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Understanding the Naga Repatriation Project through the graphic novel - A Path Home

The front cover of the graphic novel

On 17th February 2023, the 54-page long graphic novel - A Path Home was released over a virtual book launch event. It is a joint publishing of Recover Restore and Decolonise (RRaD) and the North Eastern Social Research Centre (NESRC). The book is also available for viewing as well as downloading on RRaD’s official website.

The graphic novel is an extension of the larger project undertaken by the Recover Restore and Decolonise team composed of Naga researchers working towards the repatriation of Naga ancestral remains from museums all over the world. At present, they are working with the Pitts Rivers Museum in Oxford, London which houses 6000 Naga Cultural Objects and 200 human remains- the largest collection of Naga objects in the world.

The prospect of confronting the colonial past has brought up several conversations within the Naga community, which today is diverse in thought and identity. Through the novel, its creators Dr. Arkotong Longkumer and Meren Imchen try to depict these discourses as a way of relaying information about the project to the community. The book opens with a message to its readers -

‘This graphic novel is for the Naga people. We hope that this will inspire and empower you to imagine another world is possible!’

The novel through its 12 characters depicts imaginary but likely interactions between family members, neighbours and friends about the project. The conversations go back and forth in time, from childhood stories about the British occupation of the Naga hills to present-day anxieties about the reception of the ancestral remains. Imchen beautifully illustrates these scenes against the backdrop of Nagaland’s hills, around bonfires and outside the church- places that evoke nostalgia and truly ground the story in lived and loved spaces. Imchen’s visual retelling paints a near-accurate portrait of Naga households and neighbourhoods. The names of the characters are derived from different Naga languages, standing for different ageless entities representing the timelessness of the cause. Dialogues transpire between and among different generations embodied by individuals - wise elders, the younger and inquisitive kids and the earnestly cynical middle generation. The oldest generation represented by Ali’s grandmother has grown up hearing stories about colonial violence and lived through the era of the Naga secessionist movement and state formation. Yonglang, Ali’s father on the other hand is a little farther from those times. He is quick to dismiss the project as misa-mishi. He represents a generation of people who are tired of the bloodshed and violence and would rather not revisit issues of the past. He believes that the past is too far away to matter or have consequences today.

While several tribal communities in North-east India have had unacknowledged and traumatic trysts with the British administration, colonial texts reveal their special obsession with the Naga community. Accounts written by British administrators like Haimendorf, Hutton and Mills continue to serve as examples of ethnocentric colonial creativity. The raided ancestral remains are a legacy of the same colonial arrogance. Ali’s grandmother recalls how her elders spoke of their shock on seeing the strange white skin and clothes of the British, and how they would march in with guns and accompany Dobashis. This novel, with instances such as these, inverts the lens and presents the readers with a refreshing view from the inside.

Besides the given purpose of repatriating ancestral remains, the project is also an effort from the other side of the table at acknowledging their part in committing historical injustices. Dr Dolly Kikon and Dr Arkotong Longkumer’s visit to the Pitts River Museum is illustrated in the book, during which they interact with the director- Laura Van Broekhoven and curator Marina de Alarcon who talk about how this project is also important as it offers a chance to the institution to re-evaluate museum ethics and honour the once persecuted source communities upon whose cultural objects their existence stands. To be able to leave a world better than the one inherited, it is important that descendants of colonisers acknowledge the consequences of colonisation and correct their legacy.

The last century has been pivotal in Naga history, as a slew of changes set off by the British invasion has irreversibly altered society. The Naga are today divided by tribes, national and state borders, religions, political affiliation, and more. Today, Christianity is practised by the vast majority of the community and there are further categories within this. In that context, the performance of the last rites for the ancestral remains has become a contentious issue. A consensus among all community members is imperative to the success of this project.

An Excerpt from the graphic novel

Imchen's visual re-imagining of pre-colonial times transports the reader to a world before these arguments became relevant - a world whose only portals are the songs and tales passed down orally. Ali's grandma recounts,

‘Birds, animals and people lived in harmony with the trees, plants and rivers in the forests. They could understand one another’s languages and would gather together to feast for those were the days of plenty.

Humans and tigers were friends and lived together, Spirits came as people and birds became spirits

And those who died became our ancestors whose presence guided us through the years

Their stories and their deeds are remembered and retold to young in the cold winter nights around the fire, or in the warm summer months in the fields

Every inch of our land- a certain bend, an oddly shaped stone, the temper of the water, the crookedness of a tree branch- has a tale to tell.

We are a people of stories.’

Although addressed to the Naga, this novel echoes the reality of many communities in northeast India and around the world who have lived through violent colonial pasts that have remained ignored, causing the distress to be unresolved over generations.

The back cover of the graphic novel

Today, all over the world, indigenous peoples are looking at their own histories with colonialism and retelling the narrative from memory and starting their own journeys of reconciliation and healing. The RRaD repatriation project has created an opportunity to share memories and stories, process historical trauma, and ultimately make meaning of the real lived consequences of colonisation within Naga society. It has sparked debates that had previously been swept under the rug. In many ways, this is the perfect time for a discourse such as this, as the Naga enter a new political era riddled with its brand new set of challenges. It is the right time to look back to the wisdom of the ancestors and to recall what the Naga once were and in that way, to re-imagine and re-define what it is to be Naga, today.

Dejna is a 24 y/o Dimasa researcher, who has recently completed her post-graduation in Anthropology from Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her research is focused on agroecology, indigeneity and development in the Northeastern region of India. She hails from the town of Haflong and is currently based in Guwahati, Assam


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