Dual role of Sumi newspapers

IN Regional Media | 19/01/2015
A Naga newspaper doesn't merely inform readers, it also helps preserve the tribe's culture and identity.
VIKAS KUMAR says the size of a tribe determines if its language can reap the economies of scale in the media industry (Photo: Sümi Zümülhü as on 6 June, 2014).

Customary law and language mark the boundaries between the different Naga tribes of Nagaland. Each tribe has its own officially recognized customary court as well as a literature committee and its language is taught as a subject in primary schools.

While all Naga languages are written in the Latin script, they are mostly mutually unintelligible and Nagamese serves as the lingua franca. But the Naga elite and the government prefer English to Nagamese which they regard as a pidgin language tainted by association with Assamese. 

Tribal languages are tolerated and occasionally celebrated as identity markers. Yet, not much is done to promote them. Their vitality in the media and academia depends on, among other things, the numerical strength of the speakers, the history of conversion, and the translation strategies of the early church.
 
The size of a tribe determines if its language can reap the economies of scale in the media industry. Only five tribes -- Angami, Ao, Lotha, Sema/Sümi and Konyak -- have a population of more than 1,00,000. Most chief ministers, parliamentarians, senior government officials, church leaders, and educationists belong to the first four.  
 
Tribal languages have survived despite minimal use in the administrative and economic spheres because their speakers are concentrated in one or two contiguous districts and migration rates are low. But the population of the Sümi tribe, the second largest, is distributed over the two non-contiguous districts of Dimapur and Zunheboto. There is a small indigenous Sümi population in Kiphire district as well.
 
Conversion to Christianity facilitated the introduction of the Latin script, modern education, and printing in Nagaland. As a result, the languages of tribes like the Sümis, which were among the first to be exposed to Christianity, are relatively developed and are also taught in senior secondary schools.
 
Similarly, early Bible translations influenced language development in so far as they accommodated local phraseology. The Sümis, like their Ao neighbours, were fortunate that the early translations used Sümi equivalents of crucial common and proper nouns. This possibly explains the extensive use of the Sümi language in Sümi churches.

While the Sümis are relatively better placed than most Naga tribes to protect their language, they have not been as successful as the Aos and the Angamis and it is in this context that Sümi Zümülhü (Sümi News, RNI title NAGSUM00001) was launched on September 01, 2011. 
 
A small shop in Naharbari, Dimapur serves as its office-cum-press run by a staff of about 14 correspondents and translators. The founding editor and publisher, Inato Y. Shikhu, the author of A Rediscovery and Rebuilding of Naga Cultural Values, believes that a Sümi newspaper can serve as a platform to bring the community together and nurture Sümi culture and identity. It can also help bridge the growing gap between the old and the young who are cut off from their roots.
 
Inato, 34, also edits the Indian Christian Post, a non-denominational Christian weekly and is presently writing a Sümi devotional quarterly Aghulhu Amusu-u (Daily Bread or First meal). The second of the four children of a dobashi (customary court official) and a school teacher, Inato was born in Zunheboto where he completed his schooling before moving to Dimapur and then Auckland to pursue theology and inter-cultural studies.

The daily version of Zümülhü comprised four pages printed in tabloid format and was priced at three rupees. Permanent features included a column and news about Nagaland, India and the world. Advertisements occupied about five per cent of the space. Until June 2014, the daily sold about 4,000 copies in a community with a population of about 2,36,000 and literacy rate of above 87 per cent. 
 
In the following month, it became a weekly with 42 pages priced at 30 rupees and about five per cent of the space is covered by advertisements. Zümülhü now sells about 2,700 copies a week and its Facebook page has received more than 5,800 likes. About 70 per cent of the print edition’s readers belong to the older generation. 
 
Its subscribers are mostly concentrated in Dimapur and Zunheboto, with fewer readers in Kohima and Mokokchung. A small readership and incomplete RNI registration, which rules out access to DAVP and DIPR advertisements, explain the small fraction of space devoted to advertisements. But this is likely to change after completion of the registration formalities.

While Zümülhü’s daily avatar had fewer pages than most other Naga language newspapers, it was also a rupee or two cheaper. Moreover, unlike others, it used Sümi language equivalents for days, months, and most other commonly used terms and this is true of the weekly version as well. 
 
This is where the real challenge lies: running a newspaper for 21st century readers in a tribal language which has a limited vocabulary. Most correspondents provide inputs in English. But the problems do not end with finding translators. Like other Naga languages, Sümi is struggling with non-standardized spellings.
 
The name of the newspaper can be spelled in three different ways in the same issue. Sometimes people call the editor to express their disapproval of how a word was spelled. Government records and communities often differ over spellings and in some cases different government departments use different spellings. But this orthographic mess is also an opportunity for Zümülhü as the Sümi Literature Board needs a platform to propagate its spelling reforms.

The diversity of readership poses another kind of problem. The editor illustrated this with a nice example. He found it difficult to write an editorial on same sex marriages because the bulk of his readers belong to the older generation who are rather conservative. But there is no simple solution. 
 
Zümülhü needs new prose, a new way of looking at the world that is subtly attached to tradition without being stagnant in a fast-changing world. The success of Zümülhü and other tribal language newspapers will depend upon their ability to invent a new prose that will enable Naga languages to blossom.
 
(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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