.

“I saw the fish trying to breathe through their ears (gills),” she says, motioning her hands in the fashion of how fish breathe.

“When I saw that, I could not bring myself to killing them,” she says, adding, “alag se feeling aya (I felt a deep empathy for the fish)”.

Unable to kill the fishes, she released them in the family’s wet-rice paddy field. She says that she was the first person in Ziro Valley to do so. Apparently, the now famous practice of farming fish in the same field where rice and millet is grown was started by her.

Nanya says that once the fish grew, she put some of them in a basket and took them to the bazaar to sell. The rush for the fish, she says, was so much that she had a difficult time keeping track of the customers.

She informs that she first began selling the golden carp and later moved on to selling the common carp from 1990 after buying a few fishlings at subsidised rates from the state government’s fisheries department a few years earlier. By then, harvesting fish simultaneously in the paddy fields had become a common practice in the valley.

Her entrepreneurial skills provided her with a steady living and helped educate her three sons and four daughters. Though not formally educated, Nanya learnt to read with her children as they were growing up. Her children in turn, would accompany her to the bazaar on some days.

“Now all my children are outside so I don’t spend too much time selling fish,” she says.

Nanya of course, engages in a variety of other activities to both sustain her income and work for the well-being of her community.

Having been betrothed to her husband, Hage Tado, when she was three years old and married at around the age of 13, she dons many hats from being a progressive farmer to yoga teacher. And she isn’t done yet.

Alcoholism and drug abuse among the young in Ziro, she says is a major cause of concern.

A few years ago, she led a large contingent of women affiliated to the Ziro branch of the Arunachal Pradesh Women Welfare Society (of which she is the adviser) to a hilltop where marijuana was allegedly being grown. What they saw made them gasp in horror.

“The plants had been cut and left to dry on a large mat. We were so shocked to see such large quantities of ganja,” she says.

The women then set fire to the marijuana, the smoke from which seemed to have left some of them intoxicated.

Currently, she and a group of her friends are seeking to close liquor stores in the valley and have been successful in banning non-indigenous alcohol during Apatani festivals like Myoko and Murung.

She also says that polygamy needs to be abolished and traditional property rights wherein daughters do not inherit ancestral land need reforms.

In her campaigns, she says she’s been fortunate to have the support of her husband.

“Even though it was a child marriage, I’m happy my husband is a good man,” she says.

Two years since submergence, villagers still fighting for rights

Driving up from Manipur’s capital Imphal to Ukhrul district towards the site of the Mapithel dam, a magnificent view of a reservoir with the lush green Mapithel range in the background opens up. While for visitors the view offers an opportunity to take photographs and appreciate the scenic beauty of the place, locals aren’t too excited by it.

Image 1

Construction of the 7.5-megawatt dam began in 1989 and stands 66 metres high and 1034 metres long; enormous by any standards and even larger considering the considerably smaller size of the installed capacity of the dam in comparison to many of the dams planned for construction in India’s Northeast. Part of what was originally called the Thoubal River Valley Multipurpose Project, the dam is built on the Thoubal river (called the Yangwui Kong by the local Tangkhul tribe), the project was undertaken by the state government’s Irrigation and Flood Control Department (IFCD) and is intended to generate electricity, provide irrigation routes and drinking water for Imphal.

Goals that have not been achieved and what some say will not be even in the next five years.

“This was meant to be a multipurpose project but they started filling concrete even before the completion of the dam. And the power station has not been built either,” informed Jiten Yumnam, an Imphal-based rights activist who has been working with residents of the five villages that were affected by the project.

The details of the project and the struggles of the people who lost their homes have been well documented. So has the state government’s arrogance when construction began and the apathy that it has shown after villages were submerged and people displaced.

Dominic Kashung, chairman of the Mapithel Dam Affected Villages Organisation (MDAVO), says that the construction of the dam was done without free and prior consent and that surveys were conducted in secret.

A vibrant middle-aged bespectacled man, the anger and frustration are clear when Dominic speaks. Smacking his lips, he says that the villagers were divided by the government right from the time that construction began in 1989.

Image 5

Dominic Kashung (standing) is currently leading the fight against the completion of the multipurpose project.

“We had protested, even burnt some of the machineries,” he says, adding that “some of the leaders were hypnotized by politicians”.

At the height of the resistance, villagers had to at times hide in the nearby jungles as security forces came cracking down on protestors, informed Dominic.

He says that visitors often speak of the scenic beauty of the place but that residents lead a difficult life. He also says that there has been pressure on the forests too.

Driving up to Ramrei from where people have to take rickety boats to reach Chadong, several small sawmills running along the road in the village of Riha greet commuters.

Since the flooding and submergence of their paddy fields, villagers have had to take to logging to make ends meet but that too is slowly taking a toll on the forest resources.

Image 2

Sights like these have become common ever since the villagers lost their paddy fields and their main source of income after the submergence.

The protest by the villagers has sustained since the inception and the project itself is embroiled in lacunas including construction work that carried on for decades without the grant of appropriate clearances. In fact, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest only granted environment clearance for the project in 2001.

Several cases ensued in the Manipur High Court and various committees were formed, reformed and agreements signed. Currently, a case on the matter is pending before the National Green Tribunal.

Although the villagers have been fighting for their rights in the courtrooms, there appears to be little hope for fair rehabilitation.

Another prominent voice in the resistance, Honreikhui Kashung, says that in the courts, everyone is a victim.

“Both sides present their arguments as the aggrieved party,” he says.

Dominic, a lawyer himself, says that his practice has suffered since the protests began. He says that they are not asking for anything outside of the Indian Constitution and simply want their basic amenities of schools and hospitals provided to them.

When flooding of the villages began in January 2015, the paddy fields began to get submerged followed by people’s homes and schools including the United Christian Academy at Riha which was started in 2003 by Honreikhui and his friends.

A haunting image that serves as a reminder of the devastation is the Cross on the spire of the church in Chadong that rises above the waters of the reservoir, standing defiantly.

Image 4

The cross that bears testimony to the sufferings of the people.

Honreikhui says that these are reminders of their protests.

“The submergence of our schools and churches are a sign of our protest. We were told to take away our valuables but we refused.”


 

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

tam-and-yamyang-narang.jpeg

My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.