The Power of the Past: Constructing Ethno-national Identity Through 'Village Republics' in Nagaland, North-east India

Debojyoti Das, SOAS, London

Ethno-nationalistic demand for self determination by Nagas of North-east India is situated within a discourse of ‘ethnic uniqueness’ based on village institution and its historic conception as independent, self sufficient, culturally homogeneous and egalitarian. The claim for an exclusive Naga nation builds its intellectual base on ‘cultural difference’ with the mainstream Indian identity, which is seen as internally colonizing and territoralizing Naga people’s political aspiration. The image of the ‘ideal village’ feeds into such representation. In this paper I look at the different stands of narrative that romance the Naga past and link it to the present for a unique homeland status based on village self dependence and autonomy. By drawing on colonial ethnographic accounts and peoples every day talk and reflection of the past during fieldwork, I will demonstrate that conceptualization of ideal villages are interwoven by exchanges, contacts and migration stories that challenge the hiatus of a ideal, detached, self sufficient and independent village. The Naga tradition of head hunting and feuds not only produced isolation and fortification of village but also compelled villages to acknowledge their neighbors by throwing feast of merit, and other cultural exchanges to end long lasting blood feuds. In the post Independence period the physical isolation of villages was bridged through improved communication, heightened state intervention (developmental and counter insurgency operation), political mediation and peoples growing mobility to town and district headquarters. Ethnographic details generated from my study among Yimchunger Naga villages reflect how peoples life are intrinsically Incorporated in the larger political and social life of the nation state through electoral politics, transnational developmental programmes and the enlightened civil society hoping to build peace through reconciliation with warring factions. Ethnic identification based on ideal village types thus remains a conflictual space for articulating identity that is enmeshed with the wider political framework of nation state. The paper will demonstrate how the village community has been conceptualized in anthropological writings and has come to occupy a strategic place in articulating Naga nationalism and ethnic identification.