The Naga Scholars Association (NSA) organized its 5th webinar ‘Special Talk’ on the topic ‘‘Conversation on Self-determination as Human Rights’ on the 13th of August, 2020. The webinar started with a welcome address by the president of NSA, Dr.Zuchamo Yanthan and the introduction of the speaker Mr.Gam Shimray, Secretary General of Asian Indigenous People’s Pact (AIPP), Chiang Mai, Thailand and chairperson Prof.Lanusashi Longkumer, Head, Department of Geography, Nagaland University. The webinar was attended by scholars and intellectuals from different parts of India and across the globe.
Prof.Lanusashi, the chairperson of the special talk started by highlighting the importance of the subject of ‘Human Rights’ (HR) as an important discourse in contemporary affairs as it directly applies to ensure the dignity of life to everyone. He deliberated that in the post-colonial discourse, Self- Determination (SD) is generally understood within the scope of HR, drawing on some key policies enshrined in the UN declaration of human rights, while asking for a need to redefine key concepts such as Justice, Rights, Self Determination (community and individual rights) which are often rooted in a colonial past as well as issues of HR in issues of territorial integrity.
The speaker, Mr. Gam Shimray, began his talk by first bringing the constitutive elements of Human rights (HR) and Self Determination (SD) by linking to the current ongoing Naga peace talks, because of the prevailing conversation going on about the Naga Constitution and the Flag.
Before embarking on his talk, Mr.Shimray deliberated on the following five important aspects:
1) Recognizing Self-Determination is a constitutive element of human dignity and includes free choice of people.
2) Understanding the Right to Self-Determination is a Universal Human Right (HR).
3) Understanding Self- Determination and individual HR as mutually necessary.
4) How should selfhood be understood and applied to Self-Determination and governance for eliciting a coherent narrative of Self-Determination and self-government.
5) The need for recasting sovereignty as embodied in the person in the Naga political talks.
Mr.Gam began his talk by giving a historical overview of the UN charter of 1945, which first enshrined the concept of Self- Determination. He highlighted that the notion of self-determination was then, applied through the salt-water rule: meaning that it only applied to the colonies. It was after this, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted but this did not imply the ‘Right to Self Determination’.
Following this declaration, the International Convention on Civil and Political right, on Economic and Social Rights were adopted and it was under these two Conventions that the ‘Right to Self Determination’ was first mentioned, although it did not explicitly mention the debate that Universal Human Rights (UHR) and Self determination were separate. Hence, the vast majority saw it as mutually necessary and the debate continued. But when indigenous people were brought into the mix, it expanded the scope of ‘Self-Determination’.
The United Nations included people with “distinct characteristics” who had been encapsulated within a state’s system through different coercive means. The “distinct characteristics” included social and cultural norms that mainstream society did not understand and were not featured in the governing institutions of the state, such as the uniqueness of Naga history. It made the relationship between ‘Self Determination and Human Rights’ explicit by emphasizing the importance of both individual and collective rights, casting it as mutually necessary.
Mr.Gam Shimray then spoke about the notion of sovereignty – a concept which was not well understood in the colonial and until the post colonial era (upto the 1950/60s). According to Mr. Shimray, sovereignty was perceived as a part of the state that was self-justified and acted as a kind of superstructure which was above everyone else. Freeness and equality in dignity and rights was inherently linked to the reason and conscious of a person and this formed the basis of personhood, i.e the individual as a moral agent. It was based on the belief that humans by their nature can know what is morally wrong or right and take responsibility because of their capacity to reason.
This capacity to reason accorded humans as autonomous beings, where the sovereignity is embedded in the political sense. However in the political system (as opposed to the philosophical sense), the notion of state sovereignty in the state system was associated with the capacity to legislate the moral law (ruling out arbitrariness and absolute power). By drawing on these, the speaker concluded the following:
- a) When we talk of Self Determination, accounting for Universal Human Rights is a necessary condition b) How the self and the conception of the collective selfhood are featured will determine the legitimacy and the meaning of the political framework and space c) In a philosophical and political sense, sovereignty is embedded in the individual and not the state d) moral law means human rights are inseparable from responsibilities and duties.
He further stated that equipping with these four deliberations, he linked the relevance of the same in the Indo-Naga political talks. He opines that India is a failed state because it has serious misunderstandings of the above four points, while referring to universal principles in the talks. Calling into question the framework agreement which claims to be based on universal democratic principle, the speaker states that there can be serious problems across the negotiating table.
The Indian State, according to the speaker, was built on the notion of Sovereignty of the 50s and 60s where it viewed the state as one possessing arbitrary power and a self-approving supervisor over important matters and this outdated notion has not been revisited since the Nehruvian era or politically debated. It also exhibits a lot of contradictions because it is designed to fit into their culture of hierarchy and transport caste practices into its workings, which meant control and heavy supervision. Therefore, it is pertinent for us to learn and check ourselves unless we blindly reproduce the colonial structure and the illiberal Indian democracy either with or without the Naga constitution and flag.
While addressing the issue of the ‘Naga Constitution’ and ‘Naga Flag’, Mr. Shimray pointed out that one has to look at the uniqueness of the Naga people and see what one can take from: a) Our worldview and practices, b) What we have already lost and what we can still peruse, c) What can one apply from the world of knowledge that we are now exposed to (such as women’s rights) and d) Importantly, what and how can one contribute to the deepening of democracy in India?
He stated that, it is important to remember that we are not simply demanding our ‘Rights’ just because we look different or possess a different culture from the mainstream, because if we subscribe to that ideology of otherness, then, we will be self contradicting ourselves and even towing the line of racism. He emphasized on the need to look at the substantive level, and press for a de-negotiation move for partnership rather than separation and conflict between the two negotiating parties.
These are the questions that the speaker feels, must be asked in order to design our government properly– through consent making (crucially the most important aspect that governs our lives entirely), and recognize the sovereignty of the individual. The speaker advocates for a collective selfhood- wherein we share our lives and develop a common good in which the individual is the key agent – as one of the best forms of governance in the world that we see today. This propagates what he calls, a “culture of sharing reciprocity” which is based on trust, bonding and love.
Finally, the speaker addressed the working of the village republic systems in Naga culture and looks at how they worked in the past. To this, he stated that it worked mainly because of the community land ownership. Dying of starvation and dying without land within the Naga epistemology rendered a person without any ability to negotiate with friends and neighbours, which ultimately had a direct impact on individual sovereignty.
Additionally, customary law which is a fundamentally bottom- up approach, was rooted in and represented human civilization from the ground. The idea of social contract, in turn, presupposed a tacit agreement among its citizens. For Nagas and indigenous people all over, “social contract” includes past, present and future exigencies because we see a duty to respect and honour our ancestors and preserve what is good for our tradition and for our future generations.
In conclusion, Shimray strongly stated that the need of the hour is a constitution that will capture our wisdom and weaknesses, and reflect the collective selfhood of who we are. It should provoke our minds and sentiments because we are looking for something emotional and spiritual- something beyond our “Selves”. Collective selfhood had nurtured altruism in the past in our communities but will it capture our dream? – That is the question. The presentation ended with a lively question and answer round and discussions.
The special talk concluded with a vote of thanks from Dr.Lungthuyang, Secretary of NSA to the speaker, chairperson, technical support team, rapportuer Yanbeni Yanthan, flyer designer Russell Humtsoe and to all the participants from across India and globe.
(Dr. Zuchamo Yanthan) (Dr. Lungthuiyang Riamei)
President General Secretary
Naga Scholars Association