Identity and the Strategies of Bio-politics: A Reading of Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone by Khandakar Shahin Ahmed
The essay titled Identity and the Strategies of Bio-politics: A Reading of Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone is a result of the research work of K S Ahmed.
Like most of the fictions from post-colonial ethnic cultures, the short stories of Temsula Ao originate from a land still in turmoil. Her story collection These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone is essentially rooted to the issues of Naga separatist battle for autonomy which started since the end of the British Raj in 1947. What is unique about the book is that it does not explicitly point to the political struggle; rather it captures the voices of common Naga people who are trapped in the struggle between the state and the Naga ethnic insurgency groups. The stories are inextricably fraught with the historicity of the Naga separatist question and the strategies of bio-politics employed by the state to diminish the Naga insurgency. This paper is an attempt to foreground the crisis of the individual in the backdrop of Naga separatist movement as depicted in Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone.
Describing how ordinary people cope with violence, how they negotiate power and force, how they seek and find safe spaces, Temsula Ao details a way of life under threat from the forces of bio-politics manufactured by the state mechanism. No one—the young, the old, the militant with his gun, the ordinary housewife, the willing partner, the spy—is left untouched by the state sponsored strategies of regimentation. The stories in the book essentially disseminate the politics in the Naga identity. Whether Naga identity will be determined by the markers of state mechanism or it will be constructed by Naga ethnicity—these questions penetrate the idea of Naga identity from the post-independent era. This paper will address the historicity of these issues through Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone.
Identity and the Strategies of Bio-politics: A Reading of Temsula Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone
These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone depicts the lives of the Naga people struggling to come to terms with their identity.
Set in the initial turbulent decades of the Naga insurgency Temsula Ao’s short story collection These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone depicts the lives of the Naga people struggling to come to terms with their identity. The stories are essentially rooted to the issues of Naga separatist battle for autonomy which started since the end of the British Raj in 1947. What is significant about Ao’s stories is that they do not explicitly point to the political struggle, rather the stories capture the voices of common Naga people who are trapped in the struggle between the state and the Naga ethnic insurgency groups. The Naga Separatist Movement sought to assert, as Zapu Phizo puts it, the Naga identity in separation from pan-Indian nationalism: “Nagas are not Indian, and were never part of India. Nagaland, a British conquest, could not become an Indian legacy” (Verghese, p86). Indian state, on the other hand, exerts its dominion over the territory through bio-political strategies and seeks to normalize, institutionalize and regulate Naga identity. Temsula Ao’s stories are essentially fraught with the historicity of these issues which destabilize the identity markers of the Naga people—whether Naga identity will be viewed in terms of Naga ethnicity or it will be formulated by bio-political strategies employed by the state mechanism. This paper is an attempt to foreground this aspect.
...long suppression… has silenced their (Naga) voice, history, culture and capacity of self-rule.
Temsula Ao’s stories—The Curfew Man, Soaba, An Old Man Remembers, and A New Chapter bring to the fore the different facets of the Naga resistance to the state’s negation of the Naga ethnicity: “The Nagas, who had struggled for decades together against the Indian State and experienced long suppression, argue that the over-riding concern for ‘nation-building’ has silenced their (Naga) voice, history, culture and capacity of self-rule.” (Dutta, p5)
The state with its sovereign body put in circulation the bio-political strategies of normalization and subjectification to subdue the Naga voice. As Foucault puts it, what emerges with the introduction of bio-politics as a practice is the notion of a social body as the object of government. It is the notion of population i.e. bio-politics concerned with population as a subject of discipline in the diverse forms of rehabilitation, normalization and institutionalization. According to Foucault the disciplinary control achieved by the bio-politics creates the “docile body” (Foucault 1995:135) through a series of appropriate technologies: “For millennia man remained what he was for Aristotle: a living animal with additional capacity for political existence: modern man is an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question.” (Foucault 1978:143)
This is evident in the stories of Temsula Ao. In Ao’s stories the strategies of the state mechanism politicize the life of the individuals and locate each individual to specific space with specific liberties, and thereby incurring the individual’s voluntary servitude to the state which ultimately formulates his or her identity.
…the state exerts its ‘right’ to inflict violence or disciplinary measures on the Naga people through the predicament of the protagonist, Soaba.
In Ao’s These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone, Soaba is one of the powerful stories which brings to the fore how the state exerts its ‘right’ to inflict violence or disciplinary measures on the Naga people through the predicament of the protagonist, Soaba. The word ‘Soaba’ literally means ‘idiot’ and the story depicts how the protagonist gradually acclimatizes himself with the constructed identity made available by the state. The story portrays how the state ‘groups’ people under the head of ‘insurgents’ for the purpose of normalization and institutionalization: “The word grouping had a much more sinister implication; it meant that whole villages would be dislodged from their ancestral sites and herded into new ones, making it more convenient for the security forces to guard them day and night.” (Ao, p11)
So, by ‘grouping’ the Naga people as insurgents the state prepares the ground for legitimizing the Naga identity through paradigms of power-relations.
Soaba along with the other Naga people cannot come to terms with the logic of the state-sponsored violence, and this aspect points to the significant constituent factors of the state. In the western political thought, Aristotle categorizes human existence into bare life (simple act of living) and good life (politically qualified life): “born with the regard to life, but existing essentially with regard to good life” (Aristotle, p24). The ‘good life’ is essentially the product of the state power i.e. the legitimization and regimentation of simple act of living. So, in the state individual’s identity is constructed through the mediation of law and bio-political measures of the state. In human life what is ‘bare’ and which is to be politically qualified by law are entirely decided by the ‘state authority.’ In this respect Agamben observes: “It can be said that the production of a bio-political body is the original activity of sovereign power” (Agamben, p6). According to Agamben, placing biological life at the centre of its calculations the modern state does nothing other than bring to light the secret tie uniting of power and bare life. So, by ‘grouping’ the Naga people as insurgents the state prepares the ground for legitimizing the Naga identity through paradigms of power-relations. The term ‘insurgency’ is ‘bare’ in Naga life which has to be legitimized and regimented. At the same time Ao contextualizes her story in such a time when the Naga people considered Indian forces as ‘foreigners’ and the Naga extremists as ‘patriots’: ‘Young people spoke of the exploits of their peer in encounters with government forces and eager to join the new band of patriotic warriors to liberate their homeland from ‘foreign rule.’” (Ao, p3)
As illustrated by Ao, the Naga people considered Nagaland as their separate ‘nation’ or ‘homeland’ and hence projects the Indian forces as ‘foreigners.’
As illustrated by Ao, the Naga people considered Nagaland as their separate ‘nation’ or ‘homeland’ and hence projects the Indian forces as ‘foreigners.’ However, the state has taken it for granted that Nagaland is within its territory, and what is necessary is to rehabilitate, normalize and institutionalize the identity of the Naga people through the bio-political measures. From the story it is evident that for the state ‘government of men’ is more vital than the ‘government of territory.’ The procedures and means employed to ensure the ‘government of men’ comes into focus through Soaba’s gradual growth of a bio-political identity. He and other people of his community familiarize themselves with newer terminologies and mediate their lives with implications of those terminologies: “It was at this stage that a new vocabulary also began to creep into everyday language of the people. Words like convoy, grouping, curfew and ‘situation’ began to acquire sinister dimensions as a result of the conflict taking place between the government and underground armies.” (Ao, p10)
These terminologies create a ‘social body’ in order to rationalize and frame certain identity markers which will facilitate the voluntary servitude of the individuals: “Convoys meant the massive deployment of army personnel to various strategic areas; convoys were also the only permitted mode of travel for people who had to go to different places on official or personal errands.” (Ao, p11)
So, it is evident that politicization of the bare life refers to a state of affairs where all the subjects without exception obey the laws, accomplish the task expected of them, practice the trade to which they are assigned, and adhere to the established order in so far as this order conforms to the law of the state.
So, it is evident that the state’s controlling measure does not simply consist of violence; rather it puts in circulation certain strategies of normalization.
Temsula Ao’s stories are the dissemination of the state’s circulation of the controlling measures in the lives of the people, as evident in the story titled The Curfew Man: “The night curfew was the worst for people living in small towns because soon after dark all social activities ceased.” (Ao, p34) So, it is evident that the state’s controlling measure does not simply consist of violence; rather it puts in circulation certain strategies of normalization. The Curfew Man brings into focus strategic divisions of people in the Naga territory such as—the Indian force, the insurgents, and the emerging state- sponsored section of spy. The state’s art of governance maneuvers such policies which encompass every sphere of Naga life. The story is about a newly emerging spy called Satemba who has to engage himself as a spy because of the dire need of employment: “In order to detect and arrest the relatives of ‘rebels’ and their sympathizers, the government began to enlist recruits from the ranks of the bad elements in the towns and villages by paying them handsomely and sometimes even by threatening to reopen old criminal cases if they did not co-operate with them. These were the people who operated in the grey area between the government forces and the so-called ‘freedom- fighters’, some by choice and others by compulsion.” (Ao, p35)
Under compulsion Satemba has taken the profession of a spy, at the same time he cannot betray the Naga endeavour for freedom; this is the crisis of Naga identity.
Satemba is the “Curfew Man” who roams the town beyond the Army-imposed curfew hours, so he can spy on his fellow Nagas on behalf of his Indian Army employers. Under compulsion Satemba has taken the profession of a spy, at the same time he cannot betray the Naga endeavour for freedom; this is the crisis of Naga identity: “The real trouble was in his heart. For the first time in two and half years, he was beginning to question himself and his so-called ‘job’.” (Ao, p41)
Satemba’s ‘job’ foregrounds the state’s all pervasive strategies which under the pretext of economic employment facilitate the voluntary servitude of the Naga people to the state. The creation of the new jobs apparently provides the scope for employment for the Nagas, but implicitly those jobs are the bio-political strategies of governance to win the voluntary allegiance. The story vividly illustrates how bio-politics operates through the economic discourse that creates a ‘subject’ who will regulate himself in terms of the economic and juridical principles of the state. These identities based on economic employment do not allow the Naga people to think that they are being maneuvered by the state, and under illusion of self-dependence they facilitate their own subjection to the state. Satemba cannot sustain his ‘job’ because of the sense of betrayal to his ethnic community, but the writer observes: “A new curfew man would be in place by evening and the man (Satemba) with the two smashed knee-caps had already become history.”
The life of each and every Naga man, from the pumpkin-grown Merenla to the chief of the underground force, is mediated and conditioned by the strategies of the state.
The idea of ‘Naga identity’ becomes evasive because of the working of bio-politics through economic framework. The all pervasive nature of the bio-politics somehow makes a Naga man oblivious of his ethnic cause or Naga nationalism. The economic manifestations of the governance are adroitly presented in the story titled as A New Chapter. The title of the story is highly suggestive as it points to the fact that “Nagas were beginning to look at themselves through new prisms, some self-created and some thrust upon them” (Ao, p122). These new prisms consist of the hierarchy of the functionaries who are the humble subordinates of the state mechanism: “New players emerged and forged makeshift alliances in unfamiliar political spaces” (Ao, p122). The protagonist Nungsang is such a ‘new player’ who works as an army contractor. The story portrays the Naga life within the periphery of the state mechanism. The life of each and every Naga man, from the pumpkin-grown Merenla to the chief of the underground force, is mediated and conditioned by the strategies of the state. The bio-political strategies facilitate the emergence of state functionaries among the Naga people, and gradually Naga nationalism becomes an evasion. The astonishing irony occurs when the Chief of the Naga Insurgency Force pleads Nungsang to arrange for his son a government job. In this story Ao alludes to the First assembly election held in Nagaland in 1960s. This election not simply justifies India state’s territorial right in Nagaland, but more significantly it brings Naga identity into the “much-vaunted ‘mainstream’ politics of the country” (Ao, p134). Newer avenues and paradigms of social, political and economic positions have been exposed to the Naga people. On such avenue are the electoral process and Nungsang contests in the assembly election taking the ‘hornbill’ as his electoral symbol. In Naga ethnic culture hornbill is a sacred bird, and Nunsang manipulates that ethnic sentiment related to the bird for political end: “The sight of the legendary birds stirred something elemental in their racial memory and they fancied that the birds had descended from their lofty perches in the deep and dark jungles and had come to participate in the political parade with a clear message for the people.” (Ao, p140)
…I would put my sign even on a snake if that was the instruction.
The legendary bird has also been politicized and Nungsang wins the election. However, the bird with its ethnic milieu does not fetch the victory for Nungsang, rather it is the political maneuvering of the people which is instrumental in Nungsang’s victory: “Why do we have to put our signs only on the bird?’ Immediately, someone from the line retorted, ‘with this kind of money, drinks and free meal, I would put my sign even on a snake if that was the instruction.” (Ao, p140)
These observations of the Naga people point to the emergence of a Naga society where identity of the individual can only be realized through the strategies of the state mechanism. It is discernible that the war zone of Nagaland foregrounds the realm where identity is constructed by the bio-political parameters of the state. The stories of Temsula Ao bring to fore that bio-political measures of normalization, subjectification, and institutionalization that have created a Naga identity which is utterly divorced from the professed Naga nationalism. This paper, therefore, seeks to assert that within the bio-political framework of the state ‘pure Naga’ identity is a mere fiction.
1. Agamben, Girgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Trans. Daniel Heller-Roagen, Californa: Stanford University Press.
2. Aristotle. The Politics Trans. Ernest Barker, London: OUP, 1946.
3. Ao, Temsula. These Hills Called Home: Stories from a War Zone, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2006.
4. Baruah, Sanjib. India Against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001.
5. Dutta, Akhil Ranjan Ed. Human Security in North-East India: Issues and Policies, Guwahati: Anwesha, 2009.
6. Foucault, Mitchel. The History of Sexuality Volume I, Trans. Robert Hurley, London: Penguin Books, 1979.
7. Discipline and Punish, Trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Vintage Books,1995.
8. Verghese, B.G. India’s Northeast Resurgent: Ethnicity, Insurgency, Governance, Development, Delhi: Konark Publishers, 2004.
Khandakar Shahin Ahmed is an Assistant Professor of English at National Law School and Judicial Academy, Assam.
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