“Rani Ma” Gaidinliu and How Modi Appropriated Nehru’s Legacy in Nagaland

02 March, 2018

On 3 March, the election commission will announce the results of the assembly elections conducted a week prior in the states of Nagaland, Tripura and Meghalaya. In Nagaland, the Bharatiya Janata Party is in alliance with the regional Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, after splitting from the incumbent ruling party, the Naga People’s Front. Exit polls in the state have predicted a tight contest between the contesting factions, with a slight edge to the BJP-NDPP alliance.

In his latest book, Strangers No More, the journalist and author Sanjoy Hazarika takes readers through a comprehensive political and historical account of the situation in the Northeast, based on extensive interviews, research and personal experiences. In the following excerpt, Hazarika discusses the Heraka religious movement in Nagaland led by the young Naga nationalist Gaidinliu, and how the BJP “appropriated a Congress legacy without a whisper of protest from the Nagas, the Congress or anyone else.”

If you go to the hills of Benreu and trundle down a narrow path outside the village, you’ll come to a place where a high stone slab commemorates the centenary of the coming of the Christian missionaries to Peren district and specifically Benreu. You’ll notice a cluster of small gravestones with epitaphs to individual soldiers “of the Naga national army who laid down his life for national cause, mourned by his wife and family.” And so on. I asked our guide: “They were fighting the Indian Army, right?” That’s a standard assumption when one comes across such graves along remote roadsides and busy paths.

Of course not, came the response. They were fighting Gaidinliu’s people. And herein lay the complexities and multilayers of Naga nationalism, competing and collaborating with Indian nationalism. Gaidinliu, or Rani Gaidinliu, as Pandit Nehru called her, had, along with her leader Jadonang, founded a sect that rejected Christianity and espoused the Heraka faith [an indigenous Naga religion] with vague connections to Hinduism and idol worship. The movement was also a rough and ready reckoner to the rejection of colonialism as they raised the flag of revolt against the British. The Heraka group led an offensive against the Kukis, whom they regarded as ultra-loyal to the British. Jadonang was captured and hanged on charges of murder and violence and inciting rebellion against the crown. [Haipou Jadonang started the Heraka religious movement in the early twentieth century.]  Gaidinliu continued her struggle against the British whom she regarded as oppressive. She was especially opposed to their forced conscription of villagers. Gaidinliu was just seventeen when she was imprisoned.

In 1937, Nehru met her in Shillong Jail and, in his incurable romanticism, portrayed her as “this brave Naga princess pining away for freedom in a distant jail” in his prison diaries which were published as The Discovery of India. Released only when India became independent, she became a member of parliament while government awards too came her way, including the Padma Bhushan, given to some distinguished figures (and others not so).

But Gaidinliu’s importance does not lie in her resistance to the British but, as Benreu shows, to her struggle against her fellow Nagas who were fighting the ideas espoused by her mentor Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. The fact that the Heraka faith resisted the Church and the NNC was reason for the BJP and its acolytes, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to celebrate her birth centenary with a big exhibition in no less a place than the Nehru Memorial Library. The BJP, with Modi repeatedly calling her “Rani Ma,” thus appropriated a Congress legacy without a whisper of protest from the Nagas, the Congress or anyone else. In fact, even the Nagaland chief minister of the time, TR Zeliang, himself a Rongmei Naga from the Peren area, was present and made supportive remarks at the event. Everyone conveniently forgot that for the Kukis this was a painful and difficult chapter of their lives which involved issues not just of community and custom but also of land and resources, which lie at the heart of multiple contestations between different ethnic groups in the region.

Gaidinliu’s importance was that she had a following, no matter how much the anti-Heraka Nagas would deny it, and it made perfect sense for the BJP and Congress to claim someone who was opposing those fighting the nation state. She had all the right qualifications: she was Naga, had fought against the British and the NNC. As far as the opposition to the Kukis was concerned, it was papered over. How else is the nationalist narrative otherwise to be understood? There is no further explanation of this.

Although many Nagas deny her, the effort is to commemorate Gaidinliu in perpetuity, through awards and celebrations. There’s need for caution when one walks in Naga history, for scattered across the landscape are both old and new graves. On some of them, the earth has not yet dried.

This is an excerpt from Sanjoy Hazarika’s book Strangers No More published by Aleph Book Company in 2018.