Born in Phek, Nagaland in 1935, Mr. Niketu Iralu is a prominent intellectual and preacher of peace and non-violence. The son of Dr. Sevilie Iralu and Vituno Iralu, Niketu started working full-time with the Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which is now known as the Initiatives of Change (IofC), in 1957 while he was still a student of Madras Christian College. A widely-travelled person, Niketu Iralu extended service to MRA not only in various parts of India, but also in different countries in Asia, in the Pacific region, in Europe, North and South America. He served as a trustee of Friends of Moral Re-Armament (India); member of International Council of Initiatives of Change; chairman of Naga Reconciliation Commission; chairman of Peace Committee of Nagaland Baptist Church Council. He was also the first manager of Mount Gilead Home, Zubza, Nagaland, for counselling and rehabilitation of drug and alcohol addicts. Mr. Iralu is currently a trustee of Centre for Northeast Studies and Policy Research, New Delhi and Guwahati. A renowned social activist who has been working relentlessly to bring about lasting peace to Nagaland and other parts of the Northeast, Mr. Niketu Iralu is now settled in Sechu-Zubza, Nagaland. Both Niketu and his wife, Christine are carrying on their work for IofC in the north-eastern India.
Mr. Niketu Iralu was interviewed recently by Hemanta Barman and Gautam Kumar Bordoloi to learn about his unique experiences of life and also his thinking on a number of burning issues of the society he belongs to.
Q. How do you recall your association with the ancestral village Khonoma? What are the changes that you notice in the village?
NI: I did my first years of schooling in my village Khonoma, where an elder sister of mine was the Head Mistress. She was paid Rs. 30/- per month. The village church gave her rice and firewood free. The experience of starting life as a boy in Khonoma put into me a deep love for my village, its glorious history and traditional ways of solving problems. I learned that problems considered too difficult by children born in towns and cities were not all that difficult or frightening, e.g., going to the forest and collect firewood, wild vegetables, trap birds (I am against hunting birds and animals now), always walking barefoot and in winter on frozen stones and earth, stepping on thorns at times, and so on, as my friends did without fuss. Leeches are not to be feared, just look at them and get rid of them! And what have you! Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood, said Marie Curie!
What I notice most in my village is that so many from the village, entire families, have now shifted to Kohima, Dimapur and other places leaving behind scores of vacant sites. The sense of security and confidence the villagers gave to one another because they lived and solved problems together has inevitably weakened, given the impacts of the relentless changes.
Q. You must have had quite an eventful childhood as the family had to move to different places along with your father Dr. Sevilie Iralu, who belonged to the first generation of doctors among Nagas. Tell us how and where you grew up as a child.
NI: After getting his LMP from Berry White Medical School in Dibrugarh my father’s first posting was in Tenning, Zelianrong District of Peren. He served also in Phek, Wokha, Mokokchung and retired in Kohima. I was born in Phek. “Jeepable roads” started to connect the different townships only in the late 50s. So we walked to Kohima to school and back to wherever our parents were during vacations. My father was lame on one leg and so he rode on a mule. My mother walked every time they were transferred. For the first transfer from Tenning to Phek she walked for 9 days. By the time they reached Phek her soles were bleeding as she walked barefooted. She carried our eldest brother, 3rd child, on her back all the way. My father’s postings in the different places meant our family was given the opportunity to get to know the various tribes of what was then Assam’s Naga Hills District.
Q. It was reported somewhere that your father – a thorough gentleman and apolitical person – had to suffer imprisonment in Tezpur jail for a year just on the basis of suspicion that he lent his support to the Naga separatist movement. How do you remember those turbulent days of the “dark fifties” of the last century in your youth?
NI: Soon after he retired my father was arrested and sent to Nowgong Central Jail (not Tezpur) as a ‘political prisoner’, not because he had done anything political, but because his wife was A.Z. Phizo’s elder sister. He wanted to know why he was in prison. The Jail Superintendent showed him the IPC clause which stated: “For waging war against the Republic of India ….”. Father asked: “Do you believe this is what I have done?” The officer smiled and told him not to worry. When he fell ill he was sent by train with armed police escort to Dibrugarh for treatment. Father was greatly amused as some people must have thought he was a dangerous prisoner who could do some harm to India! I was in Madras Christian College (MCC) to do my BA. The crisis I faced was intense because some of my close friends like Mowu from my village who rose to be the legendary guerilla leader, Isak Swu Chishi, who became Foreign Minister of Federal Government of Nagaland and finally Chairman of NSCN (IM), and others had gone “to the jungles” to defend the Naga cause. My crisis was intensified by a combination of plain cowardly selfish fear of dying early in the sudden upsurge of the struggle and a compelling thought that I was meant to live and find another way to help my people. Wrestling with the search I gradually came to see that I was meant to concentrate on finding out how my people just emerging from our isolated past of centuries were to survive and “succeed” with others in the modern world. It was at this time that I came across the ideas of the movement called Moral Re-Armament.
Q. How do you assess the philosophy and work of the legendary figure and ‘Father of Naga Nationalism’, Angami Zapu Phizo who happened to be your maternal uncle?
NI: Before coming to his philosophy and work something else about him needs to be told. The name Zapu Phizo given to him at birth by his family means “May his name be repeated very much on and on”. His grandfather, great grandfather and uncle were warriors and leaders well-known among Angamis and some neighboring tribes. They were at the front of the fight against the British attack on Khonoma in 1879, the last Naga battle to resist the British invasion of their land. The oft-narrated leadership roles of his forebears shaped his understanding of what makes history and his thinking of his own role because of their legacy. Family and neighbours’ accounts about him point to the seriousness of purpose with which he started to think and live very early in his boyhood years. His father, said to be the most widely-travelled Naga trader of his day, died when Phizo was still very young. It made him to think all the more of his responsibility. All this played a decisive part later in the bold rallying of the Naga tribes to come together as a people. His sense of history was his strength. It enabled him to envision the common future the Nagas should claim and develop together when the British Empire would end in South Asia. In 1935, the year I was born, he went with his wife to Burma after his business venture flopped rather badly. His younger brother Keviyalie joined them a year later. Phizo returned with his family to Kohima in 1946, a year after the Battle of Kohima had ended. The next year the British left their empire in South Asia. He had thought through what the response of the Nagas should be to the departure of the British who had defeated them in 1879. The stage he anticipated and had prepared for was set. He was ready to articulate what he believed was the right of the Nagas warranted by the facts of their history.
Historian Arnold Toynbee said what people do in response to the challenges that changing situations bring to them produces their society and their history. When the British, while consolidating their eastern frontier, trespassed across their village lands the Nagas fought them with all they had. 50 years later in 1929 the British Parliamentary Commission headed by Sir Ivan Simon came to them also to ascertain their views on ‘reform measures’. The Naga memorandum to the Commission stated Nagas claimed their right to be left alone to decide their own future in the event the British, whom they had fought and were defeated by, decided to leave their Empire. They emphasized they were not giving anyone other than themselves the right to decide that. After a series of meetings clarifying their position to the British government in Delhi and the Indian leaders who would run independent India — on August 14, 1947, the Nagas reaffirmed the position they had stated 18 years earlier in 1929 – they declared their independence. The statement to the Simon Commission and its reaffirmation on August 14, 1947, revealed how much the Nagas had thought about themselves and their history ever since becoming a part of a foreign empire for the first time in their history of hitherto uninterrupted isolation. Phizo was 25 when the Commission came and knew what the elderly Naga signatories stated. It would be correct to say that the August 14 declaration was largely because of his insistence, a measure of his clarity on what makes history, and with which he had returned from Burma determined to play his part. The well-known Plebiscite of 1951 and the complete boycott by the Nagas of the 1952 Lok Sabha General Election demonstrated what the August 14 declaration represented. Both were conducted by the Naga National Council and they were the fruits of his clarity and drive. When Delhi too preoccupied with the Partition’s monstrous chaos and dislocations to notice what was happening in a remote district on the frontier became aware of what the Nagas had done to defend their reading of their history, the response was the start of the Indian Army operations. The creation of the State of Nagaland in 1963 showed the extent of recognition by the educated Nagas of the sheer impossibility of defeating the Indian Army. But it did not mean those who had cooperated with Delhi to create the State had given up their identification with the position the NNC had proclaimed and defended, barring perhaps two or three, as Nagaland today has turned out to be.
Q. You spent almost four decades of your service with the Moral Re-Armament (MRA), which is now known as the Initiatives of Change (IofC), working in many countries across the world. Tell us about your experience of that important period of your life.
NI: I think one important lesson I have brought back from working with IofC is that… we, individuals or a people, must not overestimate or underestimate ourselves. No one is more than what he or she is. This can be depressing! But he or she is not less than what he or she is or has become. This is the important point to be happy about. Then learn to build on it truthfully. The Japanese doctrine of Kaizen is wise on this. It says – keep on improving whatever you are doing. This comes to what Gandhiji followed strictly – Keep the process clean, the outcome will be right. To decide to make this doctrine the basis of one’s life is to get on the road to change and become a responsible human being.
In the 50’s and 60’s, the deep suppressed fissures of history were beginning to surface exposing terrible festering wounds as the curtain started to come down on European Empires worldwide. The ferocious, hot World War II had ended and the Cold War was taking over and rapidly getting hotter and hotter as for millions of disillusioned people Marxism-Leninism, said to be “the wave of the future”, was no longer the future. Its time had come. Soon after joining MRA, I came across Gandhi’s “My Experiments with Truth”. I couldn’t put it down. I saw that I justified selfishness and dishonesty in the way I lived but criticized that in others and that this was the reason for the bitterness and hatred of others running my life. This clarity started to deal with the shaky doctrine of life with which I was facing the world. I saw that Marxism, though monumentally important for understanding the injustices of history, to change those injustices it needed to include the changing of human nature in its program. I was deeply challenged by Gandhi’s definition of his position: “The still small voice is the only tyrant to whom I bend my knees” – the missing factor in revolutions of the left and the right. In the people I met giving their lives to demonstrate the ideas of MRA I saw the truths Gandhi lived and fought for. I saw experimenting with truth through listening to ‘the still small voice’ by everyone should be the responsibility of everyone if solutions are to come for the problems we create with such abandon. I understood why MRA gave listening to ‘the still small voice’ by everyone the central place in its modus operandi. I found it to be so simple, so difficult, and so right and therefore not ignorable. The first steps of obeying ‘the still small voice’ I took, an ordinary person, were naturally tiny and tentative. I wrote to my father in Nowgong Jail and got honest with him about the times I had cheated him for which I was deeply ashamed and asked him to forgive me. I wrote to a Nepali hospital compounder in Kohima and apologized for jealousy that his family was richer than our family because they owned a shop from which we bought most of our things. My doctor father was his boss. I had wished some of the “anti-social elements” would make them feel insecure or worse. This acknowledgement of prejudice, jealousy, resentment and selfishness and saying sorry for them and keeping the whole thing simple revealed the path I was setting out on. The tiny steps did not change Nagaland and the huge global wrongs, but I was discovering what Aldous Huxley pointed out: “Those who crusade not for God in themselves but against the devil in others do not succeed in making the world better”. Those who say they do not believe in God have no problem with this insight. These initial steps taken and shared with others in diverse situations in different nations convinced me that I was on the path I was meant to walk on to help my own people and the region I love deeply. I have participated in programs of MRA/IofC in all the States of India except J&K and Tripura as well as in various countries of Asia, the Pacific, North and South America.
Q. Finally you returned to the Northeast, especially to take up the burning issues of your state – Nagaland. Is it a fact that the family of the former Meghalaya Minister, Late Stanley Nichols Roy extended significant help to you and your wife to resume your work from Shillong?
NI: Yes indeed. Stanley Nichols-Roy and his wife were the warmest and most generous of friends to me and my wife whenever we came to Shillong. By the time we planned to come and do something in our region after being away for many years, Nichols-Roy had died. While we were searching for a base for our work that would be more easily accessible than my parents’ home on a steep hillside in Kohima, Helen Nichols-Roy and their four children offered their beautiful home in Shillong to be our home and base till they found a plan for it. For 15 years, we lived in unforgettable “Whispering Pines”, we paid no rent at all. They said they believed in the same values of MRA/IofC with us. This was an instance of “Where God guides He provides” that we had heard often. It moved us profoundly. “It is certain my conviction gains infinitely the moment another soul will believe in it”.
Q. From the formation of Naga Nationalist Council (NNC) and Naga Federal Government to National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) – also from signing of a number of accords to the efforts put in by all the Peace Missions and the Naga Hoho, an all-acceptable solution to the Naga imbroglio is yet to be achieved. You too have been playing a prime role in bringing back lasting peace to the region. Can we expect a good news soon?
NI: The process of the Naga struggle has been so damaged by ourselves — “underground” and “over ground”, the Government of India and a host of unscrupulous traders and contractors in various cities of India and their Naga accomplices equally unscrupulous, down the years, it will be impossible for the outcome to be heavenly. I believe this means the ‘stakeholders’ of the struggle, the Nagas and non-Nagas, are the problem, not the struggle. I hope even at this stage the NSCN (IM) will be able to show the statesmanship they are more capable of showing than any others to enable a settlement to be found that can be made to work because it is acceptable to all sides. Even then the new child of the Naga struggle, if it is born, will demand all Nagas to accept changes in their vengeful distrust of one another to care for it to grow and take the Nagas forward. If the recognition that all of us have damaged the process is sincerely maintained, we may inspire one another by our truthfulness. Will Delhi continue to show the understanding of the human essence of the crisis it seems to be showing now? More elaboration is needed, but let’s keep it for future.
Q. Disputes often crop up between Assam and Nagaland and also Manipur and Nagaland concerning border and other ethnic issues. What steps need to be taken to live as friendly neighbours?
NI: First of all, we should be aware of the truth that love is blind but neighbours are not! The need for our different communities to come together to understand one another better is felt by all of us. The meetings must be honest conversations showing greater interest in finding mutual understanding which will make easier the search for solutions. Otherwise, each side is soon driven by their respective agendas and the meetings become fruitless exercises that do more harm than good. We have to follow the Kaizen doctrine!
Q. As a peace activist, how do you assess the role of all the religious bodies in maintaining harmony among different communities in the Northeast?
NI: Before the different religions of our region start to develop toxic prejudices against one another imitating what seems now to be accepted as normal, inter-faith dialogues that encourage transparency, understanding and harmony and build trust which all understand to be crucial should be increased. We must guard ourselves against thoughtless imitation of other regions where relationships that have failed for centuries have produced destructive, populist ideas and slogans.
Q. The observers often point out that following the ‘struggle for self-determination’, the Centre has released financial assistance to Nagaland adequately and liberally for overall development of the State. However, the general perception is that barring a few, the economic condition of the majority of Nagas is far from satisfactory. What are the major problems stalling the economic growth of the State?
NI: Yes, what you have said about abundant funds coming from Delhi enriching only a few is true. Everyone knows the major problems stalling the economic growth are: an inexperienced society’s unfamiliarity with the processes and ideas of management, governance and other details essential for developing a modern society, corruption, thoughtless irresponsibility of all indulging in reckless instant gratification without caring for the consequences, and so on.
Q. In addition to dealing with other social issues, you have also strived relentlessly for controlling drug and alcohol addiction in Nagaland, bringing about lasting peace to Nagaland through proper solution of the issue of Naga nationalistic aspirations, and also for achieving inter-tribe reconciliation among Nagas. Are you satisfied with the outcomes so far?
NI: One of the lessons from history is that societies grow properly only by responding correctly and adequately to the challenges that changes bring. This is the most difficult thing to do. Most ethnic nationalities like us the Nagas and others in Northeast India and Northwest Myanmar are emerging societies that have remained unaffected by global changes for centuries. We have been exposed to the wider world only recently, and we are discovering just how unprepared we are to respond adequately to changing situations. Our experiences of coping with new challenges are severely limited. We should not be surprised that our ‘solutions’ are increasing our problems! The first Foreign Minister of Papua New Guinea, Albert Maorikiki, wrote about this heart-breaking problem of his people– many of them still in the Stone Age, calling his autobiography “10,000 Years in a Life Time”.
I came to understand the implications of this huge reality, our crisis of response, for the Naga struggle. Part of this reality is that our human aspirations to be a people and nation are natural and legitimate. They cannot and must not, be denied or suppressed. But our selfishness, pride, fears and the accumulated resentments in our inter-tribe relationships will destroy us and our aspirations unless we learn to change these destructive passions and make them our common strength by learning to help one another to do what is right instead of accusing one another for not doing what is right. I became convinced that was the most relevant thing to do and what I yearned most to do with my life. Taking initial steps of change that dealt with selfishness, pride, fear, jealousy and resentment in my own life convinced me and set me on the path I decided to take. I am satisfied and at peace with the decision and what I have tried to be and to do giving whatever I had to help my people and region. I can only pray for the outcome and the coming generations knowing that the results are God’s business.
Q. How important is the battle of Khonoma in 1879 historically in the context of Naga spirit of freedom?
NI: I believe it was Phizo’s sense of history and his unyielding commitment to the nationhood he envisioned and articulated for the loosely related Naga tribes that led to the Naga National Council going to the extent of declaring Naga independence on August 14, 1947. And if the story of the heroic resistance against the British invasion of his village and the village’s subsequent defeat in 1879 had not so deeply shaped young Phizo’s search for the stand the emerging Nagas should take on the departure of the British, the 14th August 1947 declaration reaffirming the position the Nagas had taken in 1929, would perhaps not have been made.
Phizo’s memorial stone in Kohima declares his rallying call and commitment:
“Our land is our heritage,
To no one shall it be surrendered;
As whetstone our opponents sharpen us”.
In his language it is: “Urra uvie, Urra khapie miatsülielho; Ungumvümiasü upecütsiezo”. The importance of the battle of 1879 is revealed in these words.
Q. Do you think that the ideals of the moderate thinker T. Sakhrie have any relevance in the prevailing socio-political scenario in Nagaland?
NI: T. Sakhrie and Phizo shared the same sense of history and understanding of the moral, political and historical legitimacy and authority of the Naga struggle. Sakhrie was the brilliant articulator of the Naga struggle. The memorandums he wrote outlining and defending the ideas that had launched the Naga struggle are masterpieces of expression with clarity and passion. Sakhrie knew the Naga position was fully justified from every consideration. But he also knew the government of the new India would defend with force the integrity of the map the British had bequeathed to independent India and the futility of a violent conflict. His view that the NNC needed to go to the people of India to enable them to first understand the historical and legal facts of the Naga position and the attempt he made to reach out to the people of India were rejected vehemently by Phizo and the decisive majority of the NNC. The Nagas were massively caught up in the throes of preparing themselves to confront the Indian security forces’ operations that had started and quickly turned severe. I believe Sakhrie’s position was right and his killing that followed his condemnation was wrong and tragic. I also fully understand the response from Phizo and his group given the compulsions and momentum at that stage of the struggle the leaders had launched together. Sakhrie said what needed to be said at that crucial time. He was killed in the resultant crisis that went out of control. 50 years later in his village of Khonoma, Phizo’s clan elder apologized to Sakhrie’s clan acknowledging that although Phizo had not ordered it, his condemnation in the heat of the moment eventually led to the killing of their clan hero and reputed Naga leader. The apology and its gracious acceptance were both equally costly. It opened an unexpected but desperately needed door for the village trying to heal itself to restore damaged relationships for the sake of the coming generations. The direction Sakhrie tried to give to the struggle for which he gave his life is most relevant today and I believe the Nagas are beginning to understand it. And I have no doubt Phizo and Sakhrie are happy together in heaven for the initial steps their families have taken to help one another to do the right thing for themselves and for the village.
Q. Is it a fact that there is a growing sense of resentment among people owing to regional imbalances in development within Nagaland?
NI: Yes, it is.
Q. Looking at the recent spate of violence in parts of Nagaland over the issue of ‘reservation for women’, can we say that women there are truly emancipated?
NI: Women in Nagaland are not emancipated in the sense the term is used. But more problems of existence are handled and solved by women in Nagaland than by men. Women suffer more than men because most of our women instinctively consider it their responsibility to wrestle with problems with whatever they have to solve them because of their fierce love for their children. This suffering and this love produce great human beings although as in Assam too I am sure we do not read about them in our newspapers. The love must continue but the unjust suffering should end through proper legislations. The recent chaos over the issue of ‘reservation for women’ in which two young men died showed how unprepared Naga men are to respond properly to challenges of change and how dangerous it is for anyone to be more interested in their hidden agendas than in what is right for our whole society.
Q. You have received many laurels and generous affection of so many people across the world because of your dedication to the cause of humanity. How would you like to sum up your life’s journey so far?
NI: I am humbly grateful… I can look back and say I decided to stay true to the path I started to see to be the right path for me. I am astonished by the sheer goodness and patience of so many comrades along the journey who helped me to stay true.
A veteran professional journalist, Hemanta Barman served till recently as the Editor of the ‘Dainik Janambhumi’, one of the oldest and leading Assamese dailies for almost two decades. Mr Barman is an acclaimed short story writer too.
Gautam K Bordoloi:
Gautam Kumar Bordoloi has almost thirty years of experience as a journalist, public relations practitioner and a book publishing editor. A former public relations officer of Assam Agricultural University and news editor of The Sentinel, Mr. Bordoloi also served as a correspondent of The Asian Age. He writes both in English and Assamese. He can be reached at email@example.com.