Friday, December 18, 2015

A Local and a Tourist

A local and a tourist may be both interested in a place but it may be for very different reasons. A case in point is a commentary that this newspaper carried ‘Hornbill: The Grand Illusion’ written by a local, and a response called ‘A reader’s response’ by a tourist. One difference between a local and a tourist is that if the later does not like the place, he can pack and leave and never come again. But a local does not have that liberty because the place is his home and that is where he belongs. A tourist does not need to have any connection to the place. But not so for the local, everything that happens in the place affects him.   

The tourist here was not interested in the context. He was only interested in what he experienced during the 10 days festival period. It doesn’t concern him what lies behind or beneath the spectacle of Hornbill festival. But for the local, context matters and he spoke in the context of lived reality. He had the ability to connect the dots and create connections because he lives in that reality. He referred to the lack of opposition in a democracy, the implications of the socio-political and religious life of the Nagas, unpaid salaries of thousands of Government employees, CAG reports and unfulfilled projects running into thousands of crores of rupees, and the discontents of the people in the run-up to the festival. But from a hotel room, it is understandable that an outsider cannot create the connections. That is alright for a tourist (so long as he does not pass judgments). It is more of a concern that locals could lead schizophrenic lives and is as unable as a tourist to make the connections.   

For a tourist, it is not easy to identify ‘exhibitionism and commodification’ of culture that the local alluded to. Therefore, an outsider questioning a local’s analysis of his own culture and calling it ‘an exercise in intellectual snobbery’ speaks of who the real snob is. Some tourists read the history and culture of the people they will be visiting and are mindful of the sensibilities of the local people. A ‘cultural team’ comes in jeans and latest modern fashion and changes to a costume which covers only a fraction of the body, puts up a show for a price, and leaves as he came. And that is defined as ‘promotion of culture’. Perhaps against such things, the local spoke.

Locals speak out in the hope that things can be better. It is not criticism for the sake of criticism from a safe distance. Locals ought to raise uncomfortable questions and bear the responsibility of living with what one had said. ‘Why be so negative?’ some people who follow ‘positive attitude’ as a religion say when such uncomfortable issues are raised. But it is extremely important that there are voices of self-critique (without going into cynicism). That can be a positive sign, that people do care and they truly have a sense of belonging and responsibility to the place.     

Is there gender inequality in Nagaland?

The title seems like a no-brainer that the existence of gender inequality in Nagaland should be put into question. But surprisingly many males including educated people in leadership positions hold the view that there is no gender discrimination in Nagaland. Therefore, before going into enumerating or highlighting the degree of gender discrimination, it may be worth looking at the debate on the existence of gender inequality itself.

We hear it from the pulpit or elsewhere which goes something like this: Once upon a time, there was gender inequality when Nagas practiced headhunting. There were battles between villages/tribes and therefore male warriors and boys were regarded over women and girls. Due to customary practices and the traditional way of life, men occupied all the leadership positions. But with the coming of Christianity and modern education, there is no more gender inequality. Girls are doing really well in studies and are beating boys in exams. Women are becoming officers. But is that assessment true and does it correspond with reality?

This year, I had two experiences which cement the fact that our Naga society is discriminating towards women. “Two experiences? We experience discrimination every day”, womenfolk will say and they are right. One only has to ask a woman, any woman, and you will be told that genders are indeed not equal. It is in our very system; it is in how the society, families, and various institutions are structured and run. Why some men miss it is probably because it is inbuilt in the system. Let me proceed with my two experiences anyway. I was a member of a study team on infant and maternal mortality and travelled to several villages to talk to people. I stayed in one village for a few days and in one of the meetings, I talked to the village council members. All the 52 members of the village council were males and I asked why. The explanation given was that the Naga villages are run as per Naga customary law where the village council is the ‘court’ as well as the ‘police’ of the village. Therefore women in the traditional custom of the Nagas cannot be enforcers of the law. The leaders said that crucial issues are discussed which cannot even be spoken of at home. Therefore in matters which concerns security of the village, it will require strong-headed males who will not crumble under pressure and divulge the matters being discussed. The leaders opined that equal gender representation or 33% women reservation is not applicable in the Naga society because it will go against the customary practices of the Nagas. There were other derogatory comments and male chauvinistic talks which were not worth recording. But the pervasive male dominant attitude came out strongly from that interview. It is not confined to rural areas. In my other experience, there was a talk from a church pulpit in our Capital city that with the coming of Christianity, gender discrimination is gone. It was uttered with a sense that this ‘equality’ was a gift that women received (as a result of religious ‘enlightenment’), rather than a Right which is inherent. Such attitude which is dismissive of the existence of gender discrimination provides no stimulus to work towards gender equality.

Data in wide ranging areas show that gender disparity is prevalent. For example, in Nagaland the gender gap in literacy rate is 6.6% in 2011 census. The same data source shows that in some districts, the female literacy is still below the State’s average of 10 years ago. That means a lot of women are over 10 years behind the average Naga in terms of literacy.  

Naga society is in transition where age-old understanding of male dominance and superiority coexists with increasing understanding of gender equality. Although mindsets are slowly changing, the structures and systems of the society are even slower to change. It will require more than letting things run its ‘natural course’, hoping that people will eventually become aware that gender discrimination do exist ‘even’ in our society and in our own homes.

Hornbill Festival: The need to get it right

The severest criticism of Hornbill Festival is perhaps not in the things which happen during the 10 days festival period but in what ‘does not happen’ during the remaining 355 days of the year. Nagas celebrate many festivals and many of them are related to work. For example, there are sowing and harvest festivals. Sowing festival is celebrated because there is sowing, and harvest festival is celebrated for harvest. But if sowing or harvest festival is celebrated without sowing or harvesting, something is wrong. If the State carries out cosmetic works on the eve of Hornbill Festival, it is unlikely that people who suffer throughout the year for its inactions will suddenly cheer up on December 1, forget everything and join in the festivities. Nagaland needs to work much harder to deserve to celebrate the festival of festivals. We do not want to travel in roads painted black or splashed with water to avoid dust during Hornbill, we want the real stuff and we want it all through the year. We don’t want band-aid treatments and white-washed walls; we want real cures and real solid development works. We do not want to live in a temporary make-believe world for 10 days; we want things to be better in our everyday lives.   
Hornbill Festival 2015 kicked off in the backdrop of agitation for release of student scholarship, non-release of pay for NRHM staffs, RMSA recruitment controversy, and court examination of CM’s education qualification, just to cite a few newspaper headlines on December 1. For the tourists and first time visitors who may be reading the State newspapers in their hotel rooms or traveling in the interior parts of Nagaland, it is clear that things are not what how they are projected. Reality is harsh here in Nagaland. The journey of the so-called Naga caravan has been bumpy for as long as we can remember and our backs are sore. In our road of progress and development, the State and its machineries have a knack for getting it wrong. Be it recruitment/appointment and disbursement of salaries, development projects and construction works, delivering of services and justice, or way of public dealings and behavior, we seem to have the habit of getting it wrong. Hardly any State-run machinery, institution, or project is operating at optimum level. Our development projects are often ‘in the pipeline’ and ‘file is under process’; the standard government replies for non-performance. Once a construction project is made, it is constructed in the wrong location (to be occupied by ghosts and wild animals), walls start to wear off before inauguration, or there is low performance and zero maintenance. When criticized, there is no shortage of responses, one being that people should not have negative attitude!

Hornbill Festival has a place and it ought to be promoted. There are positive vibes about it for which there is large inflow of local and foreign visitors. There must be many things where we get it right, especially in terms of creativity and organization. But if we are not careful, it has the chance of a downward spiral, like any other government projects. We are starting to see signs of stagnation and losing of enthusiasm. For example, this year the Egyptian-god inspired advertisement for Hornbill Festival was a turn-off, so bad that you cannot just look at it. Is acceptance of such shoddy work of art by the government a sign that we are even losing our imaginations? It is high time that we listen to the critics and get things right. 

Most importantly, to let people warm up to Hornbill Festival, we need to see real work during the remaining 355 days. To celebrate the festival, we need to keep our house (State) in order and get things right. We need to earn the right to celebrate Hornbill Festival.