In most Southasian cultures, the act of renunciation marks an individual’s transition from being ordinary to being inspirational. In times of political crisis, the individual who renounces power and wealth stands out as the other possible paradigm that exists for a moral and political community. Khodao Yanthan, the vice-president of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), who died on 1 March in his native village of Lakhuti in Nagaland, can lay claim to greatness. As the news of his death spread from the Naga hills to the world outside, one could almost see the scramble for details about his life among young reporters ordered to ‘do a short piece’ on the man.
They would be well advised to read a moving portrait that, coincidentally, appeared recently in Nagaland newspapers. The piece, written by the anthropologist and author Abraham Lotha, traces the contours of Yanthan’s life, first as a young student with a babysitting job in Wokha; to a quartermaster in the Naga Labour Corps for the Allied Forces in the 1940s; to assisting the legendary Naga leader A Z Phizo in his 1950s plebiscite; to exile and hardship in London from 1960s to 1990s; and to his return to the Naga Hills following the April 2001 ceasefire between the Indian government and the NSCN. Lotha’s article can also speak to a new generation of readers who are cynical about politics – about a time not so long ago, when people believed in a better world for their people and were willing to sacrifice all they had for it.
Beyond Lotha’s piece, it seems odd that the Southasian media, especially in India, has largely not picked up on Khodao Yanthan’s life and contribution. Perhaps this has to do with his reticence about political grandstanding, or the fact that the media has little time to dig out stories about big people who live in small places. Either way, Yanthan’s renunciation of power, accrued from political compromises, is an apt reminder about the crossroads that his people and their neighbours find themselves at today. During the last years of his life, he is said to have lived with his cats and close kin, sometimes displaying ill-tempered disdain for nosy reporters and upstarts. Why would someone like him want to live out the last days of a full and eventful political life with just his cats? On second thought, why not?
The people who live in the hills that Yanthan loved so dearly, along with their friends in the valleys below, are today faced with stark, unenviable choices. More than five decades of militarisation have left a brutal mark on the people and landscape of Northeast India. Every community looks across its shoulder surreptitiously to see whether the other is conspiring to steal away its share of wealth. This seems almost farcical in a land whose wealth-producing capacities have been bartered out to the highest bidder. Yet the machines of progress and development roll on without any hindrance. They roll over green paddy fields and cut through verdant hills, bringing in their wake a litany of woes – bickering villages, petulant politicians, heartbroken idealists and resentful citizens. But all this is merely a murmur of what has happened in the last 60 years, where dreams of poetic justice have been subsumed by the crassness of political reality. This story will resonate with Nagas, Assamese, Manipuris and every community that lives in the valley and hills enclosed within the political map of the Northeast: resentment, rebellion, capitulation and compromise, all four aligned in a vicious cycle. Khodao Yanthan wanted to break this cycle, and lay the stones for a more just future based on dialogue among equals.
For the last two years, I had been looking for an opportunity to meet Khodao Yanthan and talk with him about the state of affairs in the Northeast. I wanted to hear his opinion about what was going to happen in the hills that cradled his village and in the valley below. I wanted to ask him about the kind of acrobatic faculties that were required to jump political scales – from struggling to raise the Naga issue in political circles in Europe, to feeding the many cats he had adopted in Lakhuti. I am poorer for the fact that I was unable to do so. Now that he has passed away, these questions will only have vicarious answers for those of us who know that an era has passed on with him.
Then again, has it? History has also shown us that with every act of renunciation comes an opportunity for renewal. Yanthan’s life was a remarkable sacrifice for a people and cause that now has to engage with serious questions for the future. This is the time for politics to begin to search for an ethical voice, in a manner of which he could have been proud. In remembering Yanthan, let us touch briefly on a few lines written by Eva Gore-Booth – suffragette, Irish republican poet – for her then-imprisoned sister, Constance. I am sure Khodao Yanthan would approve.
The peaceful night that around
Breaks through your iron prison
Free to the world your spirit goes,
Forbidden hands are clasping
The wind is our confederate,The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth’s barred
Where all the world’s wild rebels
~ Sanjay Barbora is the regional manager for Panos South Asia’s media and conflict programmes, and is based in Northeast India.