Traditional Lockdown Practices in the Naga Highlands

Traditional Lockdown Practices in the Naga Highlands

People belonging to the Angami, a major Naga ethnic group, in Khonoma village, Nagaland | Rita Willaert (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The year 2020 has been overwhelmed by Covid-19. Several countries have resorted to strategies like lockdowns and physical distancing to curb its spread. For indigenous people from North East India, the experience of Covid-19 includes racism. The genesis of Covid-19 in China plays into the innate racism towards people in India with Mongoloid features. North Easterners have been called ‘coronavirus’, been wrongfully confined, physically abused, and denied services. This racism is historical, systemic, and structural; with support from the state, institutions, and mainstream culture. The North East initially had very few cases of Covid-19, until the time migrants, students, and patients stranded in mainland Indian cities were brought back. Cases continue to be low comparatively. Yet, the stereotype persists that North Eastern people are carriers of Coronavirus.

These stereotypes come across as ahistorical, unthinking, and even uncivilised. A revisit to the past can provide us with a better understanding of how indigenous tribal people of the North East in the 19th century coped with the spread and introduction of new diseases to the region, brought about by British colonialists. This sheds a light on how the people of the region, especially in the Manipur and Naga Hills (in present day Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Myanmar) utilised an existing socio-religious practice called Genna in order to contain the transmission of diseases. Such traditions shape how these tribal communities are responding to Covid-19 today.

In 1859, William McCulloch, the British political agent to the princely Manipur state, wrote about the spread of diseases in the region. He talked about how Manipur’s interface with the regions west of it exposed it to venereal diseases, smallpox, and cholera. He noted that the inhabitants of the region were generally healthy, but exposure to these new diseases were creating difficulties.

While writing about Manipur valley, McCulloch also gave an account of the hill tribes’ practice in treating illness and combating new diseases. He took note of the general good health of the tribespeople within their territories. But the Kukis had “suffered fearfully” from the new diseases. “The smallpox has done fearful havoc amongst them, and should that disease or the cholera appear in a village, it is scattered more effectually than it would be by an attack of its southern enemies.” To cope, the community practised isolation and physical distancing to contain the disease. “The person attacked by small pox is not approached by any. He is put away by people who have had the disease into the jungle by himself, some food and water are placed beside him, and he is left to Providence.”

This was an early account of a widespread practice named Genna, a form of worship among the Kukis and Nagas which served multiple purposes including preventing epidemics, natural disasters, and unforeseen circumstances. McCulloch was writing of a time before the spread of Christianity. He noted that during Genna there were prohibitions on entry lasting for days or weeks, either against outsiders into the village, or of villagers going outside the village, or both. Sometimes outsiders were allowed to enter the village but they had to enter houses. The restrictions under Genna were widely practised during epidemics to contain the spread of disease.

Among the elements of Genna, as described by Milton Katz, was the practice of Kenna-Penna. Kenna has to do with quarantine, and Penna is a holiday. A village undergoing Kenna in response to hardships like the spread of disease, followed strict rules of not allowing any resident to leave the village and not allowing outsiders to enter. In the case of a household observing Kenna, the family hung a sprig of herbs outside the door and maintained no contact with villagers. Likewise, the individual who observed Kenna at the individual level was obliged not to speak with anyone. A strict adherence to this practice was possible owing to functional village institutions and customary laws and beliefs. Violation of these practices was counted as committing taboo and penalised.

Village Gennas were also observed as a preventive measure in response to the likely advent of epidemic sickness. The anthropologist Thomas C. Hodson refers to an annual eight-day-long village Genna among the Naga tribespeople of Jessami village in Ukhrul district of Manipur, observed to prevent sickness throughout the year. A group of young men would set out into the woods and if they came back with a big bird like a toucan or hornbill, it was perceived to be a sign that the coming year would be without sickness. Hodson also observed that villages would announce Genna to facilitate the isolation of living from the dead in case of level mysterious deaths.

Genna was once widespread in the regions between China, Tibet, and Burma, among communities such as the Burmese, Meiteis, Nagas, Chin and Lushai-Kuki, and the Karen. However, over time, the Burmese with the embracing of Buddhism, and the Meitei of Hinduism, discontinued this practice. At the same time, the practices became more intensified in regions where Naga tribes lived, especially to the south of Mount Japfu in Nagaland.

Among the Zeliangrong people — a cognate term for the Zeme, Liangmei, Rongmei, and the Inpui Naga tribes of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland — Genna is known as Neihmei, and continues to be practiced, according to the scholar Budha Kamei. It involves worshipping of Tingkao Ragwang, the supreme god, by the villagers collectively. Anybody found to be violating Neihmei is regarded as being disrespectful to social, religious, and ritual practices and the moral code. During Neihmei, no physical work is carried out and no one from the village is allowed to go beyond the village gate and no outsiders are allowed into the village. The gates in the village are shut during Neihmei to bar movement.

The existence and practice of Genna among various indigenous communities debunks the gaze of mainstream society towards indigenous tribal people as unthinking and uncivilised. This can also be taken into the present situation where racism is justified against indigenous tribal people from the North East as carriers of the coronavirus for bearing Mongoloid features, especially in the light of seeing the other as lesser beings. Genna practices in the North East region indicate that indigenous tribal people are familiar with the notions of physical distancing and the necessity of quarantine.

Such familiarity becomes handy in the time of Covid-19. Media from the North East region have reported on the mechanisms adopted by villages in Manipur voluntarily locking down their villages by erecting gates or closing existing gates at the entrance to the village. Resorting to a village level lockdown here is a response to the poor healthcare facilities, where villages fall back on their tradition of barricading themselves.

For instance, Oinam village of Senapati district in Manipur has come up with eco-friendly quarantine centres with basic facilities. Sensing the difficulty in procuring vegetables during the lockdown, Manipur's Konsakhul village near Imphal set an example by distributing their vegetable produce to neighbouring villages of different communities. Following this, several villages and civil societies in Manipur got together to share vegetables with each other, keeping aside the often fraught relationships between various ethnic groups. There are also stories of how migrant workers who are stuck in states like Manipur and Nagaland are being taken care of at local level and by the state.

Genna practices, with their significant place in the lifeworld of indigenous people communities, are a reflection of a rich tradition and existing knowledge system. The relevance of such practices today gives mainstream culture a chance to introspect about their innate racism that portrays indigenous people as backward. It gives a chance to revive and support the continuity of their communitarian life and religio-cultural practices.

Richard Kamei is a doctoral candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Richard Kamei
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