Indo-Naga conflict: Meet the Naga women warriors for life
YUDHAJIT SHANKAR DAS/TNN
KOHIMA, 6th Oct: "We have seen our mothers go around and collect the bodies of our fathers and uncles. We don't want a repeat of the situation," says Sawmi Leyri, joint secretary of Naga Mothers' Association (NMA).
NMA has ceaselessly worked for peace over the decades by requesting and bringing militant organisations to the negotiation table. "What we want is peace, to raise healthy children in loving, warm homes," says Leyri.
The sense of fear is palpable, as people believe the Naga peace talks could be at a make-or-break juncture. Nagaland's new governor RN Ravi, who is also the interlocutor for the peace talks with NSCN (IM) - the biggest Naga rebel group - and seven other outfits, called Naga National Political Groups, said in August that he had been given three months by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to wrap up the negotiations. "Before my appointment as Nagaland governor, the PM had expressed the need to conclude the peace process within three months’ time... that is a long enough time because we have been talking and negotiating for the last 22 years," Ravi was quoted as saying in Kohima by media outlets. The NSCN (IM) has been in talks with the government since it signed a ceasefire agreement in 1997.
Nagaland has been caught in phases of violence since the 1950s due to a secessionist movement and armed struggle for self-determination.
Hopes were brightened and a solution to the protracted Naga political issue seemed inevitable with the signing of the Framework Agreement between NSCN (IM) and the Centre in August 2015. But the issue has become much more complicated after special status of J&K was withdrawn last month that also did away with its flag and statute. A separate flag and a constitution are among the core demands of NSCN (IM).
"The Framework Agreement is yet to have its fruition as the government of India is going slow in taking its stand on core issues (of Naga flag and constitution)... Without these two core issues solved, any solution would be far from honourable because Naga's pride and identity is deeply entrenched here," the NSCN (IM) said in a press statement reacting to Ravi's three-month-deadline remark. The outfit also complains of "aggressive postures" by Assam Rifles and says that "the pictures are almost back to pre-ceasefire period". With both sides unrelenting, people fear violence and bloodshed could return to their lives. "Naga women have never experienced lasting peace. We have never known the life that other people are living," says 60-year-old Ramyola Duidang, who had joined the rebel Naga Army in her teens and has handled various sophisticated weapons while fighting on the eastern Nagaland front.
Her husband, 'brigadier' Brunning, was killed in a factional fight in 1988, eight years after their marriage. Ramyola now heads the Naga Freedom Fighters' Widows Welfare Foundation, which works for around 400 women whose husbands were members of NSCN (IM) and lost their lives either fighting the security forces or in internecine clashes.
"We are on our own. There is no major financial support from NSCN (IM)," says Ramyola, who single-handedly brought up her two daughters. Her eldest daughter is now married to an Indian Army Major. "A full-blown armed conflict in Nagaland is the last thing we want. How can I even imagine my son-in-law, who is more than a son to me, to be my enemy?" she adds.
This precarious situation is not new. Women in Nagaland, across all tribes, have walked this tightrope, for ages. Often, they had the mortification of watching their family members (father and brothers' village ranged against that of husband and in-laws') on two opposite sides of warring groups, baying for one another's blood.
Naga women, the worst victims of violence through generations, have bled, wept and, inevitably, shouldered the full burden of the healing too.
But never have they been silent spectators, taking up the spear or the white flag, as the situation demanded. Their contributions, though, have gone largely undocumented.
The NMA has played a pivotal role in getting Nagaland out of the worst phase of bloodshed with its members trekking for days to camps of proscribed outfits in Myanmar and bringing them to the talks table. Men were scared to venture to those camps, so the responsibility fell upon the women.
"The first initiative into Burma jungles to initiate peace was led by then NMA president Neidono Angami and secretary Khesheli Chishi who went to meet NSCN (Khaplang) to get them into a ceasefire," says NMA adviser Rosemary Dzuvichu.
In January last year, Abeiu Meru, president of NMA, and Dzuvichu travelled to the Khaplang faction's headquarters in Taga in Myanmar to meet top leaders for cessation of hostilities. The 11-day journey to and from the NSCN (K) camp was through jungles and made on foot, motorbikes and boats. The proscribed militant outfit has carried out several attacks on Indian security forces. This January, the Khango Konyak-led faction of NSCN (K) joined the peace talks with the centre. "The time and circumstances that followed were responsible for bringing them to think of the appeals from this side seriously and move for ceasefire," says Dzuvichu.
But this isn't a recent phenomenon. Naga women have for centuries worked as peace activists and that is what gave rise to 'Phukhareila', which, according to Tangkhul expert, Awo Varah, can be termed as one of the oldest peace efforts in the world.
Inter-village or inter-tribal marriages have been common in Naga society. So, it was common for daughters of one village being the daughters-in-law in another. All Naga tribes are very territorial, and most battles they have fought have been over land.
So, when two villages, despite repeated talks and negotiations, failed to sort out differences, they used to decide upon a time and place where all the able-bodied men of the two villages would fight and decide the winner.
"Women of the villages went to an elevated spot near the designated battle zone and, from a distance, watched their brothers, fathers or husbands slaughter each other," says Varah.
After one group won decisively, these women rushed down to intervene. "Using fork-shaped branches, they pushed aside the machete-wielding men, telling them that they were the victors and there was no need for further bloodshed," Varah says. "Even in the heat of the moment, the men heeded to these women," he reminisces.
Naga women, cutting across tribes, have played a dominant role in conflict resolution through generations, says Toshimenla Jamir of the sociology department of Nagaland University. "Through these efforts, women appropriated whatever public space was available to them in the patriarchal Naga society," Jamir says. Women, known as 'demi', have played commendable role as mediators in resolving inter-village feuds even in situations where no man dared to intervene.
Naga women have not confined themselves to the role of peace activists alone, they have been active combatants too.
"Our political history has been very silent on women's contribution to the Naga movement for decades. In the mid-50s, women joined the struggle in huge numbers, as leaders of the women's wing of the Naga National Council (NNC), as active combatants, and as couriers collected rations in villages and supplied food to the armed men in far-away locations," says NMA's Dzuvichu, who's also the head of the department of English at Nagaland University.
The NNC, which was formed in the 1940s, has fought for Naga sovereignty and is the parent organisation from which outfits like the NSCN (IM) and NSCN (K) sprung up.
"We are a nation by right. Our country belongs to Nagas," says Adinno Phizo, president of NNC and daughter of Angami Zapu Phizo, the father of armed struggle in the northeast.
The NNC under AZ Phizo had declared a "Federal Government of Nagaland" in 1959 and formed a military wing to take on the Indian security forces. The NNC, which is currently part of the peace talks with the centre for a solution to the vexed Naga issue, still maintains a small army.
"Every Naga is an NNC member by birth. We have active members across Nagaland but desist from maintaining a full-scale army to avoid conflict with other Naga outfits. When the need arises, every Naga will rise for NNC," says the 85-year-old Adinno, who lived for decades in exile in London with her father.
A small team of armed 'Naga Army' members is stationed near her house in Kohima. Naga Army men in larger numbers are said to be based at the peace camp in Chedema, on the outskirts of the state capital.
Adinno believes she is the head of a functional government. "Our parliament, or Tatar Hoho, has two to three sessions in a year and we get monetary support from the people to sustain our army and the government," she adds.
But Adinno isn't very hopeful about the Framework Agreement signed between NSCN (IM) and the Centre in 2015. "How can leaders of an outfit who have been hosted by the Indian government in Delhi freely negotiate for the Naga people," she asks. Adinno didn't marry and chose to "live for the cause". Does she expect to see the results she wished for in her lifetime? "We leave it to God," she says. Nothing much has ever been written about the contribution of the women cadres of NSCN (IM) or any other Naga outfit. Nor have the struggles of the war widows been documented.
Mercy Shimray's husband, 'captain' Ashang, was killed in 2001 by police in Assam. That was just after four years of their marriage. She brought up her three children with the money she earned from weaving and making pickles.
"We widows are standing on faith," she says at the NSCN (IM) Peace-Monitoring Cell in Dimapur. Her eldest son is pursuing a bachelor's degree in science in Hyderabad.
Asked what she would do if any of her children wants to join the armed struggle, she says: "My husband has made the supreme sacrifice. If my sons want to join the movement, I will tell them to struggle differently. You don't need to pick up arms to serve the cause. There are more powerful weapons."
And do the war widows see any glimmer of hope that enduring peace might come to Nagaland? "We have fought a long war and both parties now understand that it is a political problem and it has to be resolved politically. That reinforces our belief that there will be an end to the conflict soon," says Ramyola.