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Living for Culture, Dignity and Self Worth

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  • November 03, 2015

    It was warm day with a hint of rains in the horizon. The year was 2010. I was in Dhansiripar, Karbi Anglong district of Assam in the northeastern part of India. Surrounded by the Barail mountain ranges, and lush green forest, Dhansiripar (by the river Dhansiri) in Assam had witnessed ethnic conflicts between the local Karbi and Dimasa ethnic groups since the 1990s. In 2005, this clash had turned bloody with severe violent clashes killing many, between two armed groups, the United Peoples’ Democratic Solidarity (UPDS) representing the Karbi ethnic group and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) faction representing some sections of the Dimasa community led by Jewel Gorlosa. Five years hence, while the situation of violence had calmed to an extent, the atmosphere continued to reek of the hidden tension. As I got down from the train in Diphu, the main railway connected town in this distant remote area of India, I saw a group of young men and women walking towards me. They were members of the other faction of the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) led by Dilip and Pronab Nunisa, an armed faction that had signed a cease-fire with the Government of India in 2002. I was escorted by this group in a vehicle to meet their leader, Dilip, and from thereon was taken to one of the designated camps marked out for the outfit by the Government as part of the cease-fire agreement.

    In the camp, I met young armed cadres (aged 16 to 19), in fatigues, guns in hand, and slightly surprised to find me there. As I spoke to these young men and women, members of an armed rebel group fighting for political, economic and civil rights for their ethnic community, I wondered what could have motivated such young minds to risk such a dangerous venture. And so I asked. And the answers were revealing of why men and women in remote areas, especially belonging to minority communities take up arms. For one, to the young armed cadres I spoke to, it gave them a sense of belonging in an area where they felt physically insecure and their rights entitled to them as part of democratic India, almost invisible. They grew up feeling disempowered in their remote hill villages with little modern amenities. None of them saw a decent school education, had a hospital nearby where they could take the sick and elderly, almost no public transportation except some rickety buses, and little avenues of employment. In this situation, when the rebel army came calling in smart jeeps showcasing gun and money, their parents felt that at least they will have a future. For another, membership in a rebel army, which was highly competitive in terms of recruitment, offered a monthly income which they could send back home. The third reason offered by some of the young cadres was that they genuinely hoped that the armed group they were fighting for would succeed in getting a better life for them and their family. Finally, some said it offered them social bonding and networks that did not leave them alone when they felt the need for connection.

    To my surprise, some of these thoughts and ideas were reflected in my visit to Uluru (Ayers rock) and the northern territories in Australia a year earlier in 2009. As I walked around Alice Springs, far away from Melbourne, in the red heart of Australia, I was drawn to the colourful, lively, indigenous paintings. However, as I travelled away from Alice Springs and towards Uluru, I met some aboriginal communities and their stories of their existence, identity and fight for dignity took me back home to where I came from: northeast India. One of the aborigine leaders recounted how he was forcibly taken away from his mother and picked up by the Australian state and raised in its boarding school without any consent from him or his family. The idea, he said, was to ensure that he lost touch with his aborigine identity and adopt a forced Australian identity. One of the deepest anxiety for the aborigine community was how tourists and adventurers were treating their sacred rock, Uluru. According to the tradition of the Pitjantjatjara tribe, Uluru was created by their ancestors during a period they called “Dreamtime”, and the caves and rock paintings in Uluru represent their ancestral spirit. Hence, the community requests tourists and climbers not to climb the rock as that shows disrespect to this spirit and instead walk around the rock. As I walked towards Uluru in 2009, an old Pitjantjatjara tribe elder requested me not to climb the rock and explained why. As he was recounting how his ancestral spirit resided in the rock, we both heard loud shouts above us and as we looked up, we saw three climbers jumping in joy on the rock as a celebration of their success in reaching the summit. I could feel the silence from the aborigine elder and when he looked at me, I saw a tear of sheer dejection threatening to spill over his cheeks. And then as I was leaving to walk around Uluru determined to show respect to his ancestors, he called out to me and said, “perhaps the world is for those who have power and might”. And I replied, “only if you let them break your spirit”.

    So, coming back to Northeast India, the ethnic conflicts that have plagued this region have been mostly about rights; the right to greater political representation; the right to land; the right to education; right to preserve ones culture; right to education. These are not much to ask from a democratic state based on a secular liberal constitution and group rights. The issue with indigenous and ethnic communities is not about the rights they aspire for; it’s more to do with the state institutions in place that guarantee it to them. For instance, in some of the conflict affected areas of northeast India, especially in the remotest of villages, the face of the state is almost nonexistent. Hence, all that people get to see are corrupt officials coming once in a while or the rebel groups who actually seem more present and visible then representatives of the state. Hence, as I walked through some of these areas, the biggest insight I give back to those who are in charge of public administration is that: be visible, demonstrate that you care for peoples’ lives, their futures, their children, their well-being, their sense of dignity.

    This lesson in dignity and self-worth, especially pride in one’s culture was something I very deeply felt in my recent visit to Rotorua in New Zealand, the seat of Maori culture. There, as I partook in Maori festivities and the Haka, one Maori gentleman took me aside and told me that “while we may not have remained completely pure in our indigeneity with inter-marriages, at least our way of life, our crafts, who we are, who were our ancestors is something we have been given the right to preserve by the New Zealand state”.

    It is in this spirit of preservation of culture and dignity that ethnic conflicts have sustained themselves for so long in northeast India. Recently, a Naga framework agreement was signed between one of the oldest armed ethnic group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim led by Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu (NSCN-IM) and the Government of India. In the signing ceremony, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi stated that the framework agreement will go a long way to preserve the culture, history and dignity of the Naga people. While the political rights of Nagas have been guaranteed to an extent with the establishment of a separate Nagaland state within India in 1963, the angst of many Nagas is that most of their ethnic kin are left outside that state inhabiting neighbouring Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, and Myanmar. One has to wait and see how the demand for territorial unification of Naga inhabited areas play out as it is being fiercely resisted by the other states. Beyond these thorny issues, the Nagas could take some clue from the Maoris who despite living in different areas of New Zealand have ensured that their culture and language is preserved to an extent. And the Haka (their traditional ancestral war dance) is the main dance of the ‘all blacks’, the popular New Zealand rugby team. And that kind of acceptance and visibility in popular culture matters in the long run for the preservation and remembrance of ethnic culture and indigenous customs.

    This article was originally published in Live Encounters Magazine.