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MEMORIAL LECTURE

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Ethnic Identities in 

NORTH-EAST INDIA

 

This lecture on `Social Formations and Ethnic Identities in North-East India: A Preliminary Statement' outlines aspects of social formations and emergent societies in parts of the north-eastern region and their ethno-cultural and political implications.  Societies are discrete formations of people, enduring entities that take time to emerge within the bounds of specific territory and political organization.  Expression of identity by various groups of people based on language, territory, religion, common origin and a host of other cultural elements are all comparatively more ephemeral than societies.  While ethnicity and ethnic movements are processes dependent on mobilization of cultural resources, societies are entities that have temporal continuity.  In the context of the north-east, It is important to know and understand the societies and the social formations to come to grip with issues of ethnicity and the rising tide of identity movements among tribal as well as non-tribal communities.  As is well known, consolidation of identities along the lines of tribe and community have become increasingly manifest in the recent years in this region.  The social bases which provide the resources of ethno-cultural mobilization among some of the north-eastern populations are examined here.

In order to understand the nature of contemporary social formations, it is helpful to do so on the basis of three definable phases or periods: pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial or post-Independence periods.  As will be evident, in each of these periods conditions proved to be rather different for emergent social formations.

The hills and plains of the region have been occupied by different streams of Mongoloid people who came from the north and the east at different periods well before the onset of colonial rule.  It is generally agreed that the Mongoloids, mentioned as the Kiratas in ancient Sanskrit literature, once occupied practically the whole of the north-eastern region.  The diverse Mongoloid groups which eventually settled in different habitats and ecological settings crystallized into distinct tribal societies.  Even in the case of Assam plains, the early rulers were Indo-Mongoloids of various dynasties spanning a time period from fifth to mid-eleventh century.  The local dynasties had contacts with Hindu states of India.  While the hills and mountains of north-east India remained outside the orbit of Hindu influence and caste-based social formation, the history of Assam plains (the Brahmaputra Valley) shows that by the twelfth century local kings of Mongoloid origin became Hindus.  Then, there is the classic example of social transformation and subsequent contribution in shaping the regional society by the Ahoms who ruled over Assam for merely 600 years, from 1228 A.D. till the advent of the British in 1826. The Ahom period is of considerable significance.  Their rulers established a well-integrated administrative system in Assam and they also patronized the Hindu religious institutions.  In pre-Ahom period, the social formations in Assam were predominantly tribal in nature.  But through the development of a centralised power and state religion, the different ethnic groups were united and the Assamese as a wider social formation crystallized in the Brahmaputra plains.  In this, the neo-Vaishnava religious movement under the leadership of Shankaradeva in the sixteenth century also played a significant role.

It is important to note that in the long centuries before the advent of British rule in the region, there was a high degree of fluidity in the socio-cultural arena so that inter-mingling of various streams of people, including biological admixture, produced diverse social alignments and group identities.  The boundaries of the groups were never very rigid.  It is this flexibility, characteristic of a frontier tract experiencing considerable population movement from idfferent directions, which provided scope for shifting alliance and identities.  Pre-colonial social setting in the region was more fluid and flexible than in the subsequent colonial and post-colonial periods.  Thus, various `tribal' inhabitants of the hills got integrated and often absorbed into the fold of the Hindu peasantry consequent on changing their niche from the hills to the plains. In the plains as Assam, tribal groups such as the Bodo-Kechari, Rebhs, Nech, Karbi and the Deuri-Chutiya had thus, for centuries, provided the main source of Hindu population through a process of conversion and subsequent Sanskritization.

The `tribe' had never been a fixed or static category in those early times and there were many instances of change from tribal to non-tribal status.  Contrary to popular notion, the numerous culturally and politically discrete communities of later times lived in a situation of contact and communication with their respective neighbouring populations.

The conditions radically altered during a rather brief period (1826-1947) of British colonial rule.  The annexation of Assam by the British (i.e. the East India Company) brought the people of this region into greater and deeper contact with sociopolitical currents then prevailing in the rest of the country.  The channels of contact and the levels of communication were further accentuated in the early part of the 20th century. The British set in motion a series of moves in order to establish a degree of political and administrative dominance over the plains as well as the hill people.  The british policies and the activities of Christian missionaries who came into the region contributed significantly in creating a freeze effect on the communities and social formations.  Colonial rule and missionary activities also contributed significantly in detailing the character and tenor of identity movements among the tribals and non-tribals in the post-Independence period.

The impact of British administration became manifest through various means and measures such as the introduction of Inner Line Regulation in 1873 and the declaration of most of the hill areas as "Excluded Areas" under the provision of Government of India Act of 1935.  Most tribal communities of the hills thus remained cut off from social and political developments taking place elsewhere.  Mention must also be made of impressive population movements into the region during the British period unleashed by the imperatives of colonial administration and economy. In the context of an organised colonial economy with fairly strict monitoring of exploitable resources, coupled with immigration of diverse groups in a short period of time, the earlier resilience of the regional social system was lost forever.  Each community tended to become a rigid social formation and this was to the utmost advantage of the colonial rulers.  The accentuation of tribal-non-tribal differences and the formation of rigid social blocks out of indigenous castes and communities as well as recent migrants were important developments in the colonial period.

Following Independence, the governmental approach to tribals was radically altered.  The old policy of maintaining status quo and isolation was replaced by a policy of development and integration.  The post-Independence period has been one of acceleration in the pace of social change and modernization of various tribal groups and their effective induction within the framework of the nation-state.  However, it is also during the last five and a half decades since independence that the freeze effect in the various social formations became more vivid, functional and effective in turning tribes, castes, communities and language groups into ethnic blocks.  Many groups have shown varying degrees of strain in accepting and adjusting to the demands of integration, which often has an assimilation overtone, made on them.

Thus, while the pre-colonial setting was fluid and flexible, the colonial and post-colonial settings have been less so and the societal boundaries became more rigid, doing in the process distinct cultural orientation--the phenomenon we call ethnicity.  Societies became ethno-political blocks.  In addition, this period is characterised by revivalist trend so that the various social formations looked to their primordial cultural assets to define and consolidate their boundaries.

Ethnic self-consciousness and its consolidation and asserting along the lines of tribe, community or language groups have become increasingly manifest in the recent years in the entire region.  In everyone of the seven states that make up the north-eastern region, there is a comic perception of who constitute the `insiders' and who are `outsiders' vying for the limited number of jobs and other assets and resources of the respective territories.  Regionalism along social and ethnic lines has been a dominant development in the years since Independence.

In the post-colonial north-east, we can recognise five different parameters of identity consolidation.  These are tribe, caste, language, territory and religion.  These often work in combination with one another.  Emergence of tribal social formations, often with demand for specified territories as politico-administrative units are features common enough in north-east India these days.  The context of smooth integration of tribals and non-tribals, of various language groups, of locals and immigrants and of various religious communities appear to be fraught with many hurdles.

The consolidation of various social formations and ethnic upsurge based on it may be viewed as strategies of adaptation of the tribesmen and other indigenous inhabitants of the region in the modern context.  The commotions that go with demand-making polities, including secessionist movements, have in the meantime, created unsettled conditions.  But if we take a long-range view of history, we see that social unrest and mass stirrings have never been permanent attributes of human societies.  These are like turning points in the life of a society, which is passing from one kind of articulation to another.

 

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