The lingering impact of Axone

Let’s get this straight out the gate: Tenzin Dalha does not sound nor looks like most Mizo friends I went to school with and whom I hung out with during my time in Delhi.

Sayani Gupta, while she may look the part, is unable to properly capture the ‘typical’ North Bengal Nepali accent; if that was ever the aim.

And as a person from Arunachal Pradesh who has been having conversations with friends for the last 24 hours, there is one plot-point in the film that seems to have many vying for the director’s blood.

Right from the moment when the trailer for Axone first dropped, I did not come across any person from the Northeast of India who was not excited by it and was not looking forward to watching it.

Finally, there will be representation of people who make up around four percent of the country’s population on celluloid.

For people who have been on the receiving end of racism for years in all its forms from systematic to the casual on the city streets of Delhi or the office spaces of Bangalore, it was heartening to learn that a film has been made where they can physically and culturally identify with the main cast of characters.

As happy as I personally was, I had my apprehensions in the beginning.

“Why is a Bengali woman playing a Nepali (or is it a Gurkha) character,” I found myself asking myself, my friends, and on one occasion, the director himself.

Nicholas Kharkongar is a director from Shillong who has made a name for himself over the last few years in the film festival circuit.

Last year at the Nagaland Film Festival in Kohima, I had the chance to meet him and ask him why he chose to cast Gupta for the role.

His reasons were a few but most notably that he still had to ‘sell’ the idea of such a film to the studios and would have needed an established name.

“Also, you can’t say that Sayani does not look the part of a Nepali girl,” Kharkongar had told me back then.

I had to agree that Gupta indeed did look the part, and certainly much more than Priyanka Chopra (Piggy Chops) did as Mary Kom.

‘Geetanjali Thapa’, I thought but let it slide. The idea still did not settle firmly with me but it was one that I was willing to go along with.

By now, a number of people have watched the film, the reviews are out, and hence the basic plotline is public knowledge. Inevitably, people have come out with their criticism of the film.

In complete honesty, when the film’s trailer dropped, I was not expecting a cinematic masterpiece along the lines of Selma, Malcom X, or The Birth of a Nation.

It was evident from the trailer what the tone of the movie was going to be. This was not going to be a dark film with a heavy subject at its core. It was, from the get-go, going to be a comedic take on a serious matter.

Could it have been made better? I’m no expert but, heck, Citizen Kane could have had a better story, and yet it’s hailed as the greatest film of all time. And with good reason too.

Citizen Kane was so innovative in its filming techniques that every movie that has come out since then has been shaped by it. (Watch this video to understand the importance of Citizen Kane.)

Even with its straightforward plot, Citizen Kane is celebrated for the impact it has had on cinema.

We can nitpick over smaller flaws in Axone, of course. And as film lovers, we should take issues with it and flag issues as we would with any other movie and as such should be criticised on the basis of the overall plotline, character development, technical aspects, and other such matters.

But Axone is not ‘just another film’.

I never completely understood why Black Panther was nominated for an Oscar or why it won all those awards it did the year after it was released. Its story, action sequences, cinematography, music score, visual effects, etc were at par with any other films that Marvel Studios has churned out from its assembly line over the years.

Yet, I understood its cultural significance on American cinema and psyche. To have an almost entirely all-Black cast was/is significant.

One can make the same argument for Crazy Rich Asians.

Apart from being an all-Asian cast, the movie was like most romantic comedies. It wasn’t bad, per se, but this was not a film that approached the genre in the most nuanced manner.

But, here we were. The joy of Asian-Americans seeing faces they can identify with on the big screen must have been overwhelming for many.

Of course, as majorities in our home states and minorities in another, we may not feel the same emotions not having lived the African-American or the Asian-American experience (until someone spoon-feeds the perspective to us and excavates the jingoistic nature of Indianess that has been drilled into our minds through textbooks).

Films are art, and art can never be viewed on its own. Art must be contextual. The context here is representation. Having faces from the Northeast (okay, okay, a Bengali woman and a Tibetan man too) shown on cinema is the context here.

This is a film that needs to be viewed in its larger social, cultural, and even political context of what it means to finally have more than one actor from the region across the screen in a film on a global platform like Netflix.

Axone may not open the doors wide open for actors from the region in mainstream cinema nor will it necessarily usher in larger representation on screen (TV ads where the only Northeast characters are not beauty parlour attendants or call centre reps).

But one can hope that it has allowed us to put our foot on the door and keep it open. Like the smell of the dish, one can hope its impact lingers.

PS: It would seem remiss to not point out to the anger that has been visible across Arunachali Facebook. It is regarding the wedding that takes place remotely over Skype. While most have pointed out that it is not practiced in their tribe, it is something that can best be verified by cultural keepers, our shamans, cultural historians, et al.

If it happens, the director obviously took artistic license and made some changes. Whether that was a wise move since cultural representation is a touchy subject and can ruffle feathers when not approached authentically, is up for debate.

That aside, what many seem to have taken an issue with (but not outrightly saying it in plain language) is what is apparently being ‘implied’ by that wedding scene that if the bride is not present it is OK to wed the sister.

Since art is subjective, it’s fair to say that oftentimes people see in artworks what they want to see. Our interpretation of art is often a window into our own minds.

Axone is streaming on Netflix.

(A small portion of the article has been updated.)

Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?

Women in Nagaland politics: A question of ‘mind-set’

‘Mind-set’, ‘change’, ‘society’, ‘hope’- these or some variation of these words are often repeated in Nagaland when discussions about the role of women in politics (or the lack of it) are held. With the stage set for the state legislative assembly elections scheduled for February 27, those words have begun resurfacing.

Come February 27, a total of 195 candidates will be hoping to secure a place in the 60-seat assembly. Amongst the 195 candidates, there are just five women who will be hoping that this time a woman will be voted into the state legislative assembly.

Home to 16 recognized tribes, the role of women in Nagaland’s political history can be difficult to understand viewing it from an outsider’s perspective. As in several tribal and indigenous communities in the Northeast, women in Naga society have a lot of freedom and are not systematically suppressed by men (or at least it’s not evident at first glance). However, freedom does not necessarily translate into rights, especially property rights where a father cannot pass on his ancestral land to a daughter. That is just how it has been for ages.

Another aspect of life in Nagaland where women seem to have little to say is in politics.

Ever since the first legislative assembly was formed in February 1964, no woman has ever been elected to the House. The only time a woman was elected to office was when Rano M Shaiza became a Lok Sabha MP back in 1977. Since the state’s creation in 1963, just 30 women have contested the state elections and never once managed to win.

This time around though, there is ‘hope’ among some.

Making up just a little over two percent of candidates going to poll, five from a pool of 195 hardly seems like a number to get excited about. And yet, there is an air of excitement, especially among women (unsurprisingly) that this time may be different from earlier years.

Rosemary Dzivuchu, advisor to the Naga Mothers’ Association, said, “we are following the five women candidates with great interest and hope to see women legislators this time”.

Dzivuchu, a vocal women’s rights activist, said that women contesting elections will make a difference, “more so because of being educated and sensitive to issues”.

Tasugntela Longkumer, the assistant manager of the Dimapur-based English language-daily, Nagaland Page, is also optimistic.

“Will Nagaland ever have a woman MLA? Definitely and hopefully by these elections,” she said when asked about the chances of seeing a woman inside the legislative assembly building in Kohima as an elected member.

Hope and optimism aside, why has success in electoral politics remained so elusive for women in Nagaland?

Awan Konyak

Awan Konyak is marking her debut in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak.

Dr Hewasa Lorin, vice-principal of Tetso College in Dimapur, said that people’s ‘mind-set’ needs to change if women are to ever think of being voted into power.

“Ours is a society where elders are always respected and so during village council meetings the voice of the elders overpower those of the younger ones,” she said during a conversation following an academic event at the college recently, adding that such is the norm that men’s voices end up suppressing those of the women’s. Like many others, Lorin also said that times are changing and is hopeful for the future.

Dzivuchu, who is hopeful too, said that women in Nagaland are “not treated at par” with men, clear from the fact that they are “not visible in decision-making bodies or tribe councils or, village councils”.

This, she said, is one of the main reasons no woman has ever won an assembly election and that they are “not given party tickets by political parties or discouraged” from contesting.

This election’s tally of five women candidates is an improvement from the last elections when only two women contested. They are: the BJP’s Rakhila; independent candidate, Rekha Rose Dukru; Awan Konyak of the Nationalist Democratic People’s Party and; the National People’s Party candidates Wedie-ü Kronu and Dr K Mangyangpula Chang.

Their candidacy has been widely reported in the state media since the nominations were cleared. But it still begs the question why there has never been a woman in the legislative assembly.

Rita Krocha, a Kohima-based writer, recently wrote that while a woman in Nagaland “may be allowed to pursue education, follow her dreams, to even marry the man of her choice, we all know with absolute certainty that when it comes to politics (or even the apex tribal organisations for that matter), a woman’s place is never, ever given, or considered with seriousness”.

She wrote that patriarchy is “deeply rooted” in Naga society and the low participation of women in politics is a “sheer reflection of this sad reality”.

Krocha’s take on deep-seated patriarchy within Naga society isn’t something a lot of men tend to agree with. The general discourse being that women in Nagaland are much more ‘free’ than their counterparts in ‘mainland’ India.

One incumbent MLA while appreciating the fact there are more women contesting this time around, said what is an oft-repeated line: that women in Nagaland are not suppressed.

“They run the home but the old thinking was that running the village council is a man’s job. Our forefathers did that but we are not following them blindly,” he said at his campaign office run out of his house.

“Our Naga women are very capable. We have deep-rooted customs and we feel for them,” he said, adding that women in Nagaland are “catching up” when it came to electoral politics. But here too, he is quick to add that they are not discriminated against and that men by nature are proud.

“Mind-set,” he said, “takes time to change”.

Wedie-ü Kronu

Wedie-ü Kronu made a name for herself as an activist and wants to see more women in enter politics.

While there are those who say that women are given same standing as men, not everyone agrees.

“The reality is that it’s a strong patriarchy deep inside,” said Dzivuchu, adding that “times and mind-set (there’s that word again) need to change with the rest of the world in terms of gender equity”.

One (male) journalist referenced last year’s violence that was allegedly triggered after the government’s decision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in urban local bodies as an example of the patriarchal ‘mind-set’.

While activists such as Dzivuchu are blunt and direct in their criticism of patriarchy within society, the women in question take a more measured approach.

Awan Konyak, who is marking her début in electoral politics following in the footsteps of her late father Nyiewang Konyak, said that ‘change’ requires time.

“Nagaland is a state that is deeply defined by its traditional culture and roots and traditionally the role of village leader or elder was mostly held by men because in olden days it meant being responsible for the safety and security of the village and the people,” said the 38-year old.

Now though, she said, security comes “through economic stability, development, and accessibility to services”.

Konyak said that women in Nagaland do not have anything to prove to themselves and that “it’s now for the people to realise this paradigm shift and to embrace gender equality even in politics”.

For a functional democracy she said, women politicians “can and must be a part of the system to ensure that it is a healthy democracy where all sectors and genders of society have a voice”.

Wedie-ü Kronu, an activist associated with the Nagaland Public Rights Awareness and Action Forum contesting the Dimapur-III seat, chooses not want to blame anyone for the low participation of women in politics and is careful with her words.

“Women have been looked as housewives who should take care of the husband and children. Even those ‘lucky ones’ who are in government services are expected to do the same,” she said over the phone while taking out time from hectic campaigning.

Kronu said that not encouraging women to venture outside family matters has become a tradition and a way of life for women who never complained about it.

“These days the mind-set of our women has changed,” she said, using that keyword.

But does she blame men or society at large for the current state of affairs?

“No, no, no. It’s not about blaming society or tradition. Maybe somewhere, somehow we have not encouraged women to come out,” she quickly added.

While she is optimistic about her chances, Kronu said that even if it isn’t her who wins perhaps one of the other four will and that will be a start. She exercised caution here too though, and said that “it’s easier said than done”.

The five women candidates are, in a manner of speaking, creating a new path for themselves and the role of women in politics in Nagaland. However, they aren’t relying on their gender alone to win the elections. The greater common emphasis seems to be, for these women, on bringing change – change in gender equity or otherwise.


This article first appeared in The Citizen.

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.)

 

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A view of Kohima town.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Konyak Naga warriors.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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’.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

Death of a leader and the future of separatism in India’s Northeast 

The death of rebel Naga leader SS Khaplang earlier this month marked the end of an era and the recent announcement of his new successor could mark the beginning of a new era for not just the Naga separatist movement but also insurgency in the Northeast of the country too.

Shangnyu Shangwang Khaplang, often erroneously written as Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, was born in Myanmar near the international border and belongs to the Hemi Naga tribe. 

 ‘Baba’ Khaplang (Image Sourced From Internet)

Having broken away from Isak Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, he formed his own faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland in 1989 to continue the fight for Naga sovereignty but was often engaged in territorial battles with his former comrades who continue to exercise much authority in most parts of the state of Nagaland and the Naga-inhabited areas of Manipur. The NSCN-K mostly has a grip over Nagaland’s eastern districts of Mon and Tuensang and the three districts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh- Tirap, Changlang and Longding- all of which are close to its base in Myanmar. 

Much has already been written about the man who led the rebel group as its chairman for decades. His funeral aside, memorial marches and services have been held in many places including Shangnyu village in Mon district where his family lineage can reportedly be traced back to the ahng (chief) of Shangnu.

His death on June 9 brought several mixed reactions from people across the board. Many in Nagaland called it an end of an era including the chief minister, Dr Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who said that he was “grieved” to learn about Khaplang’s death and called it “tragic considering the fact that the protracted Naga political problem is on the verge of being resolved, and the need for all different Naga political groups to come together to air our views and aspirations to the Government of India in one voice is absolutely imperative”.

Liezietsu’s condolence however was met with criticism from some sections of Indian media which called his reaction “shocking”, failing to fully comprehend the complexity of the Naga movement and the mixed emotions that it evokes in people. 

Multiple “taxation” by the many rebel groups is a constant point of contention among the people in Nagaland and has led to protests by civil society bodies. 

Regardless of how people feel about the issue, Khaplang did command respect. As one Dimapur-based journalist said, Khaplang was “someone who steadfastly stood for the ‘national’ cause, unlike his counterparts, who are more or less in the system now”. 

A day after his death, Union minister of state for home affairs, Kiren Rijiju, said that after Khaplang’s death the “NSCN-K leadership will face a lot of difficulties”. 

Rijiju had also made an appeal to the outfit’s Indian cadre to “return to the mainstream”. 

While not much has been said officially by the Indian government since, the statement has significance considering the fact that Khaplang had pulled his faction out of the ceasefire agreement in March 2015. 

While Khaplang intensified his assault on Indian security forces and formed the United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia (UNLFWESA), a conglomeration of various rebel groups from the region including the Paresh Baruah-led anti-talk faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I), his former friends were busy engaging with the Indian government. 

The Centre had been in talks with the Isak-Muivah faction (NSCN-IM) to find a solution to the decades-long issue and had signed a “framework agreement” in August 2015. While it was welcomed by many people, the details of the agreement are not yet in the public domain. 

Veteran journalist and author, Rajeev Bhattacharyya, who had interviewed Khaplang at Taga in Myanmar in 2011 and has written extensively on the region’s insurgency, feels that the peace process is unlikely to be impacted by “Baba’s” death. 

Bhattacharyya says that the peace process “has been dragging for a long time for different reasons, mainly the unwillingness of the Centre to resolve these issues soon because it is always focussed on short-term goals”. 

The secrecy surrounding the framework agreement certainly does seem to give credence to such thought but many will be waiting to see what direction the outfit takes since the appointment of its new “chairman”. 

Immediately following Khaplang’s death, two names came up as possible successor. Unconfirmed reports had said that Khumchok Pangmi was appointed caretaker chairman but all speculations were laid to rest yesterday when an official statement from the outfit confirmed that Khango Konyak was to take over the reins of the NSCN-k. 

An official statement from the group said that Konyak, belonging to the eponymous tribe from Nagaland’s Mon district, was born on 17 July 1943 at Yangkhao village and was christened Bechung Khango who “at the age of 20 responded to the call of the nation and joined the Naga national struggle in the year 1963 and after successful completion of basic military training became enrolled in the ‘Naga Army’”. 

Konyak is a hardened man who served as the vice-chairman of the NSCN-K since May 2011. He has been part of the movement for over five decades and was one of the early members who had made the arduous trek to China where the group received arms training during the 70s and 80s. 

After his elevation to the top post, Konyak said that he will work “solely in the interest of the Naga people and to defend and uphold the sovereign rights, identity, dignity and honour of our people”. 

It remains uncertain as to what path the outfit will take or indeed what future awaits the several insurgency movements in the region. 

Bhattacharyya says that the challenges that the new leadership will have to work on are to “keep the flock together and continuing with the judicious balance that Khaplang had managed to carve out after years of bloody conflict”. 

While the NSCN’s own leadership issue has been solved, the UNLFWESA is currently without a head as it was Khaplang who led the conglomerate. 

Ultimately the separatist movements will have to be resolved through dialogue and so far the only outfit making any concrete progress on that front is the Muivah-led NSCN. 

Following Swu’s death in June 2016, Muivah has kept a low profile. There are also no indications that he is looking to extend an olive branch to his former friends in the other NSCN factions. 

The government too should be looking to chalk out a plan that works in the long term for the best interest of the largest number of people.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen

Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.

Of dog meat and rice beer

A frothy white brew made from rice and yeast, called Thutse, is served in thick bamboo mugs. On each mug is painted a hornbill’s tail feather, symbolic of the importance that it has in the lives of the Naga tribes. As a low fire flickers and the embers burn slow in the centre of the Morung, a young man brings two plates of meat as accompaniments to our rice beer – wild boar and some dog meat.

Beginnings

Organized by the state government as an annual tourism promotional, the Hornbill Festival is a ten-day event that began back in the year 2000 in India’s north-eastern state of Nagaland. Although it’s held across the capital Kohima, the primary festival venue is the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 12 kilometres from the capital from December 1.

Billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’, the official line is that the Hornbill Festival is a collaborative celebration of all Naga tribes and “a tribute to the great hornbill, which is the most admired and revered bird of the Nagas”. While actual hornbills are hard to come by in the state nowadays – thanks to unabated hunting over the years – the festival does bring together the 16 major tribes of the state in celebrating their rich cultural heritage.

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The only hornbills one might chance upon are these

Since its inception 15 years ago, the festival has grown exponentially and continues to attract a large inflow of domestic and foreign tourists alike. In fact, last year recorded over two lakh visitors.

The Heritage Village at Kisama (which is a portmanteau of Kigwema and Phesama villages, between which two it falls) is spread across a wide sloping hill and consists of houses built in the traditional style of tribal dormitories known as Morungs. Some of the Morungs house the traditional log drums that are beaten to mark festivities.

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A model morung

Reliving the past

The Nagas are a proud people and take a lot of joy in showcasing their rich culture marked by their colourful traditional attires and lively folk dances. While the sight of tourists shoving their cameras into the faces of the tribal men and women as they perform their dances appears invasive, the performers themselves do not seem to mind as they carry on with ease and calm. The richness and diversity of their culture is visible in the many dances that are performed by the tribes, each telling a unique tale.

On the third day of this year’s festival, the cultural performances began with the ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ of the Konyak tribe.

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In the shadows

The Konyaks call Mon district in the eastern part of the state home, and are famed for their warrior skills. In fact, when the British first made contact with the Konyaks, they were surprised to see that the Konyaks (and several other tribes in eastern Nagaland) already had knowledge of making their own guns. The Konyaks were also amongst the last of the Naga tribes to give up the ancient practice of headhunting, i.e. collecting the severed heads of defeated enemies. The ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ explains the reasons why headhunting was practiced among the Konyaks – and while the practice has been long abandoned through the passage of time, they have preserved the tales of yore to this day.

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Old, but not obsolete

A close relationship exists between the people and the land, as is evident in many of the songs and dances. For example, the Aos of Mokokchung perform the ‘Ozu Tasen Tsungsang’, a folk song depicting the habits of birds as they come together at the break of dawn and begin their day. Bare-bodied men in white shorts and headgears adorned with feathers of the hornbill mimic the flapping of wings with their arms and move in intricate but synchronized patterns while kicking up dust with their feet.

 

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The Ozu Tasen Tsungsang of the Aos

 

Of dog meat and rice beer

Much of the Northeast is a meat lover’s paradise. While vegetarian fare does exist in the cuisines of the region, for most parts they act as accompaniments to the meaty affair. And when it comes to meat, Nagaland is king. Be it the regular poultry affair or something exotic like hornets, nothing is off the plate.

Unless told otherwise, when cleaned and cooked, distinguishing dog meat from any other meat is not an easy task. The plateful of dog meat that was served to us looked almost indistinguishable from the plate of wild boar right next to it. It is only when you feel the meat with your fingers and pop one fleshy piece into your mouth that you can tell the difference: it tastes like mutton!

Hornbill 2015

Take your pick

Cooked simply with dried red chillies, ginger and garlic, the meat’s texture is similar to that of quality pork. Even the skin on the meat is reminiscent of a hog’s, but the meat itself tastes very much like that of a goat or sheep.

Now, across the world, consumption of dog meat is generally frowned upon due to the fact that dogs are often referred to as being man’s best friend. But any food item enters the cuisine of a culture for a plethora of reasons; therefore, to say that Naga tribes’ consuming dog meat is somehow wrong is, in reality, an imposition of an outsider’s view of what is proper or improper. And it is, after all, an individual’s choice.

Personally, I did feel a slight discomfort, but not in my stomach or my tongue – only in my head. If I didn’t know any better, I would have ordered a second round. And there are plenty of second rounds that do take place when it comes to the rice beer!

Nagaland happens to be a ‘dry’ state, largely due to the influence of the Church, which views drinking alcohol as sinful. However, throughout much of the state, alcohol can be acquired through bootleggers. At the main festival venue, though, the only alcohol available is Thutse, which goes down smoother than a glass of whisky.

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Frothy goodness

Another locally brewed beer found at the venue is made from millet. Called Yukhu in the language of the Yimchunger tribe that resides in Tuensang district, the millet concoction is clearer than Thutse and delivers a strong punch to the senses.

How to fire a gun

Nagaland is spread across an area of 16,579 square kilometres, and is home to 16 major tribes. The eastern part of the state is home to the Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Chang tribes, who were the last of the Naga tribes to have been converted to Christianity. However, these tribes are ingenious and had developed the technology to produce their own guns long ago.

An oft-repeated story told to tourists is that, during the colonial era, the British were not only surprised to find these gun-wielding tribes but also petrified by them. One story that was overheard at Kisama was that the British feared for their territory, and so decided to introduce opium as a means to subdue the warriors in the east. The veracity of that story aside, the guns are fascinating.

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Smokin’ gun

At the Heritage Village, the Morung of the Phom tribe allows tourists and visitors to fire their aged guns into the air for a small fee. The air at the village is filled with loud bangs each time guns are fired. Excited, I think I should give it a shot, as well.

The attendant at the Phom Morung explains that I should place the gun below the collarbone but above the armpit, and slightly towards the outside of the chest. Since there is no shooting range as such, people are told to aim to the sky (to avoid casualties) and be strong and steady when pulling the trigger.

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It’s no child’s play

With the instructions noted and memorized, I aim for the emptiness of the blue sky and pull the trigger – only to hear a whimper of a ‘pfff’ instead of a ‘bang!’. After two more failed attempts, I decide to leave the shooting to the experts.

—-

Hornbill Festival: Beyond the exotica

The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland is promoted as an annual cultural extravaganza to promote Naga culture that tourists seem to love. But in a changing time and era, there are those who are doing their bit to save Naga culture without putting up a show. 

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Reverend Dr Phuveyi Dozo stands behind a bulletproof glass on the lectern and offers prayers for the success of the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. Soon after he is done, Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village invokes the old gods to bless the annual cultural extravaganza.

The Hornbill Festival began 15 years ago to bring together 16 of the biggest tribes of the state in a cultural extravaganza that has been billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’ by the state government. The idea was to bring some semblance of peace in the state affected by insurgency and usher economic benefits through the promotion of the state’s largely unspoilt natural landscape. The state happens to be the birthplace of the world’s longest continuing separatist movement since when in August 14, 1947, the Naga National Council declared independence from the British, a day before India’s. More than six decades since then, the Naga ‘freedom’ movement continues to this day and recently made a major leap forward when one of the oldest separatist groups, a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thungelang Muivah, struck by a ‘peace deal’ with the Indian government.

While the details of the deal remain shrouded in mystery, what is evidently clear is that the Nagas, and specifically the state of Nagaland and its people, stand at a crossroad today between the new and the old; between treading on a continuously changing new path of life and preserving an older way of living. At the Hornbill Festival, it appears, the two aren’t exclusive of each other.

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Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village prays to the old gods.

 

Christianity arrived in Nagaland over 125 years ago with Baptist missionaries who wanted to offer the headhunting tribal people deliverance. Along the way, several of the old tribal animistic practices such as severing the head of an enemy and getting their bodies and faces tattooed have been lost, discarded and/or discouraged entirely.

India’s latest Census figure puts over 87 percent of the state’s population as following one of the several denominations of Christianity. While only a handful of people, mostly those in villages with very little connectivity, refuse to convert to Christianity, there is a growing sense of wanting to reclaim the past amongst some people in the state.

A few metres away from the main cultural ground at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 10km from the state capital Kohima, are tents where men and women are hard at work sculpting statues and weaving traditional shawls and wraparounds. It is part of ‘Craftscape’ exhibition organised the NGO Tribal Weave.

A brochure for the exhibition reads ‘Meet Naga Artisans at Work- In celebration of the timeless traditions that value the humanity of the handmade’.

The artisans keep themselves occupied with wood, metal, cane, cotton and even salt. A signboard explains how the Zeliangs of Peletkie village extract mineral salt, called Lekie Cai,  from the ‘sanctified’ mineral salt spring through a process involving ‘customary adherence to rituals and offerings’.

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Extracting the ‘Lekie Cai’ is hard work.

 

I catch hold of Tribal Weave founder Sentila Yanger while she does the rounds of the exhibition explaining to people the details of what’s being done. She goes into considerable details about how in the old days the only way to extract dye was to pluck leaves and branches from certain plants before treating them through an arduous process involving boiling, drying and re-boiling to get the right hue.

She says that she is trying to revive that which has been lost over the years with the advent of time. For instance, cotton was once extensively grown to weave fabric before mill spun cloth and yarn were introduced. Making the entire process easier and less time-consuming, the women in villages and towns alike took to the new commercially available threads like fish to water.

Yanger, who founded the NGO in 1989, says that a lot of the old practices have been discarded with the advent of time. And not all of them are confined to heirloom-making or salt processing alone.

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Hoping to salvage knowledge of the old ways, Sentila Yanger takes notes.

 

I bring up the topic of the Angh blessing the event just after the Christian pastor did on the opening day of the Hornbill Festival and tell her I found the juxtaposition interesting, especially since I am also a tribal from Arunachal Pradesh where our society is going through a similar process of transition.

“As an onlooker, I feel sad that we have lost these things”, she says, her voice conveying a lot more than what is said.

Nearby, music emanates from the ‘Artists’ Corner’. Amidst paintings and sculptures created by Naga artists, smack at the centre of the makeshift exhibition stall sits a collection of customised motorbikes. A few steps away, Phejin Konyak engages with visitors who are curious about her yet-to-be-released book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’.

“Who defines what being civilised means?” she rhetorically asks Steve, an American tourist visiting the festival for the first time. Steve begins to steer the conversation towards the Zomia theory when I interject and ask him if he is talking about James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ which appears to excite him. “How did you like the book?” he asks. I confess I haven’t read it but that I am familiar with the theory of how and why people would choose to live in difficult mountainous terrain away from the comfort that the lowlands have to offer.

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Phejin’s book is an attempt to document what she says has already been lost.

 

Phejin’s book, which is set to release in March, is an attempt to explore and explain why men and women of her tribe- the Konyaks of Mon district- got their bodies and faces tattooed and how that practice has also been discarded now.

She explains that the tattoos symbolised rites of passage and accomplishments (including the practice of collecting severed heads of enemies).

The promotional pamphlet for her book says that the “traditional hand-tapped craft of tattooing is vanishing along with the culture of old ways” and that the book is an attempt to capture this practice “before all is lost forever”. However, she isn’t exactly looking to revive the old practices.

“My father always says that we should change with the changing times.”

In the stall next to her, there is someone trying to revive the old tattooing practice- or at least the old tattooing patterns.

Moranngam Khaling, an ethnic Uipo Naga from the neighbouring state of Manipur has been leaving his indelible mark on people as a tattoo artist for the past 11 years. Having worked in New Delhi and Guwahati, he moved to Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub to promote Naga-patterned tattoos amongst a generation of youngsters who seem more inclined to have dragons or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies.

Mo Naga, the name he goes by, says that western tattoo designs are completely foreign to Naga culture and that he is attempting to bring back the tattoo patterns of yore. Things are not easy though and he explains that his move to Dimapur has not been very successful because youngsters are not enthused to get Naga pattern tattoos.

“In two days, seven people have got tattoos made and none of them were Nagas”, he says with visible discontentment.

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Mo Naga leaves his mark.

 

But he is more than happy to give Naga-pattern tattoos to non-Nagas and doesn’t see it as diminishing the symbolic value of why men and women got tattooed in the old days.

“We have no problems selling people from outside our Naga shawls, do we?” he says.

Just then, the roar of the revving from one of the customised bikes fills the exhibit stall when Phejin walks towards us with an expression of curiosity and annoyance and signals with her thumb to ask what’s going on. Mo’s words almost disappear over the sound of the loud engine and I lean in to hear what he has to say.

“I don’t know what this has to do with Naga culture?”

 

Can music change the world?

For four days and nights, from September 24 to 27, twenty-eight musicians spanning across various genres came together for this year’s edition of the Ziro Music festival (ZFM) in the picturesque Ziro Valley in India’s remote north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. In four years the festival has grown exponentially and played host to scores of artists.

While music is still seen by many as a leisure activity, musicians across the globe are using their craft to bring about changes. In fact, this year there were a few musicians who made their festival debut at the festival, and used their songs to promote ideas of peace and change.
Yangon-based punk rockers Side Effect, who performed in India for the first time at this year’s festival, sing about politics and social issues that most in Myanmar are afraid to speak about or against.
Lead singer Darko C, sporting a pair of Ray Bans on the morning of the final day of the festival, said with a tinge of frustration that young people in Myanmar don’t care enough to talk about politics; but he hopes it will change.

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar's Side Effect think its important to sing about politics

Beer for breakfast. Myanmar’s Side Effect think its important to sing about politics.

“If we want to see changes then we must bring those changes ourselves,” he told me, gulping down Kingfisher Strong beer at 11 in the morning.
We spoke extensively about music censorship and how it has been relaxed a little recently thanks to “reforms” in the Myanmar government; but Darko reminded me that the more things change the more they remain the same.
For example, their song ‘The Change’ speaks about the apparent shift to democracy from the military junta that happened in 2011-12, with lyrics such as: Is it time to change, the change we always wanted? Kind of hard to believe that; you know should wake up now.
Their song ‘Meikhtila’ is another example of a socio-politically charged song. Written shortly after the anti-Rohingya riots in which at least 40 people were killed, the song talks about the destruction, and the video for the song was shot in the same town where the violence occurred in 2013.
Another artist who raises issues about socio-political problems through his craft is BK.
The young rapper from Tripura wrote in an email before coming to Ziro that he sings about issues of racism and politics and social problems because “I believe that through music we can bring about the necessary changes in society”.
One of the changes he hopes to bring about is in the people’s attitude about the northeast and its people.
On stage, before livening up the place with his immaculate flow, BK told audiences how he wasn’t fortunate enough to be born in a hospice or a hospital, and that he was born in the jungles of his home state where insurgency and communal rife has torn lives apart for decades.

BK sings raps issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face outside

BK raps about issues such as the marginalisation of tribals in his home state of Tripura and the everyday racism that people from Northeast face in mainland India.

“Music has the ability to change a person’s attitude. Music can touch lives and change lives. Music is a gift from god. So let’s use music to change lives,” he says.

Singer-songwriter Takar Nabam from Arunachal, who is currently based in Delhi, also later told me that music can bring people together and help heal the world.
Post his opening gig, legendary singer Guru Rewben Mashangva from the state of Manipur said that music “has the power to change the world if people sing about issues that matter”.

Rewben Mashangva (left) a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan in the west of country

Rewben Mashangva (left), a Tangkhul Naga singer from the state of Manipur on stage with Rais Khan from Barmer Boys of Rajasthan from the west of country.

Mashngva is a staple in Ziro and is called the ‘King of Naga Folk Blues’. His unorthodox style of guitar playing combined with his gritty vocals have made him a festival favourite and inevitably draws comparisons with Bob Dylan. Little surprise that the legendary folk singer is one of Mashangva’s favourite singers.

Mercy, of the Tetseo Sisters, has a different take on the issue saying that they do not believe in musical activism “but admit that every song has a message”.

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland's Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it

Kuku and Mercy from Nagaland’s Tetseo Sisters believe more in spreading joy with their music. And they look good doing it.

Based out of Nagaland and New Delhi, the Tetseo Sisters have performed across the globe at various cultural exchange events and have used their music to create awareness about voting rights and football earlier.
And while Mercy says that they do not believe in using music to stir controversies, she admits that “music is a powerful medium”.

Even the always jocular never-seems-to-be-serious Daniel Langthasa aka Mr India of Digital Suicide is positive that music can change the world.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Digital Suicide use their music to camouflage the seriousness of issues that they talk about.

Langthasa is based out of Haflong in Assam and has seen his place torn apart by underground violence – and that is reflected in the band’s music.

Their song #OPERATIONALLOUT acts like an outlet for anger and frustration over the presence and damages arising out of the numerous outfits in the region. The song begins with the acronyms of some of the larger separatist organisations.
The lyrics to most of their songs have no more than ten words played on loop, and his songs such as #AKHUNI that expose the hypocrisy of not talking about sex in the second most populated country in the world. Yet, a day after their performance, when I asked if music can change the world, he says, with his most serious face: Yes.