Naga Identity & religion- An important message from the trajectory of Rani Gaidinliu

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Richard Kamei

Richard is from Imphal, Manipur and is currently pursuing PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.

The diverse nature in Naga discourse finds less space especially in the present scenario. It is reflected in the recent fracas around memorials in honour of Rani Gaidinliu to be set up in Kohima where it faced stiff resistance from Naga bodies. The question of Naga identity arises on what defines Naga, and its historicity around Naga nationalism that shaped the present Nagas, and the role of BJP

Few months ago, Rani Gaidinliu’s birth centenary function was inaugurated by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, and the function was also graced by the presence of Finance Minister Arun Jaitely, Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, DONER Minister Jitendra Singh, Nagaland and Assam Governor PB Acharya, Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh and Nagaland CM TR Zeliang. During the function, the PM issued ‘commemorative coin of hundred rupees and circulation coin of five rupees on Rani Gaidinliu’. As a mark of tribute to Rani Gaidinliu, DONER Minister Jitendra Singh announced a sum of Rs 983 Lakh for the construction of Library-cum-Museum in Kohima.[i]

To these announcements especially to library-cum-museum in Kohima, there are strong objections from Civil Societies, Christian Groups and others based out of Nagaland. The Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC)’s General Secretary Zelhou Keyho claimed that Christianity in general does not eulogise any human figure or equated human to God excepting Christ. He further stated that even before Christinaity made its presence in the region Nagas were to themselves and they were neither Hindus nor Heraraka- traditional religion of Zeliangrong. They also viewed that the projection of Rani Gaidinliu as the spiritual leader of Nagas is imposing in nature on the ground that she does not represent Nagas as a whole.[ii] To which, Nagaland chief minister TR Zeliang  has clarified by stating that the construction of museum-cum-library has nothing to do with their accusation of promoting Heraka or Hinduism. He went on to add that the construction of it has been sanctioned and approved in the year 2010 during the tenure of previous government.[iii] Meanwhile followers of Heraka are not happy with the development of resistance against the honouring of Rani Gaidinliu. They accepted and acknowledged about the influence of RSS and VHP on Heraka but they defended it by emphasising on their initiatives like building of schools and hostels, and viewed it as a normal thing which is happening across the country.[iv]

In the past when the Naga movement was at its helm, Christianity was taken up as a shared identity among various tribes that falls under the umbrella of Naga. This embracement remains a contentious issue, firstly it tells us that the work of Christian missionary is an extension of making Nagas submissive to the British as colonial subject and secondly, the slogan ‘Nagaland for Christ’ leaves no room for tribal community or people who chose to retain their beliefs or faiths practised by their ancestors. Another underlying aspect in the latter position is that in the face of dominant culture when Nagaland was annexed with India, the need to embrace Christianity is taken up as means to resist external element especially dominant Hindu culture or to be specific India in the call for its sovereignty. As decades passed by, the movement for sovereignty has also undergone a transformation, so does the role of Christianity in shaping Naga identity among various groups of tribal whose shared values are in the form of culture, tradition, land etc. Amid these there are Naga tribal group like Zeliangrong community who confronted the British colonisation including the spread of Christianity through Heraka movement led by Rani Gaidinliu which was originally propounded by her cousin-Haipou Jadonang. Rani Gaidinliu was a watchdog to keep her Zeliangrong and Naga people away from the influence of external elements – vis-a-vis Christianity. She demanded that their community be left to themselves so that their culture, tradition and identity remain the way as it is. It is on this that, in the time of ‘Nagaland for Christ’, she objected to the spread of Christianity through Christian missionaries. To which Naga Nationalists were not happy with her and the Heraka movement she was spearheading. Several Naga groups held that Rani Gaidinliu is anti-Naga for her stance against Naga National Council (NNC) call for ‘Nagaland for Christ’. They then perceived her stance to be allegedly opposed to Naga national movement as NNC continued to carry forward the cause of Nagas.[v]

Later, given the prevailing situation back then, Gaidinliu finally settled for “a separate Zeliangrong territory within the Union of India”.[vi]  The friction was laid at that time, and now six decades later, it has emerged again propelled by the rising of right wing politics in northeast region of India. The recent fracas of the age old friction can be gauged here if one observes the pattern of the coming in of RSS cadres in Nagaland and its adjoining areas. It is well known that the emergence of right wing propaganda is being emboldened after the coming in of Narendra Modi government. It is in this that the relationship between Rani Gaidinliu and right wing groups can be brought into to give a clearer picture about the current situation in Nagaland. What holds presently in Nagaland is the declaration by Modi during Birth Centennial celebration of Rani Gaidinliu in New Delhi for the opening of Rani Gaidinliu memorial in the form of museum cum library and its statue in Kohima. The news of this does not augur well with local people- especially among people who believe in Naga nationalism. Their resistance are in varied form- one prominent of them is that the embodiment of Rani Gaidinliu’s tribe and her religion is not representative of Naga tribes in Nagaland.  Another of such is that her resistance against Christianity is seen as anti-naga and their reason is that Christianity to them means Naga identity. All these reasons do not hold much ground when so far Zeliangrong falls under the Naga umbrella who are settled in Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, and likewise Nagaland also has multiple tribes. The argument that Rani Gaidinliu does not represent Naga identity is absurd when certain dominant Naga tribe among other Naga tribes have their say in everything. The second one is the coalescence of Naga identity and Christianity, though it formulates Naga identity in itself- this identity actually is a given element to forge inter-relationship among Nagas in formulating its identity. By relying on the linkage between Naga identity and Christianity, it excludes Naga tribe and people who do not follow Christianity or any religion.

It is here that it is important to recall the context on how Nagaland as a state came into being, – it was formed as a mechanism to quell Naga movement. The manner in which it came into being is still debateable but in this context, the formation of Nagaland is a result of the long struggles led by various groups and people.[vii] So in every respect, any Naga tribe has a stake in Nagaland not limited to land and other resources. The same applies to Rani Gaidinliu and her people. At the same time, what the local community is missing out on the step taken by the Modi government is its propaganda to perpetuate the age-old dilution of existing culture. In other terms, it can be seen as the revivalism of the British policy in expanding its stronghold over Naga nation. The move to construct Rani Gaidinliu memorial in Kohima from the point of resurgence of right wing politics is to base its saffronisation politics in Nagaland to counter the hegemonic Christianity. The novelty of Modi Government towards Rani Gaidinliu is laudable for its recognition and contribution to uphold the legacy of Rani Gaidinliu but in complex realities of Naga society it is largely misplaced, for instance, they can also construct the said memorials in Tamenglong District of Manipur- the birthplace of Rani Gaidinliu and New Delhi in addition to Kohima and such move could set the tone right for preservation and looking into the demands made by Rani Gaidinliu.

However, there is a sense that the manner in which Rani Gaidinliu has been usurped as a Naga spiritual leader is seen as a handiwork of larger project for RSS and VHP to spread Hindutva in Nagaland. Perception like this stems from the discourse of Hindutva in making India a Hindu nation. The interface between Heraka religion and Hinduism needs to be critiqued as Heraka was never Hindu before, so are followers of Christianity. The role of government here is said to invigorate scepticism among the Nagas.[viii] There is also a report which says that the construction of ‘temple’ is being planned in Christian dominated state- Nagaland.[ix]

A move like this can bring more division among local populace and can pave way for rift among different communities. The centre if they are concerned about Rani Gaidinliu, they are expected to seek consultation from local people, civil societies, activists, academicians etc., and make a decision which gives equal measure of importance to every Naga tribes. The current step can only embolden the existing differences and create discord among Nagas. The Modi government should rethink over this and take charge of ground realities. Sticking to this for the spread of saffron can bring in consequences which may not help the community whom they are aiming to foster them. Perhaps Nagas should also relook into why Rani Gaidinliu had objected to the slogan ‘Nagaland for Christ’. There is a bigger answer in it, and can be reflected on the ongoing ‘Naga accord’ and the shared histories of varied Nagas and non-Nagas, and contemporary situation. It is suggesting of the fact that one particular group cannot claim to represent the whole Nagas and on its interface with people from adjoining states, natural resources including land, and the future. The need for stakeholders and its equitable representation and participation can amend all the misgivings which have taken place all these decades. The outcome of such can place Nagas in better position to situate themselves by their shared history and to carve a place which is rightful of them honouring every tribe, and acknowledging the importance of everyone in the region.

 

Endnotes:

[i] Commemoration of Rani Gaidinliu’s birth centenary anniversary in New Delhi,  available at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/pm-narendra-modi-honours-legendary-freedom-fighter-from-north-east/, accessed on 20 October 2015.

[ii] Objection raised in Nagaland after the announcement of the construction of memorial-library in honour of Rani Gaidinliu, available at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/pm-narendra-modi-honours-legendary-freedom-fighter-from-north-east/, accessed on 20 October 2015.

[iii] “Zeliang clears air on Gaidinliu memorial row”, available at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Zeliang-clears-air-on-Gaidinliu-memorial-row/articleshow/49206200.cms, accessed on 19 October 2015.

[iv] Process of saffronisation and its influence in Zeliangrong community, available at http://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/Nagas-Divided-over-Modis-Plan-to-Glorify-Spiritual-Leader/2015/08/30/article3000210.ece?service=print, accessed on 19 October 2015.

[v] “Some Nagas are against memorial to Rani Gaidinliu in Kohima. Why?”, available at http://www.nagalandpage.com/regional/3057-some-nagas-are-against-memorial-to-rani-gaidinliu-in-kohima-why, accessed on 20 October 2015

[vi] A brief life history of Rani Gaidinliu, available at http://pib.nic.in/newsite/mbErel.aspx?relid=127060, accessed on 21 October 2015.

[vii] Clarification and contextualisation of the movement of Rani Gaidinliu in response to criticism from Nagaland http://morungexpress.com/rejoinder-to-the-misgivings-on-rani-gaidinliu/, accessed on 21 October 2015.

[viii] Influence of Hinduism on Heraka, and the role of the state in maintaining secular environment,, available at http://morungexpress.com/the-driving-force-of-rani-gaidinliu-celebration/, accessed on 20 October 2015

[ix] Governor of Nagaland is said to have proposed for the construction of temple in Pheren, Nagaland, available at http://morungexpress.com/rani-gaidinliu-idolization-vis-a-vis-article-371-a/, accessed on 21 October 2015.

 

The Article was earlier published in Morung Express December 14, 2015

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Richard Kamei

Richard is from Imphal, Manipur and is currently pursuing PhD from the Tata Institute of Social Science, Mumbai.

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