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Invention and reinvention of ethnicity

M.S. Prabhakara

Many tribal communities in the northeast have reinvented themselves by assuming new nomenclatures, though the reinvention has not meant any substantial change in their social status.

The word “ethnic” (with its derivative, ethnicity), like “colonial,” has acquired a soft focus patina permeated with quaintness and romance, something beautiful to long for. The other side of this idealised image is its successful marketing. Thus, one finds that ethnic food, ethnic clothes and ethnic jewellery are among the most assiduously marketed, and hankered after by those with the wherewithal in metropolitan areas — for, these things do not come cheap. Similar is the love and nostalgia for things colonial, especially on the part of those who have no memories of colonial rule.

Just as colonialism in action was one of the cruellest and most rapacious commercial enterprises that profoundly damaged its victims, ethnicity in action, and the uses to which it has been put, have their ugly side. This is certainly so in Assam and its environs where ethnicity has gone beyond being merely an idea and a word used to describe things strange and exotic, once viewed as supposedly unique to the tribal people on the margins. One nowadays speaks routinely of “ethnic Assamese.” “Ethnic Assamese” restaurants are a thriving business. Traditional Assamese attire worn by women is sold at “ethnic Assamese boutiques” at very high prices which few “ethnic Assamese” can afford.

Questions about ethnicity and ethnic identity are now a constant in any discussion of the ferment as much among different sections of the tribal and non-tribal people in Assam and its neighbourhood as among the people of the Brahmaputra Valley, the “ethnic Assamese.” The idea as much as the word has become part of a new political vocabulary of power, whose defining elements in their more extreme forms of expression are exclusion and hatred of the ‘Other.’

This is perhaps natural since underlying the present exclusionary ideologies whose other side is hatred of the ‘Other’ is the historic reality that those presently driving such exclusionist agendas were themselves despised, excluded and marginalised by communities that have always viewed themselves as part of society’s mainstream.

Ethnicity and ethnic consciousness are, however, a universal phenomenon. Every people possess specific identity markers, though in popular usage ethnicity is considered a unique feature of tribal societies. The family, the home, the kinship group, gender, caste, religion, language, race, even the physical space that a people occupy — any and each one of these could be and indeed is a coordinate of a people’s identity. These identity markers of their nature criss cross, with the result that every people have multiple identities.

And yet, identity politics and ethnic, now ethno-nationalistic, assertions articulated in singular and exclusive terms have taken some of the most violent forms not merely in Assam and its neighbourhood but worldwide. There is hardly any country, from the economically most advanced to the most backward, where such ethno-nationalistic mobilisations have not taken place with a political agenda of separatism whose objective is to carve out an exclusive territorial and political space, excluding the ‘Other’ who has historically been part of the same territorial and political space, and has shared the same or similar ethnic identity. Often, the ‘Other’ is indistinguishable from the self, as in civil wars whose key component is ethnic cleansing, the other side of violent ethnic assertion.

There may be an element of subjectivity in such ethnic identity assertions. One is not merely what one is, one is also what one thinks and feels one is; and no one, certainly no know-all journalist or even better qualified scholars can dismiss even the most subjectively held perceptions of a people as merely reductionism. The problem arises when such assertions seek to deny, diminish and, if possible, destroy the ‘Other,’ who is very often of one’s kind but in this process of exclusionary mobilisation is cast beyond the pale.

A most curious feature of such ethnic mobilisations is the plasticity of identities in whose name such mobilisations are done, with such identities constantly invented and reinvented. When an element of fabrication enters this process of construction and invention, one has to question the very authenticity of such rigid identity assertions. One recalls that a key element in the destruction of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was the invention, in addition to the Serb, the Croat and Bosnian nationalities (the Montenegrins and the Slovenes were still in the making, in political and territorial terms, during those fraught years) of the Muslim as a ‘nationality,’ virtually replacing the Bosnian, though historically there were (and are) Serbian Muslims, Croatian Muslims and Bosnian Muslims.

This phenomenon of invention and reinvention of identities is widespread in Assam and the northeast. In Assam, the process where a tribal person by going through some simple and nominal ritualistic processes would become part of the caste Hindu Assamese society, albeit at its lower levels, has been well documented. Many tribal communities have reinvented themselves by assuming new nomenclatures, though the reinvention has not meant any substantial change in their social status, but only the restoration of a nomenclature replacing the old that had pejorative connotations. There has also been a singular case of a tribal identity being ‘fabricated,’ a creation out of airy nothing both a name and a local habitation (see Manufactured identities, Frontline, 7 October 2005).

Manipur presents some of the most striking examples of such invention and reinvention of identities. Thirty-two tribal communities (till recently 29), broadly classified under two heads, the Kuki and the Naga, are recognised in the State. However, the exact number of those classified under the two heads has never been clear because of an element of fluidity in this categorisation. What is clear is that while there are few instances of a Naga tribe switching its identity to Kuki, traffic in the reverse direction is not uncommon. A well documented case is that of the Anal, a tribal people inhabiting Chandel district, who were once classified as Kuki and are now classified as Naga.

One of the most interesting cases of such plasticity is the Monsang, once considered a Kuki tribe and now identified as a Naga tribe. In a conversation with this correspondent in Imphal recently, Professor Gangmumei Kamei, historian of Manipur, referred to Ng Mono, former MLA and leading person from the Monsang community who was at one time the general secretary of the Kuki National Assembly, and who later became a leading member of the Naga Integration Council, which wants the integration of contiguous Naga-inhabited areas under one political and administrative set-up — in short, the break-up of Manipur. Professor Kamei himself presents a most interesting transition. Once known as Gangmumei Kabui, he is now the leading ideologue of the Zeliangrong movement that seeks a homeland for the Zeliangrong community, which is literally a construct made up from the names of three Naga communities of Manipur (and Nagaland) — ZEme, LIANGmei and RONGmei. There have been similar constructs in the region.

During the Kuki-Naga clashes in parts of the State in 1993-94, the Chiru and Kom tribes who did not see themselves as part of either of the two broad categories, nevertheless chose to identify themselves as Kuki or Naga depending on the vicinity they lived in. When the clashes abated, they reverted to their original status. However such strategies of survival have not always worked. The clashes that broke out on July 24, 1997 in Churachandpur (Lamka), headquarters of the district of the same name in southwest Manipur, and persisted for nearly a year involved, both as perpetrators and victims, two of the major communities of the town and the district, the Thadou Kuki and the Paite, both part of the great Kuki-Chin family, and virtually indistinguishable from each other. These clashes were one of the most extreme examples of the ‘Other’ and the self becoming indistinguishable.

One may well ask, in the words of Shakespeare: Hark in thine ear. Change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?

Who is the self, who is the Other?

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