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Ethnic Identity, Conflict And Responses

THE North-East is a challenge to the Indian nation state. With more than 200 ethnic groups in the region, each asserting its “unique” identity and claim for political space, conflicts are inevitable. Identity formation is a complex process. The composite Naga identity, for instance, is a construct, not of the Nagas but of others who tried to define them. The etymology of the word “Naga” is still being debated.

Before the word emerged, the “Nagas” were a conglomerate of different tribes engaged in bitter inter-tribal warfare. The British brought them under the rubric of what today is the “Naga” identity.

Tribes like the Bodos, Karbis, Dimasas, Rabhas, Garos, etc, seem to have a more definite identity that they brought with them when they migrated to this region some centuries ago. Hence, the entire Bodo community speaks the same language though the dialects differ, depending on where they are settled and what influences they have come under. So, too, the Garos, Rabhas, Dimasas and Karbis, amongst others. This has made political mobilization easier.

The different Naga tribes on the other hand have to depend on “Nagamese” (a crude adaptation of Assamese) as a link language. Nevertheless, the “Naga” struggle for self-determination has been a singularly significant one and the longest in the history of India.

Renowned economist Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence attributes ethnic violence to the human propensity to identify with one key trait that could be ethnicity, or religion, to the exclusion of all others. Sen argues that we can combat ethnic violence by rejecting this narrowly defined, limited sense of identity, and embracing a broader, richer and more complex understanding of ourselves. In other words, he suggests that we grapple with multiple identities without allowing any single one to dominate our collective thought processes at any single point of time.

In the context of India’s North-east, this is easier said than done. Identity for the tribes is the only way to create an “other”. This “other” is necessary when you seek to politically mobilize your own tribe to demand greater economic and political resources. The significant “other” in most cases is the more dominant community that seemingly enjoys those political and economic resources. I may be forgiven for bringing in issues considered unpalatable to many who are struggling to define what being “Assamese” means. In Assam, the “Asomiyas”, as distinct from the plains and hill tribes, have held sway over the government ever since India became a nation. The Asomiyas who today broadly constitute a mix of the Hindus who migrated from the northern provinces of India and the Ahoms who came from Southeast Asia consider themselves the natural rulers as they are civilisationally more advanced and even more sophisticated in managing the tools of governance.

As such, they are a dominant force in Assam. If there is a dominant group, it also follows that there are within the state of Assam a dominated group or groups. Dominance creates dissensions, essentially because the dominant group is used to controlling the political resources and it hardly has the time or the inclination to understand the angst of the dominated.

To brush aside the counter-claims of the dominated over economic resources which, in their perception, is not being used to their advantage and has instead been used to garner both capital and political clout, Asomiya writers of repute like Sanjeeb Baruah and others discount the idea of carving up Assam to satisfy the political urges of ethnic communities who are increasingly making strident demands for greater autonomy. While there is a tendency today by writers like Alokesh Barua to bring all the ethnic groups of Assam under the broad umbrella of “Assamese”, this easy and neat attempt to bring communities like the Bodos, whose identities are an intrinsic part of their persona (unlike the acquired identity of Assamese), under this colorful all-embracing sub-national umbrella is highly problematic.

Words and phrases acquire different meanings and depend on the context in which they are used. The very word “Assamese” which Sanjeeb Baruah uses to include the entire population of Assam (barring, of course, that ubiquitous group termed illegal immigrant) is today a hotly contested nomenclature by those who are aggressively asserting their ethnic sub-nationalism. The Bodos say they are not Assamese and wish to be called Bodos of Bodoland in Assam. This is because the very word “Assamese” has over the years been identified with a particular ruling and dominant economic elite.

Smaller tribes like the Karbis and Dimasas are being politically mobilized to demand greater political and economic autonomy so that they attain the status of a state within a state. The Bodoland Territorial Council model is coveted by every ethnic community that has the political resources to whip up a frenzy. Violence has been used as the tool of choice since governments, both at the state and Centre, respond to such tactics.

Some Asomiya scholars have further argued that Assam cannot be further fragmented without serious consequences. It is true that an Assam reduced in size will lose its political meaning and identity completely, apart from losing its economic influence. After all, in India size and numbers matter a lot. Let us not forget that the bulk of resources (forests, minerals, etc) lie buried in the tribal-inhabited areas. Land, which is the most important economic resource, is also largely in the hands of the tribes. It is a different matter that these tribes never astutely managed or negotiated their positions as controllers of those resources but had to part with them for the greater good of Assam and its economic “development”. The tribes did not yet have the wherewithal to argue whether “development” was also for them and, if so, whether they had a say in the kind of development they wanted.

Look at the Misings today. They are nowhere in the reckoning. And because they consider themselves “Assamese”, we have to look at their habitat in Upper Assam (notably Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur) to understand that not much has been invested in their “development”. On the surface, the Misings appear docile and well integrated into the Assamese template. Hence they hardly feature in our political discourses. Of course they are proudly featured in Assamese literature as being culturally very versatile, great artists and weavers. Their weaves are currently the fad among women in Assam.

The Misings have borne the brunt of the Brahmaputra floods and continue to remain economic laggards. They have not made enough noise to be heard. One of their leading political representatives in the state Assembly, Bharat Narah, is a non-assertive gentleman resigned to the fate of being Assamese. But if successive governments continue to ignore the plight of the Misings, will they remain a subdued people? We never know. However, these are the elements that constitute latent conflict.

After the creation of the BTC and its different avatars, Hagrama Mohilary, leader of the violent Bodo movement of the 1990s, says Bodos no longer have the time or energy to raise the demand for statehood. This shows that the Bodos (as Hagrama claims) have wrested enough resources from the Centre to manage their own affairs with or without Dispur. Whether these resources have been judiciously invested for the growth of the Bodos as envisaged by those who led and are still leading the militant movements is a matter of debate. But for now the Bodos seem content with their lot.

Other ethnic groups are still in demand mode and currently holding talks with the Central interlocutor as to what would be the best arrangement for them under the circumstances. It is possible that some may be granted similar status as the Bodos because the model seems to work, at least temporarily.

And a temporary solution has always been the Centre’s tried and tested strategy. The Union home ministry is used to taking piecemeal decisions to deal with crises in the region. And since Dispur has no problems and has never raised any protest against these knee-jerk measures, the paternalistic Centre believes it is on the right track. Until the guns start booming from another theatre, that is.

*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim

*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at

(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)

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