Nagas With Attitude

Where was I? India? Gay porn and Christian forgiveness?

I don’t know whether there is any way to tie these loose ends together on a Friday afternoon before I lose my head completely, but I’m going to try.

I’ll start with Gandhi:

I do not believe in forced unions. If you (Nagas) do not wish to join the Union of India, nobody will force you to do that.

But as the source of the quote makes clear, Gandhi’s promise was disregarded:

The conflict between the Nagas and India ranks as one of the most persistent and least-known struggles of indigenous peoples in the world today. The Naga Nation, with a population of over 3 million, claims a traditional territory of some 37,000 square miles, straddling the official boundary of India and Myanmar (Burma), from just south of the Chinese border. Following the independence of India and Burma from British control in the late 1940s, Naga territory was divided between the two new states, without Naga consent, and ignoring the Nagas’ own declaration of independence.

Yesterday, the Economist had a fascinating story about missionaries invading the heart of the largely untamed hill country where the Nagas live. I’m always fascinated by anything having to do with this area, as my dad served there during World War II under General Stilwell, and he used to frighten the wits out of me by showing me pictures of severed children’s heads, and telling me true stories about the Naga headhunters. (I’ve posted about this before, with pictures, of course….)

Mentioning the Nagas only in passing, the Economist focused on the Manipuris — and went a bit out of its way (IMO) to poke fun at invading Missionaries with eating disorders (assuming the account is not exaggerated):

ONLY one kind of foreigner slips through Manipur‘s tight permit regime, and, as I was leaving my hotel today, I encountered a herd of them: Christian missionaries, mostly like this lot, American Pentecostals, come to dispense the Good News and greenbacks to Manipur’s hill-tribes.

After a few days among trim Manipuris, I am dumbfounded by the sight of these soul-savers. Not content with the bread of heaven, most look as if they have devoured heaven’s grits, ribs, wings, double-topped pizzas and fries, super-size. They are ivory-white and enormous. As I wait for the evangelists to clear a narrow stairwell down to the street, they literally block out the sun. One extra-large middle-aged lady requires a bell-boy to hoist her down the steps.

The hill-tribes, Nagas, Kukis, Paites and others, were converted to Christ by 19th-century British missionaries. Considered “untouchables” by their neighbors, the Meitei valley-dwellers, they needed little persuading to quit Hinduism and its caste-system–such is the history of most of India’s 25m Christians. In addition, denied the meager economic benefits of British India, Manipur’s tribes might also have considered Jesus the best way to the white man’s wallet, and so it remains.

Several hundred American and European missionaries each year are given permits for Manipur’s remote highlands, where they dispense millions of dollars as they please. By contrast, Medecins Sans Frontieres, that rare thing, an efficient international NGO, is restricted by a rolling 10-day permit to Churachandpur and Imphal, where it treats AIDS patients.

Outside the hotel, after a biblical struggle, the last of the colossal evangelists succeeds in summiting the steps of a waiting blue tour-bus, and its doors close. Waving gaily behind the windows, they drive away to plant new churches in the hills, and perhaps some schools.

The “biblical struggle” business sounds a bit condescending. And the implication that the Nagas gave up Hinduism is just wrong, as the Nagas were traditional animists who converted to Christianity, and who overwhelmingly oppose Hinduism. But never mind. After Ann Coulter’s lesson in tolerance for the week, I don’t think I should be taking offense at anything anymore — especially if that means siding with one group of “noble savages” at the expense of another, or protesting the ridicule of overweight missionaries I have never met.

The problem is, because of my childhood, I have an admitted (if spooky) pro-Naga bias.

So when I read the Economist I was disappointed, dammit, because I wanted to read about Nagas, not some wimpy lowland Hindu tribe that’s allegedly being pestered by Pentecostalists who can’t make it up a flight of stairs. (How they’re supposed to evangelize primitive hill people I do not know. But again, I don’t want to fall into being judgmental….)

Now that my bias has been admitted, I’ll move along. The Nagas have a long and turbulent history as warriors. Over the centuries, they would often fight with other Naga tribes, and the trophies were of course heads. Not long ago, the minority Nagas in Manipur fought a war with the Kukis, and they’re now said to be in a “fragile alliance” with the Meiteis (the group the Economist describes as currently under Pentecostalist siege). Whether the Indian government has a selective policy about allowing missionaries (animist conversions yes, Hindu conversions no) is anyone’s guess, but they’ve been accused of continuing the same divide-and-conquer strategy the British once used in the same area.

There’s so much irony involved here that it’s tough to know where to start. The Nagas would I guess have to be called ex-headhunters, as they’ve not only been converted to Christianity, but as headhunting has been banned since 1991, it’s faded into a sort of collective memory of the past. But the tattooed, former headhunting elders are greatly respected.

Despite their conversion, the Nagas today don’t seem to be exactly non-violent, although just about every source I can find is biased in one way or another. Some are pro-Naga, some are pro-Manipuri, and some are anti-Naga and anti-Christian, such as this Hindu activist:

As we know, South Korea went from 80% Buddhist to 50% Christian in one generation. Mizoram and Nagaland are now 99% Christian. The Naga siege of Manipur recently was a clear religious battle: Manipuris have refused to convert and so they were being punished by the (ex-headhunter) Nagas. Once again, praise be to the First Prime Minister of India (Registered Trademark) who invited Australian and New Zealand missionaries and gave them free hand in the northeast.

I think that might be a little harsh and judgmental, but these days I’m not sure of anything. Anyway, the Nagas have not only become Christian, they’ve become literate. And in what seems like barely a generation or maybe two at the most, they’ve gone from the Stone Age to the Internet Age.

I kid you not.

I found a number of examples, but the following was written by a tough-talking Naga who calls himself “Boss Man,” posting on Kuknalim — “a home for Nagas on the net”:

The Naga soldiers are just the top in the world – much more than Gurkhas and even US Marines. They can die for their cause standing.

You Meiteis are the most cowardly race on earth. Do you know how the Britishers easily defeated the Meitei’s with your raja in no time? There also, the war was prolonged a little bit because there was a Naga to hinder it called General Thangal who helped you all out of pity. Where are your UGs fighting [or is it hiding only and not fighting?]? Are they staying among the Meiteis and fighting in your valley called Sanaleibak [your peanut valley] or are they hiding inside the long pants of the Nagas in upper Burma under Big Boss Khaplang. You people are taking shelter with us even now as you speak with big mouth.

We Nagas live, fight and stay in our Nagalim territory. Our message to you all losers is this: Get lost if you don’t like us and don’t want to support our cause, we Nagas don’t need you. We can fight on our own our cause as we have been doing for more than half a century. We are fighting Asia’s longest bush war. And Indian soldiers are tired and afraid of fighting us and therefore they are having serious peace talk with us. We can fight another half century.

Don’t speak to us of plural society. That is shit to us. When the Burmese attacked you, where were you all? You ran as usual to the Nagas for shelter. And you called as “Seven Years Shelter in hill villages”, not your ungrateful tricky ‘Seven Years Devastation.”Of course, you all were devastated for as long as 7 years by the Burmese.

The Nagas fought off the Burmese for you as you take humble shelter among us and that’s how you are staying in your peanut valley once again. But these time, we 4 million Nagas [living in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh] may decide to attack the 1.5 million microscopic minority in the peanut valley and finish you all off.

By the way, in ancient times you rightly say that Nagas fought one village against another. Yes, that’s because we are warlike.

And even single villages were not afraid to fight a war with raja of the whole Meiteis. And the Raja of the whole Meiteis has a hard time defeating even a single powerful village in ancient times. Because Nagas are a fierce and brave race. Even two – three villages were able to defeat the Meitei raja very often.

That’s how weak you are actually. Read your history to find that.

All the Nagas never combined to fight a war with the Meiteis. Now Nagas have awakened and we are ready to fight unitedly. You Meiteis will be finished and conquered in no time in your peanut valley.

I think that might be called a fair warning, but I can’t be sure. Boss Man certainly sounds knowledgeable about his people’s history.

“Meiteis” is a word for Manipuris. I hope it’s not a derogatory word, and I hope readers will forgive my cultural insensitivity if it is. (But I don’t think it is derogatory, as Wikipedia uses it, and Wikipedia would never use derogatory language, would they?) There’s more here in pdf, and another board discussion here (and I am not endorsing any of the opinions expressed at either link!)

Today, the Nagas are 90% Baptist — and Nagaland has been described as “the most Baptist state in the world.” (Sorry, but Mississippi is only number two.)

This Naga site supplies more background about Baptist evangelizing, as well as the proud history of the Nagas in helping fight the Japanese in World War II:

On the other hand, the American Baptist Missionaries started their station at Molung among the Ao tribe and started educating the Nagas and evangelizing the Naga people. Education was an integral part of the mission and converts were educated in their schools. Literacy was the stamp of authority that gave Christianity supremacy over traditional customs and belief. What the missionaries taught was to have a drastic effect on the traditional social fabric of Naga society. The missionaries had little understandings of the working Naga society and made little or no effort to look beyond the surface. When they saw, using beliefs as a yardstick was promiscuity, heathenism, barbarism and ignorance, converts were compelled to make a complete break with the tradition; they were forbidden to drink rice beers, take part in traditional singing and dancing, sleeping in the Morungs, or participating in any of the traditional co-operative activities of the community. They were actively encouraged to emulate their converts in every ways, dress included and to renounce their heathen brethren. The missionaries are even believed to have destroyed traditional artifacts. Many of the administrators of the time disagreed with the missionaries’ methods and feared they were destroying Naga culture. They would have preferred Naga culture unchanged. They failed to realize that by romanticizing the Nagas as noble savages they were being a paternalistic as the missionaries. They themselves were not blameless. Their administration had introduced a market economy that brought an end to Naga self sufficiency.

Let me interrupt right there and refer readers to the Glenn and Helen Show’s podcast interview with Claire and Mischa Berlinski. The latter’s book — Fieldwork — is all about “historical conflicts between missionaries and anthropologists.” The subject of the interactions between the Nagas and their neighbors, and the relative roles played by different missionaries over time so intrigued me (and so reminded me of the interview about the Berlinski book) that I had originally titled this post “Anthropomissionaries and Baptist Headhunters.” A ghastly title, to be sure, and I would have left it that way had not the recent Coulter controversy convinced me that I should try to come up with something catchier.

To continue with my hopeless cultural relativism, what about the missionaries? Would the anthropologists grant that they too have a culture? Or are they to be seen simply as antimissionaries with no culture worth preserving?

Who gets to decide these things? Are the Nagas less worthy than their Hindu neighbors, even though the former are more primitive and the latter more civilized — simply because the Nagas are considered “Christian”? (Why would the Economist say they were converted from Hinduism, anyway?)

Might the Nagas be getting the short end of the stick because they are seen as both too “primitive” and too “Christian”?

Or might it be that their proud warlike nature is considered somehow less than desirable?

Again, who gets to decide these things?

Back to the text, and to World War II:

….Nagas were to come into even more contact with the outside world and new ideas with the coming of the two world wars.

First World War did not have much impact on the Nagas, though Naga warriors were recruited for the Labors corps in France, the response of which was remarkable. The Second World War, however, had a more devastating and far reaching effect. The Japanese penetrated up to Kohima under the Naga Hills District and the Nagas faced the sufferings, dangers and disaster of the modern battle. The Nagas gave invaluable support to the allied forces. Despite floggings, torture, execution and the burning of their villages, they refused to aid the Japanese in any way or to betray the allied troops, instead they guided the allied columns, collected information’s, ambushed the Japanese patrols, carried out supplies and helped the wounded in the battlefields.

I can vouch for that based on what my father told me. They were tough, proud warriors, but if you could win them over, they were loyal to the death.

The two principal battles in the area (Kohima and Imphal) are described here; unfortunately there’s not much about the Nagas. However, these were not minor skirmishes. The Japanese advance was stopped, and Supreme Allied Commander Lord Mountbatten compared the allied victory to Thermopylae:

Louis Mountbatten latter described the Allied victory at Imphal and Kohima as “probably one of the greatest battles in history… in effect the Battle of Burma…. [It was] the British-Indian Thermopylae.”

I found more here, and after hours of web research, I managed to find confirmation (from a non-Naga source) of what my father had always told me — that the Nagas helped kill Japanese:

….And then there was “the forgotten army” fighting in the Far East. Just as D-Day was decisive in the war in Europe, so the Battle of Kohima, being fought at exactly the same time in north-east India, proved to be the turning point in the Burma Campaign.

Earl Mountbatten called it “one of the greatest battles in history. . . in effect the Battle of Burma. . . naked unparalleled heroism”.

Henry Crook-Rumsey, of Newton Aycliffe, was there, fighting in the Naga Hills, hacking his way through paddy fields, and surviving on rations dropped every five days from the air.

“I boxed at 12st 12lbs before the war, and came out at 7st 2lbs,’ he said. “Most of us had dysentery and tropical diarrhea, and there was malaria and dinghy fever.

“Our main object was to cut the Japanese communication lines. The local people, the Nagas, were fantastic: they were our guides, our spies and our interpreters. They were still headhunters. I remember going into one village and they had five Japanese heads on posts. They would tell us where the Japanese were, and we would sit and wait for them, usually with machine guns.”

That’s what I call Nagas with Attitude.

Don’t mess with the Nagas.

Nowadays, they seem to be substituting monkey skulls for the human variety.

For now….

But how many young American men can proudly pose like this in front of granddad’s skull collection?

Christians? Noble Savages? Victims of missionaries? Victims of a heavy-handed Hindu bureaucracy continuing divide-and-conquer British tactics despite Gandhi’s promises?

I honestly don’t know how to characterize the Nagas. I find myself sympathetic to their goal of independence and self determination, and I find myself liking them, though.

(I guess it runs in the family.)

(Courtesy: Classical Values)

*You may visit for further readings.


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