Strife-torn Nagaland has long been beset by political turmoil, insurgency and economic backwardness. A deeply divided society scarred by decades of violence.
After years of negotiations and revisions to peace deals, the Central government and Naga armed groups have put an end to the long-running conflict.
Reconciliation will be a long process, but there may be no better way to ease this transition than through Nagaland's unofficial religion: football.
“There’s no one who doesn’t like football. Everyone’s a footballer or supporter. Its football that binds us all.” according to Kivi Zhimoni, Nagaland’s poster boy in an interview to Times of India.
Despite its popularity and craze, football in Nagaland is in a sorry state. Poor infrastructure is impacting the development of the game.
The State doesn’t even have a national level football ground. Indira Gandhi Stadium in the state capital and the State Stadium in Dimapur has been “under construction” for decades.
In fact, the foundation stone of the IG Stadium was laid on October 6, 1987. Yet, it took 16 years to be completed. An absence of proper maintenance measures has taken its toll on the stadium and the signs of neglect are aplenty.
“It’s a classic case of how the government funds go down the drain. The stadium was inaugurated with much fanfare in 2003. It had instilled great hopes in budding sporting talents. But, the stadium is of no use to them,” said Khemtang Porei, a member of the district football association to a leading English newspaper The Morung Express.
Artificial turfs which are a pre-requisite in the region because of its topographical challenges are nonexistent in Nagaland. Most matches are played on muddy waters, making it difficult for players to perform. The sorry state supports the claim that sporting activity stays least on the list of priorities of the government.
The Nagaland Premier League which began in 2012, shut down after 2013 due to financial constraints. In a state without multinational companies or external investment, financials will always be the challenge. But neighbouring states face similar issues but their leagues are thriving and running well.
What these states have successfully done is to optimize resources. Make the maximum out of minimum. The government, associations, local NGOs and people at large have come together with a better approach towards sports.
Nagaland’s failure can be gauged from the fact that it doesn’t have a team in I-League First Division and Second division. Mizoram, Manipur, and Meghalaya now have a team each in the I-League main division.
In absence of clubs and a structured domestic league, young local players do not have a platform to grow and develop into professional players. It also makes it difficult for scouts to spot talent. While neighbouring states are producing players for teams at all age groups, Nagaland hardly has any. Kivi Zhimoni is the only notable name from the State at present.
Economic backwardness, secessionist movements, years of administrative indifference and corrupt practices have crippled the game in the State.
So what could be done to kick-start a football revolution in the State?
Football has often been used as a vehicle to create social change in strife-torn regions as diverse as Bastar, Kashmir or the Maoist- affected areas.
In Jammu & Kashmir, the CRPF started the ‘Kashmir Football League’ comprising 200 teams from the worst affected districts. The project was reasonably successful.
The Ministry of Youth and Sports Affairs in collaboration with the Indian Army could start a similar initiative. As part of its outreach programme, it could make necessary budgetary allocations for the development of football in Nagaland.
It would give young footballers a chance to make a livelihood from the sport. Most importantly, young people can be brought into the sporting stream - it is in our interest as a nation to promote football in Nagaland.
The government could also declare football as the ‘Official Sport’ of the State. That would give a fresh impetus to tackle previously sidelined problems- a thriving club culture, infrastructural development, support to local academies.
Active government support is the need of the hour to tackle one of the greatest challenges facing Nagaland: reconciliation and reintegration of different Naga groups. And football remains a vital tool to achieve that.