Intergenerational dialog with N.K. Keny

Report on the Normandy Chair for Peace’s dialog of 16 December 2022 with N.K. Keny, a defender of the rights of children, women and indigenous Peoples from the Sumi People of Nagaland.

With Leslie Cloud and N.K. Keny

N. K. Keny (Khekhuli Keny Nihovi) comes from the indigenous village of Alaphumi Zunheboto in the state of Nagaland, in north-east India. Her father was the youngest son of village chief. After her father died when she was seven, her mother stayed behind to bring her up, as well as her five brothers and four sisters. She continued her studies while helping her mother with the farm work and the education of her brothers and sisters. When her mother died, she continued to support the education of her brothers and sisters by continuing her studies, which she financed by part time job and selling the handicrafts she made. In this context, she completed her studies in theology, M.Th. in Misology and obtained a master’s degree in philosophy.

Between 2000 and 2010, while studying in Chennai, she actively contributed to the fight against human trafficking. In 2013, she co-founded and then on 2014 she became the first president of Nagaland Alliance for Children’s and Women’s Rights, in particular to combat violence against women and children in her state; in this struggle, aware of the lack of access to justice and a lack of knowledge of the mechanisms of justice, she trained as a Para Legal Volunteer. She also fought to ensure women’s participation in decision-making, which was marginalized by customary laws. She therefore pleaded with the elders of her village to allow women to participate in customary political bodies. This fight for justice and gender equality has been waged at every level, from local to international.

In recognition of her impressive commitment to the protection of children, women and the rights of indigenous Peoples, N.K. Keny has received numerous awards over the last ten years.

To find out more about her admirable career, we recommend reading the chapter in Herstory, vol. 5 dedicated to N.K. Keny, pp. 82-87.

About the indigenous Peoples of India

The majority of India’s indigenous Peoples live in the seven States of north-east India and in the « central tribal belt » stretching from Rajasthan to West Bengal.

The Indian Constitution recognizes some rights to indigenous Peoples under the Fifth Schedule for the territories of central India and the Sixth Schedule for certain areas of north-east India, which to some extent recognize the rights to land and self-determination of the so-called listed tribes, the term used to identify the indigenous Peoples of India. The indigenous Peoples of Nagaland come under the 6th Amendment of the Indian Constitution.

The state of Nagaland, from which N.K. Keny is from, has a population of around two million People, most of whom make their living from agriculture. The main crops are rice, maize, millet, tobacco, sugar cane and potatoes.

N.K. Keny, a Sumi woman from Nagaland

During the interview, N.K. Keny explained that she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the Sumi as a whole, but was speaking here as the voice of a Sumi woman.

K. Keny: « I belong to the Sumi tribe. We are more than 16 tribes (a term enshrined in the Indian constitution). There are 16 of them in the 14 districts of Nagaland. Sumi is one of the largest tribes in Nagaland (…) There is little documentation on the demography of our population. (…) There are 400 villages (recognized and unrecognized). (…) The Sumi are reputed to be very united and aggressive, but they are famous for their honesty, simplicity and loyalty, even with other tribes. »

1. Sumi governance, customary rights to land, territories and natural resources, traditional knowledge and access to healthcare

Villages under Sumi governance

During the interview, N.K. Keny described the systems of governance in her village, indicating that the villages enjoy a certain degree of political self-determination. Each village is governed by its own customary law, which applies to justice, social practices, the chieftaincy system, religious aspects, the management of border areas, the administration of villages, land, etc. There are village leaders whose role is to ensure that the village is governed by customary law. There are village chiefs whose position is handed down from generation to generation, as well as village councils, recognized by the legislation of the State of Nagaland. Both Sumi institutions and customary law aim to ensure the well-being of the village.

In the event of violation of the customary law specific to each village, for « minor violations », there is no immediate sanction, but rather advice, warnings to be a good person, to act for the good of the village, to protect the land. Customary law, on the other hand, has no jurisdiction over cases of abuse of women, girls and children, particularly abductions, which she talks about later in this interview. In these situations, she explained that the victim is not just the person directly concerned, but their family and the whole village.

“Where there is land, there is life”: land rights in Sumi villages

N. K. Keny then presented the different types of rights to the lands under customary law, mentioning four types of land ownership. She mentioned two types of collective land. One is land owned by the village. The collectivity, the community of villagers, jointly owns the land for the overall well-being of the community. It also refers to land belonging to the various clans and handed down from generation to generation. This clan land, like the village land, is made available each year for collective cultivation, thus providing a source of income. Other land, this time owned individually, is allocated to village chiefs and is passed down from generation to generation to the People holding this position. As a descendant of a chief, although she cannot inherit his land, she can use it.

She also mentioned the existence of private land, although in a very small minority. The emergence of private land is explained by the new generations’ awareness and opportunities to buy own land. In this respect, she emphasized that she herself had worked part-time during her studies and had thus been able to acquire land that belonged to her, which she could enjoy on an individual basis. By purchase, women can acquire land, and this is what she always advises young People in her community to do.

She also explained that under customary law, land is only passed on to young boys and men, never to women. To combat this custom, she advocates for the recognition of gender equality within her community. Because, as she points out, « when women have the land, there is life ». However, although most of the land belong to men, women have the right to use it because it is managed collectively. In particular, she mentioned a piece of rice-growing land a little way from the village that is farmed by the women. Within the village, they also alternate crops, which preserves the soil and means that the land can be cultivated every year.

On this subject, N.K. Keny emphasized the fundamental role played by women in protecting the environment. She also warned of the erosion of Sumi knowledge.

The importance of preserving land for future generations

Invited to express her wish for future generations, while indicating that her list is long, N.K. Keny expressed the hope that the fight would continue for the preservation of future generations of the Sumi People by protecting, in particular, their land.

« Fighting to preserve the future generations of the Sumi People is an absolute priority for me. If we have land, we have our identity. (…) We are losing our land in many places. (…) Many non-natives are trying to marry natives to take possession of the land. (…) Changes are coming. We want to raise awareness of this issue of land distribution so that the land in my community does not go to non-natives, even if natives marry non-natives ».  

In this respect, she warns of the dangers of leasing indigenous land to non-indigenous People, which ultimately leads to the loss of land: « It’s a big challenge. People want to have land, to lease land, for 50 years, even 100 years, can you imagine? The land will be lost. We keep telling the younger generation not to rent the land (…) We have to tell families to earn money to earn their own land, to be safe, to secure their land. Land must be protected, owned and used for the community. For me, land is really crucial. (…) Our land must be protected. Government agencies sometimes want to build and develop on our land (…) We must have a say so that we don’t have to receive compensation in exchange for our land, because otherwise it means that the land goes into the hands of the government. The younger generation must learn to keep and secure the land, it’s really very important! » 

The importance of traditional knowledge and her concern about the erosion of this wisdom

The Sumi People are famous for their traditional knowledge of conversation and the management of natural resources and biodiversity. Studies show that the Sumi have developed ecological indicators linked to agricultural practices and the prediction of seasonal variations. In this respect, she cited bees, crickets, catfish, migratory birds and bamboo as indicators. However, she explained that this knowledge, which is poorly documented, is being lost.  To pass on her knowledge of how to protect living things, she teaches young children how to protect forests and plant trees: « Because our life is about being in contact with Mother Earth, which gives us life. (…) These wise practices are disappearing. (…) This is a big loss. Even today, the community depends on it. It is vital to base our activity on traditional knowledge. (…) With the climate disaster, there is no longer a climate model (…) Everyone is worried about the forests and crops. The Sumi community depends on the forests for food production. We gather the natural herbs that grow in the middle of the forests. (…) The Sumi use ecological indicators and can move around. We consider all these aspects. We also know different types of fish. But we are losing these traditions (…) and our identity is unfortunately affected. (…) Women play a fundamental role in food security and food management. » 

In connection with the preservation of ecosystems and food security, N.K. Keny spoke of their holistic approach to health and the lack of access to health centres.

The Sumi and access to health, N.K. Keny’s message to the WHO

« We advocate for a holistic vision of health, a global approach. Plants provide an alternative health practice. This was very important during COVID 19, which had a major impact on the local population, particularly in the most remote villages. The village committees tried to protect the villages, not allowing outsiders to come in so as not to spread the disease. (…) There are no health centres in the villages. Few villages have access to healthcare. During the crisis, we had to rely on medicinal plants. We had lost this knowledge but it has been revived to protect us and prevent disease. It’s a way of going back to our traditions and our traditional medicine. »

In this context, N.K. Keny addressed a message to the World Health Organization (WHO): « The WHO must focus on the villages so that every human being has access to health centres. The WHO should really reach People at village level and recognize the importance of indigenous traditions and knowledge in terms of medicine. »

2. Advocacy for the recognition and respect of Sumi women’s rights and knowledge

The inadequate participation of Sumi women in village governance and her fight for recognition of women’s decision-making rights

N.K. Keny explained that in the majority of villages, women do not have the opportunity to participate in village councils, which are dominated by men. She totally deplores the lack of women’s representation on the councils and campaigns for women’s participation in village decision-making. As she points out, the village is responsible for ensuring the well-being of all. After many years of lobbying to the male authorities in her community, there are now has two women taking part in decision-making to defend their rights: « At least the men can listen to women’s voices. And they listen to us. » 

She calls for women’s role to be recognized at its true value: « Most of the time, women play an essential role in food security; they go to the fields to feed their husbands and children; I wonder when women have time to sleep; day and night, they are busy running their households, ensuring the community’s food security, etc., but they are not paid; their role must be recognized. (…) If a woman marries, the decision falls to the father and his relatives without taking into account the maternal side. Mothers carry us for nine months, but when the time comes to make a decision, there’s no room for the mother. A lot of things need to be rectified and recognized. »

Lack of recognition of women’s customary rights to land.

The recognition of women’s customary land rights is also one of N.K. Keny’s major battles.  In her view, the fight for recognition of women’s rights in her village involves education. Boys need to be taught to respect women, their sisters, but girls also need to be educated about their rights: « Young girls need to value their roles. We need to save money, limit our spending on land, develop our identity, train and educate ourselves. This is part of the village’s role: to ensure the well-being of its inhabitants. » 

Sumi women and environmental protection

N.K. Keny: « Women play an important role in protecting the environment, whatever the land. People say that land belongs to men, but women have the freedom to use these forests and these lands. Women have the opportunity to cultivate these lands, to protect the environment, the ecological ecosystem, all these things. Women in India play an important role in avoiding the use of plastics, in using local products, resources and natural materials. Women support men, but in general, women don’t have many rights. (…) Men decide and women carry out. That’s the way it is. Women play a role in food security, in preserving food, in feeding the family and the community. They make this a source of daily income by selling things, but it’s not enough for them to live on. To have an income, we need a support system. »

N.K. Keny highlighted the Sumi concept of Peace and the role of women in maintaining and preserving Peace.

Peace according to Sumi culture and women

N.K. Keny explained that her People believe in the concepts of friendship, harmony and non-violence. These principles are used to resolve conflicts. In this respect, she stressed the importance of the role of women in preserving Peace: « Women are important agents because they bring stability to family life, in protecting and promoting reconciliation and Peace, even in traumatic or very difficult situations. (…) Sumi women have been Peacemakers since immemorial times; not just Sumi women; all the women of Nagaland are very strong in standing firm and being agents of Peace. Women often act as intermediaries, as mediators between warring tribes. »  

But once again she deplores the fact that the role of women is not sufficiently taken into account in decision-making: « Women only carry the messages of decisions taken by men.  Since the beginning of the violence, women have been on the front line of the Peace process, they are vigilant; they take care to avoid any violence and sometimes in cases of conflict between the State and the community, faced with acts of violence by the armed forces, they ask the armed forces to withdraw (…). In all cases of violence, sexual violence and torture against indigenous Peoples and villagers, women are there and play a role in Peaceful coexistence and the protection of our communities. »

3. Her experience in the fight against human trafficking

As a woman of Peace, in addition to her daily activities to preserve the ecosystems of her territory, food sovereignty and train women and new generations in the protection of their rights, land, traditional knowledge and participation in decision-making (see the chapter of Herstory dedicated to her career), N.K. Keny shared her experience in the fight against human trafficking in India, particularly of indigenous children and women: « This was happening in the southern part of India when I was studying. I had to go to the city to study. (…) I had learnt that many children, many young girls and boys, innocent parents, were convinced that their children would have a better education and better jobs in the city. They took the villagers to the towns, where most of the children were sexually abused. Some were taken from their villages to do domestic work and construction. I learned that there were many cases of very sick children who were not treated. Some of them had run away (…) So we took in these children who had run away. These children also denounced the situation of their inmates who were locked up in isolated places. This is what happened between 2000 and 2010. (…) We rescued over two hundred children. They were in deplorable conditions, with nothing to eat. They had been promised food, education and a better place to live… Where they were kept was terrible. That was my experience in the 2000s and 2010s. We rescued a lot of children from my country. (…) It’s not easy (…) Because you have to call in the police and investigations have to be carried out. (…) They even wanted to put me in prison because they thought I was one of those who were destroying children. But I just wanted to save the children who were suffering. Every child must be returned to their family, their parents (…). » 

Asked about the trafficking situations that exist today, she explained that NGOs now exist and are doing their best to protect young boys and girls. For her part, N.K. Keny continues to raise awareness among the village authorities and the judicial authorities, and to talk to them about the protection of indigenous children, young adults and women in order to keep them safe. She tries to monitor the situation of women and children who leave the community to study or work: « We have a monitoring group, but it takes time to do this monitoring. It’s not easy to monitor this. It’s not easy to keep them in the villages because everyone wants to work and help their parents, earn money (…) we need qualified People, agents who can help us, a support system. (…) The workload is heavy. In some cases, it’s not easy for individuals to do these searches. This is a challenge. » 

Our congratulations and admiration to N.K. Keny for her daily fight to preserve Sumi culture and the rights of women and children, and our best wishes for the rest of her career. Thank you N.K. Keny!

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