First Nagamese daily completes a year

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Regional Media | 03/12/2014
Despite being the lingua franca of Nagaland, Nagamese has been ignored and neglected as a pidgin language.
But the first newspaper in Nagamese is celebrating its first anniversary, reports VIKAS KUMAR (Pix: a linguistic map of Nagaland).
Nagaland is home to 16 indigenous tribes and a number of immigrant tribal and non-tribal communities. Together the people of Nagaland speak more than a fifth of all the non-scheduled languages reported in the last census. Seventeen indigenous tribal languages are taught in primary schools. Since most of these languages are mutually unintelligible, people depend on a pidgin language called Nagamese for communication. 

Nagamese has a simplified Assamese base and is interspersed with words from tribal and other languages spoken in the region. This pre-colonial pidgin has its origin in interactions between the Ahoms and the Nagas in the marketplaces that dot the plains adjoining the foothills of Nagaland. 

During the British period, Assamese and English were formally introduced in the Naga Hills. Assamese was abandoned after the Naga Hills district was granted statehood because the Naga elite wanted to distance itself from Assam. English, however, continues to be used as the official language of the state. 

But the burden of connecting the masses falls upon Nagamese, the lingua franca. For instance, while the government does not use Nagamese for formal communication, the language is widely used in its publicity campaigns and informal engagement with the people. In towns with a mixed population, Nagamese is used in church services, in addition to English and the languages of major tribes. Insurgent groups also depend heavily on Nagamese, even though, like the state government, they use English for formal communication.

Yet till recently there was no Nagamese language newspaper, a neglect that can be attributed to the negative attitude toward the language, especially in its written form, among the educated elite. The language is not taught in schools and not recorded in the census. The Naga elite believes that encouraging Nagamese will endanger tribal languages. Even Nagas who do not subscribe to this extreme position nonetheless believe that Nagamese is not a full-fledged language or, at least, not a language of the Nagas as it is tainted by Assamese. 

This belief is surprising because Nagamese has always been used exclusively in contexts involving at least one person born and brought up within Nagaland. In other words, it is the language of the Nagas and the people of Nagaland. Ironically, if the indigenous pidgin Nagamese is discouraged the people of the state will have to use either Hindi or English to converse with one another because there is no tribal language which is widely understood by people from other tribes.

It is in this context that H. Lemei Phom launched Nagamese Khobor, a Nagamese language daily newspaper in Dimapur on December 01, 2013. The newspaper has six pages printed in tabloid format and is priced at four rupees. It covers a variety of issues ranging from performance of students in board examinations and Assam Rifles’ raids within Nagaland to the Ranbir Kapoor-Katrina affair and the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia. 

Permanent features include a quote from the Bible on the front page and an editorial and Sudoku on the fourth page. So far, the circulation has been limited to about a thousand copies a day in a state with an adult population of about one and a half million and a literacy rate close to 80 per cent. Two rooms on the second floor of her house in the Phom Colony of Signal Angami village serve as the office of the nascent newspaper. Lemei Phom’s enterprise is supported by more than 25 persons including reporters, translators, helpers, and distributors.

She has faced three different kinds of problems in launching this initiative. First, since the language is sparingly used in writing, the spellings are not yet standardized. This nudged her to prepare an Anglo-Nagamese dictionary to help her reporters and translators who convert content received in English into Nagamese. 

Second, she faced problems in getting her newspaper registered with the New Delhi-based Office of the Registrar of Newspapers for India. The Registrar registered her newspaper under the name of Nagamese Khabar, instead of Nagamese Khobor. She fears she may have to repeat the year-long process of registration to get the spelling corrected. 

Third, the elite’s negative attitude toward the language continues to be a serious barrier, particularly as the non-tribal language media is already dominated by established English newspapers like Nagaland Post, Nagaland Page, Eastern Mirror, and The Morung Express.

It needs to be noted that Nagamese Khobor is not the only non-English newspaper of the state. Tribal languages in which daily or weekly newspapers are published include Ao (Tir Yimyim, Ao Milen), Angami (Capi), and Sumi (Sumi Zümulhü). All these newspapers are published from Dimapur, the commercial capital of the state, or Kohima, the political capital. 

Ao Milen, one of the oldest newspapers of the North East, is an exception. It is published from Mokokchung, the district first exposed to Christianity. A Phom daily Vünglangh Manliüng published from Dimpaur and an Angami daily Tenyi Ralha, published from Kohima have gone out of circulation. The former was, incidentally, launched by Lemei Phom in 2010. She hopes that the Nagamese paper will subsidize the Phom paper if and when it is re-launched.

Here it bears noting that the Aos of Mokokchung, the Angamis of Kohima, and the Sumis of Zunheboto and Dimapur are among the largest and most prosperous tribes of the state. They were also among the earliest to convert to Christianity, which means that they were exposed to modern education long before other tribes. Most chief ministers, parliamentarians, senior government officials, and educationists in the state belong to these three tribes. 

In contrast, Lemei Phom belongs to the Phom tribe of Longleng which joined the mainstream of modern Naga society much later than others. A B.A., B. Ed., she is the youngest of the eight children of Mr. Hepong Phom, a member of the Interim Body, the quasi-legislature that midwifed Nagaland. The other thing to note about Lemei Phom’s venture is that she entered a male-dominated world. Monalisa Changkija of the Ao tribe was until recently Nagaland’s only woman editor, publisher and proprietor of a daily (Nagaland Page).

A recipient of the Vasundhara NE Woman Entrepreneur of the Year (2012-2013) award given by the Sreemanta Sankar Mission of Guwahati, Lemei Phom is optimistic about the future of her newspaper. English newspapers have to contend with the fact that English is not the language of the masses, whereas tribal language newspapers have a limited audience. 

A Nagamese newspaper alone can reap economies of scale. However, she does not want to stop at the foothills of Nagaland. She plans to develop a popular regional newspaper reaching out to the entire North East. But right now it is time to get ready for the first anniversary celebrations.
(Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. His research interests include economics of religion, political economy of conflicts and statistics, and Indian history. He is presently studying the relationship between the state's development policies, ethnic politics, and government statistics in Nagaland.)
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