Vulnerability is strength.

Of Cultural Misappropriation: A Case for the Nagas — by Huthuka Sumi

Nov 13, 2020

Huthuka Sumi explores the implications of Amazon and Flipkart’s listing of specific garments as “traditional” Naga attire. He questions the stereotyping of indigenous people, particularly those in the Northeast of India, as “beautiful savages,” and the processes involved in assimilating into the mainstream.

I f anyone has ever wondered if it is possible for an entire people to exist purely as a socio-cultural construct, they need look no further than the Nagas. Whether it is the constructed image of us being cannibals or “rice bag converts,” the glut of misinformation has been so rampant that we’ve become almost inured to it. Inured to the fiction of us as a people that is presented in multiple avenues, mediums and media. Yet, sometimes the misrepresentation is so blatant that even we at our most blasé can no longer stay detached, for to do so would clearly aid the dehumanization at the core of such constructed (re)presentations.

Very recently two sellers (Chandu Ka Dukan and Kaku Fancy Dresses) were found to have listed certain garments as Naga cultural attire on two popular e-retail platforms, Amazon India and Flipkart. The outrage was immediate because the garments in question were firstly not any kind of Naga traditional wear. Secondly, the vivid imaginations that cooked them up found no better reference for their cock-and-bull concoctions than a tragically insensitive Bollywood montage of ‘junglee’ wear to misappropriate Naga clothing, our sense of style and our textile and dress culture. Instead what was put online for sale were products that completely misrepresented our traditional attire. Consequently, three Naga women based in Delhi filed a petition against all parties responsible and within no time the listings were taken down to exclude all references to the Nagas. No apology or clarification, however, have since been issued.

Screenshot of garment listed on Amazon India courtesy of the author

It is incomprehensible how outfits that can only be called bad jokes, have been allowed to be passed off as Naga cultural wear, on two of the biggest online retail platforms in India. At a time when conversations on culture are becoming increasingly more nuanced, such blatant offenses border on the criminal because cultures are owned, not manufactured and certainly not through digital misrepresentation.

How do we, as a society, respond, and should this be an indictment of our cultural insensitivity as a nation?

 

The Rules of Engagement

While tribal societies in general have continued to be unperceivable in any understanding mainstream India can have of them, the Northeast in particular occupies a very perplexing position. The existing narrative of a pristine region peopled by quaint and happy folk who look alike has come to take on its own persona, overpowering and obfuscating the actual identities of the cultures themselves. This is perplexing because North-easterners are, and have been for a long time now, part of the urban populace, and one would think that the intermixing would have at least partially dispelled these inanely exotic notions. Yet, there is a very strange reluctance to push beyond the existing narrative and construct of ‘the beautiful and savage’.

Screenshot of garment listed on Amazon India courtesy of the author

In June of 2020, the animal welfare group, People For Animals (PFA), based in Delhi carried a statement by Ms. Maneka Gandhi, the former Union Minister and animal welfare activist. In it she claimed that the whole of Nagaland were ravenous dog eaters who had literally killed and eaten all our dogs. While the wholesale generalization of an entire state in her claims was and remains disingenuous and frankly, ignorant, the more telling issue is the fact that some Nagas do eat dogs and this seemingly outrages the sensibilities of these justice warriors. ‘Barbaric’ was a term often used on social networking sites to describe such dietary choices.

The whole incident, while tragic and dishonest could have been passed off as simply a case of culture shock, but what followed quickly negates that line of thought. Several Nagas formed an impromptu group to hold the PFA accountable for the gross misrepresentation and demanded an apology. The hope was that the people responsible would have gotten enough context to recognize their error and make amends. It turned out that an apology was out of the question and PFA dug deeper. In disgust the campaigners started a #KeepYourApology initiative on Twitter, in response to which Kanika Dewan, the director of PFA, tweeted “We kept it” in what can only be described as smug satisfaction, having supposedly browbeaten the campaigners.

Is might right in the context of culture too? The dog issue in particular seems to suggest this because one cannot imagine something similar happening to UP for instance. If that is the case, then there is a double standard at work here because we as a nation have cried ourselves hoarse over the West’s continued insistence on exoticizing and misunderstanding India. While on the one hand we appeal to morality and ethics to defend our collective culture in the global arena, within the ambit of our own nation, might is, apparently, the only standard for determining what is right.

 

The Challenge of Assimilation

While the idea of a multi-cultural state within the limits of a blissful ambiguity might seem idyllic in terms of its self-preservation and sustainability, the fact is that some sort of assimilation has become necessary. This view in itself need not be all that concerning or altogether controversial because the concept of assimilation does not necessarily suggest homogeneity or surrendering one’s cultural identity for something else, as much as it does indicate a commitment to shared values, goals and a common destiny. However, instances like the two mentioned raise very scary questions. Is assimilation to be achieved only on the terms of a dominant or more powerful majority, and by seeking to assimilate are we as members of tribal societies singing our own swansongs?

There is no use denying that tribal societies differ vastly from each other and from the Indian mainstream. Given the contextual, social, linguistic and cultural differences, it is only obvious that as we come closer to the mainstream there will be a lot of stepping on each other’s toes. But that is only to be expected, and like all civilized societies conflict resolution should form the basis of addressing such differences. Yet, while knowing this, there is much to be wary of.

It is becoming more and more apparent that issues are being weaponized and given selective interpretations in Indian mainstream spaces. In a piece for The Print, R Jaganathan opines, “The Uighur situation needs to be tom-tommed in West Asia…” not in the context of it being a humanitarian crisis but to gain leverage over China. This is the sad reality where India has a Kashmir under lockdown closer to home but cries about the persecution of Uighur Muslims in China.

When issues are regarded not on grounds of legitimacy, but based on ‘utility’, what hope do tribal societies have of getting redressal when wronged? After all, we remain but a tiny fraction of the mega nation that is India. The subaltern discipline of history, the tribal interpretations of nation and society—do these have any value? The Santhalis, the Arunachalis, the Gonds, the Adivasis, the Nagas, the Manipuris, the Tripuris, the Khasis, the Mizos, the Garos…all of these and many more—do we count for even a jot?

It is very ironic that as India moves ever so close to the idea of a Ram Rajya, the insecurities of some ‘patriots’ seem to have become more pronounced. The very current discussions on social media and Youtube on what the ‘original Indians’ looked like, and the revisionist reworking of Indian history are clearly indicative of this. Words like traitor and anti-national, among others, have become a part of the modern Indian consciousness, not through legitimacy but through a stubborn and dangerous insistence on constructing ‘the enemy’. Under such circumstances, conducting minority advocacy has become particularly risky because, owing to a largely partisan media, such advocacy can quickly be misinterpreted or even projected as an act of aggression on the ‘Indian identity’.

This is the climate in which we as members of tribal societies find ourselves as we move towards assimilation. Understandably, the oft asked question by many is, why even try?

Screenshot of comments left by users on Amazon India, courtesy of the author

Tangkhul Naga Woman in traditional attire | via CC

A Shift in the Approach to Cultural Redressal

Despite the dim outlook, we cannot simply choose to go gently into the night. Admittedly, a combination of despair, rage and frustration have, till now, mostly either muted our response or found expression in acerbic ‘us against them’ rhetoric. But with the way things stand, it has become more crucial than ever that we choose advocacy over silence or vitriol. There, however, is something that has continued to frustrate efforts towards that direction.

By virtue of India being multi-racial as well as multi-cultural, the two issues of culture and race are often unfairly conflated. Issues centring on cultural differences have often and very quickly taken on racial hues, and it is obvious from social media at least, that this goes both ways. In the aftermath of Covid-19 and the Indo-Sino faceoff, people from the Northeast and anyone with Mongolian features, were targeted with racial invectives and veiled insinuations of “bat-eating”. In addition to the dog meat issue, social media was flooded with racial slurs directed at Northeasterners in fits of misplaced righteous indignation. This indiscriminate suspicion and mistrust needs to end.

Toni Morrison, the late and celebrated writer of the African American experience, wrote in a piece for The Guardian, “I wanted to carve out a world both culture specific and race free.” One finds in her statement a clue as to how we might start extrapolating sense beyond the noise. While the complete decoupling of race and culture is frankly impossible, it is time to start separating issues from each other. Yes, racism is very much part of the Indian reality, but ignorance and insensitivity are just as capable of propagating misrepresentations and fueling such racism.

The hope is that with this shift, our focus can now move towards conflict resolution, away from the perpetual quagmire of accusations and counter accusations. It is certainly very encouraging that on both issues, solidarity from non-Naga, mainstream quarters has been voluminous and very vocal in certain situations. The tragedy, however, is that the constant roadblocks to furthering understanding are not propped up by those who do not know, but those who ought to know better.

Screenshot of comments left by users on Amazon India, courtesy of the author

Conclusion

The petitioners against Amazon India, Flipkart and the sellers, have identified ignorance and bad company policies for the misrepresentation of Naga cultural attire. There is no reference at all to a maligning agenda, no wider conspiracy. This is a stark departure from the usual norm and represents a shift towards hope: hope that issues give themselves legitimacy when righteous; hope that the process of assimilation will look more like a confluence than a battlefield; hope that good sense and logic will come to replace rhetoric and selective moralizing.

Amazon India and Flipkart cannot offer any excuse that would be morally and ethically defensible. The fact is that they are e-commerce corporations with data repositories that influence public perception, and though unknowingly permitted, there were people who have been misled into thinking that these bad exercises in fancy dress were, in fact, Naga cultural attire. The response from the two corporations of modifying the listings is insulting and underhanded because they chose to pretend that there was no problem, rather than aknowledge it. The e-commerce giants’ acknowledgment of the issue by taking down the listings is reassuring, but given the nature of this case they must issue clarifications and apologies as required on their official websites. For the future, it can certainly be algorithmically possible to fact check all listings containing keywords like culture and tradition. In case they are unsure they can always consult with a variety of experts and sources.

As far as the sellers are concerned, they are at the least guilty of gross ignorance and ugly opportunism. It is bewildering that anyone can think it okay to cook up something as sensitive as someone’s culture in this day and age, and this was far worse than a case of misappropriation because such misrepresentations were available for millions of web visitors to see.

In his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, the economist, writer and thinker Thomas Sowell writes, “The history of every people is a product of innumerable cross-currents, whose timing and confluence can neither be predicted beforehand nor always untangled afterward”. Regardless of how much of a glorious accident our culture may or may not be, just like any other culture, it is and will remain uniquely and indisputably ours. This is a truth that we must not forget, especially in this disquieting present.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own.

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About the Contributor

I am a photographer and writer based in Nagaland. I have worked as a features writer for a local daily. Currently, I am writing my debut novel.