Even if the notion of ethnic identity is not intrinsic, the understanding of ethnicity and ethnic identity is nothing to be trivialized. As Benedict Anderson says of the nation, ethnicity-based groupings are also very much “imagined communities”. But human imagination is powerful, and the fictive realities they create with this imagination, can assume the visage of very tangible realities by themselves. Few works of art have more convincingly portrayed this than in Albert Camus’s well known story, The Guest. The story tells of how racial identities are deeply embedded in modern humans and the backdrop he uses is of the Algerian resistance movement against French colonialism.
A white school teacher, by ancestry a Frenchman but in every other sense of the word a son of the Algerian soil, who even disregards and disobeys the French colonial government’s overtures to co-opt him in the fight to subdue the native rebellion, discovers one day to his profound sorrow how unbridgeable the divide between races are in a graffiti message on the blackboard written by his students and directed at him. Camus gives us a beautiful picture of the human spiritual and psychological landscape, bringing out its complex nuances without attempting any serious analysis as to how or why things were as they were but leaving it to the readers to judge for themselves.
Then along came the scientists to do the reductive and constructive analyses of these situations. Sudhir Kakkar’s “Colours of Violence” in many ways is an explanation of such a divide, although his term of reference is neither Algeria nor Camus’ writings. Instead, Kakkar, who calls himself a “pragmatic liberal and an agnostic mystic” studies the phenomenon of communal riots in India between the Hindus and Muslims, and comes to the conclusion that there is something much deeper and fundamental in the identity divide than the usual explanation that these enmities are a fallout of sinister machination of colonial politics.
Kakkar does not align with the rabid hatred and paranoiac sense of persecution preached by fanatical religious leaders and politicians, but all the same takes pains to point out the shallowness of the position on history as a function of the present – and that the past can be explained in terms of experiences in the present. While this is a popular practice, it fails to explain too many problematic points. Why would the identity divides persist amongst communities after generations of sharing and living together, as Camus so poignant brings out in “The Guest”? On the opposite end of the spectrum, affinities in familial and social bonding remain after generations of separation and radically different social engineering as in the case of East and West Germans that Kakkar cites in his book.
In the wake of an increase in the concern for ethnic identity question often bordering on xenophobia that Northeast states like Manipur are witnessed to in the present times, this debate is extremely relevant – both to understand the dynamics at work that led to the cataclysm, but more importantly, to build the foundation for future government policies to prevent more such tragedies. A bit of such debates does happen occasionally on the public forums such as those provided by the media, but it needs to be taken further. The important question that still beggars a satisfactory answer is, does the divide exist only at the instrumental level or is there something more fundamental?
We are of the opinion that it is important for the people and more importantly the government to acknowledge both the instrumental as well as primordial factors in the making of group identities, and then evolve effective administrative policies. Integrate what can be integrated immediately but give time to other more stubbornly internalized senses of irreconcilable differences. Ultimately though, it is our belief, a gradual coming together of identities is natural amongst those who live in close proximity and share not just living spaces but also problems and prospects. This process however must be given time to its natural course enough for the different communities can absorb the new need and reality without any sense of affront.
This also means, there must be a graceful allowance for distinctness where total integration cannot be achieved without detriment to the social organisms, as Nari Rustomji puts it in his book Imperilled Frontiers, in considering the prospect of all the small tribal communities of the Northeast agreeing to come under a larger identity umbrella. In the emphasis on making only politically correct statements, the danger is often of neglecting (or else ignoring) uncomfortable but all the same undeniable constituents of the problem. Such deliberate or unintended oversights can only come to be stumbling blocks in the way of a lasting resolution to the problem.
In tackling this problem, the bull must be taken by the horns, and this would entail acknowledging and addressing the uncomfortable realities as well. One of these is the often expressed apprehension that a radical alteration in the demographic profile of not just Manipur, but the entire Northeast region, may end up marginalising local populations. Such fears are not a question of being subversive to national interest at all, as many slavish loyalists so fastidiously claims. In fact, Manipur and the other Northeast states must engage the Union government in this debate for a more comprehensive future demography policy.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author