What Nagas Eat
Sovereignty and Kinship Under Lockdown
In a place where the “small problem” of Naga sovereignty is the punchline to formal jokes, debates over what Nagas eat often overlook a critical Naga perspective that situates what Nagas eat in relation to other aspects of our cultural and political life. In other words, conversations about what Nagas eat often ignore questions of militarization, dispossession, or disenfranchisement.
All of humanity emerged from a rock on my family’s rice field. This is what I was taught. The field, though small, boasts a perennial spring which comes out from below the rock that is the source of all of humanity, keeping the field permanently flooded and amenable for growing rice. The first time I descended down the stone terraces from the village to the field, my aunties and uncles showed me where to place my hands on the rock to feel the polished grooves where, they say, the first people stepped and climbed up into the world, in what is now our small rice field.
Our rice field and village are in Nagaland, an Indigenous territory at the junction of India, Myanmar, and China, which is simultaneously a state of India within India’s most northeast boundary, and a nation that declared its independence from British rule before India, Pakistan, or Myanmar declared their independence. Nagaland is simultaneously unknown, in India or elsewhere, and deeply connected to Indigenous internationalist movements since the early twentieth century. My family was embedded in the Naga nationalist movement from the beginning, when my grandfather’s uncle Zapuphizo helped found the Naga National Council in 1946, and many family members since have served as political and social leaders, advocates, and thinkers. Though I grew up in the United States, I inherited an understanding of my alignment in the world as being from the country of India, but not Indian, both diasporic and Indigenous.
Family rice field, Khonoma, Nagaland. Photo by T. Carson Wright, November 2012.
I begin this essay with the rock, stream, and rice field in order to suggest a mode through which we might view the tension between environmental politics and Indigenous politics in India, considering the entanglements between what we eat, our relationships to wild and domestic animals, and political struggles for territory, sovereignty, and self-determination. Here, I’ll tell a story about food politics during the pandemic, situate the story within a history of criticism of Naga eating, and finally, bring these two strands together through a visual analysis of a graphic short story. What Nagas eat, I think, comes down to how we survive a lockdown.
This past February, I packed my bags and was getting ready to return to the United States after spending the winter in Nagaland. Reports of the new coronavirus had been at the top of international news for several weeks, but I hadn’t been concerned about my travel plans till a few days before my flights, when I heard that Hong Kong, where I was supposed to layover before a flight across the Pacific, had sold out completely of hand sanitizer and soap. That didn’t bode well. I had already been cautious of my travel plans, as only a few weeks before, President Trump added Myanmar to the list of banned countries. Concerned that I might get blocked from reentry to the United States, or be quarantined at customs, I decided to cancel my flights and find a new direct flight from India to the US. The evening before my flight, The Hindu published a breaking news story declaring that the new coronavirus might have originated in Nagaland. The headline read: “Coronavirus: Wuhan Institute’s study on bats and bat hunters in Nagaland to be probed.”
“Don’t tell anyone that you are coming from Nagaland,” my grandfather told me. “Let them think you are travelling from mainland India.”
The Hindu article reported that a collaboration between researchers from Wuhan, China, India, and the US Department of Defense had travelled to a remote area in Nagaland to collect specimens from bats and blood samples from human bat hunters. Nagas in neighboring villages, the article stated, hunt and eat bats. While the article never explicitly blamed Nagas and Naga eating habits for the epidemic—soon to be pandemic—it was easy to connect the dots between their logic. Public outcry was swift. The US Department of Defense denied involvement in bat research in Nagaland. Later that week, India’s National Centre for Biological Sciences with the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research published a press statement “in reference to media reports that grossly misrepresent the facts concerning a study of bats in Nagaland.” The press statement clarified that no biological samples were ever removed from India, that two researchers from Wuhan, China, were listed as co-authors only because they supplied a reagent for the lab tests, and that the work was a collaboration between researchers at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in India and the Duke-National University of Singapore Medical School. The US Department of Defense provided research funds to Duke-NUS, the extent of its involvement in this study. The study and the article claimed to be based on had, in fact, nothing to do with coronavirus, and the results of the study had been published in October 2019, prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, China. Upon this outcry, The Hindu removed the word “coronavirus” from the article’s headline and removed a section of the article that focused on researchers from Wuhan. The revised article retained its focus on Naga bat hunting, the age and gender of the bat hunters, how many times each individual participated in the bat harvest in a single year, and concluded: “The study says the potential virus present in the bats may not be an exact copy of the virus responsible for various outbreaks.”
This is not the first time that what Nagas eat has made national and international headlines. In the winter of 2012, Nagaland made international headlines, as journalists reported the “slaughter” and “massacre” of amur falcon, a small raptor that migrates across India en route from Siberia and China to South Africa. The birds’ brief stopover in Pangti village in the remote Wokha district of Nagaland was a welcome economic opportunity to villagers, as birds could be caught and sold as a food source, bringing income to a village geographically distant from the two cities of Nagaland. Capturing and selling these birds was a means to adapt to and survive within capitalist systems. While early articles about the amur falcon showed images of conservationists and scientists tagging birds, later coverage narrated that it was in fact a Naga journalist who first sought to address the issue of the amur falcon to protect the bird while also identifying new sources of income with the villagers.
In fact, Naga difference from mainland India is marked by what we eat, how we eat it, and what that might mean about our relationship to territory and nation. Through dominant critique of what Nagas eat, Naga Indigeneity is cast as barbarian, primitive, and ultimately, destructive. Identified as one of eighteen key biodiversity hotspots in the world, Nagaland’s more-than-human life garners attention from conservationists and climate change activists. While some of these organizations prioritize or consider Indigenous ways of knowing and being, there is often a disconnect between conservationists and Naga political contexts.
What Nagas Eat
The national lockdown in India due to the pandemic brought renewed attention to what Nagas eat. After a June 2020 tweet storm, not to mention years of activism, by Indian animal rights activists against the sale and eating of dog meat in Nagaland, the chief secretary of the state of Nagaland, Temjen Toy announced that Nagaland would ban the importing, trade, and sale of dogs and dog meat. This announcement was celebrated by animal rights activists, and the conversation centered around the morality of what we eat, with the ban celebrated outside of Nagaland as a moment of progress for this “underdeveloped” state. Nagas responded critically, with consideration of how dogs feature in Naga cosmologies, the intersection of animal rights and far right Hindu nationalism, and the anti-Indigenous racism embedded in animal rights activism. This ban occurred during the pandemic lockdown, when access to all food, including meat, was limited, and many looked for sources of meats and vegetables that they might not usually obtain.
Why the preoccupation with what Nagas eat? In a country where religious difference gets conflated with political difference, we might be led to infer that what a person eats suggests something about their religious background and, therefore, their political affiliations. Legislation against cattle slaughter exists in many states across India, so we might be tempted to affiliate the policing of Naga eating with beef bans elsewhere in the country. But these forms of public outcry and shaming hit differently. While we can trace religious arguments for bans on cattle slaughter, the objection to the eating of fragrant fermented foods or even wild animals is not of the same cloth. “Unlike the cow debate,” writes Naga anthropologist Dolly Kikon, “the one on dog meat does not centre around religion but on a civilizational logic.” The dog meat debate, like international coverage of the amur falcon “massacre” or Naga bat research, marks Nagas as uncivilized and backwards, incapable of complex understandings of the interrelationships between people, ecosystems, polities, and economies.
This image, titled “My Paddy Field,” comes from online art exhibit “During the Pandemic,” exhibiting art by Naga children. The exhibit is curated by Naga anthropologist Dr. Dolly Kikon in collaboration with organizations Sisterhood Network and Prodigal’s Home. My review of this exhibit appeared in the Morung Express on January 4, 2021.
We might ask: where do contemporary Naga eating habits come from? Where do these public conflicts about what Nagas eat touch down on other contemporary Naga issues? What might that tell us about the political conditions of everyday life in Nagaland?
The pandemic lockdown, and its associated food insecurity, joined another type of territorial lockdown in Nagaland. Only three days before the dog meat ban, the government of India renewed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). This act has been in effect in Nagaland and renewed by the government of India every six months since 1958. AFSPA marks regions as “disturbed areas” and permits Indian armed forces special powers in those areas, such that they may detain or even kill anyone based on suspicion. Furthermore, AFSPA protects members of the armed forces and exonerates them from any wrongdoing, if the suspects harmed are later found to be innocent. This act, first instituted in Nagaland, has been applied to other states in northeastern India, in Punjab and Chandigarh from 1983-1997, and Jammu and Kashmir since 1990. The act has been condemned by the United Nations as a violation of international law. Activism and government actions that cast Nagas as uncivilized fall into racist and anti-Indigenous assumptions about Nagas and perpetuate the belief that Nagaland is disturbed and, therefore, AFSPA is necessary. When AFSPA is renewed, WhatsApp conversations between Nagas remind loved ones to stay home and be careful, lest an accidental interaction with a member of the armed forces leads to a display of AFSPA’s power. AFSPA itself may be construed as a form of lockdown, in which people may not freely move through their days without threat and unease.
In a place where the “small problem” of Naga sovereignty is the punchline to formal jokes (see notes at the end), debates over what Nagas eat often overlook a critical Naga perspective that situates what Nagas eat in relation to other aspects of our cultural and political life. In other words, conversations about what Nagas eat often ignore questions of militarization, dispossession, or disenfranchisement. To consider these complex entanglements, I will examine the work of a Naga artist who centers Naga political struggles in the conversation around what Nagas eat. These questions play out in a graphic short story released shortly after the dog meat ban.
Less than a month after the dog meat ban, Naga artist Moa Lemtur, also known as Shinobi, published a graphic short story on his Instagram feed. Titled “Breakfast,” the caption said that the “short fiction is based on true events” and the only hashtag on the post was #AFSPA. This thirteen-panel story is drawn in pen and ink, exclusively black and white, except the title panel, which bears the name of the story and the disembodied head of a snarling dog. Red blood splatters out behind the head as it appears to be in an arc of flight. In the second and third panels, the text sets the scene as “circa 1960 Nagaland,” begins with a description of the legal parameters of AFSPA, and directs the reader to imagine the consequences of such a law:
“The tragedy in the presence of such draconian acts is that unimaginable terrors have been wrought on the public in the pursuance of this so called ‘order.’ Mass killings, torture, and rape of the most blood curdling heinousness have been visited upon the innocent who were simply guilty of being caught in the crossfires. Needless to say, the perpetrators were protected by an ironclad act that placed ‘order’ above human dignity and lives.”
This opening blends comic book tropes with legal footnote. Whether set in Gotham City or 1960s Nagaland, the protagonist exists within a draconian setting, evading violence and trying to survive. The third panel continues:
“Toshi, a young Naga lad looks down with horror from the cliff overlooking the burning remains of what used to be his village. He grits his teeth in helpless rage as he watches the soldiers languidly strolling about after their killings and rape. Bodies everywhere…bloodied, torn, mangled and violated. The sound of their laughter reaches him like a faint echo and he wonders if they are truly human or demons come for vengeance.”
The author continues, describing how no other people in the village escaped. The young man Toshi and his hunting dog Nok are two of three survivors, as they had been in the jungle when the soldiers arrived in the village. Toshi saw the third survivor, his own brother, taken away by the soldiers. Staying in the jungles, or “going underground,” was how many Naga families survived the 1958 occupation of Nagaland. From the clifftop, Toshi and Nok survey the devastation below, ashes, rubble, and flesh. In the midst of this horror, Toshi is drawn back to immediate needs:
“Despite the overwhelming sense of loss and rage Toshi can no longer ignore the painful rumblings his stomach was making. The soldiers had brunt [sic] all the granaries and either killed and eaten or taken whatever food there was. The vengeance would come in its own time but right now the rumblings demanded satisfaction.”
Rice granaries and a half-eaten pumpkin, Chedama, Nagaland. Photo by Elspeth Iralu, January 2020.
In panel four, the first image-based panel, a hornbill sits on top of a woven handle of a machete. Behind it, billowing clouds fill the background and vertical crosshatching suggests the air is hazy, perhaps with smoke from the burned village. A speech bubble indicates that the main character, Toshi, warns his hunting dog away from the bird: “Not the bird Nok.” In panel five, he continues: “I know you’re starving too…but not the bird.” Here, Toshi and Nok stand on top of a rock outcrop with grasses growing between fractures in the rock. Toshi is wearing traditional clothing, a loin cloth, woven greaves to protect his shins, an arm band, and two feathers on his head. We can see the chest tattoos indicating his success as a warrior. To one side is a tree stump with a machete casually stuck into it, the hornbill from the previous panel seated on the handle of the machete. On the other side are a shield and two spears stuck in the ground. One spear skewers four human skulls. From the high point of their rock outcrop, Toshi and Nok survey their village’s fields below them. We jump perspective in the sixth panel. Now, we can see the cliff on which they stand, with Toshi and Nok and the stump and spears small shadows. Below them in the fields is a traditional Naga rest house, with its iconic crossing rooflines, where people working in the field take breaks for lunch and tea. This house has open air walls and inside the house is a Christian cross. There are three men with guns in the image. One pins down to the ground a figure who does not appear to be clothed, one stands guard with his arms folded on his chest, the third man, this one mustachioed, crouches next to a wide shallow grave in which there are many unclothed bodies. Up on the cliff above, Toshi refers to the hornbill when he says to Nok: “Let at least one thing of beauty remain. Maybe it’s come to send us off on our warpath. What do you think Nok?”
The seventh panel zooms out further. Toshi and Nok are still on a cliff above the village field, the rest house with the cross inside now much smaller in our view. In the foreground is a stream with dark water swirling around two bodies. While the soldiers’ faces were cross hatched and hard to decipher in the last panel, here, the faces of the dead are detailed; you can see the traditional haircut of a Naga boy. Around the stream you can see the furrows in the fields, but no evidence of crops still growing. Toshi speaks to Nok again: “Say old friend, you remember the spiteful dog that used to steal mother’s chicken? I think I saw it slinking among the burnt ruins earlier. Maybe it was fated.”
He continues in panel eight. “First I eat and then we find a nice hare for you. Won’t do to become a cannibal, eh Nok?” Here we see Toshi in more detail, bowl cut, hornbill feathers on his head, pierced and gauged ears, tattooed chest. A dark colored dog slinks up behind him through tall grasses. Toshi continues: “Then nightfall and with the darkness we scream our battle cry. May the forefathers witness the destruction of our enemies!”
In panel nine, Toshi and Nok turn to face the intruding dog. They stand crouched, ready for attack. Now Toshi holds the machete that had been stuck in the tree stump. An almost-transparent image of the hornbill in flight is emblazoned onto the machete. When Toshi speaks this time, he addresses his brother that the soldiers took away, and promises to rescue him. The dog Nok speaks for the first time in panel ten, growling as he and Toshi lunge toward the intruding dog. Next, we see the image from the title panel, the intruding dog’s head arcing through the air, blood trailing behind, though this time, the image is black and white. A dark line connects this panel to the next one, where we see the now headless dog’s body in the air as though pouncing. Nok worries a foot in his mouth. The dark line connects to the final panel, where we see Toshi lunging, machete in hand, mid stroke. There is no hornbill in sight, other than the hornbill feathers Toshi has worn on his head throughout the panels.
Grounding the story in the context of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and setting the story in 1960s occupied Nagaland recenters the conversation from what Nagas eat, to the condition in which Nagas live. The story illustrates that Nagaland is not a political stage which displays a battle between modern, secular liberalism, and primitive barbarian practices, as it is so often represented outside of Nagaland. Rather, we see, everything that happens in Nagaland or to Nagaland or about Nagaland is foregrounded by AFSPA. We live, eat, and die in the context of AFSPA, which continues to be renewed by a vote of Indian parliament every six months, as it has been since it was first instituted in 1958.
This story complicates the current news coverage of the dog-eating ban instituted in Nagaland last summer. The artist Shinobi shows that Nagas’ relationship to domesticated animals such as dogs and to wild animals such as hornbills is more complex than the current political conversation around dog meat eating might presume. In this story, dogs are friends who work with humans, as well as occasionally enemies or breakfast. Even when Toshi decides to eat the invading dog, he makes sure to find other sustenance for his dog Nok, so that Nok will not cannibalize his own kind. Through his conversation with Nok, Toshi reveals that there are some species that have special relationships with Nagas and are therefore not to be eaten. Here, Toshi tries to decipher the meaning of the hornbill’s visit, guessing what action the visit is meant to prompt. While he will eventually hunt a small bird for Nok to eat, he makes it clear that that will not be the fate of the hornbill. Perhaps, this story suggests, what Nagas eat is not a sign of a barbarian past or violent present. Perhaps what Nagas eat, and our relationship to the wild and domestic animals around us, is rooted in our political context. Perhaps war, militarization, and AFSPA affect what we eat.
For several years now, we have been watching in anticipation as the government of India talks with a Naga political group to find a settlement that satisfies the Naga assertion of sovereignty while not affecting India’s territorial control and cartographic boundaries within the region. While the details of that settlement are yet to be made public, we have heard that “shared sovereignty” between India and Nagaland is under discussion, though we do not know the exact terms of this framework. Nagas want our own flag and constitution; India rejects that possibility. During an ordinary family dinner with grandparents and cousins, we discuss: Can Westphalian sovereignty be shared? What is this new working definition of sovereignty? What futures might shared sovereignty activate?
This image comes from online art exhibit “During the Pandemic,” exhibiting art by Naga children. The exhibit is curated by Naga anthropologist Dr. Dolly Kikon in collaboration with organizations Sisterhood Network and Prodigal’s Home. My review of this exhibit appeared in the Morung Express on January 4, 2021. Photo: Longshibeni Kikon 2020
Perhaps shared sovereignty is not something to be achieved via political negotiations, but rather a practice of sovereignty through kinship. Zubaan Books, an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi, hosted a forum called “Cultures of Peace” in Nagaland’s capital city Kohima on December 15-16, 2019.” There, Seno Tsuhah, programmes director in Nagaland for women’s rights organization North East Network, articulated a vision of “shared sovereignty” as a means to address ecological destruction in northeast India. Tsuhah’s vision differs from the visions of shared sovereignty deliberated in op-eds and legal news, which emphasize legal agreements, the geometries of national boundaries, specifications of symbology to represent the nature of a potential government-to-government relationship. As Tsuhah envisions, sovereignty starts with Indigenous peoples’ control over their own lands, resources, the ability to make decisions about how to manage those lands and resources, based on Indigenous peoples’ priorities. Shared sovereignty, Tsuhah said, “transcends borders.” We enact shared sovereignty as Indigenous peoples when we practice food sovereignty, sharing seeds, sharing knowledge, helping each other adapt to the challenges of managing our own land and resources. But sovereignty, and therefore shared sovereignty, is not just about the present and articulating our control and agency now. Sovereignty is also about a vision for the future, and shared sovereignty means creating a shared vision for how we imagine our future together. In Tsuhah’s vision, shared sovereignty means envisioning a future not just for humans, not just for Indigenous peoples, but envisioning how that political vision will make possible a future for land, soil, rivers, forests, aquatic life, and wildlife in relationship with Indigenous nations.
Confronted with the reality of devastating violence and destruction of their village, the characters Toshi and Nok could not address their pangs of hunger without establishing their relationship to each other and to people, wild animals, domesticated animals, and land around them. AFSPA initiated not just brute force and violence, but a destruction of ways of life and ways of relating to space and place. Under AFSPA, breakfast is not a given, but rather, a negotiation, a political declaration, and a mark of relationship between humans and more-than-humans. In “Breakfast,” I see glimmers of Tsuhah’s vision of shared sovereignty, where a boy, a domesticated dog, and a wild hornbill negotiate their kinship and belonging within an occupied landscape.
Notes: Abbreviated version of one such joke: The Naga representative from northeast India slept in on the day God handed out blessings; by the time the Naga showed up, God had already dispensed with gifts of brilliance to South India, beauty to north India, wealth to western India, and all God had left to give the Naga was a “small problem.” This joke takes up the colloquial collapsing of twentieth and twenty-first century Naga political movements into the single word “problem,” as in “the Naga problem.” Occasionally, people may also refer to the “Naga question” or the “Indigenous question.”
Elspeth Iralu (Angami Naga) is a cultural studies scholar whose work brings transnational American studies into critical dialogue with Indigenous geographies. Iralu is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Indigenous Planning at the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include the study of colonialism and decolonization, critical race and Indigenous studies, violence and visual culture, and social and political theory. Iralu’s current work examines the spatial surveillance of Indigenous peoples, nations, and territories in the twenty-first century to interrogate how spatial methods of counterinsurgent warfare operate as technologies of territoriality against Indigenous nations. Her writing has appeared in The New Americanist, the Journal of Native American and Indigenous Studies, And the American Association of Geographers Review of Books. She has worked on community projects for environment, health, and sovereignty with Indigenous nations in India and the United States.
Banner Image: The banner image comes from online art exhibit “During the Pandemic,” exhibiting art by Naga children. The exhibit is curated by Naga anthropologist Dr. Dolly Kikon in collaboration with organizations Sisterhood Network and Prodigal’s Home. My review of this exhibit appeared in the Morung Express on January 4, 2021. Photo by Longshibeni Kikon, 2020.