A couple of weeks ago, a National Geographic Traveller India video on the Konyak tribe of Nagaland was doing the rounds on social media. “Our own Africa in India” a viewer commented. To which the host replied, “Totally”.
The video starts with snapshots of cave paintings, spears, and tribal men carrying firebrands. A background score accompanies. It is not Konyak music, just drum beats and chants that sound vaguely “tribal”.
“A few hundred years ago, all our families used to live in the jungle,” the host begins, “While we have come a long way since then, there are these certain tribes in India that live by the same way, following the same beautiful lifestyle.”
One can surmise that the “we” he is referring to are the “civilised city folk” who have chosen to move away from the jungle, who shop in Big Bazaar instead of tailing their “prey” by hiding in the bushes — a privileged position of a mainlander who has “come a long way” in his representation of the tribals who are “children of the forest.”
The video follows the Konyak tribesmen deep into the forests of Longwa in Nagaland’s Mon district, as they are made to wear their traditional attire and do mock hunts. Geriatric Konyaks throw spears at small animals as the host claps in delight and takes pictures. They are made to stand behind large palms as he showcases the kind of photographs the phone (the video is sponsored by a Chinese phone brand) is capable of capturing. The Konyaks, with tattoos on their faces and holding spears, speak very little. Even when they do talk to each other, there are no subtitles. Meet the tribal: he is mythicised, he is simple, he is blissful and he is ignorant. The ways of this “savage” are beyond our ken.
WHO ARE THE KONYAKS?
Just like Indians do not want to be portrayed in a one-dimensional manner as Apu in The Simpsons or poverty-stricken like in Slumdog Millionaire, the Nagas do not want to be portrayed as only headhunters.
Let me add here that there is nothing wrong with talking about headhunting or in highlighting the Konyak way of life — in fact, all Nagas were headhunters and this only stopped with the advent of the Christian missionaries.
The Konyaks, who reside deep in the forests of Longwa village, were the last to be converted. They were eventually converted by the Ao tribe of Nagaland who were converted by the missionaries.
Headhunting was not done indiscriminately. There was a strict code of conduct that the tribe followed. The best warriors were sent to fight for dominion over a village and the victors always returned with the heads of their opponents. The victorious warrior always allowed his opponent the chance to say a few words before he was slain. They believed that a person’s life force is contained in the skull, so taking the head of the enemy meant that the life force of the enemy and the village he represents had been conquered.
All this must be understood in the context of an era of constant warfare. It is important to note that the term “headhunting” was given by outsiders, the Konyak only see themselves as warriors.
These finer details are ignored in the video. The tribal Nagas are juxtaposed against the city-bred photographer who tells us that the Konyak have stopped headhunting because of Government intervention. This is untrue, and testimony to how little research the photographer has done on the history of the Konyak tribe, or even bothered talking to them.
The host makes no mention of the more pertinent history of how the British arbitrarily created the Indo-Myanmar border by cutting right through Longwa. This act has caused many Konyak families to be on both sides of the border — something that has fuelled anger against the government. In addition to this, the badly-drawn border cuts right through the Konyak Angh’s (King) house thus making him the hereditary king in two countries. Families being on both sides of the border has made it difficult for the government to enforce border laws. These developments are as relevant to understand the Konyak tribe as is the fact that they used to practise headhunting.
A PROBLEMATIC PORTRAYAL
Videos like these point to the urgent need for a new method of storytelling when talking about tribals. One that does not come from a place of disdain or pity. The tribal should be the teller of his own tales, the keeper of his own traditions. In 2019, we do not need a young city mainlander to act as our guide taking us through a human zoo as he talks about the Konyak, like a David Attenborough talking about gorillas or a Kipling talking about backward native “Gunga Dins” with “hearts of gold”.
It appears not much has changed in the last hundred years with regard to the portrayal of tribals. The patronising tone in this video is reminiscent of how ethnographers like Verrier Elwin or Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf would describe Nagas. For them, tribals are “aboriginals” who are “noble and dignified people”. They are quaint and magical.
Narratives like these were seen in colonial discourse that stereotyped the colonised, using this as material for their Euro-centric narratives: natives that needed to be civilised because they were different from the Englishman. Here, as with the colonised natives during the time of the British, the individuality of the tribal is negated and is spoken of interchangeably with any other tribal, ignoring the realities of social class, economic class and ethnic divisions.
The host may have been trying to be respectful in filming and photographing the Konyak and there is no accusation that they were being insincere or bigoted. It is the tone that misses the mark.
They have not thought of these people as anything other than props. Like with poor farmers in drought-stricken Madhya Pradesh, or Adivasis in Naxalism-affected areas. They are better seen not heard, accompanied by flowery text about their noble way of life.
Nagas are jaded with such representations of their people — either as residents of a violent insurgency-ridden state or dismissed as exotic headhunters. There is no middle ground. Tribals are different from mainlanders. We do not eat the same food, speak the same language, nor do we look alike. But other than that we are the same people as any other part of India, if the mainland Indian would care to imagine a world outside this dichotomy of savage and civilised. It may be hard for mainland Indians to understand but this does not mean that “this is our own Africa”. This is India and it is how it has always been.
The writer, who hails from Shillong, is a Deputy Commissioner of Customs currently posted in Mumbai and tweets at @tribalations
*Editor’s Note: The video in question has been modified by the publishers for private viewing only.