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Zo Woodpecker: The politics of identity formation and culture in the northeast

Margaret Zama

Updated: May 21, 2012, 3:48 PM IST
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It is true that northeast India has in the past few decades opened up, and is being opened in turn as it were, and one of the more obvious pointers to this fact is the interest and attention that academia from various parts of the country have begun to show. Other than this have been the numerous 'special packages' formulated by the Government of India for the region besides being granted a "special category" status wherein the NE states receive 90 per cent of Plan assistance as grant, and just 10 per cent as loan, against the norm of 30 per cent grant and 70 per cent loan for other states. One view therefore of the region is that it is the Centre's pampered child favoured with a disproportionate amount of money which is ultimately misused. But the truth remains that historically, the region has indeed suffered from gross neglect and apathy and both the Centre and the region have a lot of catching up to do.

Despite decades of violent insurgent and secessionist movements from various quarters, most of them still remain unresolved. Negotiations take place even as new groups align themselves with fresh demands. So the idea of the region as "resurgent", or maybe even rising out of its own ashes as it were, is an interesting thought. Yet, along with the opportunities for this resurgence is the constant and undeniable presence of the daunting constraints that threaten the process.

I will use the word "unique", knowing it is subject to contestation, to describe northeast India. It is different in most ways from the rest of India and this calls for further dilation in order to put into perspective the complex dynamics of culture and identity construction contained within the region.

In today's growing discourse on Northeast India, there still remains the tendency to view the region as a remote geographical landmass, (remote from whom? From where?), and as a homogenised ethnic and cultural entity. Added to this is the violent images of ethnic strife and insurgency, conflicting histories and convoluted politics. And if the truth be told, there is no denying the charges of being a conflict zone for various ethnic groups, as well as of being a region wherein the tensions generated by cultures in transition is palpable.

The northeast region in brief, is home to over 100 major tribes (not to speak of other communities and groups of people, migrants and so on), that form 23 per cent of the total population of the region, while the total population of the Northeast itself is, according to the 2001 census, a mere 3.5 per cent of India's population. Its total boundary consists of 2 per cent with India while the rest of the 98 per cent consists of strategic international borders with Nepal, Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh which measures approximately 4200 kilometres. Seen from this perspective, the "homogenised entity" emerges in truth, as a region of diverse people who are strikingly different from each other in culture, religion, and language, with different patterns of social and economic organisations. In the light of this one can understand how the region presents a complex study of cultural politics. Cultural politics in turn, willy nilly, leads one to examine identity formations within the region particularly those of the tribal communities, which in turn, give rise to several complex issues such as :

i) The alienation from one's perceived indigenous identity

ii) The alienation and feelings of exclusion from an identity linked with mainstream/mainland India

iii) A resurgent awareness of one's 'tribal' identity, which may be seen as a subversive act that carries the burden of several motives.

Colonial India under the British and their approach to the diverse communities of the Northeast was primarily driven by the political demands of the day, which was, colonial interests, but this unfortunately resulted in the creation of divisions and binaries between the outsider/insider, tribal/non-tribal, hill people/plains people, which till date continues to influence in some ways, the mindsets and attitudes of most people, both from within and outside the region. The policy makers, politicians and intelligentsia too, of the newly independent nation continued the legacy of viewing the region as backward and primitive, and whatever formulations that had and have been made for the development of the region continues to be perceived by many, as sops and handouts without soul or heart as it were. Meanwhile, the process of modernity and the seeds of westernisation through conversion to Christianity and education gradually made inroads into the region from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Khasi-Jaintia and Garo Hills, the more remote hilly regions of present day Nagaland, Mizoram, and a little later, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.

The non-Christian mainstream influx and influence was at a minimum in these hilly regions throughout their histories; but the scenario has now begun to change with the advent of globalisation and the attendant breaking down of barriers on several fronts.

Because identity is intrinsic to culture, the formation and representation of tribal identity within the ambit of the northeast requires a relook. 'Representation' becomes a keyword here for it is linked to power practices of ideological domination and of course, selective marginalisation, and because identity is a construct through the process of negotiations and discourses, power again, is the catalyst here.

Prior to colonisation tribal communities of the region who came in waves of migration at different periods of time to settle in the region, survived and functioned well enough within their own local governance of chieftainships or village headships/councils and social institutions. They also had their own inbuilt sustainable indigenous knowledge systems, indigenous faith and rich oral traditions that cemented their communities. With the passing of time, except for the very remote interiors of the hilly regions, there was interaction of people in trade and commerce, particularly in the regions inhabited by the Khasis and Garos, parts of the Naga Hills bordering the plains, and of course, Tripura and Assam. Such movements were said to have extended to the Bengal regions as well. The use of Bengali script for communication by the Garos and Khasis prior to their conversion to Christianity, may be cited as an example of the fluidity of inter-communal, inter-regional exchange. This scenario changed once the British annexed Assam in 1826 and introduced certain policies such as the Inner Line Regulation Act of 1873 and declared the contiguous hill areas as "Excluded Areas" under the Government of India Act of 1935.

Such measures, though considered 'protectionist' by some, in reality served to cut off and isolate the tribal communities to a great extent, from the political and social developments taking place in the rest of the country. This isolation also resulted in creating for them an identity other than the one they had always known. Each community/ethnic group with the passing of time thus formulated a certain degree of rigidity in demarcations of their regions and identities, also accentuating the differences between the tribal and the non-tribal or 'outsider' as mentioned earlier. The policy framers of Independent India took up the cudgels of 'welfare of tribals' in right earnest by introducing policies of development and integration with a view to ushering in social change, modernisation and 'uplift' of the various tribal groups.

Recent history has shown all too soon that such measures have brought along the baggage of unwanted attendant complications, chief amongst which was and still is, the fear of socio-economic assimilation of more dominant cultures, a concept that is often perceived as a necessary evil of integration and therefore difficult to accept by minority groups. This fear has fed and continues to feed the upsurge of regional identities along social and ethnic lines, causing havoc to the peace and unity of the region till date. Again, the invention of identities legitimised under the political-administrative construct of the Indian Constitution categorising them as 'Scheduled Tribes', has now morphed into a legal right and political privilege. Whether this bodes well for the nation and stakeholders is a debatable point.

The above observations can be further put this way : first the tribal is colonised and then constructed as an identity that is primitive, vulnerable and in need of protection. This is followed by policies on how to preserve the tribe's unique culture without inviting critical input from the tribal themselves, then the tribal is perceived to lose their purity and innocence because of the 'outsider' who is negatively stereotyped as an agent of contamination and the cause of most ills of tribal communities. A key factor that had contributed to the dilemma of tribal identity was the conversion to Christianity that condemned and encouraged the rejection of many traditional and cultural practices of their old way of life, labeling them 'unchristian' and evil. For example, the local brew of the Mizo called 'zu' was condemned as the source of all evil by the early missionaries despite the fact that it was a vital component of their rituals and festivals at the time. Then again, the use of traditional drums to accompany church singing was banned as it was considered pagan and primitive (though later reinstalled as it were). This dehistoricising and dispossession of their old way of life, of what was the moorings of their identity, unhappily served to develop a low self-esteem and confusion in the tribal psyche that has proved detrimental in many ways.

The complex dynamics that have gone into identity formations of the tribals of the Northeast have thus given rise to the cultural and identity politics of the region today, that appears to center on two aspects. They are, first, that of the move to re-historise and revive identities along ethnic differences and second, continuing with the colonial policy of exclusion of the 'other'. Then again, the empowered agents of culture in this context are the State government, the militant organisations (which function as parallel governments), and the powerful social NGOs and Church bodies all of whom play a significant and powerful role in the lives of the people of the region. These are the agents or structures which have their competing and contrary pulls in the context of identity formation and cultural representation. For instance, we know that most cultural displays are now sanitized and modernized as it were, and have morphed into tokenism for many; they also cater to the sensiblilities of the general public, (sensibilities formed and influenced by the church in the context of Mizoram), who have developed an ambivalent attitude towards their own traditions and cultural practices.

In-built in culture as we know, are power structures that work their strategies of inclusion and exclusion so that certain identities, norms, values, modes of thinking and knowledge are marginalised, and such strategies conceal a repressive, maginalising politics beneath the (sometimes) benign surface. Thus culture explores and creates narratives to 'naturalise' dominant ideologies and hegemonic discourses.

Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, had maintained that hegemony of the dominant or ruling class is maintained through coercion and consent. Louis Althusser further dilated on this notion by expounding on what he called the Repressive State Apparatuses like the police, the army, prisons and so on that operate through threats and coercive force. However, power is also maintained through the Ideological State Apparatuses like political groups, the media, religion, NGOs, art and literature and the educational systems. The latter is obviously the more powerful for it creates conviction and consent within an individual or a community to the extent wherein facilitating and empowering a system comes of one's own volition.

In the light of the politics of identity formation and culture of the Northeast, it will be interesting and perhaps beneficial to ponder on who and what are the real power structures that operate within the tribal / ethnic groups, and whether one has become the unquestioning, consenting agent of such power structures and the knowledge that they generate and propagate.

(This unpublished essay is a revised version of what had been presented at the National Colloquium on The North East India Resurgent: Constraints and Opportunities, 18-20 November, 2010, Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla).
First Published: May 21, 2012, 3:48 PM IST

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