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Christopher Finnigan

March 26th, 2019

Against elections: The Northeastern Indian society that sees voting as eroding community

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Christopher Finnigan

March 26th, 2019

Against elections: The Northeastern Indian society that sees voting as eroding community

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

As India gears up for elections, Jelle J P Wouters explains what he found from his ethnographic research following Nagaland’s 2013 state elections. Rather than a society committed to the idea that voting expands individual autonomy and rightful self-expression, he found a community deeply suspicious of the electoral process. A system which they thought was responsible for creating divisions, deepening intra-village rivalries and promoting greed and exaggerating individualism – at least in its current form.

In today’s global promenade of liberal democracies, free, regular, and participatory elections have become the benchmark for most evaluations about how far any democracy flourishes or falters. For most, the idea of voting as a culturally neutral, or ‘post-cultural’ exercise, and as a universal norm desired everywhere are second nature insights. After all, who does not appreciate the right to vote? But does this idea of the universality of voting hold true for every region of the world? The highland fringes of South Asia provides us with the opportunity to critically interrogate universalistic and normative projections of ‘man the voter.’

The biggest achievement of the twentieth century, according to Nobel laureate, and ex-LSE professor, Amartya Sen, is that a country no longer needs “to be deemed fit for democracy: rather it has to become fit through democracy”. For Sen, and most liberal political theorists, modern democracy and its hallmark of party-based elections, universal (adult) franchise, and equal voting rights, are a liberating force that fosters individual autonomy, rightful self-expression and choice, and so emancipates individuals from the fetters of constrictive cultural traditions and past political authority; or as the American politician cum sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan has put it: ‘Politics can change a culture and save it from itself.’ But what I learned from conducting roughly two years of fieldwork (between 2011 and 2014) in the Naga highlands is that many Naga villagers hold a different opinion. They rather believe that culture can change politics (the liberal and electoral kind) and save it from itself.

‘Election as insult’

‘Election is an insult to each other by vote’, these were the words written in the dusty rear window of a vehicle parked next to the polling booths in Chakhesang Naga village (a village I call Phugwumi) during the 2013 Nagaland state election. Not election as sacral and salutary of individual autonomy and freedom, but ‘election as insult.’

While carrying out fieldwork I found that many Phugwumi villagers, especially village elders, believe that elections, individual autonomy and equal voting rights create divisions, deepen intra-village rivalries, and promote greed and exaggerated individualism. What they lament is that elections are corrosive and corruptive of an earlier political sociality and moral society, one which elevated the village as a reciprocal community with shared ends and concerns – at least so as an ideal, a spirit and an aspiration.

‘It is time to realise that evil practices associated with electoral politics are destroying the good traditional system of our Naga democracy, the system which would regard the opponents as worthy and the integrity of everyone would be safeguarded as the rival groups disagree with one another.’ This was the opinion of the Chakhesang Public Organisation (CPO), the tribe’s apex body, said in the wake of Polling Day A few years prior, Nagaland’s serving Chief Minister declared: ‘[An] election is not suited for Nagas.’

To be sure, in their objections against elections and voting Nagas are not ‘anti-democratic’; in fact, their traditional village polities drew lavish praise from colonial officers who variously characterised them as ‘decidedly democratical’, and their village system as ‘a form of the purest democracy’. What, then, is at stake in the local equation between elections and levying insults?

The community’s voice and thought

Individual and autonomous voting corroded a deep-rooted cultural and moral norm, invoked locally as müthidzü or müthikülü, which translates as ‘the community’s voice’ or ‘the community’s thought.’ To establish the village’s voice/thought, consensus-making (Küdzükhoküyi) was the cultural device. In Phugwumi’s mode and mood of public deliberation, the idea that everyone’s voice should be considered equally – as the idea of equal voting rights purports – was taken as a strange idea. The sonority of one’s political voice was set by one’s antecedents and achievements, by the merit, virtue and wisdom a person accumulated over a lifetime, and so on purpose as political decision-making required maturity, acumen and foresight, qualities which, everyone agreed, clan and village elders had a great deal more of compared to younger generations whose opportunism and naiveties had to be kept in check.

While Phugwumi youth were never silenced, in the traditional cultural etiquette they were expected to show deference by acknowledging, before contributing to political deliberations, the unfinished understanding that came with being young and unmarried, the absence of fields and cattle in one’s possession, and their overall still scant experience of the hardships and complications of life.

The arrival of elections and equal voting rights did not recognise such foundational kinship hierarchies and differential levels of merit and wisdom that existed amongst villagers. This refusal was resented: ‘Whereas in the past our youth would whisper, and were eager to listen and learn from elders, nowadays they shout and will not listen’, as one elder said to me, capturing this transformation. ‘It is because nowadays the village is ruled by the youth’, many village elders explained that the cause of the current dismal state, according to them, of the village.

To be sure, consensus-making was often not easy and could entail lengthy and contentious discussions. Of course, it was also not always successful. But whereas in Marxist scholarship consensus is often seen as a euphemism for ideology, or false consciousness, in Phugwumi consensus-building itself constituted the political ideology. ‘We never vote’, Phugwumi’s village chairperson tells me, referring to the state-protected domain of customary law, over which he and his council preside. ‘We discuss until we reach an agreement.’ If no agreement can be achieved a case is declared unresolved or kept pending, which is preferred over forcing an outcome through the divisive practice of voting or raising hands.

In the upshot, consensus-making, even if often a long-drawn exercise, is regarded as more cohesive as it reifies a sense of community, skirts open competition, avoids disputes, and thence minimalises the risk of instigating disharmony within the village community.

It must be stressed here that the essence of consensus-building in Phugwumi – both then and now – is not that all villagers have to endorse the same view, unanimously agree on the settlement of a dispute or wholeheartedly accept the selection of a leader. Often, the decision taken is not the one that counts on the support of the majority, but the one to which the least numbers of villagers strongly disagree. As such, it is the tyranny of the majority in its reverse.

Individual voting, on the other hand, is experienced as privileging personal idiosyncrasies and benefits over community welfare, and this is why it is an insult; an insult, that is, to the ideal of village cohesion with the villagers speaking in a single voice. ‘This is shameful’, one village leader comments as he inspects the election result, which shows that the Phugwumi ‘village vote’ had gone divided over multiple parties. ‘This shows to the outside world how divided we are’, he added. Or as another villager explained:

In the past we discussed our matters and differences. We had our problems and conflicts, but we also had our own ways of dealing with them. But now villagers say: ‘You wait! We’ll face each other during the next election’ and they then support rivalling parties and politicians. But every election makes both winners and losers. As a result, differences are no longer settled. They just linger.

It is this lived experience, the notion that elections and voting create divisions and rivalries that makes the villagers attempt, in the run up to Polling Day, a procedural adaptation by substituting individual voting for a village ‘consensus-candidate’ to be selected through public deliberation, and to which all villagers are then expected to cast their votes. Multiple meetings take place, but no consensus-candidate is agreed upon; a failure which many see as further evidence that the divisive forces of party-politics and elections have already moved beyond redemption.

But while Phugwumi fails, several other Naga villages succeeded as arrangements were struck between village elders and political parties to pre-select consensus-candidates that were subsequently given the collective village-vote.

A society against voting

In an anthropological classic, Pierre Clastres boldly interpreted a Society against the State those Amazonian tribe that existed without hierarchical and authoritative leadership, but were nonetheless affluent, cohesive and complex. Questioning the standard civilizational narrative, Clastres argued that in their political sociality and cultural penchants they were adversarial to the idea of a coercive state, which led him to critique the universalisation of a normative political system, style and sociality with clear roots in Euro-American history, and the subsequent evaluation of any society’s political position and prestige on precisely those terms.

Nagas’ engagement with elections seemingly embodies a similar critique. Their acts and articulations offer an alternative vision and sense of the good democratic life, one that is shaped not by individual autonomy and equal voting rights but by values of communal harmony, consensus-building and complimentary coexistence. Of course, much has changed since Naga lifeworlds were first and foremost centred in ‘village republics’, while one could argue, justifiably so, that ideologies of communal harmony and consensus-making conceal conflicts and power hierarchies within. This is a pertinent point, particularly in the view of the limited political space and opportunity that is given to Naga women.

And yet, rather than seeing this local perception of ‘election as an insult’ as an aberration or lack, or as marking a transitional stage from tradition to modernity, and the selection of consensus-candidates as a ‘democratic deficit’, one can also read into this a cosmopolitan, culturalist critique against the universalisation of a particular and provincial moral and democratic sense, and therefore argue that, in their cultural form and functioning, the Naga are a ‘society against voting.’

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Photo Credit: MetsikGarden, Pixabay

Jelle J P Wouters is a social anthropologist and teaches in the Department of Social Sciences at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan. He is the author of In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India (OUP, 2018)

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Christopher Finnigan

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