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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 30.06.05

It is going back to the roots ? with a difference. The Nagaland government?s decision to replace the national emblem, the Ashokan pillar, with a tribal motif is more than a search for an identity for the Nagas. The chief minister, Mr Neiphiu Rio, did not explain it, but the real motive behind the move is easy to understand. The tribal motif that will replace the national emblem ? the mithun, an indigenous species of the bison ? has an ancient cultural association, not only in Nagaland, but also in neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh. The use of the motif in government work could thus be an innovative way to marry the ancient with the modern. But Mr Rio?s more important motive is clearly political. There are many ethnic and political groups in Nagaland claiming to represent the true Naga culture. The most important of them are the militant outfits, particularly the National Socialist Council of Nagalim. With the change of the emblem, Mr Rio may be hoping to match their ideas of the Naga identity. This idea is strengthened by his decision to have a new inscription, Unity Nagaland, to be used on the local emblem. This is obviously an attempt to match the militants? call for ?an integration of all Naga areas?.

However, Mr Rio needs to be careful about the dangers of over-emphasizing the virtues of identity politics. There cannot be anything wrong for Nagas ? or any other tribal people, for that matter ? to identify with traditional symbols. But the Nagas today live in a modern society and need broader face-offs with a fast-changing world. It would do the people in Nagaland no good if competitive politics over their identity diverts the government?s attention from more important issues. The caution seems particularly relevant in view of the talks between New Delhi and the NSCN faction, led by Mr Isak Chishi Swu and Mr Thuingaleng Muivah. The best way that Mr Rio can help the Naga cause is by doing his bit for the success of the peace process.