Operation hornbill festival 2004

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IN Northeast India, the term ‘operation’ invokes a disturbing history of military exercises related to counter insurgency. Decades of security operations in the region have left behind a sordid saga of human rights violations. India’s Northeast is one of the most militarised regions in South Asia. However, of late, the discourse on the region has shifted away from a crude counter insurgency induced vision of the region towards a ‘Look East policy’ that at first glace offers a different perspective based on a combination of development necessities and historical links between the region and its Southeast Asian neighbourhood.1

It is apparent that the Look East policy is primarily being pursued as an economy-centric endeavour with visions of a prosperous Northeast connected in more ways than one to the markets of Southeast Asia. The policy envisages the growth of communication, industries and trade that will (ostensibly) enable the people in the Northeast region to significantly improve their quality of lives. While this may sound like a feasible project, doubts remain about what will constitute the nitty-gritty of this project. ‘Soft’ resources, like cultural contiguity with Southeast Asian neighbours and India’s Northeast, seem like an area where much can be accomplished. It is in this sphere that imaginative policies can be formulated.

The promotion of the Naga hornbill festival as a major tourist attraction is therefore a recent trend to that effect – an event celebrating culture, food and handicraft all laid out for those willing to taste and buy ‘culture’. The hornbill festival is part of a larger campaign promoting the Northeast region as a ‘tourist destination’. The emergence of a new imagination in the subcontinent constructs the region as a cultural hub encompassing everything there is to see and taste in Southeast Asia within the territory of South Asia.

In an effort to promote the Look East policy, the Indian government has obliquely recognized the close historical and cultural ties that the Northeast region shares with its Southeast Asian counterparts.2 However, it would be wise not to romanticize the new enthusiasm with which the Government of India seems to be handling the region. This article is less optimistic about the possibilities and seeks to outline the hegemony of the security discourse, where events like the Naga Hornbill Festival 2004 are not merely about ‘showcasing unique cultures’ but also a matter of giving the army/paramilitary a greater say over civic events and policy-making.

What is the Naga hornbill festival and what does it signify? In 2000, the Government of Nagaland initiated the hornbill festival project as a cultural event that coincided with Nagaland statehood day on 1 December. Statehood is a very contentious political issue for Nagas. Nagaland was inaugurated as the sixteenth state within the Indian Union in 1963, the result of a negotiation3 between the Government of India and a section of Naga elites, generally known as the ‘moderates’ in the Naga national movement.4 Six years (1957-1963) of political negotiation between Naga People’s Convention (Naga moderates) and the Government of India enabled a Naga elite to consolidate state power under the leadership of the first chief minister of Nagaland, P. Shilu Ao, and to adopt to the Indian model of parliamentary political parties (on the lines of the National Congress).

However, the struggle for self determination did not end with the formation of Nagaland. Instead the armed struggle for Naga independence re-emerged as a rallying point for not ‘selling out’ to pecuniary inducement. Hence, celebration of statehood became an act of compromise, thereby encouraging a parallel politics of commemorating Naga national martyrs and 14 August by sections of Naga political society.5 The Indo-Naga ceasefire signed between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) and the Government of India in 1997 changed the political milieu in Naga society.

It was within such a political glasnost that the Government of Nagaland embarked upon the hornbill festival. Naga civil society organisations were invited to join and create a platform dedicated to initiating peace and reconciliation among the Naga people. At a consultative meeting before the festival was launched, participants suggested that if the government was serious about the Indo-Naga ceasefire, the hornbill festival should be an appropriate occasion to bring together various Naga communities – not only to showcase their handloom but also share a civic space that was not defined by the militarised political milieu of the region.

The hornbill festival (as an annual event) started with great pomp on 1 December 2004 near Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. It was advertised in national journals, newspapers and weeklies. The text of a glossy advertisement in a national weekly called an untrained audience to ‘…experience the diverse pulsating rhythms and colours of Nagaland’ and was accompanied by visual images of Naga men in traditional attire beating on a wooden drum; Naga women serving food cooked in stems of bamboo hollows as well as two Naga men helping each other ‘suit up’ in traditional gear.6 The five day event was meant to draw people from all over the region and indeed from other parts of the world as well.

The festival venue was done up as though it were a Naga village, complete with ceremonial gates, amphitheatres, boys’ dormitories, granaries and so on. Sixteen different huts, signifying the 16 Naga tribes that (officially) inhabit Nagaland were constructed with the token huts of Kuki and Kachari communities thrown in.7 As advertised, the colours and tastes were truly unlike anything one would see in festivals in South Asia. Where else would pork, beef and assorted Naga delicacies be so grandly offered to people in the largely vegetarian Hindu heartland of mainland India? Where else would people strip down to their shawls and mekhelas (sarongs), traditional headgear and display tattoos with ‘Mettalica’ inscribed on their backs?8 And on a more cautious note, where else would the army play such a big role in organising and participating in an event meant to showcase ‘culture’?

Kisema, the location of the ‘Naga heritage village’, where the festival was hosted lies on the historic Burma Road that links Kohima to Imphal and beyond. As one negotiates the mountainous terrain to reach the venue of the hornbill festival, concrete posts on the road side remind travellers of the historical importance of the road where fierce battles were fought during World War II between the Allies and the Japanese. Alongside epitaphs of Naga national martyrs beside the highway, serpentine lines of Indian security personnel, in an ironical twist in the script, patrol the mountains providing security for generals and politicians who seek to save the nation. Amidst all the frenzy of guns, mountain patrols and traffic jams, beautiful Naga girls adorned with shells, bells and colourful beads along with handsome Naga men with tattoos and feathers trying hard to look like modern ‘warriors’, are preparing to sing and dance at the hornbill festival.

Throughout the event, personnel of the Assam Rifles – a paramilitary force notorious for their human rights violations in the hills of Northeast India – were stationed at strategic points. On 2 December 2004, one of the ‘honoured guests’ at the festival was the current Director General of the paramilitary force, Bhupinder Singh. He arrived, with his family and entourage, to view the Naga dances. Other guests included a World War II veteran, whose trip to visit the site of his battles had been sponsored by the British government. The war veteran sat on a podium along with the paramilitary officials and their families. In front of them, cultural troupes from different Naga communities and villages performed their complicated dances. Behind the artists sat a quiet audience of thousands – Nagas, some Indians, and media – and they watched the men of war watch the dancers and them.

This ironic interplay of audience and performers seemed like an apt and poignant reminder of the ubiquitous presence of men in uniform in the region. Surrounding the amphitheatre where the dances were performed, Assam Rifles personnel were mulling around makeshift first aid stalls, ostensibly manning them, while they clicked photographs and videotaped the event. The master of ceremonies periodically asked members of the audience (mainly over-enthusiastic tourists and camera persons) to ‘stay off’ the performing area, as it caused ‘inconvenience to the artists’. Clearly, such exhortations were not meant for the paramilitary personnel, who jumped right into the centre of things, zealously recording the embarrassing occasion of their officers trying to keep pace with an Ao war dance.9 It was abundantly clear that even though the hornbill festival was a government initiative that sought to involve civil society, it was the security personnel who provided the logistical support.

The role of the military in civic events in the Northeast is not new. It is centrally tied to efforts to contain insurgency. The Indian state has followed its aggressive policy of containment overriding human rights issues along with psychological operations.10 The ‘smiling policy’ (sic) initiated by the Indian security forces tried to win people over by making friends with them with food rations and medical aid to the villages.

As part of the smiling policy, an Indian army general, in his public speech in a Naga village, stated: ‘Yesterday we came to your village as enemies, today we come as friends. Together the Nagas and we will build this nation into a great nation. Your contribution is important. You are a wonderful people, a hard working people and without the Nagas, without the hill people, we are not complete. You are not complete without the Indians and altogether we are all Indians. I am very happy to be in your village. Your Nagaland history is my history. My history is your history. Today I have brought a few gifts for all of you.’11

The ‘gift’ comprised cases of rum bottles which were distributed to the villagers who were very happy. For the next few days they were all drunk. While food and rum are distributed, the Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights, in its report ‘Violations of Civil and Political Rights in Naga Areas’, gives a chronology of abuses by the Indian Army from 1948 till the present day.12 The British Broadcasting Corporation report on Nagaland described the region as ‘sealed off from the outside world, (and) home to one of the world’s longest running insurgencies…no one knows exactly how many people have been killed in the conflict, but some estimate that between 100,000 and 200,000 have been killed.’13

The government’s failure to tackle Naga insurgency has only made military control more rigid and powerful through various laws and regulations. Thus, Naga society has been influenced by the Indian military establishment, not as a result of a deliberate choice of the people but as a result of an accumulation of military decisions and commitments that have been beyond the control of democratic processes.

In the meantime, crucial matters relating to human rights violations and justice remain unresolved. For instance, despite the peppy display of good intent on the part of the Assam Rifles director general (at the hornbill festival), allegations of torture and rape are not easily forgotten. According to a recent news report, the 19 Rajput Regiment stationed at Tuilaphai (Manipur) has been involved in a counter insurgency operation since October 2004.14 In a report submitted by the village chiefs to the Manipur Hills Journalist Union office, people in Tipaimukh, Thanlon and Henglep constituencies were being subjected to draconian restrictions. Surveillance on food items, restrictions on transportation of medicines, battery, candles, kerosene and other essential commodities were a part of the restrictions imposed by the Indian security personnel. Cases of deaths from want of medical attention and food were being reported as late as January 2005.15

Local people complained that they were being used as human shields and were coerced into forced labour by the security personnel. They also reported having being beaten up for ‘not being able to speak in Hindi’.16 The chief also said that army personnel had occupied Pangshang Church and the local people were not allowed to worship there. The villagers, according to the report, were therefore forced to shift their village. All this continues to take place barely a few hundred kilometres from Kisema (the venue of the hornbill festival) barely a month after the hornbill celebrations.

The former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, recently spoke of ‘the establishment of an East Asian community’ where India should be included to ‘expand the market… (and) force more specialization and division of labour.’17 While political opinion in Southeast Asia favours India’s Look East policy, one needs to take into consideration India’s view of Southeast Asia mirrored in its policies in its Northeastern backyard. Decades of dependence on a seriously flawed military orientation have led to a pejorative depiction of the ‘Orient at its doorstep.’ 18

There exists a dangerous disconnect in the common Indian appreciation of the myriad histories of the aspirations of the indigenous peoples of the Northeast. ‘Thin on facts, lacking in true curiosity, replete with confident naiveties, picturesque clichés and spicy exoticisms,’ allows for sociological shorthand that is anything but innocent.19 This view merges with a notion that the army simply must be allowed a free run and serves as a handy justification for oppression. Showcase events like the horn-bill festival, with catchy slogans coined in sanitised offices of the tourism department, hide a murky story of the hegemonic control of the military establishment in civil and political affairs in the Northeast. If anything, they add to the distortion of everyday realities that are vital in reconstituting the social and political voice of the people. This is where the Look East policy confronts a world outside economic rhetoric.

The experience of the Naga Hornbill Festival 2004 is a reminder of the emergence of a parasitic dependency that people in the Northeast region in general and the Naga people in particular are entering into, with Indian security institutions. The dynamics of political and social history in the region have created a situation where-by public space and administration have been co-opted by military and security structures. Thus, with the selective silence on the current Look East policy, it is not difficult to imagine the Northeast region as an economic-military zone whereby security, trade and market are regulated by the army and their paid warlords, where justice and peace are as marketable as the exotica on display at the hornbill festival.


1. For detailed analyses of emerging possibilities of transnational politics and India’s Look East policy see: Sanjib Baruah, Between South and Southeast Asia: Northeast India and the Look East Policy (Ceniseas Papers). Guwahati: Centre for Northeast India, South and Southeast Asia Studies, OKD Institute of Social Change and Development, 2004.

2. Refer to I.K. Gujral’s speech (minister of external affairs and water resources of India) in the first meeting of the ASEAN-Indian joint cooperation committee, New Delhi, 14-16 November 1996. http://www.aseansec.org/4338.htm

3. The 16 point agreement, signed between the Naga moderates and the Government of India led to the creation of Nagaland state. However, this agreement has been looked upon as a ‘betrayal’ by the Nagas in general since the Indo-Naga conflict has not only become intense but it has led to a division of the Naga polity leading to fratricidal killings.

4. The moderates formed the Naga People’s Convention under the guidance of S.M. Dutt, Deputy Director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau.

5. 14 August 1947 was the date the Nagas declared their independence from British India. Significantly, this date is one day ahead of the official date for Indian independence. August 14 celebrations were an eyesore for the Indian administration during the days of counter-insurgency and various laws were imposed to prevent people from commemorating ‘Naga Independence Day’. After the Indo-Naga ceasefire in 1997, the administration has been turning a ‘Nelson’s eye’ to such events. Local rumours suggest that these days, even Indian army officials are invited by the Naga army to ‘celebrate Naga Independence Day’!

6. ‘Hornbill Festival 2004’ issued by the Directorate of Tourism, Government of Nagaland in Outlook, 29 November 2004.

7. The 16 huts – each assigned to one of the 16 Naga tribes in the state of Nagaland – immediately raised concerns about the political implications of leaving out Naga communities living in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Assam and Burma.

8. A young Ao male dancer from a village near Mokukchung had ‘Metallica’ tattooed on his back. His village does not have a tattoo parlour, instead villagers practice tattooing as they did in the past. The ‘tradition and modernity’ motif – the kind that makes anthropologists swoon – rests easy in a land where most youth have been educated in missionary schools and English is a link language. Of course, the effects of ‘westernization’ leading to ‘drugs and rock and roll’ is also a discourse that has its takers in Nagaland but this paper does not wish to enter into that largely obscure debate as yet.

9. The Ao warrior dance involves a series of vigorous, complicated movements by trained dancers beating their small war drums. Even a spontaneous dance requires teamwork. Therefore, a performance at the hornbill festival must have taken weeks, if not months, of painstaking training and coordination. It is also a dance that gets people tapping their feet and moving to the rhythm of the drums. Halfway through the performance, the paramilitary officers and their families decided that it was time for them to shake a leg. The dance was disrupted in order to allow them to clumsily try their steps, drawing derisive laughter from the audience.

10. The Amnesty International report on ‘Operation Bluebird’ described the Indian government’s official reaction to the allegations of large scale abuses and India reaction: ‘the central government condoned the abuses, resisting many appeals that it order an investigation into the allegations. The Assam Rifles – who report directly to the central government’s Home and Defence Ministries – attempted to cover up the abuses by wide scale harassment and intimidation of villagers, especially those willing to testify in court. The Assam Rifles threatened witnesses and some were arrested and tortured again in order to make them retract their accusations.’ See Amnesty International report, ‘India: Operation Bluebird: A Case Study of Torture and Extrajudicial Executions in Manipur’, October 1990. AI INDEX: ASA 20/17/90/ DISTR: SC/CO/GR.

11. For more details see: IWGIA (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs), ‘The Naga Nation and its Struggle Against Genocide’, No. 56, 1986.

12. Naga Peoples Movement on Human Rights, ‘Report on Violation of Civil and Political Rights in Naga Areas’ http://www. npmhr.org/chronology.htm. Last accessed on 15 May 2004.

13. BBC News, Jill McGivering, ‘Nagas ask the price of peace’ http://newsvote.bbc.co.uk/mpapps/pagetools/print/news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south/_asia Last accessed on 4 January 2004.

14. ‘CI Operations take toll on common people’, Nagaland Page 6(212), 4 January 2005, Dimapur.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. As quoted in P.S. Suryanarayana, ‘Lee backs India’s inclusion in “East Asian community” ’ in The Hindu, 22 December 2004.

18. For more details on the manner in which the Indian public and political class view the Nagas (and other Northeastern communities) see: Ram Narayan Kumar and Laxmi Murthy, Four Years of the Ceasefire Agreement between the Government of India and The National Socialist Council of Nagalim: Promises and Pitfalls, New Delhi: Other Media Communications, 2002, pp. 163-164.

19. Ibid.