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Op-Ed

My Years in Service

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By EMN Updated: Sep 12, 2013 10:24 pm
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Continued 5…

The most permanent factor of change is change itself. But try applying this to the Naga context and even this idiom faces challenges, especially when it comes to some ‘habits’ like hunting as an example. Read on….

Khekiye K. Sema

AGHUNATO comprised of 64 villages with one Circle Officer’s HQs at Asuto, an Area Superintendent’s HQS at Hoshepu and a Block Development Officer headquartered at Tokiye.
It was necessary to quickly get acquainted with the GBs of all the villages under my jurisdiction and therefore a general meeting was summoned. At that time, not a single educational institute worth the name existed except the Government High School. It was in fact started by my Late father Khelhoshe as its first Head Master when it was still an ME School, way back in 1953-54. I heard very many memorable stories of his time and work from the elder people of the area during those days when Aghunato was a veritable jungle. It warmed my heart as they affectionately related the events of those difficult years. It encouraged me to further the cause of education that my Late father had begun, considering the standard of our Government run institutes which was no different in Aghunato then. The problem was being accentuated by the powerful Sumi Church Organization having issued a general promulgation not to allow any Catholic institution to be opened in the Sumi region for fear of conversion while not doing anything else to improve or create alternatives. Having been brought up in a Catholic institution myself, I felt that this was a bigoted attitude unfairly detrimental to the younger generation from poorer strata. The richer people were being able to send their children to better Catholic institution outside the state. A serious rethink was therefore being slated for discussion. During the general meeting Mr. Khevishe the Head GB of Tsukomi village (the father of Mr. Kughato, my Special DB), a very blunt out spoken old man pass his prime, pulled my legs to a point of severe embarrassment. I was still not fluent in Sumi dialect then. He said I was speaking like some non-local people enthusiastically singing in a flat tune and followed it up with a deadly comment about my mustache. “Just be your age son,” he said, “Your mustache makes you look a little older but not wiser. Shave it off. It only resembles a bush somewhere in between the women’s legs”.
The whole house erupted with laughter at my expense. It was said in good humor without malice and I too joined them in a laugh at myself without offence, albeit with a warmer face. In response I only requested him to keep his peace for the rest of the meeting because his shaven mouth didn’t make him look any younger and it too looked like a tired shaven part of the same area of a woman he referred to, causing others an unnecessary distraction. Anyway, after the second round of laughter at his expense this time, we settled down to discuss the advantages of a Catholic school and their systematic manner of raising the children. Without a disciplined upbringing the future of their children would be that much tougher in a competitive world. As for that fear of conversion into Catholicism, the choice was up to the individual and would not be forced upon anyone. I let them know that I
belonged to one such school and that I still was a Baptist. All the GBs overwhelmingly agreed to invite the Catholics to open a school. I took the responsibility of speaking to the Bishop. I met up with the Bishop at Dimapur at the first opportune time. His first enquiry was: “How many Catholic families are there in Aghunato?” Adopting the Konyak manner of speaking I candidly response to him saying: “ The Catholics have never heard of Aghunato. The people there haven’t heard of Catholicism. How many families do you expect? Without planting a sapling how do you expect a tree to grow? So come and plant a sapling.
The elders of the area are welcoming you despite the promulgation of the Sumi Church Organization. Know that this is a significant decision on their part.” I also let him know that a free land has been demarcated for this purpose. He then frankly told me that the primary objective of the Catholics was to first establish their Parish with school as their secondary input, not the other way round. The Bishop then conceded to a Parish school for Aghunato starting the next academic season. The GBs of Aghunato had taken the first step with courage to breached the dogmatic stance of the Sumi Church.
Not long after this, my Special DB confronted me with an awkward proposition. Over 70-80 households from Tsukomi village had secretly migrated to Dimapur he said, without traditional approval of his father Khevishe the Hd. GB. They were mostly “aqu axes” or bonded laborers. Mr. Vihuto, the SDO(C) before me, had in fact detailed Police for him to round up the runaways but on reaching Dimapur all had scattered into different villages and could not be traced. His mission unaccomplished, he wanted me to have the Police detailed once again. I firmly told him that the status of a bonded laborer is illegal under the Law and every individual had the freedom to choose where he/she wants to live. Police would not be detailed for this.
Even if he forced the return of those who had left the village I would still give them that liberty to go back to Dimapur should they so choose. I advised him against the futility of this exercise and to let the matter rest. He was still upset with my refusal. “But Mr. Vihuto SDO (C) had detailed Police for me” he insisted. I flatly told him that I was not Vihuto. The matter ended there with a ‘Special’ resentment registered against the SDO( C ). I had no intention of building a team on foul foundation even if it meant shaking the main support pillar.
For the sake of continuity let me repeat the story that has already been shared with the reader in my earlier articles… the unannounced visit to Zheyishe Village. It was around 7.30am just 35 minutes drive from Aghunato HQ. The whole village was deserted except for some very old babysitting folks physically unable to go to the kheti. I had intended to see how the village school was functioning. It however surprised me to see the village LP School locked down so early in the morning… no teachers, no students. When I enquired from one of the oldies why the school was closed and also the whereabouts of the teachers and the students, I heard a very amazing story.
This old man nonchalantly said that the school children had all gone into the jungle. His answer immediately tickled my curiosity. On a closer enquiry I found that the children were out on an extracurricular subject assigned by the teacher. Having conveniently dispensed off his students, the lone teacher in this village had already left the village premises for the ‘shopping mall’ at Aghunato Town. “What extracurricular subject?” I asked. “Ohh” he said in a feebly modulated tone, “I saw all the children go home, pick up their ‘akusu’ (traditional bird trapping bamboo contraption) and head for the jungle after their roll call. I am told they have to catch birds”.
It was obvious the school session had ended before it had begun. “Catch birds for what?” I questioned. The old man said, “My grandson was saying that the teacher had instructed them to trap birds and bring it home to him by the evening for mark assessment. I’m told the students are given marks according to the size of the birds they catch…the bigger the birds the higher the marks”. I was stumped but continued, “What happens to the birds after marks are given?” The experienced old man replied with a smirk in his wrinkled face, “I seriously suspect the birds are hygienically introduced to axone, chili and salt in the teacher’s cooking pot”. Perhaps the teacher had run out of salt to add to the extracurricular subject and had therefore gone shopping. “How often does such extracurricular subject get taught in a week?” I persisted desperately trying to suppress the amusement from my voice. “Ahh I don’t keep counts but by the way the children go to the jungle almost every other day it seems like an important compulsory subject regularly being taught” said he with a straight face. The teacher was summoned to my office sometime later.
He had already heard about my village visit and before I could say anything he rendered his profuse apology with assurance that he would stop eating bird’s meat. I only warned him that the lives of the children were not his to be played with and that I would be paying surprise visit in the future. It would cost him his service the next time.
At that time Asuto Circle Officer (CO) had still not been posted. The administration was getting bogged down with a growing demand that this CO HQs should be shifted to Achikuchu village. Asuto was established after a Govt. High Power Committee had inspected the area. Having verified the background a general area meeting involving the nineteen villages under this circle was summoned and the subject was decisively closed. Change of Asuto HQs was no longer an issue and it would be futile for them to keep pursuing the matter. Due to uncertainty of a running dispute for a shift of HQs, public had still not bothered to settle in Asuto. Not long after, Mr. K.Nzumungo Ngulley, a young bachelor and an acquaintance at that stage, was posted as my Circle Officer. I personally took him down to Asuto. Somehow I couldn’t help feel sorry for him. The sum total of Asuto township comprised of just 5 Govt. quarters. The only human companion he would have there were the three DBs, Kishihe and Hevuto and Heyito, an LDA a peon and a chawkidar. The work-charge dak-runner added to Asuto population with
the only private house in town that did not e ist. That was it. It was a fraction better than a solitary confinement in jail. A week had passed. A very troubled Mr.K.N. Ngulley was back at Aghunato. “Sir” he said gravely, “I have come up to submit my resignation”. He was all packed to quit and go home. I couldn’t blame him for feeling that way. That night he and I had a serious talk over dinner. I berated him for his lack of resolve. I reminded him of the student days when we all had big dreams with big talks about serving our people. Well this was it. Giving up at a drop of a hat when met with the first challenge betrays a lack of character. I asked him to seriously rethink this over that night first and let me know his decision the next morning.
He had made up his mind the next morning to go back to Asuto and accept the challenge. I was pleased with his decision but it was worrisome to leave him there without any worthwhile assignment. Something had to be initiated to keep him occupied. A public meeting was called at Asuto and a proposal to start a school was launched. At that time Mr. Shetovi, from Satami village had just graduated and was hanging around doing nothing. He was roped in as the first Head Master. Together they started the Asuto proceeding High School with a few additional teachers from Assam. The Circle Officer (CO) spent his leisure time, (which was the whole day, every day), as a part time teacher as well. There comes a time in everyone’s life to start thinking of settling down. It was no different for CO Asuto, especially with his isolated situation. One evening during his visit to Aghunato, he candidly related his difficulty about having found his mate but the father of the girl was not showing the right kind of enthusiasm. I shared with him my personal experience. He was very encouraged by my story and decided to threaten his prospective Father-in-law, with elopement. He successfully got married within five/ six months thereafter…without getting shot.
Sometime later I did an official tour of Asuto with my CO as a queue for him to learn his ropes of administrative initiative. It was a three days tracking trip all the way up to Khumishimi village crossing Achikuchu, Yeshito, Akhakhu and Atunakugha villages en route. It was an eye-opener for me as well. This part of the story has also been written earlier. Aghunato falls under economically backward area but the sector that I was traversing were further down in the scale of backwardness… no roads, no electricity, no water supply no nothing.
Unlike Zheyishe village visit, since my tour was pre-notified, all the village schools were opened and running. I noticed that many of the students in these village schools were already fairly well built folks you wouldn’t want to mess around with. The general feedback of the functioning of these schools from the elders of the villages threw up one desperate picture. I shall restrain myself from identifying the name of these villages… Achikuchu, Yeshito, Akhakhu, Atunakugha and Khumishi… to spare them the embarrassment but the standard occurrence in all these village schools was more or less the same: The village teacher would come to school with his “azuta”(machete) in his ‘asachi’ (wooden dao casing) and a spear which is firmly planted in the school compound next to him; He would then proceed with a roll call: Khumtsa?… “Ani akijeu (present sir)”… “you stand to the right”, the teacher would say. Akhakhu?… Ani akijeu… you stand in the middle. Imusayebo (translated meaning of this name: my elder brother’s Tiffin box)?…Ani akijeu… you stand to the left and this would go on till the roll call is completed. This business of standing left, right and middle was carefully choreographed according to the physical stature of the students. The teacher would then begin give extracurricular subject assignment to the students for the day. The physically capable one on the right would accompany the teacher to his kheti. The middle crowd would fetch firewood and stack it near the teacher’s kitchen. The left group with lesser capability fetches water from the village well and fills up the empty drum in the teacher’s house. That’s rural education for you … stacked with high priority extracurricular subjects. “These are your children” I tried explaining to the parents during the public meetings, “sent to schools as students to learn not become a laborer of the teacher(s). You see this happening regularly but you don’t object. Why?” All they said was that the teacher was the indispensable brain of the village they heavily rely upon. The teachers were publicly reprimanded not to destroy the future of the children so callously and warned them of disciplinary consequences in the future. I let them know that the CO would monitor their activities in the village henceforth. The last village -Khumishi- was perhaps the most uncomfortable village I had ever visited. Their internal Sumi-Yimchungru tribal bickering was stifling. The Sumis had taken in a sizable number of Yimchungru families, afflicted by a sever famine, into their fold many years back. As per the Sumi customary practice the status of these families were that of a ‘bonded laborer’ (aqa axe). At that given point of their arrival to this village the Yimchunger families were in the minority in this village and had also accepted their secondary status without question because they were helplessly dependent on their hosts. Over the years however there was a steady growth of stabilized Yimchungru population in this village. In reverse, the Sumi households had begun to decline due to migration to Western Sumi area. With population increase grew the assertion for their rights and a rightful place within this community. This was an unstoppable natural progression. The Head GB was a strong headed individual and was absolutely unprepared and determined not to alter the customary status of the Yimchunger. Occasionally he would sit on his ‘machang’ in the evening and loudly sing his traditional song with a mug of rice beer in his hand. In a traditional tune the GB would recount how the Yimchunger families had helplessly come to the village, sheltered and fended for, and that they were nothing more than an ‘aqa axe’. The ‘rub in’ would usually provoke a confrontation between the Sumis and the Yimchungrus. The general atmosphere was like harboring flees in your bedding. My visit caused an equilibrium conflict with both the sectors wanting me to stay in their respective Church rest houses. If the hour had not been so late I would have preferred to leave the village promptly after the public meeting. Since this privilege could not be exercised my CO and I had no choice but to stay back. We spent that night, not in any of the two village rest houses but in a Government teacher’s house. Months later, when the Area Council election was announced, a Yimchunger candidate emerged from this village even though the Sumis were vehemently opposed to his candidature. There was nothing much the Sumis could do however, because the Yimchunger voting population was by then way higher and they had their democratic rights which was protected by Law and by the Administration. The Sumis had become a minority in their own village.
The reason for highlighting this experience is to let our Nagas, especially the Western Sumis, know that similar serious scenario is waiting to explode in their face like a short fuse time bomb in the planes of Dimapur, in relation to the illegal migrant Bangladeshis who they harbor with their eyes and mind shut tight without a stitch of bother about the deadly consequences that is waiting to happen.
Anyway, next morning the village representatives came and presented me with a goat before my departure. This was a variety of goat that grew long hair, used in the making of traditional attires of the warriors after dying it red. Travelling with a bleating goat trailing you in an official tour was not too appealing. I told them that their valuable gift was accepted but to have it slaughtered and the meat distributed to the poorer households in the village and left despite their insistence to take their gift with me. By the time I reached home my wife and the long haired Khumishi goat was waiting for me.

The writer is a retired IAS Officer, Forest Colony, Kohima

 

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By EMN Updated: Sep 12, 2013 10:24:34 pm