Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Another season with the Tangsa

I had planned to spend half a year with the Tangsa this time, in order to get all that I needed to start writing my dissertation. Well... in the end I did stay for six months, and I did collect a lot of material; I also made many new experiences, met many new people, visited many new places -- for what it will all be good for is yet to be seen, but being with them for so long has changed my attitude towards the Tangsa -- I'm not sure any longer that I'm qualified to talk about them. And even if I could persuade myself to do so, I don't know what I should be talking about. I guess it will take a while for me to be able to put everything into perspective -- for now let me just write up the high points and the lows during my time in the field in the last season.

I set off on Diwali evening by train from Guwahati in order to be in Malugaon in good time for the Hakhun Festival scheduled for the 8th November. The festival was a bigger affair than last time, stage-managed almost entirely by the shrewd Gaonbura, Tehon Hakhun, and his band of loyal villagers. And although their star performer, the one and only Phulim Hakhun, was not present, nobody seemed to bother too much and it did not make too much of a difference in the end. What really annoyed me was the attitude of some of the VIP guests, in this case a couple of Assamese AGP politicians, who came from Digboi to attend the festival. Their main reason for coming was of course the forthcoming elections and not any real concern for the Tangsa. But then if they had a hidden agenda, the Gaonbura was also not totally innocent either. I'll tell you why I think so before I end.

From Malugaon I went to spend some time in Chamro basti in Arunachal to talk to the amazing Gaonbura Phanglim Kimching. The grand old man is very impressive, not only because of what he has achieved in his life (and still wants to do), but also because of all that he knows, his wisdom and good sense shining through in every sentence he uttered. It was just great to have had the chance to spend a few days with him and to get him to tell me a little bit of his thoughts and views about different things. I learnt a lot about what it means to be truly brave and to take pride in being a proud Tangsa from him.

My next stop was Mokukchung in Nagaland where I met yet another larger-than-life old man, the Sema Gaonbura of Lumami village, where the campus of Nagaland University is located. This Naga gentleman was also close to a hundred, had suffered unimaginable hardships during his lifetime, but had gone on to become one of the richest people in the area. But none of all that had not touched him, it had only taught him to be generous and modest -- he told me amazing stories of what he had actually witnessed and experienced first hand during the troubled Naga years. And when one day I asked him why he trusted me, why he was telling me so much without bothering to first find out if I was a government spy, he looked straight at me and said 'I haven't grown so old for nothing, you know.' That was that. When I left he made me promise that next time I came to Mokukchung, I would stay at least three days in his house -- that will never be, for he is dead. He died after being taken ill soon after I met him and if eye-witnesses are to be believed, his funeral was the biggest anyone had ever seen in that area.

I also visited Impur where the very serene and beautifully maintained headquarters of the Baptist Mission in Nagaland is located. That was where I learnt how the British administrators (who were keen that the Nagas kept their indigneous culture even while trying to civilise them) came into conflict with the American Baptist missionaries (who wanted the Nagas to give up everything of their old ways of life when they converted to Christianity). The Baptists had started the Tangsa mission in 1972. I was surprised at how openly and easily Reverend Walling admitted that Baptist pastors in the 70s and 80s were responsible for misguiding the people to give up their own culture when they converted -- he also spoke of how the view of the church has changed in recent years and how the church was now actively playing a role in preservation of the indigenous culture of the tribal people.

At the Nagaland University I met many Naga teachers and also a few activists and leaders, and I was most impressed by their knowledge, their commitment to their own people, and also their rationality and pragmatism -- they were not just sitting there building castles in the air or blaming the central government for all that went wrong, they were actually thinking of constructive ways to go forward and of concrete steps to get out of the present impasse between the two NSCN factions. Those few days in Lumami and the week in December in Kohima were enough to assure me that Nagaland was indeed in good hands and that ther Nagas were completely able and competent to take charge of their own affairs. Of course I could sense that the Naga tribes are still pretty much divided and this big hype about Naga unity etc. is still a myth. I also did not get much of a clue about the connection between the Naga and the Tangsa more than what I already knew -- that the closest amongst the Naga tribes related to the Tangsa would be the Konyaks in the continuum via the Noctes, the Wanchos and now also the Tutsas living in the Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh.

My next trip was to the heart of Tangsaland -- to the village of Phulbari close to the Assam-Arunachal border where I planned to spend Christmas and New Year. It was very nice to be among friends again and it felt like coming home. The Rera Tangsa in Phulbari are almost all Baptists and I tried to participate in the celebrations as much as I could. I thoroughly enjoyed going carol singing with the village youth on the evenings of the 23rd and the 24th December. I also attended the services, which were solemn occasions and longer than usual, with a lot of singing both of hymns during the service and newly-composed ones at the end. The village was nicely decorated with the church as the focal centre for all the activities. A true sense of community and brotherhood could be felt among the village people at that time with community feasts organised both on Christmas day (sponsored by the most politically active Rera in Phulbari, Molu Rera) as well as on New Year's Day with sports and games for everyone thrown in. What was remarkable was the big role played by the village youth and the womenfolk in the organisation. Feasting, praying and singing were what Christmas at Phulbari was mainly about. While there I could also really start the process of getting ready for publication a book of Rera history and stories. Sadly though, Shimo Rera, one of the village leaders who was so supportive of this project, will not be there to see the printed book -- he died suddenly early in April.

Between Christmas and New year I made a quick trip to Kharangkong, my other home in Tangsaland, to be present when Lukam Tonglum's 5th daughter, who had recently eloped with and married a Christian Tangsa youth, came home for the first time with her husband. Lukam Tonglum, the self-styled chief of the Tangsa Nagas in Assam, is perhaps one of the last upholders of the old order. It was almost tragic to see this fiercely proud old man brought to his knees by this act of defiance of his most-loved daughter. He had pinned great hopes on her and had secretly hoped that she would take on the mantle of leadership of the Tangsa at least as far as upholding Tangsa culture went. Her reason for running away was that her father would have never agreed to her marrying a Christian otherwise. He seemed to suffer not only under the hurt that his daughter had inflicted to his pride by running away but also with the worry that some harm may come to his new son-in-law who worked in the army and was posted in strife-torn Kashmir.

After attending the Wihukuh festival once again in Kharangkong I went off on a long and complicated 15 day tour of some remote areas of the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh -- there I learnt about the old and new forms of the Rangfrah religion, there I visited a house in which the walls of the open sitting area in front was lined with hundreds of skulls of animals of various kinds. Talking to people living in the hills beyond Manmau one could begin to imagine how life for the Tangsa could have been in the days when they still lived in the hills, with no contact with the outside world. This trip opened my eyes to all that I did not know about the Tangsa and made me realise how incomplete my analysis would be if I did not include the Tangsa from Arunachal, and perhaps by the same logic, also those Tangsa who still live across the border in Burma. To have spent three seasons in the field only to find out that one had actually got the address wrong was a feeling that I could have done well without. Anyway, it told me that I had no time to waste. The Tangsa in the more remote areas of Arunachal are more 'tribal' and their lifestyle is still quite a lot different from that of the modernised Tangsa living in the plains of Assam. But what was I was really looking for?

I was supposed to be working on Tangsa festivals -- and to that end I had already attended three different festivals plus Christmas and New Year by that stage. The state-sponsored three-day Dihing Patkai Festival that happened in mid-January was the third and biggest of them all. It was supposed to showcase the culture of all the people living in that area of Assam, and the Tangsa were only one of the several groups represented. But what culture could one hope to find in an event of that scale? Well... everything and nothing, I guess; it all depended on what one thought of as culture. For instance, our Nocte taxi driver came running up to me when he saw a group of Nocte dancers performing on stage, and exclaimed excitedly,'Baidew, look, look, that is our Nocte culture!'

And what of rituals in such a newly-concocted and multi-ethnic festival -- there was a Tipam pooja conducted in the morning of the first day of the festival to propitiate the gods of that area. I tried hard to ask around what Tipam meant, and also to figure out why that particular ritual was selected to get things going for that festival. But as is with many such questions, most of the people who were involved with it did not know very much. All I got were vague and tentative answers with nobody wanting to take responsibility but nobody wanting to appear ignorant either. I thought this reaction was quite typical of many such events that an anthropologist could want to explore in the course of one's work. But when a dreadful storm blew off the huge pandal of the festival area and wrecked havoc on all the stalls later in the day, everyone (and that included many Christian people as well) very happily claimed that there was some fault in the performance of the Tipam pooja in the morning that had angered the gods who had justifiably shown their wrath by destroying everything!

The much-hyped 'authentic' demostration of indigenous culture and way of life at that festival only left me with more questions than answers. Was I missing something? Why did it all seem not to fit? Wanting a break to figure out a few things for myself first I went to attend the NEILS conference at Tezpur, with the hope that talking to others working in the region might help me cope with my own worries better. My paper there as well as in Kohima (at the Indian Folklore Congress) earlier received a lot of response but it didn't help me sort the bigger picture. I understood that research is essentially a lonely journey, be it in mathematics, be it in anthropology. I would have to sort out by myself what to do with my festivals and what they might be good for.

From Tezpur I went on to Itanagar, the capital of Arunchal. Talking to people there I realised that though Itanagar was the capital of the state where most Tangsa lived, the two eastern-most districts of Tirap and Changlang were somewhat neglected despite being the most troubled, infested as they were with NSCN camps spilling over from neighbouring Nagaland. Being so far away from Itanagar and being so numerically weak, the Tangsa as well as the other tribes living in those two districts did not really have much say in the government of that state. But there are a couple of very high-powered Tangsa in place in Itanagar -- the state finance minister is a Kimching gentleman and he is perhaps one of the most dynamic people I met on this trip. The Chairman of the State Women's Commission is also a Tangsa -- a very outspoken and down-to-earth Mossang lady from Jairampur. Both of them cared deeply about the Tangsa and were very keen on preservation and revival of Tangsa language and culture. They were very happy to have our team join that effort and assured me of every possible help. They were also very keen that the Tangsa get better educated (for instance, the facts that there wasn't a single science graduate, nor an IAS officer from amongst the Tanga so far bothered them) and claim their place in the national mainstream.

For me, it was very good to have a chance to see how far the Tangsa have made it on the one hand while also observing how the ones who had made it still retained their strong sense of belonging and responsibility for their own community. I also understood that for the Tangsa there was only one way forward from here -- education, development, progress, modernisation,... -- they had come too far already, soon they would become like the rest of us, their difference lying only in their mostly unrecorded and soon to be forgotten past. Well... a pity maybe in some respects, but then it was their choice, and would have to be respected. After all, haven't we all made the same choice too at some point in our past. Mulling over those thoughts in Itanagar, and also while interacting first with the teachers and students at the Tribal Studies Institute of the Rajiv Gandhi University and later with many well-to-do and educated Tangsa at the residence of the Finance Minister, I realised that my attitude towards the Tangsa had changed -- that within these six months I had somehow stopped thinking of them as objects of study, they had become my friends. That I could no longer just be a neutral observer while talking to them, I had become part of their families, as much as they had become part of my life.

How that will impact on my work and my understanding of the data I have collected so far will have to be seen. But it does not worry me too much, for by that point I had come to an important realisation -- that one must not try to find additional meaning in things simply because one had originally hoped them to be more important than what they turned out to be. If festivals are nothing more than simply occasions to come together, to eat, drink, dance, sing and be merry, then I will have to be happy with that. If culture is just song, dance and dress for the people themselves then I would have to accept that. And if in the end, being honest about what I found in the field implies that my dissertation does not have anything profound to say about the Tangsa or their festivals, then I would have to live with that.

Towards the end of March came the big news that a Development Council had been awarded to the Tangsa, the Singpho and a few other tribal groups. While it was seen by many as just an election stunt by the outgoing government, the tribal groups were jubilant. Lukam Tonglung was elected the Deputy Chairman of the Council while Tehon Hakhun and Molu Rera were inducted as the Tangsa members of the Council. While one could have guessed Lukam Tonglung and Molu Rera to be part of any Tangsa leadership, the fact that Tehon Hakhun was also in showed how well he had played his cards, and what his own personal agenda was in organising those annual festivals in Malugaon.

As such I gave up my plans to go back to Tangsaland (as many of my Tangsa consultants had become totally preoccupied with their plans for the Council) and spent the rest of my time working in libraries, archives and with books, attending conferences, interviewing people, many of them Tangsa, many of them people who had worked on the Tangsa. Most of that time I was in Guwahati but I also used the opportunities to go to Shillong (to attend the Interim Conference of International Society for Folk Narrative Research) and to Delhi (to speak at the newly started Ambedkar University) to get some important interviews.

But it was just after I had finished my presentation at a seminar hosted by the Indian Council for Historical Research in Guwahati that I was put to the hardest test -- when a young man stood up and asked me 'So what is so special about your Tangsa that we need to know about them at all?' If I wasn't so stumped by his brazenness I could have thrown a glass of water at him and replied, 'What is so special about you that I have to bother to reply?' But later when I thought about it I realised that I had no honest answer. Given what I know so far, I do not know if there is anything so very special about the Tangsa that might have convinced the young researcher to lend me his ear. But why do they have to be special -- is it not special enough to be ordinary yet perhaps just a wee bit different?


  1. After reading this piece, my friend Bhaskar from Margherita remarked: 'Its a good read, certainly more journalistic than academic. Otherwise the mention of the sudden storm that brought the DP pandal down n alluding it to the wrath of the spirits of Tipam would have been acompanied by the near miraculous reconstruction of the pandal by the organisers in less than 24 hours.'
    Sorry about that, Bhaskar, and thanks for putting that bit on record. There are lots of things that happened that I didn't mention in this piece. As it is, the piece is very long.

  2. I found this piece different from your earlier articles on Tangsas! At that time you were trying to understand them and, in that process,also their part in the great Assamese society. I feel, now you are more 'involved' with the people with whom you are working closely. One day, all these writings will be compiled as a book and that would be quite interesting to read - it will be on Tangsaland and the people as well as your 'journey' with them.

  3. ma'am ... you should have thrown the glass on that person !
    Anyway I really enjoyed reading it, may be because I belong to your Tangsas.
    Thank you !!