Book review: A Naga Odyssey

Book review: A Naga Odyssey

Visier's story is riveting, a saga of suffering, fortitude and perseverance interspersed with the Naga tales of struggle for freedom.

A Naga Odyssey 

Failure to integrate the North-East remains a blot on Indian republic. Home to myriad tribes with their own unique history and culture, the region largely remains alien to a great majority of Indians and political leaders. Delhi used to be dismissive about their demands for non-interference in their affairs often triggering a backlash. Nagas, in particular, were anxious that their culture and freedoms would be compromised under Indian rule. Since August 14, 1947, when A Z Phizo declared independence, the area has remained a hotbed of insurgency. Mighty Indian army has failed to quell the Naga spirit of freedom. Over one lakh Nagas are believed to have lost their lives in the struggle. First, the enemy was the British, and then India.

Nagas resent being branded primitive and tribal. They believe that they have the right to live together with their own laws and their own culture. They also voice their right to inherit their ancestral land. However, they are scattered across four states in India and Myanmar. Visier Meyasetsu Sanyü is a Naga historian who articulates the Naga aspirations and frustrations in his memoir A Naga Odyssey -My long way home. Visier hails from the Meyasetsu clan of the Angami tribe from Khonoma village, the epicentre of armed resistance to foreign occupation in Nagaland. At the age of five, he had to flee to the jungle with his family when the army burnt down his village. They survived for over two years in the forests in a traumatic state of semi-starvation.

Visier's schooling in turbulent Nagaland has not been easy. When he was selected to Sainik School in Bhubaneswar, his family was happy. The quality of education there appealed to him. But in the fourth year following a brutal attack on Naga students on the campus, he abandoned studies. A sympathiser of Naga National Council from childhood, he had developed a deep distrust of everything Indian. The experience in the Sainik School only reinforced Sanyu's convictions. He finished matriculation in Shillong and moved to Darjeeling for college education. He was passionate about seeking through higher education a deeper understanding of Naga history. He studied history at the North Eastern Hills University in Shillong, and became the first Angami PhD in history. When the Nagaland University was formed, he was given the task of setting up the department of archaeology and history. But that tenure was cut short by the daily dose of violence. He fled to Australia with his wife and three children only to live there for two decades.

Visier's story is riveting, a saga of suffering, fortitude and perseverance interspersed with the Naga tales of struggle for freedom. A Naga who refuses to call himself an Indian, Visier firmly believes that Nagaland is an occupied territory that has nothing in common with India. In some respects, he has found British colonialism a shade better than Indian rule as the whites ruled indirectly causing minimal damage to Naga culture and language. He considers the regularly misused Armed Forces Special Areas Act which gives soldiers the power to shoot anyone on suspicion as the main cause of Naga alienation.

Visier talks about a few encounters that changed his views. While at school, he saw an international musical revue called Anything to Declare? It featured true stories of forgiveness and reconciliation. "I was deeply confronted by their message of reconciliation." In 1974, he joined the touring company Song of Asia, which "would change my life, and create a chain of friends across the world that vibrates to this day." Its theme was also on forgiveness. A character declares: "If I can have the courage to kill a man, why cannot I also have the courage to love him enough to make him a different man?"

During his tours across the nations, he came into contact with many individuals representing indigenous cultures and developed close affinity with them. Colonialism damages cultures. ''...All indigenous people share a common grief, sadness and anger that something has been taken away from them,'' Visier writes. What Nagas lost was independence and sovereignty. Though he found himself at home in Australia, it was a long struggle for survival with financial woes. He confesses: "My family is now part of a global migration story, of the constant search for where is home."

That search for home culminates in 2015 with his return to his native village. There Visier has created a 12-acre Healing Garden providing some healing touch in his own way. His engrossing story is about refugees all around the world who have had to flee from violent and political oppression. For anyone who wants to get to know Nagas and their history, this book is invaluable.