Polythetic democracy

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Jelle J. P. Wouters. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.010

Polythetic democracy

Tribal elections, bogus votes, and political imagination in the Naga uplands of Northeast India

Jelle J. P. WOUTERS, North-Eastern Hill University

This article presents an ethnography of modern democracy by examining the particularistic substance and conceptions of “politics” and “the political” in the small, hilly, and tribal state of Nagaland in India’s Northeast. Situating contemporary political practices in both the vernacular and the ethnographic longue durée enables us to reflect critically on the analytical usability of universalistic and normative canons and creeds of (liberal) democracy. To discuss this, and more, I explore the historical and cultural inferences, inner-logic, and intricacies that guided two crucial episodes that ensued in the run up to the Polling Day of Nagaland’s 2013 State Elections in a Chakhesang Naga village I shall call Phugwumi: First, the villagers’ (successful) attempt to protect the village electoral list from the deletion of “bogus votes” initiated by the government. Second, the villagers’ (unsuccessful) attempt to agree on a “village consensus candidate.” The analysis of these events leads me to critique preconceived definitions of “normative democracy” (Nugent 2008) and instead argue toward a critical anthropological appreciation of modern democracy’s polythetic (Needham 1975) and multivalent character.

Keywords: Polythetic democracy, vernacular politics, tribal elections, political imagination, Indian democracy, Nagas

Polling Day in Phugwumi

07:00 AM. Polling Day. Phugwumi, Nagaland.

Villagers thronged near the gate that led toward the Government High School in whose classrooms electronic voting machines had been installed the previous day. The gate was guarded by rifle-clad soldiers who hailed from places across India and had been dispatched to the faraway—for them—and remote Naga uplands to [122]ensure the smooth conduct of polling. On receiving a nod from their commandant, two jawans unlocked the gate. Polling began.

07:10 AM. Polling halted.

“Why are you carrying so many voting slips?” the commandant snapped at a village elder wrapped in a colorfully embroidered shawl to keep out the February cold. “One man, one vote. That’s the rule!” The commandant scaled up his voice, seeing that nearly all voters had multiple slips in hand. His interference was met with loud disapproval. “This is our village,” one villager known for his fortitude, stepped out of the queue and protested. “Don’t tell us how to play democracy!”

Little could the Army Commandant know that Phugwumi’s Village Council had endorsed “household voting,” a decree that empowered the head of each household to cast the votes of his dependents. “Household voting” was thought to have several advantages. First, it would render it unnecessary for villagers who resided elsewhere, particularly students, to travel home to vote as someone could vote for them. Second, it facilitated the polling of the roughly two thousand bogus or proxy votes the village was proud to possess and in the run up to Polling Day had struggled hard to protect from proposed deletions (more below). It was also seen as more effective as it shortened queues. In any event, it had long been seen as a man’s duty to represent his family in the political sphere, and it was only in rare instances that members of the same household voted differently as this was understood as showing discord within the family.1

07:30 AM. Voting still on hold. Tension mounting.

Everyone agreed that this election was of a different kind as it was for the first time in Phugwumi that two of its villagers had joined the same fray, a political circumstance nearly all villagers lamented. In an attempt to prevent intravillage divisions and differences from flaring up, the villagers had tried to select a village “consensus candidate” to whom the village votes and proxies were then to be allotted. Multiple rounds of meetings, however, had not led to a consensus and both politicians had entered the fray, competing for the constituency’s seat with each other and two more candidates from close-by villages.

07:45 AM. Both village politicians arrived at the school compound.

After a ferocious campaign, which had divided the village into political camps, the two village candidates now acted in unison. The commandant’s decree of “one man, one vote” risked the polling of the village’s bogus votes, which the Village Council, in the absence of a single consensus candidate, had resolved to divide equally over both candidates. As Nagaland constituencies and margins are comparatively small, such additional votes could well mean the difference between winning and losing. The two politicians confronted the Commandant, telling him, in clear terms, that his jurisdiction was confined to the maintenance of law and order, that he had no [123]business in lecturing the villagers on how democracy works. For a while the commandant stood his ground, drumming up electoral principles to his defense, but with two irate politicians challenging his authority, and the atmosphere around him turning exceeding volatile, he eventually gave in. Household voting was allowed to resume and bogus votes polled.


This ethnographic snapshot depicts Polling Day in a Chakhesang Naga village I call Phugwumi, where I was carrying out research when the 2013 Nagaland State Legislative Assembly elections ensued.2 Reports and tales from villages across Nagaland, a small, hilly, and tribal state tucked deep into India’s Northeastern region, indicate that Phugwumi’s way of “playing democracy” might hardly constitute a case of local deviance. But if inflated electoral lists, “household voting,” and the effort (albeit in this case a failed one)3 to agree on a consensus candidate appear ready fodder for judging Nagaland’s democracy as dissolute and perverse, and for regulating it to the dubious chambers of democratic deficits and electoral ills, as is indeed commonly done (Misra 1987; Singh 2004; Dev 2006; Amer 2014), this essay seeks to flick the paradigm. It explores what happens to our understanding of what procedural democracy means and is about when we interpret Phugwumi’s engagement with elections not necessarily as deviant and deluded but simply as empirical data based on particularistic historical and cultural inferences and logic in need of explanation, even theorizing. Proposing thus, this essay asks, what do ordinary Naga men and women actually make of the procedural democracy they are made to engage with (cf. Comaroff and Comaroff 1997; Paley 2008)?

While much has been said about the need to decenter the ideas and idioms of, among others, liberal democracy, the subject, and popular sovereignty that largely emerged out of European thought and history, from where they then swelled into universalistic and normative projections (Chatterjee 1986; D. Chakrabarty 2000), the core tenets of liberal democracy—which besides regular trips to the polling booths, free press, universal adult franchise, secret balloting, and an open multiparty system hinges crucially on voters behaving as “enchanted individuals,” at once part of society and capable to deliberate and act autonomously from it (Gilmartin 2012)—remain the benchmarks (and conjure the temporal and transspatial [124]definition of democracy) against which existing democracies are evaluated.4 Put differently, while global democratic theories provide everyone the right to vote, they do not allow voters everywhere, Ashis Nandy (2002: 4) writes, “the right to bring their odd cultural ideas and morality into the public sphere,” in the upshot precluding and impeding local understandings of the substance and guiding principles of politics and “the political.”

Stressing the veracity of Nandy’s “odd cultural ideas and morality,” not as deviances but as carriers of political modernity, this article distances itself from the preconceived notions that make “normative democracy” (see Nugent 2008) in favor of the “analytic openness” Julia Paley (2008: 3–4) rightly deems crucial “to explore how anthropological perspectives might take understandings of democracy in new and unanticipated directions.” To do so, the pages that follow invite attention away from the constrictive canons and creeds central to most political and democratic theories and argues toward recognizing the polythetic nature (invoking Needham [1975]) of democracy by providing central stage to democracy’s contingent character and its open-ended, ever-evolving construction (Paley 2002), its multivalence (Gutmann 2002: xviii), its particularistic moral idioms (Piliavsky 2014a), and the longer histories that usually lie behind contemporary political and electoral practices as they manifest themselves locally (Witsoe 2013), but so without fully discounting the authoritative presence of circulating, global discourses and dominant assumptions steadfastly and staunchly propagated by international organizations and national Election Commissions.

Modern democracy, I will argue, is to join the ranks of core anthropology topics such as kinship and ritual to be accepted and approached as amorphous and polythetic (Needham 1975), as not constituting a defined and discriminable class of political phenomena, molded by a distinct and universalistic assemblage of liberal democratic theories, that can be measured, evaluated, and objectively ranked (as is attempted, for instance, by the organization Global Democracy Ranking) but as a broad, open-ended, and multivalent political construction that locally manifests itself as indissoluble to—in its ideas, idioms, and praxis—the particularistic socio-historical substances, social bonds, and struggles over standing and sway that shaped “the political” long before the authoritative entrance of liberal and procedural democratic institution. Democracy, then, too, is an “odd job word” (Wittgenstein cited in Needham 1971: 7); handy to describe and classify societies and a term easy to invoke at will, but so at the analytical risk, to transmute Leach’s classic phrase, of merely creating a class labeled (liberal) democratic societies that may be as irrelevant for our understanding of actual democratic practices, principles, and imaginations as “the creation of a class blue butterflies is irrelevant for [125]the understanding of the anatomical structure of lepidoptera” (Leach 1961: 4; emphasis in original).

Among modern democratic projects worldwide, postcolonial India draws special attention, not just for its status as the world’s largest democracy but for the democratic and electoral effervescence reported all across, the unprecedented political participation and opportunities for upward mobility democratic institutions and elections provided for the poor, lower castes and other oppressed rungs of the society, the resultant “million mutinies” for change (Kohli 2001: 14), its spotless democratic record (bar a brief interlude of emergency 1975–77), and its unfailingly high voter turnouts.5 To account for India’s democratic enthusiasm anthropologists have now foregrounded popular perceptions of democracy and elections (Banerjee 2008) and invoked the term “vernacular democracy” to grasp the ways in which democratic practices “have been gradually moulded by folk understandings of ’the political’ which in turn energize popular politics” (Michelutti 2007: 642; cf. Tanabe 2007; Neyazi, Tanabe, and Ishizaka 2014). Crucial to democracy’s vernacularization, or indigenization, is its inevitable “territoriality” as Jeffrey Witsoe (2009: 64) proposes to capture how democratic politics become absorbed into often purely local and always animated contestations over dominance and subordination, which in his ethnographic setting of Bihar involved numerically preponderating lower castes taking on the traditional hegemony of upper castes (cf. Jaffrelot 2002). Thence if such plotting of the “vernacular map” of India’s democratic experiences is the devise, what we might need a pinch less of are discussions of institutional factors and functioning, formal analyses, Gini-coefficients and positive correlations, party manifestos, official rhetoric, and left-center-right political spectra, but instead locate new departures in the crucial insight that “party ideology is more often than not trumped by social relations” (Holmberg cited in Gellner 2009: 127; cf. B. Chakrabarty 2008).6

Clifford Geertz (1973: 311) anticipated this turn when he argued already long ago how “a country’s politics reflects the design of its culture.” He continued, “one the one hand, everything looks like a clutter of schemes and surprises; on the other, like a vast geometry of settled judgments,” only to conclude, a little dismayed: “what joins such a chaos of incident to such a cosmos of sentiment is often [126]extremely obscure, and how to formulate it is even more so” (Geertz 1973: 311).7 Such “extreme obscurity” between culture, broadly conceived, and modern politics may however be much diminished by rigorously studying democracy bottom-up and through approaching politics—both its acts and articulations—in the vernacular and in the ethnographic longue durée,8 thus clearing the stage for the study of “actually existing politics” (Spencer 2007: 178) without reducing them to assessments in terms of, what Alain Badiou (2010: 7) calls sarcastically, “the good little democrat’s handbook.” By attempting thus, this essay also answers to Witsoe’s (2011: 621) plea that the multifarious experiences of Indian democracy requires “positive theorization” with “positive in the sense of not being reduced to the frameworks of analysis that have emerged from, and formed part of, liberal democratic models of governance or even that derive from critiques of liberal democracy.” Thence, a Phugwumi villager exclaiming “don’t tell us how to play democracy” is not to be seen as evidence of immature or misled political imagination but an invitation to explore a vernacular political modernity, one that offers a critique to conventional democratic theory and practices but that is crucially informed, as I seek to show ethnographically, by particularistic historical and cultural practices and principles that have remapped themselves as “changing continuities” (Schulte-Nordholt 2005) unto the new democratic arena.9

In what follows I will argue toward more profound anthropological engagements with democratic politics and elections by situating them in both the vernacular and ethnographic longue durée. The locus and ethos of the pre-state (Chakhesang) Naga polity, which revolved around village and clan loyalties and rivalries, and whose internal deliberations were crucially guided by the normative principle of consensus-making, are to my way of reasoning crucial ingredients to capture contemporary and local conceptions of “doing politics” and of arranging “the political.” With Polling Day drawing near, we will discuss two episodes that stood out in Phugwumi. First, the villagers’ desperate (and successful) attempt to protect the village electoral list from the state-initiated deletion of “bogus votes,” and, second, the villagers’ (unsuccessful) attempt to agree on a “village consensus [127]candidate.” This is followed by the conclusion, which draws out the larger theoretical issues invoked in the anthropological study of democracy. But first a few words about the ethnographic setting.

The setting

As the vernacular experience of India’s democracy is now slowly being plotted (Michelutti 2007, 2008; Berenschot 2011; Witsoe 2013; Piliavsky 2014a, 2014b, 2013; Ruud 2003), this so far remains to the exclusion of India’s Northeast. And if this is only characteristic of the region’s wider scholarly identity as a “geography of ignorance” (Van Schendel 2002), in the contemporary world of Indian democracy this marginal engagement also persists because theories and concepts in vogue to capture South Asian democratic life-worlds find little or no historical and social roots among Nagaland’s tribal and predominantly Christian populace.10 Absent, in Nagaland, are politics of caste relations and equations deemed so central elsewhere (Srinivas 1955; Gupta 2005), age-old and “Jajmani infused” patron-client relations scripted afresh unto the democratic playing field (Piliavsky 2014b), or politicians (even entire castes) associating themselves with, or seen as avatars of, particular gods and deities (Michelutti 2004; 2008). Absent, too, are Dalit parties trying to unsettle upper caste dominance as is reported for South India (Gorringe 2011), or the unfolding of a “silent revolution” with lower castes successfully seizing political power across North-India (Jaffrelot 2002). The study of Nagaland’s democratic experience, its local character, inner-logic, and substance, then, offers another entrance into the multiverse of Indian democracy.

Before proceeding, it must be qualified that Nagaland might not be a straightforward place to study Indian democracy as the legitimacy of the Indian state is locally challenged and undermined by a long lingering claim for Naga Independence. It was in its quest for Independence that the Naga National Council (NNC), then led by A. Z. Phizo, boycotted the country’s general elections of 1952, 1957, and 1962 (see L. Ao 2002: 49). It was only after the creation of Nagaland state—as an autonomous state with the Indian Union—that elections became regular and gradually also participatory (Amer 2014), even though the NNC and nascent nationalist Naga groups continue to condemn such elections as “Indian elections imposed on Naga soil.”11 Over time, the NNC’s standing and sway faltered, but not necessarily the Naga Movement, which is today forwarded by (rivaling factions of) the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN), whose strongest powerhouse, [128]the NSCN-IM, currently finds itself in a long-drawn ceasefire with Delhi (although at the time of writing, many rounds of negotiations had not yet culminated into a definite political settlement). While any account of Nagaland’s democracy may not be considered conclusive without a discussion on what is locally called the “underground factor,” this will not figure centrally in this essay, which instead focuses on the substance and idiom of elections as it unfolded itself at the village level.12

This village level is provided by the Chakhesang Naga village of Phugwumi, which akin to many Naga villages sits perched high on a hilltop from where it stands guard over its neatly excavated paddy fields below.13 The village’s social texture is shaped by clans, of which there are six: Tünyi, Puro, Kezo, Vero, Yhobu, and Thira. Clan feelings tend to be strong in the sense that the six clans are thought of as natural units with their members having specific physical, behavioral, and mental predispositions, as well as sometimes specific historical narratives of migration and settlement, while certain patches of forest and fields around the village are clan-owned and the influential positions of village chairperson and Village Development Board secretary rotate clan-wise. In the prestate and colonial past Phugwumi was known and feared as a “warrior village” and exerted widespread influence and tribute—“they were dreaded by all around as a blood-thirsty people, who think nothing of murder for the sake of plunder,” as the colonial officer John Butler (1855: 208) wrote about the Phugwumi villagers—a historical disposition of standing and supremacy, which, I will show, most villagers saw as “natural” and inevitable to see itself reflected and remapped onto the new democratic arena.

In terms of demography, Phugwumi is a large village, the largest of the constituency, which counted eight more villages and a modest administrative hub. In 2013, the constituency’s electoral list tallied below 22,000 votes. As such, Phugwumi’s constituency was small, which is akin to other Nagaland constituencies but very different from those in most parts of India.14 Of the 22,000 total votes, Phugwumi alone possessed nearly 5,500. This numerical preponderance made Phugwumi center stage during elections as its internal electoral dynamics could well be, and [129]often had been, decisive in the overall election outcome. In this the 2013 state elections was to be no different.

Studying elections in the ethnographic longue durée

While voting has been construed as a technique through which democratic knowledge and authority is constructed (Cole 2004), and voter turnouts as a sign of people’s faith in the political system of democracy (Lukes 1975), in Phugwumi balloting must also be understood as an act “after the fact” (Geertz 1998), comparable to the last Arabian Night preceded by a thousand equally enticing others. It is the substance of these proverbial thousand nights, and many more, that makes the social archaeology of voting decisions in Phugwumi today. Perhaps it is this misconception—that an election constitutes a short, spasmodic event, and is thus unsuitable for the prolonged inquiry characteristic of anthropology—that for long prevented anthropologists from fully endorsing democracy and its elections as a prime field of ethnographic inquiry.

Those few anthropologists who did venture beyond the numerical assessments of democracy often ended up interpreting them using the advanced anthropological idiom of ritual (Abeles 1988; McLeod 1999). Thus an election is seen as a “ritual drama” (Nimmo 1985), as an elaborate rite in the Victor Turner (1969) sense complete with a liminal in-between phase (Herzog 1987) and the fostering of communitas (Banerjee 2011) caused by a temporary flattening of hierarchies as otherwise socially elevated and aloof politicians turn “beggars” for votes. Like a proper “ritual of rebellion” (Gluckman 1954), the election ends with a reaffirmation of the institutional status quo of procedural democracy. For India, too, it is held that through the act of balloting “Indians reaffirm the unity of the nation and the investment of power in the rulers by the ruled” (Hauser and Singer 1986: 942). In the latest edition of this “election-as-ritual” approach, Banerjee (2007, 2011) emphasizes the festive, almost sacred ethos elections have taken on in West-Bengal, and more widely across the Subcontinent. People flock to voting booths, Banerjee says, not because they are sufficiently naïve to expect that their welfare will change from one election to the next, as their previous experiences tell them it will likely not, but because they perceive the act of voting as a sacred expression of citizenship; as a signature of “patriotic faith in the idea of India” (2007: 1560). Banerjee’s interpretation certainly lands in troubled waters in Nagaland where voter turnouts readily pitch over 80 percent (Amer 2014), and is so both significantly higher than West-Bengal and the national average (which usually counts around 60 percent), but whose inhabitants often distance themselves (and are distanced from) ideas of India and “Indianness” (Wouters and Subba 2013), and where a resistance movement against the Indian state continues to hold sway, eliciting considerable local support. If not out of patriotic faith, what then explains, in addition to proxy voting, the electoral effervescence in Phugwumi and across Nagaland?15 The following ethnographic and historical discussions offer a few initial insights.

[130]While democratic politics was initially not a core part of my research, after elections were scheduled it soon etched itself at the very center of it. This was not only because it attracted my interest (which I must confess it did) but also because politics soon submerged Phugwumi’s entire social landscape. Suddenly, the theme of politics seemed to crop up in almost all everyday conversations, whether they were held in the paddy fields, around kitchen fires at nights, or on the whitewashed steps leading to the village church. Such discussions, however, generally did not involve the party manifestos, political ideologies, or government policies most political theorists would want voters here, there, and everywhere to discuss. Instead they revolved around bonds of kinship, historical narratives, village and clan loyalties, and for some, it should not be denied, about the monetary offers candidates were likely to make in return for their votes.16 Such “political talks” often zoomed in on disagreements or grievances gone unaddressed, ranging from land disputes, intervillage differences, incidences of thieving, adultery, and unfulfilled promises, to intravillage clan (and personal) rivalries over local standing and dominance, and while such past episodes remained mostly dormant in “ordinary times” as Polling Day drew closer they became recalled and brooded over aloud.

A former Phugwumi politician, for instance, narrated how his candidacy had been hindered by the perceived conduct of some of his relatives during his father’s and grandfathers’ times:

They were well-built, strong, and excelled in village wrestling. Those days, “might” often meant “right” and they became somewhat domineering in their behavior and got themselves landed into disputes. Much has changed since, but the villagers remembered this. Many therefore felt reluctant to cast their vote for me. I was held accountable for deeds done long before I was even born.17

[131]He had also expected, but only marginally received, electoral support from one particular clan:

In the past, we [the former politician’s clan] acted as their elder brothers. They were small in numbers but we saw to it that they were treated at par with other village clans. We protected them. When I contested, I reminded them about this part of our village history but in the end many of them voted for another candidate.

“Politics runs very deep in our village,” or so I was told repeatedly.18

A political agent of one of the candidates explained further: “Our villagers don’t vote based just on the present. They also see the past behavior of the ancestors, relatives, and clan-members of the candidates. If there is some problem or controversy there, the candidate will find it difficult to win.” Given this deep social archaeology that influenced local voting decisions, for me as an “outsider” to grasp the villagers’ political reasoning there was no shortcut to first grappling with Phugwumi’s social history in its entirety, including how its six clans were said to have come to their present location, when they arrived, and their reputation and standing within the village. How during the precolonial era the village had grown into a monopolistic protection racket, one that raided nearby villages and levied widespread tribute, and how such tributary relations extended into the colonial and, in some cases, the postcolonial era. But also the intricacies, conspiracies, and rivalries internal to Phugwumi, which involved clan struggles, contests over status and standing, and disputes over land and property. It was such narratives, not parties, manifestos, and ideologies that turned into the stuff and substance of local electoral politics.19

To better understand such a remapping of “old politics” onto new political arenas, we might do well to first take a step back. In 1933, Christoph von FürerHaimendorf, the first trained anthropologist to carry out prolonged fieldwork among the Naga, accompanied J. P. Mills, the then Deputy Commissioner, on a tour deep into Angami Naga territory, visiting a number of villages, some in the vicinity of Phugwumi. In each village Fürer-Haimendorf watched how “hordes of clansman” (1939: 12) approached J. P. Mills to bring before him their disputes and disagreements. Quarrels mostly concerned “land and the succession to property or the claims of a betrayed husband, suing the seducer of his wife, or the damage that one man’s cattle had done to another man’s crops.” All along, J. P. Mills “very patiently worked through the tangle of accusations and defense, and finally passed judgments” (1939: 12). It befuddled Fürer-Haimendorf: “Why is [132]it that the Angamis of those remote villages, whose economy had then not been disrupted by an outside force, were unable to settle disputes among themselves and brought the most trivial quarrels before the Deputy Commissioner?” The answer was perhaps not the breakdown of tribal jurisdiction Fürer-Haimendorf suggested, but may be sought in the villagers’ agency to appropriate and rework the colonial machinery to their own benefits. Put differently, colonial offices and officers came to provide ordinary Naga villagers with new avenues to work through preexisting divisions and differences, and new ways to settle long-standing struggles over clan and village status, standing, and sway (cf. Spencer 2007: 84–87).

It is a similar inner logic, I pose, that came to characterize Nagas’ engagement with poststatehood institutions and ideas of procedural democracy. While reasoning in a very different context, Jonathan Spencer subscribes to the possibility of such a reading when he concludes for rural Sri-Lanka:

If party politics had not come to the village, the villagers would have had to invent them. Politics had simply provided a new idiom in which villagers could express the kinds of division that had long existed. As such, electoral politics was simply the latest in a line of institutions which villagers had appropriated for their own uses. (2007: 84–85)

What new democratic institutions and practices locally provided for the villagers, Spencer had already proposed a decade earlier, was “an apparently bounded and structured social arena in which to work through all manners of purely local tensions and differences, while nevertheless seeking more of the good things and social standing that follow from access to the state” (1997: 9). Challenged here, as does the ethnography of Phugwumi, is the conventional view that elections and voter turnouts express “the symbolic affirmation of the voters’ acceptance of the political system and their role within in” (Lukes 1975: 304). Confronted, too, is the fancy that citizens in India cast their ballots as a ritual act of patriotic fervor to the idea of India. What emerges as crucial, to the contrary, is to look at how democratic ideas and practices become vernacularized and territorialized. How preexisting divisions and struggles over local standing and dominance, pace Spencer (2007, 1997), etch themselves at the very center of democratic imagination, stirring the electoral effervescence in ways it does in Phugwumi.

The historical substance of the Naga “political”

In a necessarily abridged form, this section sketches the historical and cultural setting in which democratic practices and principles locally unfolded and became enmeshed (cf. Michelutti 2007). It does so in an attempt to locate, what John and Jean Comaroff (1997: 127) call, a “native political anthropology,” one that engages with particularistic histories and vernacular cultures of participatory politics. It is through the ethnographic unpacking of such vernacular political narratives and practices, Comaroff and Comaroff well illustrate, that we may arrive at a critical appreciation of local democratic forms and functioning.

[133]The prestate history of the Naga has been painted as a history of “village republics,” of independent and semi-independent units. “As with all Nagas,” wrote the colonial officer J. P. Mills (1926: 176), “the real political unit of the tribe is the village.” Over time, most authorities on Naga history tell us, “each village emerged [as] independent and had its own history” (Venuh 2005: 15); they were at once “sovereign and self-sufficient” (Nuh 2002: 15) and functioned as a “compact and well-knit society” (Shimray 2007: 40). In broad strokes, this was how British officers first encountered the Naga:

At the time of the first British acquaintance with them many villages were still isolated from their neighbours by thickly forested hills and by rivers unfordable for several months in the year, and they tended to be on terms of head-hunting warfare with their nearest neighbours, or at best of an armed and ever suspect truce, almost every village being an independent political entity. (Hutton 1965: 19)

Casual parallels have been drawn with ancient Greek city states: “if the Greek had city-states, in Nagaland every village is a small republic” (Namo cited in Singh 2004: 14) or “the ancient Naga possessed [a] political spirit like the people of Ancient Greece” (Singh 2004: 13), even though, unlike Greek city-states that engaged in extensive trade, the Naga village was a “distinct economic unit” (Horam 1992: 60), one that “grew in isolation” (Bareh 2001: 115).

Although such reconstructions of Naga pasts are not misinformed, they are overdrawn. For one, the focus on isolation fails to account for historical relations—whether raids, trade, or tribute—certain Naga villages had with peoples of the adjacent Assam plains (Wouters 2011; Devi 1968). It also underestimates the frequent intervillage struggles over local dominance, the tributary relations that thence emerged, and the rise to local hegemony of especially powerful villages (Hutton 1921a: 11). Phugwumi was one such village and by the time British forces started surveying the hills, it had established itself as a local hegemon—a British officer estimated the village to be inhabited by as many as 2,000 fierce and feared warriors (Butler 1855: 195). But while British pacification—Phugwumi’s local supremacy took a blow when it was attacked and subdued by a British-led force in 1851—put a halt to most (though not all) intervillage raids, this did not cease intervillage rivalries, even though it stopped its most violent expressions in terms of hitherto reported headhunting. Today narratives of such battles, heroic deeds, brave warriors, and the subduing of others villages, remain an essential and proud part of Phugwumi’s repertoire of oral history, even though church pastors and deacons now preach that this pre-Christian, “heathen” past is best forgotten.

A mere focus on the locus of the traditional Naga polity, as vested in the village, would also overlook the variety in its political ethos, any characterization of which must start with acknowledging its heterogeneity. Digging through the Naga archives we find accounts about chiefs and democrats (Jacobs et al. 1990), nobles and commoners (Fürer-Haimendorf 1973), village councilors (Mills 1926), clan elders (Mills 1922), powerful chiefs (Fürer Haimendorf 1939; Hutton 1921b), and the conspicuous absence of chiefs (Hutton 1921a). Phugwumi was a village without kings or chiefs, and was loosely ruled, village elders recall, through debate and [134]consensus-making usually led by clan elders or other villagers who had gained social prominence,20 and when such deliberations broke down, as they did occasionally, through the muscular principle of “might is right”—“the Naga Hills was peaceful,” the Assam Administrative report of 1890 states, “except for one serious riot at the Angami village of [Phugwumi], in which one man was killed and several wounded.”21

Finally and crucially, sole focus on the “village republic” conceals the pivotal axes of clan and khel (ward) within; for the Angami Naga J. H. Hutton (1921a: 109) qualified, “although the village may be regarded as the unit of the political and religious sides of Angami life, the real unit of the social side is the clan.... The rivalry or antagonism of clan with clan within the village has coloured the whole of Angami life” (1921a: 109), and such “enduring patterns” (Fortes 1949) of clan continue, as we will see, to shape understandings of “the political” inside the Naga village.22

If such historical insights complicate the thesis of the Naga village republic, it does not fully negate it, and “some [probably all] Naga communities are organised very strongly around the principle of the village as a unit” (Jacobs et al. 1990: 71). From this follows that “the village rather than a group of villages or a tribe is the natural unit of organisation and hence the correct basis of investigation” (Horam 1992: 60). This remains so in the poststatehood era as the “village republic” became etched at the center of local governance. Through the Nagaland Village Council Act of 1978 and later Nagaland’s unique Communitisation of Public Institutions and Services Act of 2001 (Pandey 2010), extraordinary judicial and administrative powers were delegated to the village levels, while as a general principle, “the government tries not to interfere with the village administration” (Bareh 2001: 115). In terms of identity articulations, too, the Naga village remains a prime marker, even though Nagas have long ceased to live solely in their villages. This corresponds to a wider trend in India’s Northeast where “Every village ... has its own identity, and although many people have left their villages and settled in urban areas for better educational and medical facilities they continue to identify themselves with their respective villages” (Subba and Wouters 2013: 194). It was this historical texture, one embroidered with rivaling “village republics” and also of clan struggles within, into which modern democratic institutions and practices became locally woven and tailored.

Protecting the village electoral list

Polling Day was still several months away when news seeped into Phugwumi that the government had scrutinized the village’s electoral list and had identified as many as two thousand or so bogus votes; double entries, names of villagers long deceased, and of persons who no longer resided in the village or had never lived there. The government, it was said, was now preparing to delete these votes and that would instantly cut Phugwumi’s voting strength by roughly a third. Inside the constituency, Phugwumi had not been the only village convicted guilty of maintaining an inflated electoral list, but nowhere was the proposed deletion proportionally as high. Phugwumi villagers received the news with anger, even outrage, and it was soon interpreted as a deliberate attempt on the village’s historical standing and poststatehood political preponderance.

It did not take long for suspicion to befall a senior local politician known for his political acumen, who hailed from a village located on an opposite hill range. While a minister in the past, he had been defeated in the previous election, in no small parts because of low votes from Phugwumi.23 Even fewer in Phugwumi were likely to endorse his candidacy this time, and the politician had therefore resorted to shrewdness, acting in connivance with those bureaucrats allied with him from the days he held office, to enhance his electoral prospects by reducing Phugwumi’s voting power, or so it became suspected in the village. There were other signs pointing toward his involvement. The politician’s proven vote-bank, a cluster of three villages including his natal one, had hardly been affected by proposed deletions, which rather than a reflection of the accuracy of their electoral lists was quickly interpreted as part of a large and crafty political scheme being put in place. Moreover, in recent press statements he had come out strongly in support of the elevated democratic principle of “one man, one vote,” a sudden political ideal the villagers now understood as him having skillfully prepared the political grounds to unfold his electoral strategy of weakening Phugwumi.

More discomforting still was the realization that no nonvillager could possibly possess sufficient intimate knowledge of the village to differentiate genuine from bogus votes. An “inside hand” was suspected, a fellow villager gone against his own people. “Lured with money?” “The promise of a government job?” “A lucrative state contract perhaps?” Guesses were many and hidden accusations soon thickened the air. “Nobody can defy our village,” Athe (a Chokri classificatory term for grandfather) remarked in dismay. “This goes far beyond the election. This is affecting our village as a whole.” The Village Council, in an emergency meeting, decreed that should the “inside hand” be identified he would face instant excommunication for seven years, a punishment that equaled Phugwumi’s customary sentence for homicide.

[136]To be sure, few in the village insisted that the proposed deletions were entirely unfair, as most knew that the Election Commission deemed bogus votes as perverse political practice. What was objected however was that the proposed curbing of the electoral list, rather than an outcome of official, detached, and impartial procedures, appeared a political attempt to downsize the village’s standing and sway. For most, the village’s inflated electoral list was understood as a reflection and remapping of the village’s prestate hegemonic past. Given that in the modern political arena power and influence were no longer obtained by the might and bravery of village warriors but by numbers of votes, many in Phugwumi thought it was not just justifiable but historically inevitable that they would dominate numerically on the constituency’s electoral list, and for which, in addition to its already large number of inhabitants, the addition of “extra votes” had long been the prime method.

If an inflated electoral list and proxy voting—or the voting of “dead souls” as Staveley (1972) called it for ancient Greece and Rome, which along with inventing procedural democracy also first invented its circumvention—is condemned as distorted electoral practice characteristic of a weak state and perverse political parties (Birch 2011: 37), in Phugwumi the casting of such proxies drew on an inner logic of historical relations of intervillage dominance and subordination, a set of relations subsequently recast as the effect of democracy’s vernacular territoriality.24 Similar sentiments reasserting the “village republic” revealed itself in a colloquial distinction between “home” and “escape” votes. Homegrown democratic theory taught that without solid “home support,” or the votes from a contestant’s natal village, it was nearly impossible for any politician to conquer his constituency. “Escape votes,” in turn, referred to those votes villagers polled for candidates of other villages when a fellow villager was also contesting the fray. While “escape votes” were not unusual, they carried a dubious moral quality as it was understood that those promising their votes to a nonvillage candidate must be doing so out of certain material interests, or perhaps had been monetarily induced, thereby privileging their purely personal considerations over those of kin and village loyalties.25

Besides promising to punish the “inside hand,” Phugwumi’s Village Council also dispatched a summon letter to the politician, offering him an opportunity to defend himself against the accusations. The summon, however, went unheeded, and when he also ignored a second and a third call letter, the Council took it as [137]further evidence of his complicity and proscribed him and his party members from campaigning within the village’s territorial jurisdiction. As no redress could be expected from the politician, council members called on the offices of the Additional District Commissioner in the nearby administrative town and subsequently on the District Commissioner posted in the district headquarters, located on an arduous five-hour drive away. The District commissioner, however, in his official capacity, had merely lectured Phugwumi’s delegation on the principles and practices of “good democracy” as outlined by India’s Election Commission, and which well justified the deletion of the village’s bogus votes. Phugwumi’s efforts were further hindered by a rising prominence of a “one man, one vote” slogan popularized by the locally influential Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC).26 And when during a courtesy visit to the village a few weeks later, the District Commissioner publicly defended the “one man, one vote” principle, chances of retaining the bogus votes seemed all the more slim.

Seemingly against all odds, the Village Council persisted in pursuing the matter with the district administration, and in a last ditch effort another delegation took off for the district headquarters. It was during this visit that matters—as they were recounted to me by one of the delegates that evening—took a dramatic turn. As they pleaded their case once more, a state functionary remarked that more bogus names had been identified on Phugwumi’s electoral list and were also being prepared for deletion. On hearing this, some of the delegates burst into anger, a rage fueled by frustrations cropped up for months. “If you [the government] continue to harass and insult our village,” one of them had uttered forcefully, “how do you expect us to be able to control our village youth?” Given that during times of conflict, or intervillage tension, village youth, in both past and present, quickly converted into village defense forces, the question posed was a rhetorical one, hinting at the possibility of unrest, of violence even. The deeper meaning of the statement was too obvious for the officer, a Naga himself, not to recognize. While still on their return to the village the Council’s chairperson’s mobile phone rang. The call came from the offices of the District Commissioner. In the brief conversation that followed the chairperson was assured that the administration was in no way prejudiced or ill disposed against Phugwumi and that their grievances would be looked into.

Although it was impossible for the administration to rescind all deletions without gambling its authority to govern, the vast majority of them were revoked, making for a small political loss the villagers were now ready to settle for.

The failed consensus candidate

If the previous section illustrated the remapping of the “village republic” onto the new democratic arena, this section will focus on the micropolitics within Phugwumi, which mostly centered on sentiments and idioms of clan. In our wider body of political ethnography clan-politics is often associated with places in Central Asia, where despite massive state-led campaigns to foster national, civic identities, “in all regions of each country, most people strongly identified with their local clan networks, not with ethnic groups, and certainly not with either the democratic opposition or the state” (Collins 2009: 1). As a social institution, clan is not usually seen as salient to the Subcontinent where identities and loyalties of caste continue to reign: “politicians are obsessed with ’caste,’” writes Lucia Michelutti (2007: 645).27 With castes altogether absent among the tribal and Christian Naga but with clans assuming political significance, Phugwumi, and the Naga more widely, thus provides a contrary case.28

It was the first time for Phugwumi to have two of their own contesting the same fray. What especially worried the villagers was that the two candidates belonged precisely to those two clans that had long disagreed and struggled over standing, dominance, and property within the village.29 It did not take long before Phugwumi’s predicament was talked about as an interclan contest, both by voices inside and outside the village.30 Here the problem was not simply that all fellow clan-members were obliged to vote for the candidate of their clan—after all, bonds of kinship can at times be as divisive as they are uniting—but that there was always [139]a tension between one’s expected loyalty and conformity to one’s clan and more civic or private considerations.31

When it first became evident that two villagers aspired to contest the election, most in Phugwumi immediately objected. For one, they feared that it would lead to the breakdown of the village community into different groups, causing rivalries and resentments whose effects would be felt until long after the last ballot would be cast.32 Second, it would divide the village vote-bank (including its proxies), and while it had always been an illusion for the entire village to unite behind a single candidate, in a village with as many votes as Phugwumi had, gaining a solid majority of “home votes” would nevertheless put a candidate instantly ahead in the polls. Such village majority support would also provide the candidate with sufficient leverage to lay claim on the total of village proxies, thus further strengthening his position. “One minus one is zero,” as one village leader captured Phugwumi’s predicament, implying that were both to contest they would cancel out each other’s prospects. This would not just be unfortunate in the context of Nagaland’s (somewhat arbitrarily dubbed) politics of patronage and clientelism in which Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are invariably expected to privilege their natal villages, and their loyalists especially, in terms of state benefits, and which makes it lucrative for a village to have one of their own elected into the assembly, but also because a village producing an MLA would instantly witness a rise in its local standing and repute.33 “We have to keep our village together,” Athe opined. “We should not allow two villagers to contest.” Others added that producing two candidates would cast shame on the village: “It will show to the outside world that we are not united within.”

Following on popular opinion, the Razu Kuhu (the village’s self-created apex body), in consultation with the Village Council, called for a consultative meeting to deliberate the matter. In the mass gathering that followed (although among them only few women were present) and that lasted throughout the day, multifarious opinions and views passed the venue, perspectives often preceded by long and detailed narrations of village and clan histories. “Our village was not established just yesterday,” as it was explained to me during the meeting. “We can’t discuss today’s [140]politics without first discussing the past.” As the meeting prolonged, consensus emerged that only one villager should be allowed to contest. It was therefore resolved that the village community was to select a “consensus-candidate” to which all villagers were socially and morally expected to submit their votes (although they could still vote for one of the two nonvillage candidates if they so desired), as well as given all the village’s bogus votes.

If this resolution to “select” rather than to “elect” a candidate goes against the grain of universalistic and normative projections of autonomous voting, in Phugwumi (and among the Naga more widely) the act of balloting was subject to a sustained culturalist critique as it was seen as unduly dividing the village into “our side” and “their side,” thus challenging the widely noted communitarian ethos of the Naga village (Bendangjungshi 2012: 124; Biswas and Suklabaidya 2008: 184; Thong 2014: 158).34 A. Z. Phizo, erstwhile President of the Naga National Council (NNC), captured this communitarian and consensual spirit as Mechü medo zotuo, which roughly translates as “the binding will of the community.” Or in the words of another early Naga intellectual, “We believe in that form of government that permits the rule, not of the majority, but of the people as a whole” (Sahkrie cited in Nuh 2002: 16).35 Poststatehood Nagaland politicians have voiced similar culturalist critiques. On the floor of the Nagaland assembly, a minister proposed that Nagaland’s election system be reformed, for the present election system went against “the Naga way of life” (cited in L. Ao 1993: 224). A former Nagaland ChiefMinister publicly advocated the replacement of the election system by one of selection, which he deemed “necessary for a good [Naga] society based on faith in each other and in common values.” He insisted that this would “not in any way hamper the power of the state government, rather helps the progress and thereby good government” (Sema 1986: 171–72). Most recently, it was another Nagaland Chief-Minister who remarked that “election is not suited for Nagas,” then elucidating that “selection of leader[s] would best suit Nagas” (cited in Solo 2011: 67), thus recognizing that “the idea of ’an elected leader’ was not in the scheme of life in the Nagas” (Solo 2011: 68).

Principles of “selection” and “consensus-making” (Küdzükhoküyi), even if endorsed culturally, could nevertheless be a highly contentious process.36 Crucially, however, the essence of achieving consensus was not that everyone must hold the same opinion; the meeting’s outcome, the resolution adopted, or the leader chosen [141]was usually not the one to which the largest numbers of villagers agreed but the one to which the least numbers vehemently disagreed. As such, it was the tyranny of the majority in its reverse. This principle continues to reign in the state-protected realm of Phugwumi’s customary governance. “We never vote,” as Phugwumi’s chairperson told me. “We discuss until we reach an agreement among all [nineteen] council members.” As a result, council meetings were often lengthy, occasionally stretching for days on end. If no agreement could be reached a case or issue was declared unresolved or kept pending, which was preferred over forcing an outcome through the divisive practice of voting or raising hands. On the whole, consensus-making, even if a long-drawn exercise, was regarded as more cohesive as it reified a sense of community, skirted open competition, avoided disputes, and thence minimalized the risk of instigating disharmony within the village community. In the colonial era, this stress on deliberation and consensus-making made J. H. Hutton characterize the Angami Naga as a “debating society.” He wrote, “disputes, when settled at all, were probably settled by a sort of informal council of elders, who would discuss the matter under dispute with one another, the parties, and the general public at great length, until some sort of agreement was arrived at” (Hutton 1921a: 142–43).37

To select a consensus candidate, the Razu Kuhu called for a second meeting. However, for reasons I won’t detail here, clan-members and supporters of both politicians remained firm behind their candidates, citing reason after reason to justify why their candidate, and not the other, should be named Phugwumi’s consensus candidate. The meeting failed to resolve the situation, as did subsequent rounds of talks and attempted negotiations. Worth noting is that in one such meeting it was proposed that elders from a certain clan—let’s call them clan C—should act as a mediator between the clans of the rivaling candidates as this would be in accordance with clan C’s historical role as a barrier, bridge, and occasional arbitrator between both the clans. While this proposal did not achieve endorsement, that it was suggested perhaps further illustrates the centrality of clan reasoning in the micropolitics of the village.

While this failed attempt to agree on a consensus candidate frustrated most in Phugwumi, it pleased a small section of villagers. They were the party workers of the sitting MLA (during the previous election there had been no candidate from Phugwumi) who belonged to another village. They had withstood the primordial pulls from clan and village and continued to support their candidate who, during his past tenure, had reciprocated their electoral support by brokering them privileged access to the lucrative echelons of state. The sitting MLA now found his actions paying off in their continued loyalty, even though he had to assure and reassure to continue to provide them with such material benefits was he to retain the constituency’s seat. Well aware that should Phugwumi unite behind a single candidate, the sitting MLA would stand little chances of winning, his party-workers had attempted, and with notable success, to sidetrack the village quest for a consensuscandidate by willfully appropriating elevated principles of democracy to their own [142]uses: “Is not the selection of a consensus candidate undemocratic? Can not any person contest if he wants to?” “Should not all villagers decide by themselves whom to cast their vote for?” “Are we not living in a free country?”38


Put together the various ethnographic incursions and historical subtexts and what we witness emerging is a Naga vernacular political modernity, or a homegrown democratic theory revealing itself. Such cultural readjustment is no doubt fraught with occasional contestations and incongruities—and will continue to evolve—but crucially relies on historical charters and a cultural innerlogic of its own, centering, in Phugwumi, around preexistent notions of the “village republic,” clan sentiments and struggles, and the normative rule of consensus-making. Even if Phugwumi elders now lament how increased individualism, as well as monetary incentives offered by politicians, have started to corrode the communitarian ethos of the village polity (of which the villagers’ failure to settle on a consensus candidate was seen as symptomatic), the ways elections are understood, talked about, and “played” remain best understood as “changing continuities” (Schulte-Nordholt 2005) of preexistent ideas and idioms of politics and “the political.”

If this essay has been a persistent plea for more profound anthropological engagements with modern democracy and its elections by joining Paley (2008: 4) in arguing toward “an awareness of democracy’s open-ended construction,” it also calls for extending all of anthropology’s complexities into its comparative analysis. Rodney Needham (1975) argued that topics central to the study of anthropology like systems of descent, marriage patterns, and residence should be understood as categories whose members bear overlapping (what Wittgenstein famously called) “family resemblances” to each other, as well as to members of other categories, but do not exhibit a single and exclusive defining feature that until then, mostly monolithic definitions of, for example, matrilineal descent or patrilocal residence, supposed. Needham soon gathered a wide following and scholars now recognize the amorphous and polythetic nature of nearly all social phenomena they study, ranging from religion (Southwold 1978), ritual (Liénard and Boyer 2006), medicine (Ross 2012), to art (Morphy and Perkins 2006: 12) and even genital cutting (Lyons 2007).39

Such polythetic reasoning however has largely eluded the study of democracy and perhaps the field of political anthropology more widely. Even if we may readily agree that democracy does not possess a single and exclusive defining criterion [143](e.g., regular elections but voters selecting a consensus-candidate, or free media but villagers “de-enfranchising” individuals by introducing household-voting conventionally fail the cut of good democracy), its evaluation is nevertheless grounded in an a priori and normative checklist of institutions, procedures, practices, and values that most liberal political theorists insist can, even should, be tutored into existence here, there, and everywhere. It is with some resourcefulness that the spirit of Needham’s polythetic reasoning—thus recognizing democracy as an amorphous and polythetic concept—might result in approaches to modern democratic lifeworlds constricted led by the indexes and instructions of the “good little democrat’s handbook” (Badiou 2010: 7), in the upshot helping us to broaden and resignify our political imagination.

In short, if a “positive theorization” (Witsoe 2011) of India’s multifarious democratic experience (and not only India’s) is the device, this programmatic turn must rely on the recognition that modern democracy too is best understood as a polythetic phenomenon, as not exhibiting a set of exclusive characteristics and defining standards by which any democracy’s well-being can thence be judged, but that modern democracy—its institutions, ideas, and practices—are characterized by an amorphous range of variations, differential understandings, marked multivalences, and distinctive constructions, to be understood in historically particularistic and relativistic frames. While this should not be a license to bring all performances of politics within the fold of democracy, recognizing the polythetic and contingent nature of democracy would importantly bestow levels of historical agency and cultural imagination on the recipients of modern democracy to adapt, reappropriate, and rework democracy and its elections according to their distinctive life-worlds. Thus enabling them to become the repositories and enactors of their own versions of democracy based on their, returning to Nandy (2002: 4), “odd cultural ideas and morality.” If anything, the case of Phugwumi illustrates how the villagers, rather than adjusting themselves to the elevated principles of modern democracy, have long applied their agency and rich political imagination to adjust democracy and elections to themselves.

In conclusion, let us return to this essay’s main question: “what does democracy mean and what is it about among the upland Nagas?” Politics, Michel Foucault once said, “is the continuation of war by other means” (cited in Witsoe 2011: 620). Without overstretching the analogy an illustrative linkage may be drawn among the Naga between contemporary democratic politics and prestate episodes of intervillage warfare and intravillage clan rivalries. For the Angami Naga (then still including the present-day Chakhesang Naga), Hutton (1921a: 109) observed how in times of intervillage war deep-seated clan antagonisms would temporarily be suspended and the villagers come together in unison. Such unity, however, was often fragile and in periods of relative peace “the village would from time to time break out into riot, while it is incessantly troubled by internal bickering. In almost every dispute between two men of different clans the clansmen on each side appear as partisans and foment the discord” (Hutton 1921a: 109). As an intellectual exercise, replace “war” with “elections” and Hutton’s argument appears to stand today with Phugwumi acting in unison to defend itself from the proposed curbing of their electoral list, which they saw as a deliberate attempt on the village’s political [144]standing, but with the subsequent breakdown of the village community as the result of (although not necessarily fully determined by) clan competition within.

As for the election outcome, the mathematical equation of “one minus one is zero” proved to be correct. On Polling Day the village vote bank, including its bogus votes, became divided between both candidates, while about fifteen percent of the votes “escaped” the village. As a result, the sitting MLA retained his seat while the two Phugwumi candidates ended in the third and fourth positions respectively.


I thank Tanka B. Subba for his ever-incisive comments at various stages of writing this article. I am grateful to the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Eberhard Karls University, particularly Vibha Joshi, and the “excellence initiative” of the German Research Foundation, which together provided the time, resources, and academic space to write this article as a visiting fellow in 2014–15. This paper gained from discussions with Kühüpoyo Puro, Neisalie Kezo, Neichute Doulo, and Zhoto Tünyi. Four anonymous reviewers provided insightful comments that were of significant benefit, in addition to most helpful suggestions by Giovanni da Col, Hau’s editor-in-chief. My two years of fieldwork in Nagaland were funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, to whom I express my gratitude. My greatest debt, as ever, is to my Phugwumi hosts and the villagers at large whose never faltering hospitality, kindness, and cooperation—even at the heights of contentious electoral politics—I am at loss to ever be able to reciprocate. The usual disclaimers apply.


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Une démocratie polythétique: élections tribales, votes bidons et imagination politique dans les hauteurs Nagas de l’Inde du Nord-Est

Résumé : Cet article présente une ethnographie de la démocratie moderne, examinant en particulier les conceptions particularistes de la “politique” et du “politique” dans le petit état montagneux de Nagaland, au Nord-Est de l’Inde. En situant les pratiques politiques actuelles dans une longue durée à la fois locale et ethnographique, il nous est possible de penser de manière réflexive à la valeur analytique des canons à prétention universelle et aux principes de la démocratie libérale. Pour nourrir cette réflexion, je décris les inférences historiques et culturelles, la logique et les raisonnements qui ont donné lieu à deux épisodes cruciaux survenus dans la période précédant le jour des élections au Nagaland en 2013, dans un village Naga Chakhesang que j’appellerai Phugwumi : d’une part, l’entreprise (couronnée de succès) des villageois pour protéger la liste électorale du village de l’effacement des « votes bidons » mené par le gouvernement. D’autre part, la tentative (infructueuse) des villageois d’obtenir un candidat du village par consensus. L’analyse de ces événements m’amène à critiquer les définitions préconçues de la « démocratie normative » (Nugent 2008) et à plaider en faveur d’une appréciation critique et anthropologique de la nature « polythétique » (Needham 1975) et multivalente de la démocratie contemporaine.

Jelle J P WOUTERS is a lecturer at Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan and a PhD candidate at North-Eastern Hill University, India. Previously he taught at Sikkim Central [151]University and was a visiting fellow (2014–15) at Eberhard Karls University on a “Teaching for Excellence” award granted by the German Research Foundation. His current research revolves around political life-worlds, state, and democracy in the tribal uplands of Nagaland where he carried out two years of ethnographic fieldwork funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. He has published a number of articles, including “Performing democracy in Nagaland: Past polities and present politics” (Economic and Political Weekly, 2014) and “’The Indian face,’ India’s Northeast and the ’idea of India’” (with T. B. Subba, Asian Anthropology, 2013).

Jelle J. P. Wouters
Department of Anthropology
North-Eastern Hill University
Umshing Mawkynroh
Shillong 793022
Meghalaya, India


1. No woman has ever been elected into the Nagaland Assembly, while village and municipal councils across the hills are, with a few exceptions, all male. This is to the consternation of the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), which has recently moved the Supreme Court for reservation of seats in certain local and customary bodies, a proposed change that is resisted by most Naga tribal councils and pan-Naga apex bodies.

2. “Naga” is a generic term denoting a conglomeration of tribes, of which the Chakhesang Naga is one, who identify themselves as Naga in addition to the identities and loyalties that come with their separate clan, village, and tribal affiliations. The state of Nagaland houses seventeen state-recognized tribes, but many more Naga tribes reside in neighboring Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, as well as across the border in Myanmar.

3. See Wouters (2014: 62–63) for numerous instances in which Naga villages’ apex bodies, in the wake of the 2013 elections, conferred and announced a village consensus candidate to whom all, or nearly all, votes were subsequently cast.

4. If such conditions of “good democracy” do not exist, they must be fostered, or so many liberal theorists insist. Among them are Mark Tessler and Eleanor Gao who argue how successful democratization relies on citizens possessing “norms and behaviour patterns that are conducive to democracy—in other words that they possess a democratic political culture orientation” (2009: 197). When such political orientations don’t exist in a particular place, the argument implies that they must be taught or “emerge in response to the experience of democratic transition,” as Tessler and Gao (2009: 197) try to put it less directly.

5. Given that at the brink of Independence, India was ravaged, poor, and deeply divided, India’s democratic surge and success is often seen as either a miracle or a great exception, as constituting “an anomaly for academic political science, according to whose axioms cultural heterogeneity and poverty do not make a nation, still less a democratic one” (R. Guha 2008: xvi).

6. While this argument was framed in the context of Assembly elections in Nepal, a similar logic appears evident across the Subcontinent. But if Paul Brass (1990: 19) explains the existence of social relations and contestations, including caste-based and community-wise political mobilization, at the heart of India’s democracy as “an all-pervasive instrumentalism which washes away party manifestos, rhetoric, and effective implementation of policies in an unending competition for power, status, and profit,” I will stress, for the Naga, a deeper historical and cultural logic that informs the centrality of social relations to electoral politics and democracy.

7. In taking “country” as his unit of analysis, Geertz however greatly understated the heterogeneity of understandings of politics and “the political” that may exist within a country, certainly in a polity as large and diverse as India and where it makes more sense to think about Indian democracy in the plural, as India’s Democracies (Heierstad and Ruud 2014).

8. See Piliavsky’s (2014b) treatise on “demotic democracy” for an insightful example of how applying the ethnographic longue durée can lead to better understandings and critical appreciation of contemporary political practices, even if they appear to diverge from accepted democratic forms and norms.

9. The usage of the term “vernacular”’ is deliberate. It suits better than, say, “alternative democracy” (Nugent 2002) as the latter presupposes a derivation from an “original” or “pure” version of which there might exist “alternatives.” Vernacular implies originality and creativity on its own “wrought in an ongoing, situated engagement with the unfolding history of the present” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2012: 118). Let me stress that all democracies are of course vernacular, including the ones based on “Western” history and thought. Recognizing this is precisely the point.

10. For massive Christian conversions among the Nagas from the end of the nineteenth century onward and today’s Christian effervescence see Joshi (2012).

11. In response to the Naga uprising, the Centre passed the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958, which commissioned soldiers posted in Nagaland (as well as in certain other so-called “disturbed areas”) to shoot at Nagas at mere suspicion, and while since the 1997 ceasefire major incidents have much diminished, the continuing presence of this draconian law raises questions about the nature and scope of Naga political space (see Kikon 2005; 2009). For more on the Naga Movement see, among many others, L. Ao (2002), Horam (1988), Franke (2011), and Joshi (2013).

12. Chasie (2001: 247) argued that Nagaland’s democratic experience has been “complex, difficult, an painful,” among others because of “the unresolved Naga political issue with simultaneous ’insurgency’ operating during the entire period [of post Nagaland statehood democracy].” While during the 2013 elections, akin to earlier elections, there were some accusations of “underground groups” attempting to use their muscle power to influence election outcomes in some of the constituencies, in Phugwumi’s constituency the “undergrounds,” even if always a stakeholder politicians have to soothe, refrained from openly interfering in the political process.

13. The Chakhesang is a new tribe, in the sense that it is an amalgamation of different language groups that united themselves as “Chakhesang” in 1946. In colonial annals Phugwumi was classed as Eastern Angami, thus part of the larger Angami tribe. Hence, any subsequent colonial reference to the Angami tribe in this article may be held as including Phugwumi.

14. In comparison, in India’s larger states such as Bihar, the average size of a constituency is more than ten times the size of Nagaland’s, while during Bihar’s 2010 State Elections in 60 out of its 243 constituencies the voting margin of the winning candidate was higher than the total number of electors in the average Nagaland constituency.

15. Nagaland regularly pitches among those Indian states with the highest turnout of voters, and during the 2014 general elections even topped the country with a turnout of 87.82 percent, which is over 20 percent higher than the national average (Times of India May 22, 2014). In the words of Amer, “the causes and factors for such abnormal voter turnout could be understood by the fact that proxy voting is so rampant that it has become the rule rather than the exception” (Amer 2014: 9). It is here that Yadav (2009) seems ill-informed, or at least so in the context of Nagaland, when stating that “if we assume spurious names of those dead, migrated or simply non-existent make up 10 per cent of our electoral rolls, the real turnout figures would be at five per cent higher [compared to what is given as the national average today].” With the dead, migrated, and nonexistent “voted for,” Nagaland’s voting turnout would decrease drastically as the electoral list matched the actual number of eligible voters. Even more misinformed are national newspaper reports that tend to interpret Nagaland’s high turnout of votes as sufficient proof of Nagas having finally pledged their allegiance to the idea of India.

16. This play of money during Nagaland elections has been various noted (Misra 1987; Singh 2008; Dev 2006; Amer 2014). And yet, if the play of money is evident, money alone did not suffice for candidates to win as the richest or most generous candidates often did not win their constituencies, and for most voters “monetary incentives” was only one consideration among others, and often not the decisive one.

17. Such genealogical evaluations were pervasive as the candidate himself was widely respected in the village and known and praised for his concern and commitment toward the villagers’ welfare. In private, many villagers admitted that had they voted for him back then, the village would probably have been in a much better shape today.

18. If there is much talk about “deepening democracy” (Heller 2009) in India and elsewhere, the case of Phugwumi shows a differential “deepening” in which voting decisions are often vested in the deep social archeology of village life.

19. This is not to say that party differences were wholly absent or unimportant. They occasionally are discussed. Especially when it comes to the tension between regional and national political parties. I do, however, contend that party ideologies are often not a major determinant in explaining voting behavior in Nagaland.

20. Elsewhere I argued how among the Naga the throwing of lavish feasts, known in anthropological annals as the Naga Feast of Merit, was often crucial for an aspirant villager to climb the social ladder, to expand his sway in the village, and to have his voice heard more loudly (Wouters 2015).

21. Assam Administrative Report. Naga Videodisc. See The Naga Database, accessed September 9, 2015. http://himalaya.socanth.cam.ac.uk/collections/naga/record/r88456.html.

22. For an Ao Naga village, Temsula Ao reflects on her upbringing, “Father belonged to a founding clan of our village Changki.... Father’s clan and particularly father was always the target for his rivals, a clan which was constantly manoeuvring to distort village history and establish their superiority in the village hierarchy” (T. Ao 2013: 28).

23. In the light of Nagaland’s politics of small numbers, and voting-results being declared ward and village wise, the political leaning (the majority of village votes) of each village was open knowledge; thus a village could be known, for instance, as a NPF (Naga People’s Front), a Congress, or a BJP village, as a ruling or an opposition village (which, of course, could change from one election to the next).

24. There certainly also existed an instrumental hinge to bogus votes as its presence would increase the chances of a villager being elected into the assembly, so becoming in the position to “help” his natal place by privileging it with state resources. This logic is provided, of course, that the village would vote in unison (more below).

25. This individualization is of course exactly what De Tocqueville long ago saw as intrinsic to democracy. For America he noticed a democracy-infused “calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look out after itself ” (1969: 506). It is this individualism that Phugwumi elders lament as puncturing the more communitarian social and moral ethos of the prestate village polity.

26. Lamenting the social and political havoc intermittently caused by state elections, and in its self-assigned task to morally and spiritually guide the Nagaland populace, the NBCC—mostly made up of pastors and other church-workers—launched a state-wide Clean Election Campaign, which included, among many others, popularizing the principle of “one man, one vote.” In its approach to elections, the NBCC, unlike most Nagas, guided itself by universalistic and normative projections of “good democracy.” The NBCC had launched similar campaigns during earlier elections but to limited avail. Neither was their 2013 campaign to turn into a big success.

27. Such an obsession with caste goes deeper than mere electoral arithmetic; political rhetoric adopted by the “ritually low” but politically powerful (by virtue of their preponderating numbers) Yadav caste, for instance “portrays ’democracy’ as a primordial phenomenon passed in the blood from the democratic ancestor-god Krishna to the contemporary Yadavs and describes Yadavs’ political skills as innate” (Michelutti 2007: 643).

28. Situating caste in the historical longue durée, Sumit Guha (2013) emphasizes that, besides its religious and ritual associations, castes must also be seen as bounded, corporate lineages vying for territorial dominance and hegemony. Guha frames the caste-system as “a highly involuted politicized form of ethnic ranking shaped by the constant exercise of socio-economic power” (2013: 2). Seen thus, the workings of clans and castes may, at least in terms of political economy, not be altogether different, perhaps making the above clan versus caste argument not only a contrasting but also a comparable case.

29. To be sure, in “the everyday” clan relations were cordial in the village and in terms of kinship bonds, friendships, and neighbors clan affiliations were everywhere transcended. “Struggle” here refers to deeper, historical relations of dominance and subordination as they became invoked and expressed in the village’s political rhetoric in the run up to Polling Day.

30. Social bonds of clan assume political significance not just among the Chakhesang but the Naga more widely. For the Lotha Naga, for instance, Ovung (2012: 122) writes, “every serious treatment of Lotha politics finds clan as the most important determinant in patterns of political life.”

31. Kinship bonds could also cut across clans, and in one such case the daughter of a close aide of the sitting MLA happened to have one of the village politicians as her godfather, a social role obtained through a small ritual ceremony when a youth comes of age. Her father, as a result, separated her vote from the household-vote and made sure it went to her godfather.

32. Phugwumi had already earned a peculiar reputation in “doing politics” because during two previous elections electronic voting machines in the village had been destroyed by angry party workers, leading to re-polling. It was because of this history, and the tension anticipated as the result of the presence of two village candidates, that the Nagaland Government, in the wake of Polling Day, declared Phugwumi as “hypersensitive” resulting in the presence of well over a hundred soldiers to oversee polling.

33. On India’s politics of patronage more widely see Chandra (2004). See Piliavsky’s (2014a) edited volume on Patronage as politics for insightful explorations of the social and moral logic that reproduce long-standing patron-client relations inside India’s democratic arena.

34. In Phugwumi, where everyone knew—and implored—everyone else’s actions and loyalties, the principle of “secret balloting” was plainly nonsensical.

35. In the somewhat romanticized description of Hokishe Sema (1986: 10), a former Nagaland Chief-Minister: “the collective life took precedence over the individual life. A Naga’s obligation and loyalty was to his family and village and this required a total submission to the village community.”

36. See Frederick Bailey ([1969] 2001): 149) for a discussion on the normative rule of consensus in traditional Indian villages, and how this became gradually replaced by notions of competition and majority voting. Amanda Snellinger (2009) provides an account of the norm of consensus-making among politically powerful student organizations in Nepal with voting only coming in as a last resort. For a more generalized perspective of consensus-making in Ghana and other parts of Africa see Wiredu (1995).

37. Phugwumi’s Razu Kuhu may be understood as a contemporary manifestation of such a council, although it is no longer “informal” but made up of village leaders and intellectuals selected for a set period of time. In the Razu Kuhu, each clan in the village is equally represented.

38. This appears as a microencounter of what Paley (2008: 6) entreats more broadly as “the ebb and flow of a [democracy] discourse,” or “the outer edges of discourse, the shifting borderline between the instances in which [liberal] democracy discourse is picked up and used [as did the supporters of the sitting MLA] and those in which it is cast aside in favor of other possibilities,” such as the deliberating of a consensus-candidate preferred by the rest of the villagers.

39. For a critical reflection on Needham’s polythetic classification, including its possible limitations, see Saler (1999).