In the backdrop of a campaign led by People for Animals (PFA) and other organisations, the Nagaland government passed a legislation banning sale and consumption of dog meat on July 3, 2020. The move took everyone by surprise as the Naga tribes were not consulted on the ban.
Consumption of meat among Naga tribes is not just about relishing and deriving nutrients and energy. Meat also holds a special place in their custom, culture and ritual practices. The Naga Club reflected this part in their memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929, “Our language is quite different from those of the plains and we have no social affinities with the Hindus or Muhammadans. We are looked down upon by the one for ‘beef’ and the other for our ‘pork’ and by both for our want in education is not due to any fallout of ours”. Early on, the Naga leaders were aware that food and language, among other things, given them a distinctive identity.
The Naga tribes live in the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and in parts of Myanmar. The colonial period brought about a drastic change to their lives including through the introduction of Christianity and the erosion of their cultural practices. Yet they continued to eat various meat, including of dog. However, the Naga tribes do not rely on dog only for meat, the animal holds a significant place in their lifeworld.
The Rongmei Naga considers rearing of dogs necessary as the dog is seen as a link to a world of spirits. The howling of a dog at night is taken as a sign of impending danger and the family tries to avert it by performing rituals. The rearing of dogs is common in other Naga tribes too. T C Hodson mentioned about the domestication of dogs for consumption in his account on Naga tribes.
Consumption of dog meat is not a recent phenomenon, it’s mentioned in one of the earliest written records on the Naga tribes. Several accounts of anthropologists and colonial officers indicate that Ao, Angami, Rengma, Sema, Lotha and various Naga tribes rely on dog as a source of meat. In the case of the Angami Naga, dog meat is eaten on a particular genna (a socio-religious practice) as per the belief of deriving medical value from its flesh. They also believe that the consumption of dog meat averts illness.
Dogs reared for hunting as well. Hodson noted that during hunting, the Naga took the dogs along which sometimes was useful to chase the prey. When a hunting dog dies, the owner never consumes its meat, but may pass it to others for consumption. This is true for the Sema Naga as well as they revere hunting dogs. In the case of the Angami Naga, when the hunting dog becomes too old and unfit for hunting, the owner gives it to others for consumption as meat.
In the belief system and customs of the Naga tribes, the dog holds a significant place during funerals. Among the Tangkhul Naga, at the time of the burial of a deceased person, a dog is killed and kept on the grave to provide the dead person company during the journey to the land of the dead. A similar practice is found among the Lotha Naga and the Sema Naga. In the case of the Anals Naga, women perform rituals which involve a sacrifice of animals, including dogs, to avert any danger or unforeseen events.
With the advent of Christianity and the interface with the outside world, the ritual practice was gradually given up. There are some Naga tribes like the Rongmei Naga which still retain the ritual practice involving the sacrifice of the dog. When someone dies, a Takan (an animal or a bird) is sacrificed. If it is a dog, it is done to protect the deceased from evil spirits and help the deceased on his way to the land of the dead, called Taloiram. The practice has continued possibly owing to the resistance against the spread of Christianity in the past, led by Rani Gaidinliu and Jadonang. They continue to follow their ancestral god, Tingkao Ragwang.
The legends of Naga tribes like Rongmei, Inpui and Tangkhul are replete with references to the dog. For the Rongmei and Inpui, in the past, there exists a tree whose bark possessed a power to cure illness and the potential to revive the dead. One day, the bark was brought to a house, and later kept under the sun. The sun absorbed all the powers from the bark. It is said that the faithful dog of the family chased the sun and swallowed it. However, the sun came alive again due to the power of bark. Since then, man lost the bark and became a mortal being.
While the Naga society is still recovering from the horrors of the past, protection of their identity, culture and custom can prepare them for facing the overwhelming influence of the mainstream culture. It is in this context that the dog meat ban is seen as a continuity of the assimilation process and civilising project without the tribes being given a chance to speak.
The writer is a PhD student at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences
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