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“Tribal”[1] Identity And Ethnic Conflicts In North-East India: A Christian Response

Attempts at Finding an Appropriate Description for the People’s Self-Understanding

When the Nagas first organized a movement for independence from India in the 1940s and the1950s, they clearly understood themselves as a “nation”, and named their organization the “Naga National Council.” Similarly, the independence movement in Mizoram from the mid 1960s also employed the concept of Mizo nation calling itself the “Mizo National Front.” Do the Nagas and the Mizos constitute a nation to call themselves “national”? When referring to the Naga National Council, an American scholar R. A. Schermerhon inserts “[sic]” between “National” and “Council”[2] indicating that the Naga people do not qualify to call themselves a nation. This raises the whole issue of what a nation is, and consequently what is meant by nationalism. Nation can be understood in various ways. Whereas the modern concept of nationalism is closely linked with the concept of nation-state, there have been attempts to understand nationalism in a framework outside of a nation-state. Scholars have described another prevailing notion of nationalism variously with expressions such as “cultural nationalism,”[3] “religious nationalism,”[4] and “ethnonationalism.” While Schermerhon seems to understand the nation purely in terms of a “nation-state” and consequently denies nationhood to the Nagas, it is my contention that the Nagas as well as the Mizos understand themselves as nation in the sense of ethnonationality. I propose that the concept of “ethnonationalism” best define the self-understanding of the ethnic groups in Northeast India in the various forms of their struggle for identity. Furthermore, other notions of nationalism outside the nation-state concept we have mentioned above, in the context of Northeast India, can be included within the framework of ethnonationalism.

By ethnonationalism, I refer to the phenomenon of political movements launched on the basis of ethnic identity. Carmen Abubakar defines ethnonationalism as “Ethnic groups claiming to be [or to possess] nations and states in the past or that have the potential of becoming [nations or states and] are now demanding and asserting these claims as (historic) rights to self determination for local autonomy or independence.”[5] Today, there are “two models of nationalism that are in interaction and contention in many parts,” says Stanley Tambiah of Harvard University. One of these is “ethnonationalism” and the other is “nationalism of the nation state.”[6] Broadly speaking, what other writers refer to as “religious nationalism” and “cultural nationalism” can be encapsulated within the concept of ethnonationalism. Tambiah helpfully delineates the political history of most of the Third World countries into three phases. [7] The first phase is the “decolonization” period, and the second phase, which began in the 1950s and lasted up to the 1960s, is “the phase of optimistic nation-building.” The stress on nation-building, he says, “down played . . . internal diversity and cleavages [within the new nations] in favor of the primacy of nation state.”[8] The optimism and suppressive characters of nation-building in the second phase came to be challenged “and even reversed ‘¦ by the eruption of ethnic conflicts” in the third and the present phase of ethnonationalism. The phase of ethnonationalism, he says, is characterized by “regional or subnational reactions and resistances to what is seen as an over-centralized and hegemonic state.” [9]In the case of the Nagas, the Mizos and others in the Northeast, the very notion as well as the movement of ethnonationalism clearly reflects a crisis of identity. The ethnonational self-understanding displays the experience of being pulled between the notion of ethnic identity and national identity.

Identity Crisis in the “Nation” of India and the Region of Northeast India

The multiethnic and multicultural setting of India and India’s struggle to define its nationhood since the nationalist movement provided a fertile soil for the development of ethnonationalism and other forms of identity-quest. Closely linked to, and in some way encapsulated in, the idea of ethnonationalism is a more popular political terminology called “regionalism”, which is prevalent in many parts of India. We may say that India is pulled asunder by regional and ethnonational feelings and movements in all parts of the country. Because it has not settled the notion of its identity in a manner convincing to all the people-groups within, India as a “nation” also suffers acute identity crisis. As G. Aloysius has rightly notes, Indian nationalism, so far, has failed to construct the nation in India. [10] While the dominant Indic culture at the centre continues its quest for self-identity on the basis of its religious and cultural identity, those in the periphery react to such potentially hegemonic and oppressive movement. Although existing as a nation-state for the last fifty years, India has been struggling to find the central integrative force that can bind us together as a “nation”. The present day Hindutva movement can be understood to be a continuation in the attempt to find the religio-cultural basis of the nation of India. The crisis of identity at the periphery is especially grievous today. When the centre itself displays its uncertainty with regard to the integrative force by shifting its allegiance from secularism to the religious nationalism of Hindutva, the identity of those in the periphery are felt to be extremely vulnerable. Such an intensifying of identity crisis is most evident in the Northeast than elsewhere.

1. The Betwixt and Between Identity of the People of Northeast India

Geographically and racially, the region we now call Northeast India is situated between the two great Traditions of the Indic Asia and the Mongoloid Asia. This geographical-cultural condition of “in-between-ness” is an important factor for the crisis of identity. It was only since the British period that the entire region came to be associated with India politically. [11] Many leaders of the present day “underground outfits” of the region may argue that the political integration of the region to India was done without the approval of the people themselves. The lack of cultural relatedness, especially of the “tribal” culture, weakens the new political association, and the racial and cultural difference, thus, came to play vital role in defining the self-identity. To answer the question “who are we?” most Northeasterners are caught between the racial-cultural definition and the politico-administrative definition of their identity. Whereas they are politically Indian, they are racially and culturally Mongoloid. The consciousness of the two differing identities is pulling the people and shakes the political loyalty. The situation is worsened by the complex nature of Indic culture with which they have been-out of political necessity-associated. The problem of acceptance on the part of Indic culture with its caste-ridden social system, and the problem of identification on the part of the Northeasterners because of the underlying cultural difference underpin the identity problem. These two underlying problems may be dealt with separately.

2. The “Indic” Culture and the People of the Northeast

When one talks about cultural plurality in India, since it shares little or no commonality in its traditional culture with the rest of India, the case of the “tribal” people in Northeast India is especially acute. To address the identity crisis in the region, one has to bear in mind the cultural plurality of the Northeast in general and the sharp difference between the people assimilated into Indic culture and the unassimilated “tribal” people in particular. Out of constant interactions, cultures influenced each other and developed commonalities. While the Indic-sanskritic culture of India is as a foreign culture for a large part of the regions, there are also areas where it has been at home for centuries. I will argue that the assimilation of people into the Indic culture became a defining factor for what is “tribal” and “not tribal” in the identity of the people of the region today.

What Ananda Bhagabati calls the distinctive “geo-ethnic character”[12] of the Northeast is helpful in clarifying the multicultural nature and the cultural differences between the people. About three quarters of the region is covered by hilly terrain and one quarter is made up of the four plain areas of Assam’s Brahmaputra and Barak valleys, the Tripura plains, and the Manipur plateau. Those in the thinly-populated hill areas are the people we now call “tribals,” and in the fertile plains and plateau are mainly the “non-tribal” people who comprise more than 80% of the total population. In recognizing the cultural foreignness of the “tribal” people of the hill regions, we should have in mind that the sanskritization of the plain areas have been going on for centuries. F. S. Downs is right in pointing out that until the coming of the British rule in the early nineteenth century, the entire region was never linked politically with any major Indian political power,[13] the cultural link of some plain areas with the Indic culture dates back centuries. The Mahabharata[14]already mentioned Assam as Pragjyotisha, and a reference to Kamrupa-Pragjyotisha is also found in the Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra.[15]R. N. Mosahary believes that “the Aryan intrusion” in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam should have begun as early as “one or two centuries before Christ.”[16]The sanskritization or Aryanization of the indigenous people of Assam, the bulk of which are of mongoloid race,[17]reached its climax in the sixteenth century[18]when Hinduism became the most dominant religion and the sanskritic Assamese replaced the native language. The Tipras, the indigenous people of Tripura, close kin of the Cachari-Bodos of Assam, are also Hindus from time immemorial. [19]In the case of the Meiteis of Manipur, although there are claims of Hindu influence as early as the seventh century, the large-scale spread of Vaisnava Hinduism of Caitanya School began only at the end of the seventeenth century. [20]Around 1705, the Rajah of Manipur officially adopted Hinduism as the state’s religion. Unlike in Assam, the Meiteis retain their native Tibeto-Burman language and do not follow a number of traditional Hindu practices such as child marriage, the inhibitions of divorce and widow re-marriage, and the supremacy of Brahmin as well as caste hierarchy. [21]Thus, the level of assimilation of the people into Hindu religion and Indic culture differs from people to people or tribe to tribe. Whereas the Hindu-Assamese-who are relatively inculturated Hindus with some indigenous festivals and practices of their own-became sanskritised to the level where the people lost their native language and adopted many imported practices, the Meitei-Hindus retain many more indigenous practices and traditions within their adopted religion. The Hinduisation of the region was limited to the plain areas as the Indic culture never reaches the hill regions. Until the imposition of the British rule in the nineteenth century after the Treaty of Yandaboo (1826), the hills were isolated and were preserved from the onslaught of sanskritisation. Their cultural foreignness to the Indic cultural system clearly marks off the hill “tribes” from the rest of Indians. Is the non-Indic-ness the mark of “tribal” identity in the Northeast?

Ethnonationality and Ethnic Conflicts

In the political parlance of India today, the very term “Northeast” has almost come to denote a region characterized by ethnopolitical movements. Since India’s independence in 1947, we have not seen a single decade of calm political atmosphere in the region. Instead, each decade saw new movements of political unrest, most of which turned to violent revolutions. One need not make a substantial argument to show that these movements have their origin in the ethnonational understanding of the identity. Insurgency, an extreme form of ethnopolitical upsurge, has rocked five of the seven states at one time or another, and the remaining two states are highly poised for a similar movement. Nibaran Bora’s words depict the situation well:

Insurgency took roots in Nagaland and Manipur in the early fifties, immediately after the establishment of the Republic [of India], those in Mizoram, in the sixties, in Tripura in the seventies, while in the case of Assam it has arrived in the eighties. Meghalaya and Arunachal [Pradesh] are just now menacingly militant, not yet insurgent though, Karbi Anglong [district of Assam] too is equally poised. [22]

The inward-looking self definition of identity as an ethnonational entity now not only effects the people’s relations with “the outsiders,” but also the inter-ethnic groups’ relations within the region. The expectations to achieve economic and political liberation on the basis of ethnic groups have led to feuds between the people groups within the region. Although a common enemy is still strongly felt to be “the outsiders,” in the attempts to define one’s ethnonationality, and in the struggle for “autonomy” and liberation, the more powerful neighboring ethnic groups came to be identified as obstacles. The Naga-Kuki clash in recent years is a good example. If the trend continues as it is, we may expect to see more feuds among the ethnic groups.

“Tribal” Identity

What is tribal about the “tribal” people in India? What tribalises them to assume a distinctive “tribal” identity against the non-tribals? These are pertinent questions we must consider before we accept the nomenclature. In this section, I will offer my critique of the use or imposition of the identity called “tribe” or “tribal.” It is not my intention, however, to critique the nomenclature for its own sake, or to determine whether or not the pejorative term is redeemable. In critiquing the nomenclature of “tribalism,” my intention is to disclose the fact that the very choice of the term indicates the marginal existence of the people so-called “tribal” and the oppressiveness of the structure that imposed the identity to them. The very use of the term reveals the intent to dominate and oppress the people to whom the nomenclature is imposed. I am aware of the fact that in Northeast India, there are a number of “tribal” scholars who unquestioningly accept the nomenclature, and some find what is tribal in their tribal identity. I am not convinced by such “findings”. What M. Horam says about “tribalism” of the Naga people [23]-which he seems to think is distinctive to the Nagas among the Northeast “tribals”-also prevails under the rubric of “communalism”, if I understand him correctly, among many other non-tribal people of India. I contend that the creation of tribalism is artificial; it is done for the convenience of the administrative system that is thoroughly influenced by the caste stratification mindset, and politically and culturally controlled by the caste Hindu society. On top of all, this artificially constructed identity resulted in the intensification of the already existing identity crisis of the people.

Let me pick up the issue of Hinduisation or sanskritisation from where I left off. As much as westernization through Christianity and western educational system can be seen to have uprooted the people from their cultural soil, it must be noted that Hinduisation had also uprooted the people from their traditional culture. If Christianity is to be blamed for the modernizing changes that have “civilized” and thereby de-tribalised the tribal people, the same allegation can be leveled against Hinduism. Regarding the Hinduisation process we have described above, Ramesh Burgohain rightly commented that it had de-tribalised the formerly tribal people. The Hinduisation or sankskritisation process, he says, “was a civilizing one, detribasation [or detribalisation] being its main current bringing about marked changes in the socio religious life of the otherwise tribal people.”[24] In other words, sanskritisation was a process of detribalization of the previously “tribal” people. The infiltration of the Indic culture into the “otherwise tribal people” by assimilation or conversion into Hinduism civilizes the “tribals”, which centuries later resulted in their non-tribal identity. Therefore, it is safe to say that Hinduism or its “Indic” culture is a major factor in defining who are a tribal and a non-tribal in Northeast India.

The problem with tribal identity in India, which is an official identity derived from the Constitution of India, is that no single feature can be taken to be normative in defining the “tribes.” Nowhere in the Constitution do we find a definition. Article 342 simply says that the President of India can “specify the tribes or tribal communities… to be Scheduled Tribes” and that the Parliament also has the power to include and exclude groups to and from the list. To justify the enlistment of communities under the “Scheduled Tribes,” the government of India did make several criteria. This may have been done surreptitiously for its existence is not widely known. The list of criteria includes “tribal language, animism, primitivity, hunting and gathering, ‘carnivorous in food habits,’ ‘naked or seminaked,’ and fond of drinking and dance’.”[25] The list, in my opinion, is simply absurd; and the criteria do not simply match those enlisted. Jaganath Pathy’s lamentation is most appropriate. “Not only that over 90 percent of the enlisted groups do not subscribe to these features, but also the criteria [itself] convey the blatant prejudice of the dominant people.”[26] Andre Beteille’s words best expressed the situation in my opinion. He says,

Ethnographic material from India did not figure prominently in the general discussion regarding the definition of tribe. The problem in India [or the task of the anthropologists] was to identify rather than define tribes, and scientific or theoretical considerations were never allowed to displace administrative or political ones….

Indian anthropologists have been conscious of a certain lack of fit between what their discipline defines as ‘tribe’ and what they are obliged to describe as ‘tribes’, but they have sought a way out of the muddle by calling them all ‘tribes in transition’.” [27]

A close scrutiny of the Constitution reveals that the term is used to designate a whole cluster of diverse non-Indic or semi-Indic communities who are mostly non-Aryan and remained outside the Hindu Varna. Furthermore, one also notices that wherever a section on “Scheduled Tribes” appear in the Constitution, a “Scheduled Caste” section appears with similar descriptions and privileges bestowed.

I have elsewhere argued that the terms, “tribe” and “tribal” are pejorative terms denoting the primitive stage-therefore, a temporary stage-in human evolution or development. [28]Why does the Constitution choose this derogatory term? What implications can we draw from this choice? The anomaly of the category of the “Scheduled Tribes”, its usage, as well as the identities clustered within its category need to be recognized and acknowledged. The so-called “tribals” of Northeast India and the rest of India have very few features in common. The difference between them is as great a difference as between the “tribals” of the Northeast and the non-tribals of the rest of India. Again the question is why are they being clubbed together? The framers of the Constitution seem to be aware of the difference when they group the Northeast “tribals” separately under the Sixth Schedule and the rest of the “tribals” under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.[29] This grouping, however, seems to have been done merely to create separate administrative blocks for different administrative styles fitted to the context.

For the adoption of the nomenclature called “Scheduled Tribes”, I find what I call socio-religious explanation to be most convincing. What the framers of the Constitution wish to accomplish, consciously or unconsciously, is to find a place for these diverse communities who “stood more or less outside the Hindu civilization”[30] within the existing caste structure. Thus, by identifying these communities outside of what M. N. Srinivas and R. D. Sanwal called the “socio-ritual hierarchy” of the national mainstream, [31] the “tribals” are indirectly wound up in the prevalent caste structure of the Indian society. In the case of the Northeasterners, as we have said, assimilation into the Indic culture through Hinduisation was the major factor to determine whether a group is called a tribe or a non-tribe.

Ethnonational Feeling and “Tribal” Identity

To a member of the Indian national mainstream, a Khasi, a Naga, a Kuki, or a Mizo are “tribals.” The pejorative term “tribal” carries a denotation of primitivity and inferiority of the people for whom the name is applied. As we have indicated before, in referring to the people as “Scheduled Tribes,” the Constitution of India also categorically equates them with the “Scheduled Castes.” Consciously or unconsciously, the “tribals” are reduced to the lowest level of the socio-ritual hierarchy of the Indic cultural system. For the simple reason that they are non-Indic and remain outside the traditional Hindu Varna, they are placed alongside the “outcastes” of the Hindu caste system. Such a detrimental categorization is not acceptable to the proud Northeast “tribes.” At the scholarly level, there are a few attempts to understand and to explain the distinctive case of the non-Hindu “tribals” of the Northeast, [32] but in the national majority’s understanding, tribals are tribals. The attitude of the national mainstream that primitivizes and thereby inferiorizes the “tribals” is in serious conflict with the proud self-understanding of the tribals in the Northeast. Such a pride, as indicated above, is exhibited in their ethnonational feeling. The people’s experience of being despised as “untouchables” and their fear of losing their identity were the major factor that led to ethnopolitical movements of insurgency. In tracing the historical development of insurgency in Nagaland, Asoso Yonuo attributes the people’s unpleasant experience of interaction with the “non-tribals” to be one of the main causes of the revolution. The Naga National Council’s original demand was “some sort of regional autonomy,” he says, and in the course of their interaction with the “non-tribals” they developed the fear of “losing their identity ‘¦ in the midst of Hindu rule” leading to a demand for “outright sovereign independent Nagaland state.”[33] The people’s experience was crucial in the evolution of ethnonational feeling and the spirit of separatism.

[The] separatist tendency had evolved mainly because of the treatment meted out to them by the converted Hindus and Muslims in Assam and Manipur who regarded them as ‘untouchables’ or ‘dirties, ‘˜for their religion and food habits…. The Hindus in the plains of Assam and Manipur despised them for their eating beef and the Muslims pork, for the Nagas ate both… [34]

Towards developing Mutuality – A Christian Response

This paper is a modest attempt to highlight the complexities of ethnopolitics in Northeast India. Both the external and the internal factors are suggested to have played significant role in the creation of the political pandemonium. The external factor, namely, the labeling of the people as “tribes” with all its religio-cultural implications, and the internal factor of ethnonational self-understanding need to be addressed and assessed for any attempt towards long term solution. A major cause of the ethnopolitical movements of Northeast India is traced to the identity crisis, which is rooted, inter alia, in the conflict with the spirit or mindset that imposed “tribal” identity to the otherwise proud, innovative, and freedom loving people. An honest recognition of the pain and detriments caused by the marginalization and domination through the imposition of the derogative identity is postulated for a harmonious future of the region. In a similar spirit, the Northeasterners also need to self-critically examine the practice of uncritical constructions of the image of the “outsiders.” Between the national mainstream and the Northeast “tribals,” a mutual acceptance of the racial-cultural and worldview differences in the spirit of respect, and a dialogical discourse in an attempt to enter each other’s self-understandings are essential for the future of Indian “nationalism” in Northeast India. For the Christians of Northeast India, the best place to begin such a quest, perhaps, is the church.

In the context of ethnopolitical problems in Northeast India, theologians and religious leaders often found themselves in a state of quandary. The situation, however, demands appropriate theological responses and directions. Let me end this paper by suggesting only two themes for future theological explorations by students of the Northeast India theology. First, a contextual theological analysis of cultural plurality in the search for mutuality between the so-called in-group and out-group will be a helpful pathway to the future of the region. I strongly suggest that the universality of the Gospel needs to be reconsidered and reevaluated contextually. Secondly, what anthropologist Victor Turner calls “liminality”[36] (from Latin limen or threshold), I suggest, is a relevant theological theme for the liminal Mongoloid “tribals” of Northeast India. The “betwixt and between” condition of socio-political existence calls for a theological affirmation and embracement. A few works on liminality as a theological theme has come out.[37] In analyzing the marginalization of the people, the liminal condition of existence needs to be the starting point. For the “neither this nor that” circumstance of the Northeastern “tribals,” liminality as a theological theme, therefore, deserves the attention


[1] To acknowledge the fact that the terms “tribe” and “tribal” are foreign words imposed on the people with all the derogatory connotations, these and the related terms will be used with quotation marks throughout the paper. A critique of the nomenclature is made in the text, which clarifies why the terms are used cautiously.

[2] R. A. Schermerhon, Ethnic Plurality in India (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1978), 86.

[3] See John Hutchinson, “Cultural Nationalism and Moral Regeneration,” in Nationalism, Oxford Readers, eds. J. Hutchinson and A. D. Smith, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 122-131.

[4] See Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[5] Carmen A. Abubakar, “The Moro Ethno-nationalist Movement,” in Ethnicity: Identity, Conflict, Crisis, eds. D. Kumar and S. Kadirgamar (Hongkong: Arena Press, 1989(, 109; quoted in Anjan Ghosh, “Ethnonationalism: A Conceptual Clarification,” in Ethnonationalism: An Indian Experience, eds. A Ghosh and R. Chakrabarti (Calcutta: Chatterjee Publishers, 1991), 31.

[6] Stanley J. Tambiah, “The Nation-State in Crisis and the Rise of Ethnonationalism,” in The Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power, eds. E. N. Wilmsen and P. McAllister (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 124.

[7] Ibid., 127-129.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Ibid., 128-29.

[10] G. Aloysius, Nationalism without a Nation in India (Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[22] Nibaran Bora, “Insurgency in the North-East,” in Political Development of the North-East, Volume ii, ed., B. C. Bhuyan (New Delhi: Omsons Publications, 1992), 1.

[23] M. Horam, Naga Insurgency: The Last Thirty Years (New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1988), 21-30.

[24] Ramesh Burgohain, “Cross-Currents of the Hinduisation Process in Medieval Assam,” The Proceedings of the North East India History Association, Tenth Session (Shillong: NEIHA, 1989), 177.

[25] The list of criteria is quoted from Jaganath Pathy, “The Idea of Tribe in the Indian Scene,” Tribal Transformation in India, Vol. III, Ethnopolitics and Identity Crisis, ed., B. Chaudhuri (New Delhi: Inter-India Publications, 1992), 49.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Andre Beteille, “The Concept of Tribe with Special Reference to India,” Archives Europeennes de Soca¬ologie 27 (1986): 299.

[28] Lalsangkima Pachuau, “In Search of a Context for a Contextual Theology: The Socio-Political Realities of ‘Tribal’ Christians in Northeast India,” NCC Review CXVII (December 1997): 760-772, see especially 768.

[29] P. K. Bose divides the whole tribal regions into “two territorial zones,” namely, “the north-eastern or frontier zone and the non-frontier zone.” See P. K. Bose, “Congress and the Tribal Communities in India,” in Diversity and Dominance in India, Vol. 2, Division, Deprivation and the Congress, eds. R. Roy and R. Sisson (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990), 64.

[30] Beteille, 316.

[31] M. N. Srinivas and R. D. Sanwal, “Some Aspects of Political Development in the North-Eastern Hill Areas of India,” in The Tribal Situation in India, ed. K. S. Singh (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1972), 121.

[32] For instance, in his book The Scheduled Tribes, 3rd ed. (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1963), G. S. Ghurye admitted that the “Scheduled Tribes” of the Northeast need to be treated separately. He brought out a separate study on the Northeast The Burning Caldron of North-East India (Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1980).

[33] Asoso Yonuo, The Rising Nagas: A Historical and Political Study (Delhi: Vivek Publishing House, 1974), 166.

[34] Ibid., 168.

[35] V. I. K. Sarin, India’s North-East in Flames (Ghaziabad, UP: Vikash Publishing House, 1982), 254-55.

[36] Victor W. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), 94-130.

[37] For instance, see Mark Kline Taylor, “In Praise of Shaky Ground: The Liminal Christ and Cultural Pluralism,” Theology Today 43 (April, 1986): 36-51.

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