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ETHNICITY, STATE AND IDENTITY: FROM CONFRONTATION TO CO-EXISTENCE.


 

The search for identity is a powerful psychological driving force which has propelled human civilization. Identity is evocative: we are after all dealing with a myth or an imagined community which has all the power necessary for political mobilization. Identity has also been defined as an abiding sense of selfhood, the core of which makes life predictable to an individual (Northrop, 1989: 55). To have no ability to anticipate events is essentially to experience terror. Identity can be conceived of as more than a psychological sense of self; it encompasses a sense that one is safe in the world physically, psychologically, socially, even spi

 

What seems to be the unanimous view is that ethnicity and identity conflicts will be the dominant form of violence and war in the coming years. Ethnicity itself can be enhanced and reformulated under conditions of modernization. Myths of origin, enemy images, demonizing the other, are old and traditional myths of long historical duration. Most ethnic groups do have a myth of origin, a history of the group, chosen enemies, and stories of traumas. It is at this point that the intersection between modernity and the revival of myth and ritual is of interest.

 

ritually. Events that threaten to invalidate the core sense of identity will elicit defensive responses aimed at avoiding psychic and/or physical annihilation.

 

INEVITABILITY OF ETHNIC IDENTITY AND RESPONSE OF NATION-STATE :

 

The protagonists of Nation-State --Political leaders and political theorists of all persuasions have argued against explicit recognition of cultural identities—ethnic, religious, linguistic, racial. The result, more often than not, has been that cultural identities have been suppressed, sometimes brutally, as state policy—through religious persecutions and ethnic cleansings, but also through everyday exclusion and economic, social and political discrimination.

 

Globally the ethnic identity politics is on the rise. In vastly different contexts and in different ways—from indigenous people in Latin America to religious minorities in South Asia to ethnic minorities in the Balkans and Africa to immigrants in Western Europe—people are mobilizing anew around old grievances along ethnic, identity. People want the freedom to practice their religion openly, to speak their language, to celebrate their ethnic or religious heritage without fear of ridicule or punishment or diminished opportunity. It is a simple idea, but profoundly unsettling. States face an urgent challenge in responding to these demands. If handled well, greater recognition of identities will bring greater cultural diversity in society, enriching people’s lives. But there is also a great risk.

 

These struggles over cultural identity, if left and ignored become one of the greatest sources of instability within states and between them—and in so doing trigger conflict that takes development backwards. Identity politics that polarize people and groups are creating fault lines between “us” and “them”. Growing distrust and hatred threaten peace, development and human freedoms. Ethnic violence destroyed hundreds of homes and mosques in Kosovo and Serbia. Struggles over identity can also lead to regressive and xenophobic policies that retard human development. They can encourage a retreat to conservatism and a rejection of change, closing off the infusion of ideas and of people who bring cosmopolitan values and the knowledge and skills that advance development. Managing diversity and respecting cultural identities are not just challenges for a few “multiethnic states”. Almost no country is entirely homogeneous. The world’s nearly 200 countries contain some 5,000 ethnic groups. And confrontations over culture and identity are likely to grow—the ease of communications and travel have shrunk the world and changed the landscape of cultural diversity, and the spread of democracy, human rights and new global networks have given people greater means to mobilize around a cause, insist on a response and get it. Socio-economic injustices.

 

 

India's nation-building project that sought to create a pan-Indian identity has gone awry. It would be wrong to bring unity of the state by asking the ethnic communities to think in terms of citizenship and forget their cultural root. This is indeed a difficult proposition. In multi-ethnic state like Assam and other North-eastern states of India, we have no way out but to develop a multicultural policy that recognizes the distinctiveness of each and every community at the same by giving sufficient choices to develop a sense of unity. Further splinterisation of these states can be prevented only by allowing each and every community to develop culturally, socially, politically and above all economically. Going beyond the contractors, politician and the elites, development process must reach the common people doesn’t matter whether he is a Bodo, immigrant Muslim or caste Hindu resident of the state.  Cultural diversity is here to stay—and to grow. States and the society need to find ways of forging national unity amid this diversity. The world, ever more interdependent economically, cannot function unless people respect diversity and build unity through common bonds of humanity.

 

Ethnic based identity is bound to be there in North-east (NE) India and they are likely to proliferate. Rather than looking at these issues as ‘problems’ approach should be to look at the structural issues and address them accordingly. Thus we must realize such ethnic ‘unrest’ is bound to be there especially when politics is based on ‘first past the post system’ and politics is essentially ‘who gets what when and how’. The identification of the political parties with the interest of the majorities by appealing to the categories such as ‘ethnic’, linguistic’-or a combination of some or all of them is problematic. Such a situation not only puts pressure on the less powerful communities to organize its separate identity, but also ‘deepens the hatred between the well defined communities or nationalities, particularly when the nation-building is organized and measured in terms of the will of the majority’ which exercises state power.

 

Ethnic upsurge is not always bad—it gives hitherto unrepresented groups a chance to be heard and listened to. A look at the present coalitional politics in Assam shows how it generates a feeling of competitiveness among the power holders for performance. The constituent of present ruling coalition –the Bodo leaders want to deliver—other wise people will also reject them –the way  they had done with the once powerful ABSU.

 

IDENTITY IS NOT STATIC: IT IS MULTI-LAYERED.

Here in NE India, we urge for respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognize cultural differences. Individuals can and do have multiple identities that are complementary—ethnicity, language, religion and race as well as citizenship. Nor is identity a zero sum game. There is no inevitable need to choose between state unity and recognition of cultural differences.

 

A sense of identity and belonging to a group with shared values and other bonds of culture is important for individuals. But each individual can identify with many different groups. Individuals have identity of citizenship (for example, being Indian), gender (being a woman), race (being of Tibeto-Burman origin), language (being fluent in Bodo, Assamese and Hindi), politics (having left-wing views or regionalism) and religion (being Hindu or Muslim).Identity also has an element of choice: within these memberships individuals can choose what priority to give to one membership over another in different contexts. Sociologists tell us that people have boundaries of identity that separate “us” from “them”, but these boundaries shift and blur to incorporate broader groups of people.

 

“Nation building” has been a dominant objective of the 20th century, and most states have aimed to build culturally homogeneous states with singular identities. Sometimes they succeeded but at the cost of repression and persecution. If the history of the 20th century showed anything, it is that the attempt either to exterminate cultural groups or to wish them away elicits a stubborn resilience. By contrast, recognizing cultural identities has resolved never-ending tensions. For both practical and moral reasons, then, it is far better to accommodate cultural groups than to try to eliminate them or to pretend that they do not exist as some writers would make us believe. Countries do not have to choose between national unity and cultural diversity. Surveys show that the two can and often do coexist.

 

 

 

In case of Assam there are substantial numbers of people who prefer to call both as an Indian as well as Assamese and while some of them preferred to have one identity. This has come into picture from a survey by the Centre For the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi. The question that was asked was -- how do you identify yourself?  It is very clear from the above date the people of Assam would more prefer to call themselves as Assamese or both as Assamese and Indian. What it clearly establishes is people believe in a more federal identity than one political identity.

 

 

 

  Frequency Percent Valid percent
Assamese 596 38.5 38.5
Assamese and Indian 336 21.7 21.7
Indian 444 28.7 28.7
Other identities 135 8.7 8.7
DK 38 2.5 2.5
Total 1549 100.0 100.0

 

 

The same survey was again conducted by CSDS in the year 2006-March . The main findings of this survey is as follows-

 

39 % of the total surveyed considers them as only Indian.

14.7% considers them to be only Assamese.

41% consider both as Indian and Assamese.

CONTESTING XENOPHOBIC AND REGRESSIVE ETHNICITY:

Struggles over identity can also lead to regressive and xenophobic policies that retard human development. They can encourage a retreat to conservatism and a rejection of change, closing off the infusion of ideas and of people who bring cosmopolitan values and the knowledge and skills that advance development. For it is often the suppression of culturally identified groups that leads to tensions. The UNDP report 2004 makes a case for respecting diversity and building more inclusive societies by adopting policies that explicitly recognize cultural adopting policies that explicitly recognize cultural differences—multicultural policies individuals have to shed rigid identities if they are to become part of diverse societies and uphold cosmopolitan values of tolerance and respect for universal human rights.

 

Thus, what needs to be contested is the craze for mono-ethnic homeland that is exclusionary and does not bear the existence of others. In North-east India the craze for ethnic exclusiveness and reorganizing space in exclusive ethnic terms has created a tussle between the State and community on the one hand and the community-community on the other hand. The clash over Nagalim or ‘Greater Nagaland’ and reaction by the ethnic groups in Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh;  the reaction of the Non-Bodos like the Koch-Rajbangshi, the Rabhas etc. in the Bodo Territorial Council , the recent Karbi-Dimasa clash in Karbi Anglong are a few examples of such quest for exclusive home land.

 

The State by creating innumerable tribal district councils accentuates such tendency for exclusivity by relying on a ‘tribal to tribal’ approach. While the existing identities as of now will have to be recognized, fragmentation will have to be halted . Or else we may soon end up facing innumerable demands for tiny home republics. Though the contemporary world appears to be completely divided on ethnic lines yet the parochialism of the ethnic orientation should not be overlooked. The universal humanitarian values take a back seat when the reality is perceived from ethnic point of view. The exclusive rights claimed by the ethnic identities on the basis of indigenous status are also problematic because no community can conclusively prove that they are the original inhabitant of an area. They can merely claim. The evidence about authenticity is rather insufficient and definitely not verifiable.

 

What is missing in such mono ethnic territorial space is effective communication among the communities. The recent ethnic clashes between the Karbis and Dimasas in Karbi Anglong that had claimed about more than 100 lives make us the need to think about inter ethnic accommodation. Surgical vivisection of territorial space into some mono-ethnic homelands seems to be the guiding principles of ethnic politics in Northeast India today. Viewed thus, our solution to conflicts is marked by the same craze for reorganizing the space– albeit according to the same binary principle. The prospects of peace according to this discourse are decided in a game that is admittedly of zero-sum character. In the midst of such uncertainties the state is believed or legitimized to play a dominant role as it goes to the old dictum of liberalist principle of the State as the neutral umpire among contending forces. Thus a conflict between the State and community becomes a conflict between communities. In this tussle between justice and justice –injustice seems to be the end result.

 

ETHNIC IDENTITY FROM LIABILITY TO CO-EXISTENCE:To consider the ethnicity based identity as an asset in NE India, the following steps need to be considered---Constitution of a State Social Council- may be in the line of upper house. Question is to how we can accommodate the burgeoning demand of the ethnic groups. For that we need to explore socio-political structure that can satisfy the Bodos, the Rabhas, the karbis, the Dimasas, the Tiwas, the Chutias, the Koch-Rajbangshi, the Tai-Phakes, The Matak and Moran, the Ahoms, and the minority groups like the Bengali Hindus, the Muslims, the Nepalis and the Adivasis . Even the smaller groups like Singphos, Tai-Phakes, Lichus and others would soon take up arms—because their main grievance is they are not being heard.   Unless we work out a comprehensive structure that can at least satisfy the basic socio-cultural and economic there will be continuous turmoil in the state. Thus how the Asomiya middle class and elite accommodate their demands and the growing aspirations of the smaller groups and nationalities will be the single most factors that might generate violent conflict in Assam.

 

 

In order to give them a greater share in the state of affairs we propose for the constitution of State Social Council in each states of NE India with a proportional representation from each and every community of the state.NATURE AND FUNCTIONS OF THE PROPOSED State Social Council IN ASSAM:  A CONCEPTUAL ELABORATION:

 

The proposed ethnic council is a socio-cultural body that would look into the distinct issues of the ethnic groups of Assam and would also address the common socio-cultural concerns of all nationalities.

This will not be a replication of the political and economic works of the existing seven tribal councils or the panchayti raj institutions in the state. The proposed Council shall essentially look at the identity issues and other socio-cultural issues so that it can address their concerns.

Apart from the members from the ethnic community, a few distinguished sociologists, anthropologists, historian, social scientists or any other persons having expert knowledge on ethnic , demographic history of Assam and the Northeast should be nominated by the Governor of Assam as neutral representative of the government and people of Assam.

The ethnic council is a Dialogue forum where the respective community can raise their issues of concern and can meet with other communities and this will help to understand each other’s view point while protecting ones own interest.

It is mandatory for the government to accommodate the advice/recommendations of the members in the council while formulating policies that might affect the groups in that area.

The council is modeled in the consociational  model where the principle of proportionality , mutual veto, grand coalition and consensus methodologies will be followed while arriving at decisions.

The main purpose of joint or collective session is to understand each other and appreciate each other’s view points democratically in a healthy atmosphere which is lacking in Assam today. A fascist, inward looking devoid of understanding each other’s concerns growing on in Assam and the North east. In such an atmosphere a healthy democratic dialogue is the only answer to these vexed issues where the state can’t alone enforce a decision.

What is the importance of such interaction/dialogue among the ethnic communities of Assam?   

 

Today the communities who are at loggerheads with each other due to various reasons need to initiate a dialogue among the affected communities. The issues like claiming the territories of other states or communities, the fear of being treated as the second class citizens in the homeland politics, etc. be included in such dialogue.  An overnight solution may not come –but it will help in understanding the minds of each other. If carried on for a longer period a desirable solution might come up. In Conflict Resolution literature, this process is known as informal problem –solving approach or workshops, where a third party assists conflicting parties to find solutions to their problems. The philosophy of these dialogues is not to force the parties to accept a settlement, but to provide an informal atmosphere, where the parties can exchange their perspectives about their needs and conceive a solution that satisfies the needs of those involved in the conflict The third party (nominated experts) creates an atmosphere, establishes norms all conducive to free and open discussion in which parties address each other in order to understand their differing perspectives. 

 

They are encouraged to deal with analytically rather than polemically—to explore ways in which their interaction helps to exacerbate rather than to blame each other while justifying their own. They are to understand each other’s concern, needs, fears, priorities and constraints. The primary objective of such workshops/dialogues/joint sessions is to build channels of communication that enables the parties to learn more about each other. This process, in other words, transforms the negative stereotypes and images constructed during the development of the conflict. This dialogue is the basis of the resolution of social conflicts, as communications between parties can heighten conflicting parties understanding each other needs, leading the parties to create new social structures and institutions that resolve conflict. An agreement, which would essentially come from the civil-society side, would make an ever-lasting impact in the conflict prone areas of the Northeastern India.What is missing in North East India today is that the doors of dialogue have been virtually closed down. The democratic space has been gradually getting diminished both at the instance of the State and the militant groups. 

 

This has more to do with the fact that the entire identity politics has been hijacked by the militias. The insurgent groups irrespective of its ideology and principle work under extreme authoritarian and military principle. The civil society initiative which was so vibrant in Nagaland has now been reeling under the pressure of NSCN-IM. The reality is NSCN-IM has stopped all civil society dialogues that Naga Hoho took under the leadership of Niketu Iralu and Charles Chasie and seven more members. Even the constitution of the co-called People’s Consultative Groups (PCG) by ULFA should not be constructed as representatives of the Civil Society. The most important qualification of all the members has been their unflinching support to the organization. Where are the representatives from women, minority groups and other ethnic groups of the state not to talk about their critics? This I believe is a valid question since ULFA claims to represent the ‘people o f Assam’ and ‘not the Assamese’. At the same time let us not very euphoric about the civil society initiatives as we have outlined above. If these initiatives are not conducted in sustained manner and not regulated by neutral mediators it could end up in a quarreling platform. Nevertheless, our objective is to find a democratic space that can address the identity issues of various ethnic groups in the region.  

 
 
A robust look South and South-east policy—that amongst others can integrate the communities culturally. In the mainstream writings, Psychological alienation and economic underdevelopment have been underlined as primary causes behind insurgency in India’s Northeast. Consequently, more funds and recognition of national heroes of the region like Lachit Borphukan, Sukapha, Chilarai, and Sankardeva at the national level are prescribed to break this psychological and economic barrier. While some of the suggestions certainly have its relevance, such causal analysis can hardly reflect the reality of the situation. In order to resolve some of the conflicts, one needs to understand the psyche of communities of the region who have resisted integration with the national mainstream. The Nagas, for example, emphasize that they are simply not Indian. They talk more about integration of their communities and separation from India, which consequently would give them a chance to be a part of the community. They visualize an identity which is different from the Indian identity. The futuristic talk of economic development and of Northeast India joining the ‘national mainstream’ contrasts sharply with the vision of the militias that mostly hark back to history and emphasizes the region’s historical autonomy from mainland India. For instance, Assamese independentist intellectuals, according to one writer, `re-read, re-interpret and even re-create history’ in order to make the case that “Assam had always been a free nation.
 
The names of the region’s numerous ethnic militias evoke the memory of independent old kingdoms. Some of these new histories emphasize the region’s historical ties with Southeast Asia. For instance, in recent years there has been a powerful movement of cultural revivalism among the Ahoms of Assam – the westernmost of the Tai-speaking people spread in mainland Southeast Asia. Apart from economic opportunities, trans-national region building can bring important dividends in terms of Northeast India’s political troubles. The politics of recognition is a recurrent theme in the politics of ethnic militancy in Northeast India. Prof. Sanjib Baruah argues even limited cooperation between India and Myanmar can improve conditions in Northeast India. For instance, it can make a difference in the current Naga peace process that could end one of the world’s oldest armed conflicts. Since Nagas live on both sides of the Indo-Myanmar border, a proposal that might be able to capture Naga political imagination and break the deadlock in the peace process is one that would bring the Nagas of Myanmar into the picture. That, of course, would involve taking the Myanmarese government into confidence. Ethnically, the large majority of the indigenous population of Northeast India belongs to different subgroups of the Mongoloid stock whose other cognate branches are found in South-western China and Southeast Asia. The Assam-Burma border was the meeting place of races, cultures, and languages of South and Southeast Asia. Taking these points of similari­ties between the culture of Northeast India and Southeast Asia into consideration, scholars like Robbins Burling and Peter Kunstadler justify the inclusion of Eastern India in a social and anthropological study of Southeast Asia. The border region is inhabited by over a dozen distinct eth­nic groups spreading over the whole belt of the Patkai range. Some of them are the Singphos (called Kachin in Myanmar), Usus or Yobins, Tangsas, Noctes, Wanchos, Tutsas, Layos, Khamtis, Tai Phakes, Duanias, Shyams, Khamyasgias, Turungs, Bodos, Mons, Deoris and others with a population over a lakh
Economic empowerment or good governance is a must for the NE India. If we analyze the causes for the growth of insurgency in the region, it becomes clear the factors such as underdevelopment, unemployment, lack of agricultural infrastructure, lack of access to government departments, Flood, corruption, communication, lack of heath care etc. some of the basic problems that after being neglected for decades have acted as the greatest incentive for the youth to join the militancy. All this eventually means that the economies do not stir and fail to meet the growing aspirations of the people, particularly the younger generation. This, in turn, provides a fertile ground for grooming various militant groups or a spurt of popular uprisings. In some sense, lack of growth and disturbed environment feed on each other. This is exactly what is happening in most of the northeastern states.
 
 
 
Let us look at the situation in Assam. Assam’s economic situation is such that it can’t generate high growth and more employment to the twenty lakh educated uneducated unemployed youths in Assam. For our research on ULFA We had the opportunity of interviewing 120 surrendered ULFA cadres at various points of time. If we analyze the interview with the surrendered militants and the field visits make it amply clear that insecurity of the youths with full energy and frustration contributed to the growth of insurgency in Assam. Let us paraphrase some of the experiences of ex rebels as to why they had to join insurgency out of frustration--
 
   The unemployed youths mostly in the rural areas have noting to do –they pass on most of their  time  by  playing carom, play cards, carom or just loitering in the areas .·          In many occasion some youths open up a small grocery shop to be closed due to lack of sale
.·         Some of them apply for government loan to be given up later on after spending considerable time by running from government department to department for a minor loan of Rs 20,000
.·         Many of small scale sector business like poultry, piggery, dairy farming, fishiculture, power loom, wheat mill, rice mill, tractor, cycle repairing, TV mechanic etc. had been closed due to  lack of entrepreneurial skill, power failure , non-payment of loan, flood etc
.·         Many of them were frustrated by the corrupt officials. The peon would not pass on the application without being bribed, the dealing assistant wouldn’t forward the application without some reward— the officials would ask them to come again and again for the same work , the typist wouldn’t type without a good amount being given—otherwise the letter gets lost from the file
.·         There is no value of merit –many of the educated unemployed applied for government jobs. The conditions for being employed into the government job is  a hefty amount to be paid to the politicians through middle man or having excellent relations with the politicians 
.·         A few of them systematically went for rabi and khairf  agricultural production . They undertook these ventures because there is heavy demand of these agricultural products in the urban areas. But due to over production thousands kilograms of agricultural were destroyed. By the time these products came to the market they were rotten—so they gave up next year.All these conditions were made worse by a brutal, insensitive police and security personnel. The continuous harassment of the rural people by the security forces made them flee their original place for a long time. These are all basic human security issues which compound the insurgency issue in Assam. Continuous heaping of all those issues for many days, months and decades have given these frustrated youths to look for an alternative –and that was provided by ULFA. ULFA was ever ready to accept them as their cadres and fight the Indian State for a better future.Having argued we don’t want to minimize the role of ‘ideology’ ‘colonial legacy’, ‘exploitation of the centre’, ‘feeling of not being a part of India’ etc. as important factors in the sustenance of ULFA or present socio-economic situation in the state. But any one who is in the field or has the touch of reality especially in places like Kakopathar ( Tinsukia) , Nalbari, Dhemaji , Kokrajhar etc. realize that the vast educated unemployed in Assam today which is more than 23 lakhs are directionless and act as the fertile breeding ground for social unrest in the state. Interesting fact is it’s not that these are strong support base of one particular group like ULFA—they are accessible to all groups who provide them some material benefits or some productive engagement. They can be used for processions in kakopathar which had resulted in the killing of nine people in 9th February,2006 few days back one would see them in Congress, AGP or BJP rally in Guwahati and Dibrugarh and so on.                     
 
[1] Obtained through the coordinator in charge of North –east, Prof. Sandhya Goswami.2005.
 
[2] Carlos L. Yordan, ‘Instituting Problem-Solving Processes as a Means of Constructive Social Change’, Online Journal Of Peace and Conflict Resolution, issue-Nov. 1998, No-1.4
 
[3] -ibid-
 
[4] Udoyan Misra, “The Periphery Strikes Back: Challenges to the nation-State in Assam and Nagaland”, (Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2000), p.62.
 
[5] Nani G. Mahanta-‘Assam-portents of violence and hope for peace’ --Peace Studies Paper series, 03 by Peace Studies , of Omeo Kumar Das institute of Social Change and Development, July, 2005
 
[6] S.N. Barua, “Tribes of Indo-Burma Border”, (Margherita, 1991).
 

 

 

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