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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



Nagas’ colonial past doesn’t completely suit their present politics. While colonial descriptions on Naga as race in terms of geographical continuity among them are being accepted, cultural affinities between hill Nagas with valley Meiteis are rejected. The absence of cultural affinities of the Manipuri Nagas with the rest of Nagas in their past is being filled in Nagas’ present politics.  

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Political history of the hills of Manipur has been dominantly manifested as the politics of separate territorial identity, which attempts to cut historical and cultural links with the valley population. There have been many accounts on how the Nagas in the state share a ‘contiguous territory’ with those of Nagaland. Some accounts have argued that the state formation in the northeast region of India has arbitrarily divided the ethnic stock called Naga; the perception is that Nagas are divided as the Nagaland’s Nagas and Manipuri’s Nagas. There are also other accounts that argue that it was specifically in late 60s [though in 1947 the demand was there] that the Manipuri Nagas, first among the Mao Nagas and, then, among the Tanghkhuls, had started demanding integration of four hills’ districts of Manipur with Nagaland. Without looking at the historicity of these arguments and examining correctness of different historical accounts [which is impossible to do], the present study is looking at the way in which the identity of the Nagas in Manipur is juxtaposed between two different time frames. The Nagas of Manipur in Northeast India, while demanding integration of the four hills’ districts of Manipur with the Nagas in the neighboring state of Nagaland, have to confront the colonial spatial and cultural ordering of Nagas in northeast ‘frontier’. This linkage with their colonial politics is driven by the desire to opt out of the existing socio-cultural system of Manipur that defines Naga as one of the communities in the state.


The colonial past, here, means not only the colonial description of Nagas, but more the location of latter within a specific spatial order that has hierarchically arranged places and culture. However, the Naga’s past as described in colonial accounts is not a past that suits the politics of their present. The past has to be scrutinized; some accounts of their colonial past have to be rejected and some need to be strengthened. While doing so, the post-colonial Naga’s territorial identity is not simply replicating colonial descriptions about them. They accept some parts of colonial writings and they reject other. The present study argues that post-colonial Naga’s discourse on identity accepts colonial descriptions of Naga as a race, living in a loosely defined geographical space, across the present states’ boundaries. But it rejects those colonial writings that described them as having cultural ties with the plain dweller Meiteis. Here, a distinction is made between the colonial geography of Naga as a race in Northeast region and colonial perception of Nagas in Manipur. In the second sense, the Nagas in the colonial descriptions were sharing geographical space of Manipur as hill dwellers; they were understood with respect to the valley dweller Meiteis. Unlike the geographical spread of Naga as a race in Northeast, cultural [and consequently, geographical] ties between the hills and valley are central to the colonial descriptions of Nagas in Manipur.


In the colonial writings, while the cultural ties among the Nagas of the Northeast were contested, cultural ties of the Nagas of Manipur with the neighbouring valley dweller Meiteis are distinctly given. It is this element of cultural proximity with the neighbouring valley civilisation that is rejected in the present discourse of Naga’s territorial identity in Manipur. However, the colonial politics of generalizing the Nagas in the Northeast by using the category of ‘race’ and, at the same time, locating the Nagas within the orbit of civilisation of the neighbouring valley society, using the geographical category of ‘hill dwellers’ is different from present politics of Nagas in Manipur. The sole political ambition of the present Naga’s discourse in Manipur lies in integrating the Nagas of the state with the Nagas in neighboring states in terms of culture and territory. The idea of Nagas as a race emerged in the colonial imagination as a mechanism to control and simplify the geographical spread of the native Nagas. The present Nagas’ discourse on territorial identity in Manipur use this racial categorization to suit the project of integrating Nagas in Manipur with the rest in Northeast.


The absence of cultural affinities of the Manipuri Nagas with the rest of Nagas in northeast, which were contested and largely missing in colonial writings, is being filled in present politics of Nagas in Manipur. But it rejects colonial description of cultural and territorial affinities of the Nagas with the Meiteis and valley society of Manipur. It is through this rejection that the existing official definition of Manipur as state of different ethnic communities, including the Nagas is being negated. Nagas’ civic organisations re-order the colonial spatial ordering of hills and plain dwellers in Manipur. This is done through construction and reconstruction of the oral and written traditions, poetic imagination of the territory, myths of origin and migration of the Nagas and division of the hills and valley through religious categories. Hence, poetry, oral and written myths and religion become the bases of present Nagas’ negotiation with the colonial past and present Manipuri society. It is because of this construction of primordial Naga identity at present that we use the term ‘primordial present’. It is in the process of this construction that colonial accounts are needed to be scrutinized.


In the present study, conceptually, we take past as something that evolved at present as an essential category while constructing identity of certain groups. In the present study the colonial descriptions of Naga per se do not form the past of the present Nagas [of Manipur]; rather, they offer the materials that constitute past because the descriptions are needed to be grouped for an essential meanings on the history and boundary of the present Nagas. This is despite the fact that there are elements in this past that need to be scrutinized. Secondly, we differentiate two meanings as far as ‘Naga’ is concerned: first is concerned with that of colonial ethnography and second, with that of the meaning of ‘Naga’ as articulated by the civil society organizations. It is the second sense that  forms the major part of this study. In this sense, ‘ Naga’ would mean the territorial grouping of the Nagas in Manipur and neighboring states, as interpreted and represented largely by the leading civil society organisations of the Nagas at present based or functioning in Manipur.


We take the information about the Nagas from a document published by the United Naga Council Working Group. A distinction is made between the civil society organisations and common people with respect to the understanding of location of the Nagas in social and political settings of Manipur and Northeast India. This distinction is needed to maintain because all the Nagas in Manipur may or may not share with the project of integrating the Nagas of Manipur and neighboring states. With this basic distinction, the study selects colonial writings on Nagas collected in the book edited by Varrier Elwin [1969] and the work of T.C. Hudson [1911, reprinted in 1989, 1996] on the Nagas of Manipur. In the present study, the pictures of the geographical space and culture of the Nagas in colonial writings constitute the colonial past of the present Nagas of Manipur. One would find several other colonial writings or texts that talk about the Nagas in the past. However, the present study finds the collected work of Verrier Elwin as an important text that not only speaks many things about the Nagas in nineteenth century, but also serves as a critical text in abridged form for understanding the politics of colonial ethnography. Similarly, for Manipur the work of Hudson serves as an important text that leads towards understanding the specificities of colonial perceptions of the Nagas in Manipur. The paper is structured into two major parts: the first part deals with the colonial descriptions and spatial ordering of the Nagas in northeast India and Manipur, specifically; and second part deals with how these descriptions and spatial ordering are scrutinized, and how the oral accounts, including poetic imagination of the ‘territory of the Nagas’, and myths are used to re-order the geographical and cultural affinities between the hills and valley in Manipur.


Nagas as a Race

To the colonial gaze, the tribe was taken synonymous with race. Colonial ethnographers conceptualized Nagas as belonging to a singular race, while too many cultural differences among them were identified. They also vaguely defined a geographical boundary of the Nagas. However, colonial categorization of Nagas as a race having a territorial boundary with wide cultural differences was not a case of an ethnographer--simply recording natives’ world as it was; rather, it was a case of how the colonial power wished to define a native with the intention of controlling them by assigning names and geographical boundary totally alien to them. In fact, colonial knowledge of the Nagas was largely based on the number of the monographs written on different Naga tribes, particularly in the nineteenth century. Despite the problems of arriving at consensus, as far as the meaning of the word ‘Naga’ is concerned, colonial ethnographers defined Nagas as belonging to a race. Nagas were divided into different geographical zones: for instance, the northern Nagas and southeastern Nagas, northwestern Nagas of Cachar, and southern Nagas of the Manipur-Naga Hills. Despite these different geographical zones of habitation of the Naga tribes, apparently colonial ethnographers had defined these zones into a continuous geographical space. Lieutenant-Colonel R. G. Woodthorpe [1969: 48], in his notes on the wild tribes of the Naga Hills, briefly explained the character of the ‘Naga country’:


‘Although the home of so many diverse tribes, the character of the country is much the same throughout, and it may be described as a succession of long parallel ridges, the general direction being northeast and south-west, divided from each other by streams or rivers of great or less importance, the hill ranges increasing in heights from the low ranges bordering the plains….’


Despite above general character of ‘the Naga country’, Woodthorpe divided the Naga tribes, broadly, into the kilted Angami and non-kilted Nagas. This distinction is mainly done on the basis of cloth worn by the Angamis.i To him, the non-kilted Nagas displayed great similarity to be grouped as a tribe.


Colonial ethnographers’ perception of the Naga tribes was, in fact, dictated by a constant shift between the desire to fix them in a broad geographical limit by establishing certain commonalities and the anxiety to establish different territorial spheres of the Nagas within this whole. This perception is best represented by what S.E. Peal [1969: 103] describes about the Nagas in nineteenth century:

‘…the word “Naga” has a definite geographical limit, and that, secondly, the race so designated is subdivided into literally innumerably independent tribes, who are constantly at war with each other.’ Colonel H. Godwin-Austen also made similar comment [Elwin 1969: 81]: ‘it was remarkable to note in the Naga Hills the very short distances that have to be traversed, where the language is so changed that these village communities can scarcely understand it.’ Even the villagers were not heard of the word called ‘Naga.’ They identified themselves with the villages rather than with the word ‘Naga.’ Woodthorpe [1969: 47] wrote that ‘A Naga when asked who he is generally replies that he is of such and such a village, though sometimes a specific name is given to a group of villages.’


In spite of such differences among the Nagas, colonial ethnographers attempted to differentiate the Naga tribes from the other neighbouring tribes. W. Robinson [1969: 84] wrote about the Naga tribes:


‘There appear to be some mark by which these tribes are distinguished from their neighbours, and some common ties by which they are all bound together as one people, though possibility at present divide into tribes by diversity of dialects. In all probability, this common tie may have descended to all the present tribes, from the great aboriginal stock by which the hills were peopled….’


To Robinson, among all the characteristics that were taken to differentiate the Naga tribes from others, one that was believed to be shared by most the Nagas was the ‘religious superstitions.’ However, dialectical differences among the Naga tribes had led him to assume that many of them might not spring from one common origin [Ibid: 84]. In fact, colonial knowledge of the Naga tribes [both the geographical extent and the cultural affinities] was not only the result of conjecture [for instance, W. Robinson was not quite sure of the cultural markers–inter-marriage system between the warring Naga tribes, the idea of common origin of the Nagas–that, he believed, differentiate the Nagas from the neighbouring tribes], but also a mechanism that controls the world of the Nagas tribes. Hence, it is rightly argued elsewhere that colonialism itself was a cultural project of control [Dirks 1997: 9].


Colonial ethnographers, further, had asserted that Nagas had ‘very vague ideas of either religion or the future state.’ii From Woodthorpe’s accounts of the Angami Nagas that ‘every man is his own master’ to W. Robinson’s description of the Nagas as living under ‘an anarchical state of the country’, colonial accounts attempted to develop the knowledge that the Nagas didn’t have any knowledge of modern form of government. Woodthorpe [1969: 56-57] wrote about the Angamis:

‘They are nominally under the orders of the headmen of their respective villages, who are chosen for their wealth, bravery, skill in diplomacy, powers of oratory… but virtually every man does that which is right in his own eyes, and is a law unto himself….’


Nagas as Valley’s Cognates

Even though colonial accounts gave general characteristics of the Nagas of the ‘Northeast frontier’, the specific features of the Nagas of Manipur were also recorded. It appears that colonial accounts suggest that the Nagas of Manipur have to be understood mainly through their relationship with the neighbouring valley society. Reading the colonial accounts on Manipuri Nagas, such as the works of T.C Hudson [1911, reprinted in 1996], George Watt [1887, reprinted in 1969], R.Brown [1873, reprinted 1975], and J. Johnstone [1896, reprinted in 1971], reminds the present author of what F. K. Lehman [1963] wrote about the Kukis of Manipur. For Lehman [1963: 14-17] Kukis were fallen more into the ‘orbit of Manipuri than of Burman civilisation’. Contrary to Lehman [1963], what is important, at least in our context, is not how society and culture of the hill dweller tribes of Manipur transformed during the course of interaction with ‘more civilized neighbour of the plain’, but the colonial policy of spatial ordering of the Naga tribes in Manipur. Such ordering is done through textualizationiii of the pre-colonial myths of common ancestor or origin myths [from caves or hills]. Following this line, colonial works on the Naga tribes in Manipur by T.C. Hudson and R. Brown may be understood as a process of textualization of the pre-colonial knowledge so as to claim the sole authority to represent the natives and configure their geography and culture. This pre-colonial knowledge comprises of the myths of origin, brotherhood and migration. These myths were central to the colonial project of ordering physical geography of the present state into hills and plain.


Oral accounts of various Naga tribes, recorded by Hudson [1996] linked the Nagas with the valley population .iv This is seen particularly in the origin myths of the Naga tribes. Hudson recorded Tangkhul’s origin myths, one of which talked about common ancestor of the Kukis, Nagas, and Manipuris. He also recorded similar kind of myth among the Mao Nagas [Ibid: 11-12]:


‘Once upon of time there was a jumping march between the three sons of the common ancestor. The Kuki leapt from the top of one range of the hills to the crest of the next, while the Naga, nearly as good, cleared the intervening valley, but his foot slipped and touched the river. Hence, the limit on his ablutions, while the stronger Kuki to this day avoids all use of water. The Manipuri tumbled headlong, which explains his fondness for bathing.’


Hudson also recorded these myths of common brotherhood from the tribes like Anal. Another significant oral tradition recorded by both Hudson and R. Brown, which found resemblance among all the tribes [including the Naga tribes] and valley Manipuris is that they traced their origins either from the cave or hills. Brown