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Concept Note

Vernacular Politics: Democracy and Elections in Nagaland

Recent research on democracy witnessed a shift from a focus on institutional factors to how
democracy, and its hallmark of regular elections, is experienced and lived locally. Indias
democracy is judged to be overall flourishing (e.g. Khilnani 1997 and Guha 2008) and
deepening (Heller 2009), yet to speak about Indias democracy in the singular might conceal
the countrys multifarious democratic experiences, which might necessitate us to think of
Indias democracy in the plural: as Indias democracies (Heierstad and Ruud 2014). As the
vernacular map of Indias democratic experience is now slowly being plotted (Michelutti
2007, 2008; Berenschot 2011; Witsoe 2011; Piliavsky 2013, Ruud 2003), this so far remains
to the exclusion of Nagaland (and Indias Northeast more widely). If this is no different from
a wider scholarly neglect of the region, which has been depicted as a geography of
ignorance (Van Schendel 2002), in the contemporary world of Indian democracy this
marginal engagement also appears because theories and concepts widely in use to capture
Indias democratic life-worlds find little or no social roots among Nagalands tribal and
predominantly Christian populace. To illustrate: absent, in Nagaland, are politics of caste
relations and equations deemed so central elsewhere (Srinivas 1955; Gupta 2005), or age-old
patron-client relations as part of the antique Jajmani System found remapped unto the
democratic playing field (Piliavsky 2014). Absent, too, are Dalit parties trying to unsettle
upper caste dominance as is reported for South India (Gorringe 2012), or something to the
effect of a silent revolution with lower castes successfully seizing political power across
North-India (Jaffrelot 2002). The study of Nagalands democratic experience, its local
character and inner-logic, then, offers another window into the specificities of Indian
It might be recalled that modern, procedural democracy arrived in Nagaland later
compared to most parts of the Subcontinent. This was, first, for the then Naga Hills and the
adjacent North-Eastern Frontier Tracts were labelled excluded areas where provincial
elections which took place during British rule did not ensue, and, secondly, because
Indias first general elections were boycotted by the NNC. While this boycott, back then,
signified a wider anti-Indian positioning, it might need emphasising that NNCs decision not
to engage with elections was also informed by a deeper culturalist and moral critique to the
very idea of holding elections. According to A.Z. Phizo, the Naga were already democratic
by traditional design; [it] is the very spirit of our country. This traditional Naga form of
democracy, Phizo however found irreconcilable with the presence and practice of parties and
There is no political party in Nagaland. We do not need it. And we hope we shall not be pushed to a
position in which we have the least desire to shift our stand even so much for an expedient measure.

All things considered, Nagaland need not imitate or adopt foreign institution like India in matters of
political organization (Phizo 1951).

Evaluating in general terms, Chasie asserted that Nagalands democratic experience has
been complex, difficult, and painful, among others, because of the disparate nature of the
tribes the unresolved Naga Political Issue, with simultaneous insurgency operating
during the entire period. [Moreover] the Naga society was also caught in a transition from the
traditional to modernity (2001: 247). Many scholars and commentators habitually criticise
Nagalands democracy and its elections on multiple counts, including the reported play of
money, malt, and muscles (including the underground factor). Others hold that the very idea
of elections goes against the grain of the communitarian ethos of traditional Naga polities,
and which has led some to argue, including at least two former Chief-Ministers, that a
selection mechanism based on consensus-making would serve the Naga better than elections
based on open contests and competition. While the authors may, or may not, agree with
conventional criticism of Nagalands democracy, we are especially interested in exploring the
deeper inner-logic, hidden rationalities, moral reasoning, and cultural idioms on which
democracy and its elections operate locally.
Thence, this volume aims to explore the substance and character of Nagalands
democracy, both its contemporary manifestations its peculiarities, particularities, successes
and depravities as well as seen in the historical and ethnographic longue dure. For
instance, to what extent signified the introduction of, mostly post-statehood, democratic
elections a rupture with past Naga political practices, principles, and values. Or, what are the
continuities, discontinuities, or changing continuities (Schulte-Nordholt 2005) of presentday political practices and interpretations of politics and the political vis--vis the locus and
ethos of pre-state traditional polities.
Theoretically, the authors may, but need not necessarily, engage with a recent strand of
research that calls as vernacular democracy the inevitable process of transformation by
which democracy and its practices have been gradually moulded by folk understandings of
the political which in turn energize popular politics (Michelutti 2007: 642). Michelutti
explains: The hypothesis behind this approach is that the moment democracy enters a
particular historical and socio-cultural setting it becomes vernacularized, and through
vernacularisation it produces new social relations and values which in turn shape political
rhetoric and political culture. Hence, an anthropology of democracy should study
democracy as both the product and the producer of different socio-political relations (2008:
641). This also feeds into a wider recognition that party ideology is more often than not
trumped by social relations (Holmberg cited in Gellner 2008: 12).
Crucial to democracys vernacularisation is its inevitable territorialisation, as Witsoe
(2009: 64) proposes to grasp how democratic politics tends to find itself absorbed into purely
local contestations over local dominance and subordination. In Witsoes (2009; 2011)
ethnography on Bihar such contestations primarily concern local caste relations with
traditionally lower castes using their numerically preponderance to take on the hegemony of
upper castes. Among the caste-less Naga such struggles over standing and pre-existent
divisions may (or may not) take place in terms of inter-clan relations and inter-village and
tribal relations. Witsoe also importantly asserts that Indias multifarious democratic

experiences require positive theorization with positive meant in the sense of not being
reduced to the frameworks of analysis that have emerged from, and formed part of, liberal
democratic models of governance or even that derive from critiques of liberal democracy
(2011: 621). For the Naga specifically, it has recently been argued that different Naga tribes
possess the agency to instead of adjusting themselves to modern democratic ideals, adjusted
democracy to themselves (Wouters 2014: 59). If so, how might we understand, evaluate,
perhaps even theorise, Nagalands democracy in its own right?
Some of the topics we would like to take into considerations are listed below. Chapters may
include these aspects but need not be restricted to them.

Comparisons and contrasts between the political substance of the Naga village
republic taking into account the divergent past political practices followed by
different Naga communities and the character of post-statehood democratic
institutions, ideas, and its core practice of elections.
The remapping of past political norms, values, practices, but also long-standing
divisions and rivalries unto the new democratic domain
Social transitions caused, or propelled, by the arrival of democracy and elections
The cultural intricacies of patronage and clientelism
The relationship between democracy and the authoritative presence of National
Political obligation (for instance, the practice of village or clan consensus candidates)
Democracy and Christianity and / or Secularism. For instance, the role played by the
NBCC and its recurrent clean election campaigns.
The status of women in political decision-making, both past and present.
The role of political parties in Nagaland, and their reportedly non-ideological
character (Amer 2014: 6)

The chapters are to be published in an edited volume, for which we aim to engage an
acclaimed publishing house. The tentative dates on which we aim to proceed are as follows:
1st November: first submission of full chapter. The contributions will then be reviewed
1st March: submission of revised and final draft. The chapters will then be send as a complete
manuscript to the publishing house for external refereeing.
As a general principle, chapters should be between 6.000 and 8.000 words (including
references and footnotes)
We look forward to your positive response.
Best wishes,
Jelle J P Wouters
Lecturer Sikkim Central University

Zhoto Tunyi
PhD candidate North-Eastern Hill University