THE CONFLICT IN NAGALAND :THROUGH A POET’S EYES

 

Written in September 2004 and published in Skarven magazine, Tromsø, Norway

(Dr.Easterine Iralu is Kaka D.Iralu’s wife)

 

Dr.Easterine Iralu

 

Poetry has always been the language of the soul. At its most beautiful it mirrors the joy, the glory and the peace that the soul of man can fathom. At its darkest, at its most barren it proclaims the desolation of the soul. I cannot tell the story of Nagaland and the conflict that has been her lot, in prose. For the story of Nagaland is the story of the Naga soul on a long, lonely journey of pain, loss and bereavement, a silent holocaust in which words seldom were enough to carry the burden of being born a Naga. Therefore, I shall use poems to try to tell the Naga story.

 

Geographically, Nagaland is located between 250- 60’ and 27 – 40’ latitude north of the equator and between the longitudinal line of 93- 20’E and 95 – 15’ E. The total Naga ancient lands cover an area of about 100,000.00 sq km. These lands are occupied by over 66 Naga tribes. The country lies landlocked between China to its north, India to its south and east and Myanmar to the west.

 

In the past second world war era, Nagas also declared their independence on 14th August 1947 – one day prior to India’s declaration of her own independence. This Naga independence declaration was communicated to both India and the UN through written telegrams. This declaration was done after submitting six memorandums to the departing British Government and ten memorandums tot he incoming Indian Government before the transfer of power took place on August 15, 1947. In all these lengthy memorandums Naga rights to national sovereignty were clearly stated based on geographical, historical and political facts.

 

However, despite all these memorandums and political and legal actions that Nagas had undertaken, in October 1954, Indian sent in over 54 thousand Indian troops and forcibly annexed Nagaland to India.

 

The Naga Hills have been occupied by the Naga people as early as 150 AD where Claudius Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemy, Geographia vol VII (ii) p. 18) mentions their existence. The threat of occupation and annexation has always checkered the history of the Naga Hills. In 1228 AD, the Ahom rulers led by King Sukhapha and his great army were repulsed in their efforts to conquer the villages of Nagaland. Deterred, the Ahom kings, who were from Upper Burma and Western Unan withdrew and marched into Assam where they ruled for 600 years. Between 1832-1947, the Imperial forces of Britain struggled to establish an uneasy rule over proud tribesmen who performed their cultural duty of protecting their lands at great cost to themselves and the invading forces. The British Government managed to establish administrative posts in parts of the Naga Hills but there were large tracts of land where other fierce tribes lived that they could not bring under British control. 1947 was a tumultuous year for both India and Nagaland because Britain ceded the Naga Hills to India on her departure from her South Asian Empire. However, a letter had been sent to the UN by Naga political leaders to state the declaration of Naga Independence on 14th August 1947. Following this a war was unleashed where official statistics puts the number of Nagas killed at above two hundred thousand from the 1950s till the present time. The real figure exceeds that. Villages and granaries were burnt, women raped and mutilated, men tortured and killed, children smashed to death. Starvation and Disease destroyed a third of the rural population.

 

A cease-fire was declared in 1964. Another cease-fire is in effect now between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM), one of the factions of the Naga Army. Infighting among the Naga factions has claimed Naga lives in recent years since 1980. Meanwhile the Peace talks continue between Indian and Naga leaders. The talks have been going on for the last seven years. Killings between Indian soldiers and Nagas have reduced though there have been stray cases of Army excesses leading to civilian deaths. However, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has been in force from the beginning of the conflict which empowers the Indian Army to arrest and kill on suspicion, any Naga citizen. So Nagaland continues to be a battlefield where innocent citizens are caught in the crossfire between the two armies and victimised by unjust Indian laws.

 

 

The 1950s were dark desolate years where many Naga men joined the Naga Army to fight Indian aggression on their lands. Outnumbered, they witnessed the desecration of their women, their lands and their places of worship. Some members of the Naga army marched to China and Pakistan for arms. Those who stayed on Naga soil lived through the horror of these years and wished they had never been born:

 

They brought in their dead by night

Their proud warriors, their mighty warriors

The brave beloved of the gods

To rest under troubled skies

And battle-scarred lands

That some portion of a vanquished field

May forever remain Nagaland, forever Nagaland.

 

The golden fields, they lay unreaped

As blood freely flowed

And mingled with the rains

And stained the virgin soil

Like a thousand scarlet sunsets

Back of the blue, blue hills.

 

Their hearts too grieved to heed the harvest

Maidens ceased song and mourned the brave ones

And blindly followed a broken people

Who turned their backs

And slowly walked away

From a burning village, a burning village.

 

And there were some in foreign lands

Who still spoke of Kelhoukevira

While her fields lay barren and desecrated

Her songs sacrificed to the wind

Her warriors to the Great Spirit

They trampled her silent hills

And squeezed the life out of her

And washed their guilt in her blood.

(Kelhoukevira, 1982)

 

No village escaped the scarring of these years. There are few or no poems for the thousands of men who have died fighting for freedom, warrior-sons of their villages. In the worst of the war years, the horror has taken us beyond poetry, beyond words and into silence; the deep silence of inexpressible pain can be the only tribute to those who died for our lands.

 

The fate of the Naga women was one worse than death: rape and sexual mutilation. Many victims died. But for those who survived, life was dark and unbearable. Young 18-year-old Rose, one of the many victims of mass rape, killed herself. She had been engaged to a young man of her village. Four other girls, all minors, were brutally raped by the Indian Army upon the altar of the Yankeli village church. This incident is referred to as the Yankeli incident, extracted here from a longer poem:

 

The tears, the bitter tears

Of a people for amnesty

Professed, generous, on their return

That was no amnesty

But camp of concentration

Concentrating

On the strangulation of Naga spirit

By torture, rape and genocide

Of Naga man, woman, child, all

In whose veins flowed blood Naga.

 

Tears of a people forced

To witness the methodical

Desecration of their God’s abode

By the pain, the blasphemy

Of their virgins done to death

Upon the altars of churches

Transformed

By India’s soldiers to altars of lust.

(Our Story, 1997)

 

After this desecration, the church was abandoned by the village people.

 

The cease-fire between India and Nagaland has not meant the cessation of killing. Factionalism in the Naga Army and the resultant infighting continues to claim Naga lives. A visiting poet once commented, “These hills are sodden with sadness” (Desmond Kharmawphlang, 1993). The hills of Nagaland rise out of rich, dark, loamy soil. In a great irony of life, these hills seem fated to receive the blood of its men prematurely in every generation. The first killings from infighting evoked poems of veiled protest against the brutal gunning down of members of rival factions and the abuse of Christianity in slogans used by some of the factions:

 

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition

I’ve got him in my sights

There’s a kid on his right

Clinging to his hand

And there’s a young woman on his left

In her jeans and blue T-shirt, pretty,

Must be his wife, lucky bugger

Damn, they’re going into a shop

There’s way too many people

But what the heck, he’s the enemy

Does it matter if a few get hurt too

When we’ve got our man?

Okay Guy, this is for all the others

And this one is for Nagaland

Nagaland for Christ, remember?

Praise the Lord, we’ve eliminated another traitor.

(Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition, 2004.)

 

It did not stop the killings and the gun began to be pointed in a different direction, towards those who dared say that it was wrong to kill. The poetry of protest has now been muzzled by fear. Fear kills poetry. Fear takes away the sweetness from life:

 

We were proud and we were true

A race of men like you

We, too, were once, free

Children of those spaces

Of sky and mountain range and rock-bound river

Bequeathed us by the Great Spirit of these hills.

The white man came

And then the brown man came

And fifty years it has been now

That they have been telling us

We are not our own.

How many men, how many women

How many children they have killed

For crying out freedom I cannot recall

For these are not the things

Out of which one can make

Songs or poems or dreams.

Betrayed, we have learnt to betray

My brothers are riding out

To seek my brothers’ lives

And I stand here alone

Waiting, in the shadows

Afraid, of life, not death.

Bury my heart too

At Wounded Knee.

(After reading “Wounded Knee”, 1998)

 

Life fills us with trepidation now.

As a people, we know where to go from here. Forgive the past, reconcile, come together in love and rekindle the right struggle. But present day Nagaland is also a battlezone of ideologies. Human greed for power and wealth prevents reconciliation and abuses the fight for national freedom.

 

This is the Naga situation now – a great right cause is still wandering in the wilderness of political betrayal and suppression by India and the curse of ideological divisions among Nagas themselves. As well, the advantages that certain groups grasp over these divisions plunge the struggle into further wildernesses of the spirit. What mirrors the angst of the conflict best is probably poetic experience. The beginning of the conflict evoked very profound feelings – the poetry bled, touching chords in non-Naga hearts. But the years of infighting have callused poets to human suffering and dimmed the tenor of Naga poetry. A hard, numbed and cynical poetry has been its response. Escapism is a strong element in some poets where there is a studied refusal to write about the pain engendered by the conflict.

 

A terrible casualty of the conflict has been that part of the Naga spirit which loved song and dance and the intense romance of folk literature. The folk poems testify to a bygone era which richly celebrated life and loving. This is seen in poems like these:

 

(i) Nehiheü no

 

Permit us to court Nehiheü

If you stop us, we will ever regret it

So permit us to court Nehiheü

Too soon we shall go our separate ways

Too soon and we shall ever regret

So permit us to court Nehiheü

In our lifetime we will jest together

For we can jest no more when we are dead

The way of death is long

The way of life is short

Sohi-mojo-sono-diyole.

 

(ii) We lu teigei

Putsoü’s brother, you are like the dew fallen from heaven

And collected in the seno leaf, so fair are you.

“The best carnelian necklaces become undone

but I don’t believe my lady love’s words will become undone.”

Yurütso is coming back from bathing

His hair spread out, jesting as he comes

You placed your gift of twisted cotton

Into your loved one’s hands

Eagerly expected one, you have reached now

I want to stand upon Japfü’s mount and then go down to Therü

With Tsieu and be walking in the plains.

 

(iii) Nie la viho

We are blest by you

Go and dream good dreams

And return soon with ululation

Ours shall be the joyous bright days of life

Do not forget these our companions

We are blest by you

May your dreams be good.

 

Poetry permeated the flow of folk life and any instance of beauty generated poems. So there are poems on the charm of moonlight, trees in spring, green fields of paddy, sunlight in the forests, dew collected in leaves, almost every moment of natural beauty is captured and celebrated in poem-songs. Life was lived close to the rhythms of the natural world and a very important aspect of folk life was the seeking of blessings. The many rituals of religious life were performed to invoke the blessings of the spirits and of the creator-deity. Courtship was an elaborate exchange of poetic intercourse. All this was possible in a socio-cultural environment that fostered courtesy and respect for all forms of life. But the conflict snuffed out the genius of Naga songsters who had produced some of the most beautiful songs in the 1950s. Overtaken by war, they were denied the opportunity to found a niche for Naga music, art and literature in World art.

 

And now poetry is dying in us, even as the spirit of man, flickering like a candle, is blown out again and again.

There are gunshots deep in the night.

There is blood on the streets still.

But in our hearts is a dull deadness.

Words fail to define despair.

Silences have usurped speech.

We’re waiting for silence to scream.

So that the guns may be silenced and fear obliterated.

A nation has been waiting fifty-seven years to be born.

The exodus is not over.

This is not the destiny of the Naga people.

What we have now is not what we want.

They have killed our dreams.

But our dreams stubbornly refuse to die.

We dream of the liberation of Truth.

Perhaps, someday.

The Naga soul is yet to reach journey’s end.

 

 

Notes:

The poem Kelhoukevira is taken from the first volume of poetry of the same name, Easterine Iralu, 1982.

After reading “Wounded Knee,” appears in The Windhover Collection, Easterine Iralu, 2001.

Praise the Lord and pass the Ammunition, Easterine Iralu, 2004 is being published in the AKD magazine 2004.

Our Story, Easterine Iralu,1997 appears in Nagaland and India ,the Blood and the Tears, 2000.

The folk poems, Nehiheü no, We lu teigei, and Nie la viho appear in Rüffüno Tsali, 2003.

 

How can I make you understand
The angst of being born a Naga?
The love of land that ties me to this rock, this rill,
This blood-begotten portion
This length of sky that calls lover-like when I am far from her
And yet, when I am finally home
Emasculates and leaves me impotent
And I can know nothing else but revulsion and hatred
For what man keeps doing to man here.
How can I make you understand
You who’ve never known and will never know this angst
That when I turn away from her, I turn from myself too
And betray the innocence I vowed to protect.
How will the eyes of the children look to mine
When we meet with the knowledge between us
That I could not endure any more?
It is for them I must go on singing the songs of freedom.
For them I sacrifice happiness again.