Hegemonic Ideology of Empire of Capital vs food Security, Right to work and Access to Natural Resources – Reflections on Experiences in Nagaland

Abstract: Part I of this paper deals with the persistent ideology of extraction and unlimited growth, even in the face of international finance crisis and admitted global warming. This contradiction can ultimately be only pushed through by militarisation, as we can see in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. Adivasi population are exposed to unprecedented levels of state violence. Part II deals with experiences in Nagaland, where control over land has been traditionally with local communities and therefore the state could not push through land grab policies which we have seen most virulently in the promotion of SEZs all over the Indian mainland. It is therefore highly disturbing that the 11th five year plan for Nagaland was envisaging to turn the whole state into an SEZ, a concept which was not clearly understood by bureaucrats who promoted it. One of the underlying difficulties can be identified in the sexual division of labour, which has kept rural women firmly entrenched in agriculture, weaving and household labour. Political representation and decision making remained in the hands of men. Despite women’s overwhelming contribution to food security and agriculture, they never had land rights or a voice in political decision making.

The modified application of the 73rd and 74th amendment to the constitution has opened up new spaces. At the same time, modern education has alienated men and women from traditional life styles and has also contributed to unprecedented levels of corruption, especially during elections. The consumerist modernity of fundamentalist Christianity has also contributed to the entrenchment of what Max Weber characterised as ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.Part III tries to search for a way out of these contradictions. If people in Nagaland at the crossroads of peace negotiations could opt for a community centered mode of production with food security and protection of biodiversity at the center, this could become relevant in the struggle for a different development paradigm which would also be important to adivasi areas in mainland India. Equity, non-violence and protection of natural wealth are crucial concepts in the struggle for food security and right to work. However the lack of a history in organising non-violent mass movements and the lack of women’s political participation remain a drawback.

Keywords: global capital, north east india, adivasi women, customary laws, community centered development, food security, local community, sexual division of labour, cash cropping, biodiversity, land rights

This paper was presented at the IAWS Conference in Wardha in Nov. 2010 and considerable time has passed since then. There is a certain need to update the context, though the main thrust of the paper remained unaffected. The context of the presentation was that it happened at a historical moment when Dr. Binayak Sen, paediatrician and State Secretary of PUCL, was still in jail accused of being collaborator with Naxals and unable to get bail. In fact, there was a procession supporting his bail demand during the conference which attracted attention from security forces. This brought in to relief the situation in Chhattisgarh, which was impacted by Salwa Judum and widespread human rights violations. It also happened that this was a period in which the Indian Government in the context of its Look East Policy1 had entered negotiations with the Naga underground, especially the NSCN(I-M), excluding however the Kaplan faction. In that situation, where a settlement with Naga rebels seemed to come within reach, the question arose why negotiations could not be envisaged in areas affected by insurgency in the mainland. The underlying question of course concerns the development models projected in the “mainland” as well as in the North Eastern states, especially under the “Look East” Policy of the central government. What happens to women in this kind of transition? What happens to the production of life and livelihoods?

PART I: The Empire of Capital

We are living in a situation where a persistent ideology of extraction and unlimited growth is perpetually projected even in the face of international finance crisis, widening gap between rich and poor, collapse of the housing market in US due to hedge funds, and admitted global warming with disastrous effects on climate change. This contradiction can ultimately only be pushed through by militarisation and extra-economic violence, as we can see in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. Adivasi populations are exposed to unprecedented levels of state violence. In the North Eastern states and in Kashmir, this violence is enshrined in AFSPA, in force since 1958 and contested especially by women in the affected areas. The continuous hunger fast of Irom Sharmila in Manipur since the beginning of the millennium is a symbol of such struggles.

The millennium was entered after Francis Fukuyama had pronounced “The End of History” and for a while the impression was created as if with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Block, some blissful state had been achieved of capitalism booming ever after. However it has now become obvious that we are not heading towards a benevolent world government led by Corporates. Ellen Meiksins Wood in her brilliant book “Empire of Capital” has set the record straight. The problems we associate with globalisation – the social injustices, the growing gap between rich and poor, ‘democratic deficits’, the ecological degradation and so on – are there not simply “because the economy is global” or because global corporations are uniquely vicious or even because they are exceptionally powerful. These problems exist because capitalism, whether national or global, is driven by certain systemic imperatives, the imperative of competition, profit maximisation and accumulation, which inevitably require putting ‘exchange-value’ before ‘use-value’ and profit before people. Even the most benign or ‘responsible’ corporation cannot escape these compulsions but must follow the laws of the market in order to survive – which inevitably means putting profit above all other considerations, with all its wasteful and destructive consequences”2. Meiksins Wood argues that in this process of global capitalist expansion, global capital is more dependent on the territorial state than any imperial power has ever been before.

She therefore firmly believes that the nation state is not at all in decline. In fact, it gets reinforced. It is not possible to go into the full sequence of her argument in the context of this paper. Suffice to say that she distinguishes three historical types of Empire. The first was based on property, as e.g ancient China and Rome and several other highly organised civilisations. It later morphed into feudal forms of landowning and found new expression in the vast empire created by Spain. Christian religion played an important part in justifying expansionism. The second type was based on commerce and tried to avoid conquest and long term occupations, relying on trade as a way to control the colonised society. Though this form also went along with some conquest, the networks of commerce and religion were crucial in the second type. Examples are the Muslim Empire, the Empire of Venice and later Dutch Imperialism through trade and domination of sea routes. The third type is the Empire of Capital which was pioneered by England and in the 20th Century was promoted by the shock and awe doctrine of the US 3.

It is the expansionism of the third type which we are facing worldwide at present and the Indian Government has taken a strong decision to follow the American model of development, frighteningly backed up by the 123 agreement on nuclear cooperation with the US, which Manmohan Singh as prime minister considered as the height of achievement of his tenure. At the same time, he has declared the “war on terror” as the most important objective of his government and this is focused especially on the danger of Naxalism. It is important to keep in mind that the Salwa Judum and operation Green Hunt were originally introduced by the Congress in Chhattisgarh and that the NDA government has continued this line of action without major changes. This has led to tremendous hardships among the adivasi population, which is sandwiched between the coercive powers of the state, often in the shape of ill trained and high handed under aged recruits, and leftist forces which are trying to fight the state with armed force. The case of Soni Sodi, a school teacher in a village and her nephew Lingaram Kodopi, an adivasi journalist, have been reported widely, as Soni Sodi accused of having facilitated negotiations with the Essar Company, has been tortured in jail with stones being shoved up her vagina and rectum, while her torturer Ankit Garg was rewarded with a gallantry award. This is in tune with the logic of corporates acquiring peoples’ lands for profitable purpose, disrupting food security and the life world of forest dwellers, leading into a situation of perpertual uncertainly and underlying violence from different sides. The use of land for subsistence production, under which people provide for their own food security, but not for the market, is seen as a waste or idleness and thus such “wastelands” are up for grabs. In the agricultural policy of the government, only irrigated lands are considered as agricultural lands, while rain fed crops are not recognised. Such policies have also been pursued for many years in the pursuit of building land banks for the development of SEZs. In the meantime, the SEZ concept is somewhat outdated and new rage is for industrial corridors crisscrossing the country.

Ellen Meiksins Wood has shown that historically, the coercion to create exchange value has led to the use of extra economic means of violence and expropriation of people dependent on the land. This is done by trade rules, finance policies and finally the coercive forces of the state. It involves high military expenditure and ultimately, “war without end” in the temporal sense as well as regarding the purpose. Ultimately, the imperialist powers have to try to keep their hegemony at very high cost.

PART II: Experiences in Nagaland

It so happens that in the time my work with Centre for Social Analysis in Madurai, I had the privilege to teach many students from the North Eastern states, the largest number being from Nagaland. From 2002 to 2013, Nalini Nayak and myself were involved in an interactive program especially with North East Network in Chizami (Phek District) facilitated by Seno Tsuhah and her team. We also kept contact with the Phom area around Longleng which belongs to the neglected interior part which has experienced less of the “development” impacts of the government. Apart from workshops with the villages in remote areas, there were also interactions with the State Women’s Commission, bureaucrats, representatives of civil society and church institutions. We were always impressed by the natural resources, biodiversity and relative food security, which was safeguarded by keeping land ownership in the hands of local communities. The state could not push through policies of commercialisation and cash cropping to the extent it was possible in “mainland” India. Jhum cultivation was sustainable in many areas and safeguarded an extent of food security, which was sufficient to avoid malnutrition. However, cash cropping of ginger, oranges and other commercial crops had also been promoted. The widespread education system not only made income generation necessary, but also promoted an outlook of “modernity” and consumerism which alienates the rising middle class from the survival needs of the local communities. At the same time, access to some cash cropping is a felt need, since self reliance is difficult to maintain as educational and health expenses are on the rise. All this happens in a context of political life with extremely high levels of corruption and the central government keeps up its influence by pouring large funds into the administration. We were astonished to find that in the policy planning, the implications were not always understood. Eg during the 11th five year plan, a period when SEZs were vigorously promoted in the “mainland”, there was a plan to transform the whole of Nagaland into a Special Economic Zone. This was propagated without taking into consideration, the implications of the SEZ Act of 2005, which was in severe collision with the customary law of Nagaland which is protected by Section 371 of the Indian constitution.

This aspect makes it necessary to briefly reflect on the sexual division of labour in Naga society, which follows highly patriarchal norms, while at the same time it affords women a higher degree of mobility than in many other states. Women have been firmly entrenched in household labour, food processing, jhum cultivation, weaving and local markets, while decision making in the community has been carried out by men. This is a hangover from the days of Tribal warfare and territorial contestation. Women’s role in the safeguarding the food security has been formidable, while men were mostly involved in clearing the forest and also participating in harvesting. They were traditionally hunting and protecting the community. Due to this historical background, women did not have land rights, though they were doing most of the work and they also did not have a voice in the decision making of the village council. Due to respect for customary law, there has been only a modified application of 73rd and 74th amendment of the constitution which has brought Panchayati Raj and reservation for women in the same, in the states of the “mainland”. There has been an attempt to achieve women’s participation in village development boards (VDB) but in many places this has not been implemented. Besides, the VDB only decides matters of health and education and is not consulted regarding the agricultural development policies of the government.

A contributing factor to this division of labour is also the culture of the church, which is mostly American Baptist. Many men at the village level when discussing with us on sexual division of labour, would swing into lectures on how Christianity has been such a perfect match to the traditional Naga culture, as it gave such a fitting explanation for women’s necessary subordination in the narrative of the “fall” in the book of Genesis chapter 2 and 3, where the origin of sin is rooted in women’s attempt to “be like god” and “know good and evil”, with the result of eternal punishment and need to obey men.

Due to the artificially created money centred economy, a certain amount of privatisation of land has taken place, but women are excluded from ownership. As education has made big inroads and literacy levels are quite high, educated women are quite vocal in the church and in public life, but they cannot be ordained as pastors, nor can they stand for elections in the Assembly. This is particularly pronounced among the Ao’s, who are more articulate and rooted in education and have agitated for barring women from political participation in the name of traditional culture. On the other hand, a Phom student of mine who was the general secretary of the Phom Baptist church in Longleng, had promoted women’s participation in all church committees and aimed at their representation in the village council, which was however much more difficult.

This peculiar situation of synergy of traditional indigenous culture and conservative values in the church has contributed to a situation where educated women of the middle class have a tendency to attack the customary laws, because they want to have right to land, including the right to buy and sell land. On the other hand, it has been pointed out by local feminists like Nandita Haksar that the customary law under Article 371A is the only bulwark between the rights of the village community to common property resources and forest use and the World Bank is energetically trying to change the land rights in the context of the Look East Policy4 Nandita, in her lecture at the plenary of IAWS conference in Guwahati said loudly and clearly that we have to uphold Section 371A as it is the only thing which is between us and the World Bank. But the other women speakers in the same plenary had not realised this important point at all. To my great delight, the cultural programme in that conference was opened with a series of songs and dances brought by NEN and they depicted all their agricultural activities with great equanimity and visible rootedness in their culture of food security. These are the same women who have documented and protected the biodiversity and have also worked extensively on herbal medicine.

Government and the church are oblivious of such contributions of the local women, through such women are also active in community organising in the church and in fundraising.

PART III: Community centred development options as a resistance to the Empire of Capitalism

The question arises how the experiences of women which can be made fruitful for a development concept which is more nature and human centred and aims at sustaining soil, forest and local communities. The political agenda is much more dominated by a “man the hunter and protector” concept. Forests have been decimated and as everything which moves will be shot and eaten, the protection of animal species has become quite difficult. While the tourism department advertises the Hornbill Festival, hornbills are nearly extinct.

The political process in Nagaland is very much shaped by the struggle for nationhood which has bestowed on the people of different tribes, a heritage of underground movement split into different factions. This struggle has a long history and is grounded in the fact that the Naga people had a land of their own till 1826, when the British colonialists drew the Indo-Burma boundary in the treaty of Yandabo arbitrarily dividing the Naga lands and their tribes between the countries. Since 1832, when the British army entered the Naga homeland for the first time, subjugation began. It is not possible here to recall the whole history, which is full of betrayal and repression. Independence was declared on 14th August 1947, but not recognised by the Indian state. The Assam rifles were instrumental in keeping the situation under control, despite a referendum in 1951 which overwhelmingly voted for independence. In 1956/57 strategic hamletting took place, which was totally destructive of people’s life world and culture. During the displacement, rapes and human rights violations were rampant5.

Despite all this, the Naga underground and the Indian government have been able to enter into peace talks. The NSCN (IM) has been able to run a parallel government from Camp Hebron and people have been under taxes from the government as well as from the underground. There has been great hardship. The greatest challenge is to emerge from the threat of perpetual violence and looming warfare. If the experiences of Naga women in preserving food security and biodiversity could become the focus of sharing and if women could be fully integrated into the decision making process from the village council up to the Assembly, if women could fight violence and corruption in the political process and assert the priority of viable agriculture, food security, biodiversity, protection of water resources and restoration of bamboo resources, new directions for the prosperity of the region could be evolved quite different from the infrastructure and tourism centred and corporate mineral extraction based government plans.

Such a political process could also be relevant for the adivasi areas in the Indian “mainland”. During the years when P. Chidambaram was Home minister, he was itching to bomb the Adivasi villages of Dantewada and Bastar. The danger of such violent intervention is today greater than ever, as the BJP government will have even less inhibitions to use violence for the extraction of natural resources by corporates. In adivasi areas, women who were deviant from patriarchal norms have often been persecuted as witches. When they acquire education, they are subjected to torture by the coercive forces of the state like Soni Sodi. Overcoming the violence underlying the sexual division of labour remains a crucial task in order to march towards a development paradigm with production of life and livelihood at the centre and democratic process which respects equity and fosters freedom, creativity and human dignity. The anti capitalist thrust is crucial and the socialist dimension cannot come from the barrel of a gun. One of the most difficult tasks is to build alliances among the Internal colonies. India cannot colonise its neighbours. It can only keep exploiting the workers in the unorganised sector, small peasants, Dalits, Adivasis, indigenous people in the North Eastern states, migrants and displaced people and of course women, who are part of all these sectors but are kept under dominance by enormous levels of violence within families, local communities and in the cultural and religious life, as well as by distortion through media. The organisational challenges ahead of us are enormous.


1 Das, Samir Kumar “India’s Look East Policy, Imagining a New Geography of India’s North-East”. India Quarterly: A Journal of International Affairs, 66: 4, (2010): 343-58. Print.

2 Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Empire of Capital. London, New York: Verso, 2005.

p.14. Print.

3 For a full elaboration of the shock and awe method, see Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine. This includes also an analysis how the cold war with the socialist states in Eastern Europe culminated in arms race. Revolutionary transformation in Latin America was prevented by trade wars and military interventions.

4 Nandita Haksar, who has vast experience in the North Eastern states, gave the Madhuri Shah lecture at the IAWS conference in Guwahati.

5 For a moving more detailed account of people’s memories of these ordeals, see Bela Bhatia “Awaiting Nachiso, Naga elders remember 1957“ in Himal South Asian August 2011.

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