She has been called an “inconvenient woman” and even described as “the only man in Nagaland”. This is because her writings have almost always provoked strong reactions – whether it from the top brass of the army, local politicians or ordinary readers. Of course, she “never loses sleep over such comments” as she firmly believes that they are simply “ways deployed by patriarchal societies to put down women who do not tread the path laid out for them”.
Meet Tiamerenla Monalisa Changkija, 52, a no-nonsense journalist and editor-publisher of ‘Nagaland Page’, a daily newspaper printed from Dimapur, the largest city of Nagaland . In 1999, when Monalisa began publishing it, the state was going through rough times. Clashes between the underground Naga nationalist movement and the military were common and it was the local populace that was paying a heavy price. As for the media, they had merely become mouthpieces of one side or the other.
What about reflecting on the ground realities through the lens of development, human rights and women’s empowerment, that was the question Monalisa asked herself. Her ‘Nagaland Page’ set out to do precisely this, and created a stir in the process. Her critics, of course, wondered how long she would last but after being in the news arena for more than a decade now, the paper has become the voice of reason and independent thought in a region that continues to be strife-torn.
“I am essentially a small town girl and I love working from my home state even through I have had a stint in the national media. My paper - a black-and-white tabloid - manages to encourage public discussions , which is like a neighborhood paan shops and tea shops where people gather to exchange views on politics and society. It feels good when young people, particularly scribes, tell me that my columns have helped shape their thoughts or inspired them to become journalists,” she shares.
Independent and fearless, Monalisa is very proud of her identity, “I love being a woman and I love equally the fact that I am a journalist. My philosophy has always been that ‘it’s a man’s world, so you have to learn the rules well and beat men at their own game.’”
This meant, of course, that she was always a strong supporter of gender rights. According to Monalisa, the patriarchal system that exists in the Northeast, combined with local customary laws, exert an influence over women’s lives that is even stronger than the Constitution of India.
She has often argued for 33 per cent reservations for women in local bodies in Nagaland as well as their greater involvement in peace talks in the region. Says the lively editor, “These are not easy times for Naga women. Local government bodies are not traditional bodies, so why should the ancient rules apply to them? But men never realise this.”
The other issue that has always disturbed her is the fact that when it comes to the peace-keeping process, women are always kept out. “Haven’t Naga women proved themselves within families? As mothers, sisters and wives, they are they ones who keep households going and maintain the balance within them. So why can’t they contribute in a larger social setting? And let me not even comment on those student bodies and select women’s groups that like to dictate what a Naga woman should wear. Such directives only undermine a woman’s existence,” Monalisa emphasises.
She believes that her early experiences in life have helped her develop strong opinions. Reflecting on times when she lived in a home with a thatched roof, walked for miles on unpaved roads to school, studied under the light of a kerosene lamp and carried heavy loads of water in vessels shaped out of bamboo trunks, she remarks, “We were children in the days of Nagaland’s struggle for statehood. We grew up ready to take on the world and never blamed anyone for our personal or collective shortcomings.”
Today, she is conscious that there are no definite records of those years in the 1970s, when she was a girl, and situation was “hotting up”. Perhaps it was this that drew her to journalism in the first place, although she sees her journalism not just confined to politics but larger questions of development.
As a reporter she covered conflict and remembers how security forces in the 1980s and early 90s, would routinely “terrorise” people – especially in the Mon and Tuensang districts of eastern Nagaland. “Here in some of the country’s most underdeveloped pockets, numerous human rights violations were taking place, and innumerable atrocities were being committed on women,” Monalisa recalls. Even though she was married by then and was a new mother to boot, she would grasp every chance of visiting these regions, despite the challenges involved.
In 1987, she went to cover then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Mon district, which was “practically under military rule, with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) enforced strictly”. With her 11-month-old daughter, she undertook a 10-hour journey from Dimapur to Mon. She was frisked and interrogated several times along the way – the army even checked her baby’s nappies and feeding bottle to see if there were any hidden ammunition. Her daughter would often cry when they were stopped and Monalisa was “caught between trying to comfort her and answer the innumerable questions of the army personnel”.
Those were the days when the local media was not taken too seriously. “A woman with a baby coming to cover the prime minister’s visit was something that did not figure in the consciousness of the state,” she says. When Monalisa planned to travel further to the interior village of Longwa, the security forces began to question her intentions and took steps to prevent her from travelling further – even destroying a connecting bridge. Undeterred, Monalisa did finally make it to Longwa, covering the distance on foot with her baby.
During her visits to the hinterland, villagers would approach her for help on how to deal with security personnel and she would make the time to assist them. “The army would pick up any person over the most outlandish charges. They would hold them without producing them before the magistrate within 24 hours, as they are supposed to do, so for ordinary people this was an ordeal,” Monalisa reveals. Since there were no civil society organisations or human rights groups then, she would often step forward and follow up on cases of wrongful detention until justice was rendered. There was even a time when she found herself branded as a supporter of the underground movement.
Both Nagaland and Monalisa have come a long way since then. The state is far more peaceful now, and Monalisa has gone on to establish her mettle as a journalist of note. Says she, “As journalist, I like to give a proper context and perspective to the events being reported. In conflict areas, one has to walk a tight rope. But it is imperative that one puts one’s foot down when required, otherwise democratic institutions such as media will never thrive and grow.”
Today, her newspaper demands Monalisa’s undivided energies and she is banking on her readers to keep it going. As she concludes, “Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine that I am actually editing and publishing a newspaper! I couldn’t really ask for anything more!”
Women's Feature Service , AUGUST 2013