In Dimapur and Kohima, the army is a much maligned institution. The women, on the other hand, are both soldiers and peacekeepers.
Many years ago, when S.C. Jamir was the chief minister of Nagaland, a friend had arranged for a visit by a national media delegation. I went to Kohima by bus from Shillong, not realising I needed some permit and had to call a local journalist to find out where we were staying, only to find it right near the phone booth.
Hotel Japfu had bullet holes in its walls caused by army firing after a tyre burst during a procession, I was told. Even in the bus, army men their faces masked with black kerchiefs, had asked us our names and where we were from. The ride was tense and a bit scary. Kohima shimmered in the blue winter haze and the quiet city with its surrounding hills and houses closely clustered on slopes, was charming. It was dark by 4 pm and then there was little to do other than sitting huddled in rooms over electric heaters which didn’t work.
That’s when I also attended my first Naga Ho Ho meet at Mokokchung, an overnight bus journey from Kohima. It was a summit of sorts of all the Naga tribes and we would get to see the men in their resplendent shawls which were unique to each tribe. My friends had gone ahead and I travelled alone with a bus load of people who smoked incessantly all through the night.
The bus dropped me in pitch darkness on a hilly road in the freezing cold. Mokokchung was not very welcoming at that hour, and strangely it was some soldiers from the Mahar regiment, overjoyed I was from Mumbai and spoke Marathi, who gave me some hot tea and directed me to the circuit house.
I was reminded of Mokokchung because of Yangerla, who is contesting the assembly elections from there as an Independent in the state polls this week. Only her chances look dim as she is up against the son of S C Jamir.
No visitor to Nagaland can leave without being impressed by its elegant and determined women. They are in the forefront of the peace movement and are articulate about their feelings - yet they have little political representation and except for one MP years ago, there is no MLA or MP now.
At the Ho Ho meeting, my friend and I were among the few women and we were initially viewed with suspicion till we explained we were journalists. “From India?” they asked, telling us to wear our IDs. I later learnt the Naga Mothers Association (NMA) formed in 1984 worked with the Ho Ho quite closely.
The NMA are a dynamic bunch of women quite fierce in their views and determination for justice. They gave us badges with a red teardrop which said “Shed no more blood”. I still remember an activist in her 60s who had a stationary exercise bike in her house which she still used, much to our amusement.
Mokokchung was in the news at that time because of the army's involvement in rape. I found a paper by Paula Banerjee (MS Word file) which refers to the strong women’s movement and their role in the peace process. She says the Naga Mothers Association is not the only women's group. There are a number of others of which an important organization is the Watsu Mongdung.
An extraordinary case catapulted the Watsu Mongdung to fame. The incident took place on 27th December 1994 in Mokokchung town. Ten members of the Assam Rifles entered the town and carried out indiscriminate rape and arson. Innumerable women were raped.
The Naga Human Rights Commission entrusted Watsu Mongdung to investigate and identify the victims. The Watsu Mongdung formed a special committee and investigated the matter. They identified eight victims and reconstructed the incident after a thorough discussion with them. None of the other social organizations wanted to take this up. So members of the Watsu Mongdung decided to litigate on behalf of the rape victims.
The case is still pending. She also says that the NMA was the only women’s group in South Asia which mediated in a peace negotiation.
The NMA also introduced us to other big problem in Kohima - drug abuse and the many young girls I met would promise to meet me the next day for interviews and never turn up. I had tried to combine my ongoing research on prostitution and in Dimapur, visited the shanties where women from West Bengal were brought there to form a sort of small “red” light area where I could see Indian soldiers popping in and out of the bamboo walled rooms.
The ten days in Dimapur were memorable for another reason: editor and poet Monalisa Changkija who gave me dinner on most days and regaled me with her encounters with the army, a much maligned institution in those parts. The fight against the Armed Forces Special Forces Act was strong and the Indian government did not show any sign of relenting.
Monalisa was particularly vehement about this and writes eloquent poetry.
It is about time women were better represented in politics specially in areas like Nagaland but elsewhere too, and that’s one more reason for the government to stop dithering and enact a law quickly for reservation for women in state assemblies and Parliament.