Kohima/Dimapur: The Nagaland government’s decision to ban consumption of dog meat in July sparked a huge debate, with animal rights activists lauding the move while a section of Nagas opposed it on the grounds that it goes against their cultural and traditional values.
The relationship between dogs and the Nagas is age-old — from being consumed for its meat, considered as a marker of prosperity in some Nagaland tribes, to its purported medicinal value and being used to hunt other animals.
H.K. Zhimomi, president of the Naga Hoho, the apex tribal body of Nagas, told ThePrint: “It is against the interests of the food habit of the Nagas. That is why we appeal to the state government to withdraw or revoke the order of the ban.”
Chief Secretary of Nagaland Temjen Toy had announced the ban on Twitter on 3 July. In his post, he also tagged Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio and BJP MP Maneka Gandhi, an ardent animal rights activist.
The State Government has decided to ban commercial import and trading of dogs and dog markets and also the sale of dog meat, both cooked and uncooked. Appreciate the wise decision taken by the State’s Cabinet @Manekagandhibjp @Neiphiu_Rio
— Temjen Toy (@temjentoy) July 3, 2020
ThePrint spoke to experts to understand the practise of eating dog meat and its continued significance in the Naga community.
The cultural value
In Nagaland, there are over 16 major tribes, including the Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Lotha and Sema. And each tribe holds a different meaning and significance for consuming dog meat.
For instance, among the Tenyimi group, an umbrella organisation of 10 Naga tribes that share similar traditions and customs, dog meat is consumed before and after traditional wrestling matches by the wrestlers.
“It’s not scientifically proven but it was and still is believed that dog meat gives strength to people … Every tribe, especially Angami and Chakhesang (among the Tenyimi Nagas) who have wrestling as a sport, consume dog meat,” said Neivetso Venuh, professor in the department of history and archaeology at Nagaland University.
He added that for the other Naga tribes like the Ao, Sema and Lotha, dog meat would be consumed after “performing heavy work” to regain energy.
However, the importance of dog meat goes beyond this.
British ethnographer J.H. Hutton in his 1921 book The Angami Naga noted that the Angami Nagas would eat the eyes of a living dog along with the leaf or root of the mezi tree (a tropical fruit) to cure rheumatism.
Dogs’ flesh was considered a marker of prosperity among this tribe and would be eaten during Sekrenyi — a major annual festival that signifies the “purification and sanctification” of the body, mind and soul.
Hutton also humorously highlighted in his book — “The old adage ‘a hair of the dog that bit you’ holds good among the Angamis as elsewhere.” The Angami Nagas believed that the cure to a dog bite was to burn the moustache of the very dog that bit you and apply it on the wound.
Meanwhile, among the Lotha Naga, dogs are often sacrificed and eaten as a way to win over “evil spirits” since the canines were considered the most cunning of all beasts.
“Now you cannot say that dog meat is a sin. Every society has its own food habit. Nagas use these dogs for hunting, as guards and also for their meat. It’s a tradition that has been inherited from our forefathers till today,” professor Venuh said.
Govt contemplated ban for long
Responding to a question about whether the ban was imposed due to external pressure, Chief Secretary Temjen Toy clarified that the state government had been contemplating the move for a long time.
“I can go back a few years to 2014 or 2015, and at that point of time, WhatsApp was not so popular like now. But then there were media reports on the import of dogs, and the manner in which they were butchered and sold,” Toy told ThePrint.
He said the government was then “seriously considering” on how to go about with the issue, but due to “some unfortunate political turmoil” in the state, it had to “take a backseat” that time.
“And recently, this came out in the media again and across various platforms. We just picked up from where we had left,” he added.
Several groups, including Naga Hoho, have, however, pointed out that the ban is an infringement to Article 371(A), which accords the Naga people special rights to maintain and exercise their own customary laws and social practices.
Toy, however, dismissed the criticism and said: “We (Nagas) have to evolve ourselves and live up to the times, where we respect animals equally. So there’s no need to bring in the issue of Article 371(A) and complicate it.”
But for Zhimomi and Venuh, the ban is nothing short of an attack on the tradition and culture of the Naga people, and one that needs to be revoked.
“If you ask any of the lawmakers (in Nagaland) whether they eat dog meat, I’m sure all of them will say yes. Then how can they order the people to stop selling it … Not just the Naga Hoho but every organisation and individual is appealing to the state government to revoke this order,” Zhimomi said.