Reading the Dog Meat Ban in Nagaland

In the last few days, the news and debate concerning the dog meat ban in Nagaland has been spreading like an oil-spill, contaminating conversations and diluting dispassionate and rational debate – stirring both those in favour and against it. While a good deal has now been said, much more remains to be elucidated. One of us has argued elsewhere, that the Indian public discourse on Nagas’ dog consumption shows marked, and disturbing continuities with how the Nagas were seen in colonial times, as well as that the ban reveals the remarkable resilience of a civilizational discourse in which Nagas are ranked towards the bottom.

In this piece, we highlight two points. First, we discuss, how dogs feature in Naga cosmology, lifeworld, and livelihoods. Second, we foreground how the dog meat ban understate the existing constitutional provision in place for tribes in India, and the Nagas in particularly. In so doing, we show how the recent dog meat ban has been an outright disregard to both.

Many partakers, mostly the petitioners, in the debate surrounding dogs (or as their ‘concern’ focuses: dog meat consumption) in Nagaland, speak with much ignorance, not to mention arrogance. Most of the petitioners highlight their ‘altruistic concern,’ after seeing a picture posted in twitter by a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, of dogs tied in gunny bags.

According to these petitioners, following another tweet by a Lok Sabha MP (and a member of BJP), [su_quote]All the dogs are now being brought in from outside the state as Nagaland has eaten all its own dogs.[/su_quote] The same line was re-used, variously rephrased, but with a single accusatory intonation, and retweeted by scores of the likes. First, how would that be different from saying that all chickens were eaten in so and so district, or all fishes were eaten in such and such village? In all cases, it would signify over-consumption, which is not to be encouraged, but how can it be judged according to the animal? Still, it must be mentioned here that the Nagas are not just a dog eating community. There is no such thing as a ‘dog market’ in the entire state of Nagaland, neither is there a restaurant that exclusively sells dog meat and calls itself ‘dog restaurant.’ Even if it did, so what? It’s not for them to point fingers at the Naga society for their food habits. The statement, then again, besides being grossly inaccurate, is outright racist and revile. One wonders, if these Twitter warriors with their best of English be so obtuse to make judgments and ‘civilizational calls,’ based on few (old) pictures, and loose unfounded facts.

How do dogs feature in our Naga cosmology and lifeworld?

The consumption of dog meat among the Nagas is a part of their custom; for some, its delicacy. But first, the basics, the custom surely cannot be translated as ‘all Nagas eat dog meat.’ Further, as has been rightly pointed out by a few Naga scholars, for the Nagas, dogs are NOT just meat to be consumed. Dogs, in the Naga lifeworld, are much more than that.

Within the Naga society, each Naga community has their own distinctive tradition and way of life. As Tenyimi Naga,[footnote]Tenyimi is a collection of tribes, who acknowledge Makhelian tradition– include Angami, Chakhesang, Mao, Maram, Inpui, Pochury, Poumai, Rengma, Thangal, and Zeliangrong (comprise of Liangmai, Rongmei, and Zemei). [/footnote]we situate our arguments based on our own tradition particular to our community within the Naga. In brief, Tenyimi Naga comprises more than ten Naga tribes sharing many traditions, myths, customs and customary practices, and beliefs.

First, Nagas and dogs share an intimate multi-faceted relationship, and this is not unique to just Nagas. Many highland communities have this same intimate multi-faceted relationship with selected animal species. Among yak-herding communities in the Himalayan highlands too, the yaks are seen by the herders as parents who take care of their needs, apart from seeing them as their livelihood, their companion, and their occasional food. The yaks are very well cared for, treated with a lot of love and affection. For these yaks-herders, the yaks feature in almost every aspect of their lives. However, while most part of their lives revolve around yaks, these communities do not refrain from eating it; and also this later consumption does not stop them from caring for the yaks, from being affectionate towards them. Dogs, likewise are closely knitted to Tenyimi Naga, in many ways, in their way of life.

There are two basic traditional reasons the Tenyimi rear dogs for. One, for guarding their house, which we refer to as home dogs, and the other, for hunting food, also called hunter dogs. The latter are trained differently.

The Tenyimi believe that the home guard dog will protect their home from enemies and will give warnings from any danger that is approaching. When the dog howls at night, the community believes, the dog does so because it sees spirits. But, when many dogs start howling in unison, they believe the dogs are trying to communicate to the people about a possible event – warning them of a danger approaching, a bad omen, or a warning that even death may happen. “Our dog communicates with us from their barking styles…the barking sound for a family visitor, a stranger, and an enemy differs,” a village elder said.

The Hungarian ethnologist and dog expert Ádám Miklósi noted: [su_quote]Hunting is one area of human culture that has been significantly shaped by dogs – and vice versa.[/su_quote] The same is the case for Tenyimi Naga. The hunter dog is always the hunter’s best companion. Many Naga hunters will gleefully narrate how they can communicate with their dogs, by the sound and way of their barking. For instance, when the hunter releases his dog to the hunting site, the dog keeps barking, hinting where he is headed, and once he sees a prey, the dog will start to bark louder and faster, and thus the hunter understands he has to be ready with his weapon. When the hunter and his dog successfully catch their prey, they bring it home and celebrate with the community. Vizo, a 75 year Angami man from Khonoma village, recounts: “Traditionally hunting used to be a sport… As a hunter we love our dogs and it is our custom to give a good piece of meat (usually the thigh or arm of a game) to the dog as his reward.”

Another story, within the Tenyimi folklore, is the founding of the historic Khonoma village, from where the often called ‘father of the Naga nation’ Angami Zapu Phizo hails. Located about 20 kilometers west from the state capital, Kohima, Khonoma Angami village was established about 600 years ago. The story goes, that an Angami hunter once lost his faithful dog. Knowing that it was the duty of a master to take care of and protect the dog, he and his friends went searching for the dog in the wilderness. On finally finding the dog, they also found a fertile and beautiful land. Happy to see both his dog and the beautiful place, the hunter and his friends decided to build a village which came to be called Khonoma. If anything, Khonoma village is a place where our forefather, the hunter, was reunited with his faithful dog.

Now, coming to the consumption of dog meat, which is another important aspect of Tenyimi custom. Dog meat was and is still believed to have medicinal value. In traditional knowledge of the Rongmei Naga, dog meat enriches the blood. Among the Angamis, the English Anthropologist JH Hutton notes, dog eyes with the leaf or root of the mezi (a tropical fruit) tree are used as an antidote for Rheumatism. The meat is also considered nutritious, and strengthening the physique. In many Tenyimi tribes, pregnant women and people who underwent surgery are fed dog meat for speedy recovery. Traditional wrestling is one of the most well-known sports among the Tenyimi. On occasion before a match occurs, or after a very eventful wrestling match, dog meat is cooked and consumed by the wrestlers. “As a Naga wrestler, I eat dog meat to boost my strength,” Rio said.

In a few of the rather pretentious petitioners’ letters we came across, they wrote (almost all along the same lines): “…it is important to not let people add another animal on the list.” While we do not feel the need to justify, it must be pointed out here that dog meat is not an ‘added’ meat in the Naga cuisine. Far from it, dog meat has not only been a delicacy consumed as food, but dogs and dog meat features in many Tenyimi rituals, and auspicious occasions. However, it is also to be noted here, as any other meat, Tenyimi Nagas traditionally did not (and still do not) consume dog meat regularly, it was only reserved for auspicious occasions and rituals. Recounting about her childhood, Avinuo, a 90 year old Angami woman said, “While growing up, meat was consumed only during marriage or festivals. During such auspicious occasions, I was always very excited to eat meat.”

Ato, a denizen of Khonoma village, and one among the last group of people to convert to Christianity, explained, “Just as how chickens were sacrificed for performing rituals, sometimes it is our tradition to sacrifice a perfect healthy dog in our prayer for good harvest… this is not out of cruelty, sacrificing a dog was considered a great offering to the spirits. Much the same way like we do for chickens, while performing the dog sacrificing ritual, certain signs are observed, such as which leg crosses above which leg.” “We also look at the intestine during and after the ritual, it shows us what lies ahead of us, and thus we decide what has to be done,” he added. Naga scholar Richard Kamei, in this regard mentions, that the Tenyimi Rongmei Nagas [su_quote]…still retains the ritual practice involving the sacrificing of the dog. When someone dies, a Takan (an animal or a bird) is sacrificed. If it is a dog, it is done to protect the deceased from evil spirits and help the deceased on his way to the land of the dead, called Taloiram.[/su_quote]

Situating all these customary and cultural practices, it shows that, dogs mean and continue to be a many things for the Tenyimi Naga. With the coming of Christianity, liberal democracy, and capitalism since the early nineteenth century, much of the traditional belief system has already been razed. This abrupt ban, without any iota of consultation with the indigenous Nagas is nothing less than a blatant dictation of the Naga culture and way of life, with a potency wipe away the Naga custom and tradition. Even worse is the decision being made on such an important aspect, which is very part and parcel of the Naga lifeworld, based on a few unfounded information and pictures, pressured by emails and tweets.

The existing institutional provision in place for tribes in India, and the Nagas more particularly Article 371(A)

Article 371(A) of the Constitution, enacted in 1963, confers special provisions on Nagaland, with the clause reading: “[N]o Act of Parliament in respect of (i) religious or social practices of the Nagas, (ii) Naga customary law and procedure, (iii) administration of civil and criminal justice involving decisions according to Naga customary law, (iv) ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”.

One cannot see this provision as a stand-alone proviso emanating from the Indian state, as is frequently done by many. Such perception leads to interpreting the provision as a ‘benevolent’ act of the Indian state towards the Naga people. Much to the contrary, this provision was put in place as a ‘sop’ after the forced annexation and creation of Nagaland, dismembering the vision and the mission of NNC (Naga National Council) for self-determination.

It is to be reminded here that, on 16 May 1951, five years after India gained its Independence, NNC had conducted a referendum, which yielded a result of 99.9 percent Nagas not wishing to be a part of the union India. The government of India conveniently disregarded the plebiscite, and went ahead with the general election in the year that followed, which however was boycotted by the Naga.

While Article 371(A), arguably was a by-product of a negotiated settlement with the ‘Naga accommodationist,’ as the Political Scientist KKS Hausing puts, there already existed – albeit with a paternalistic approach – Fifth and Sixth Schedule arrangement for tribes across India, inspired by the United States’ policy for Native Americans. Keeping in mind the cultural difference, and the need for protective legal regimes for the social customs and traditions of tribal communities, B.R. Ambedkar had this to say, in the constitutional debate regarding the tribes in Northeast:

The tribal people in areas other than Assam are more or less Hinduised, more or less assimilated with the civilisation and culture of the majority of the people in whose midst they live. With regard to the tribals in Assam that is not the case. Their roots are still in their own civilisation and their own culture … Their laws of inheritance, their laws of marriage, customs and so on are quite different from that of the Hindus. I think that is the main distinction which influenced us to have a different sort of scheme for Assam from the one we have provided for other territories.

This sixth schedule was, however, never accepted by the Naga nationalists, but Article 371(A) made a sufficiently more promising term along with the creation of Nagaland in 1963. It remains an important clause for the Nagas to remain autonomous – as the clause states – in matters relating religious or social practices, among other things, until an amicable ‘accord,’ comes in place.

An attack on the distinctive Naga food habit and culture, on the pretext of a parliament act, cannot be taken lightly, especially when the instigation of the campaign was done by two sitting prominent Members of the Parliament, from both the upper house and the lower house. Such political attacks are not new, and must be seen as a continuity from the pernicious recurring attempts made with regard to laws and legislation in Nagaland.

Take, for instance, the attempt of the Petroleum Ministry to overrule the Nagaland Legislative Assembly, sometime in 2011. KKS Hausing shows in his seminal essay, Asymmetric Federalism and the Question of Democratic Justice in Northeast India, the attempt to override Article 371(A), in relation to the exploration of natural resources in Nagaland. Many subtle – and sometimes outright – attempts to understate Article 371(A), are observed time and again. These attempts, vexingly, are mostly done in liaison with a particular class of Nagas in Nagaland. In the case of the dog meat ban, a social media post from Nagaland Animal Welfare Society (NAWS) on Instagram[11] suggests that, along with the MPs, they are behind the dog meat ban. They had fed the information to one of the MPs, and after a few days, the MP’s People for Animals spearheaded a campaign for dog meat ban in Nagaland with a picture submitted by NAWS.

Already fractured with Disturbed Areas (Special Courts) Act 1976, alongside the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) 1958, these attempts from the mainland and center blatantly downplaying the agreement the Indian state has with the Nagas will only simmer ire and tension. As has been appealed by the Nagaland Voluntary Consumer’s Organization (NVCO), the Government of Nagaland must reconsider their abrupt decision to ban dog meat. These discussions should play out in the public sphere, where they belong, rather than having them adjudicated in the legal arena. Meanwhile, the union government and Indian populace also must rethink their habitual intrusion and approach towards the Naga Society.


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Roderick Wijunamai teaches at the Department of Social Sciences, Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. Menokhono is a PhD Candidate at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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