Post Mortem

A pioneer’s words prove prophetic

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 10/8/2019 12:14:58 PM IST

    Some days back as I was going through the Nagaland Post dated October 3, I came across the news item, ‘KOU celebrates 25 years of existence’ which immediately caught my attention. The KOU here refers to Kohima Okotso Union. Indeed Okotso and Lakhuti villages are truly forerunners in many aspects as Mhathung Yanthan, advisor Horticulture and Border Affairs had pointed out. I have also written about these two villages as well as other villages in Wokha district in my books, in Lotha dialect and it is indeed appropriate to take Okotso and Lakhuti as pioneering villages in various fields. 

During the course of my life, I have visited all the Lotha villages except for the new ones that were established much later. I remember visiting Okotso for the first time as a very young boy and have since witnessed its progression over the years. The village brings to my mind the pioneering elder by the name of Wonimo Murry who was the first Naga to become a sub-overseer during the British dominion. He used to ride on horseback (entitled only for British officials) and his status and pay was equal to that of his English counterparts. He was later promoted to the post of section officer of CPWD in 1912 at Mokokchung and based there. He travelled and oversaw the road construction of Kohima-Zunheboto-Mokokchung. He was also very far-sighted man who educated the people to take up wet-rice terrace cultivation as harmful effects of jhum cultivation was not feasible for the long run. In fact, there is a wet-rice terrace cultivation area called, “Wonimo Tsulho” at Changki valley which still stands as a testimony of his efforts. He was also known for his generosity so much so that children would scramble after him as he used to throw coins for them during his travels through the villages. Late I. Panger, director Agriculture told me long ago at how he had also picked a coin thrown by Wonimo.  

I must digress here to the First World War (1914-1919), wherein 2000 Nagas from different tribes were selected in the Labour Corps to be taken to France in March 1917. It is said that Sumi numbered 1000, Ao 200, Lotha 400, Rengma 200 and from Tuensang (Chang) 200. The persons in-charge of the Nagas during the ship voyage to France were Shanjamo Jungi (who had already returned after his visit to USA and Europe) and Wonimo Murry, an overseer under the British administration in Nagaland.  The Nagas had an eventful journey all throughout and while they were about to arrive at Marseilles, their ship nearly capsized in the ocean and the Nagas were really scared. During this panic all excess baggage were thrown into the sea so as to make the ship lighter. Lumbemo Shitiri who also went to the Labour Corps and a witness recounted the story to me at his residence in Pangti village on May 20, 1991.  Lumbemo told to me that the Lothas held on to each other and composed a song to keep their spirits up “We will not die, we are men”. The Changs tried to beat up the DB who was their leader and believed that he was responsible for their plight. The DB climbed up the sail post for safety but was rescued by the British soldiers. The Sumis cried out, “we did not come here to die” and “we will all perish for no fault of ours”. 

Apart from this traumatic experience of our brave elders, there are some funny anecdotes of which I would like to mention one. The Nagas were given a bar of soap each for bathing but one of them consumed the bar causing foam to drip down his chin and later had severe loose motion. Before disembarking from the ship, the Nagas were given thorough scrubbing with soap and water so much so that, they could not even recognise each other because they had become very clean and tidy. They cracked jokes about it and had a good laugh it is said. Before disembarking the Nagas were made to line up according to age and height and proceeded forward with Naga war cries. People who were watching were scared because they had already been informed ahead by the British that Nagas were jungle people, who could throw their spears up to 500 feet, fearless and not scared to die in war. 

In France, the Labour Corps were made to work hard as labourers where their duties involved road construction, coolies and as dak runners of important documents. They worked hard and sincerely and the British could see this but the Nagas were not given sufficient food. Nagas were rice eaters and the European diet did nothing to sustain the appetite of these brave elders in a strange land.  On top of that, the Nagas were not treated at par with others and there was much discrimination against them. With very little to eat and not enough clothing against the cold climate, Wonimo Murry as leader had asked the British officer to provide sufficient clothing and food for the Nagas. The British officer Barnes took it as an insult that a mere labourer could ask him for such petition. Barnes was the SDO posted in Mokokchung who had also accompanied the Nagas to France. Many Nagas perished in France as they were either killed in the warfront or due to illness. 

On return back to Nagaland in 1918, the British officer Barnes terminated Wonimo from his position as overseer by giving him the discharge papers. Wonimo replied bravely, “I am leaving the job today, but a day will come when the British will have to leave India itself.” Indeed his words proved to be prophetic and the British had to leave India in 1947 when India got its freedom from British rule. 

The Nagas who had been to France in the Labour Corps had drawn closer to each other during their stay there and realised their common ancestry even though they spoke different dialects. When they returned to Nagaland, they told others of their experiences and how people had more liberty and freedom abroad. Eventually some likeminded Nagas came together and formed the Naga Club in 1918 for the purpose of voicing out their concerns for the future. The club was formed on the style of British Clubs and in later years, the Naga Club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929. 

Meanwhile, Wonimo Murry after he was discharged went back to his village and took up social service for improving the lives of the people. He was not someone who would remain idle and continued to reach out in whatever way he could towards society. He even provided ayurvedic medicines to the villagers as he was trained in that field as well. He has to his credit of being the first Lotha to have a CGI sheet roofed building. Wonimo Murry lived a purpose filled life and died a very contented man in April 1970. Many Lothas still remember this great pioneering man from Okotso village. Wonimo’s son is Rev. Ellis Murry of Okotso, another prominent missionary among the Nagas.

T. Kikon, Ex-Minister, Wokha Town

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