Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Crooked timber of humanity (representative picture)

The Fallacy of Interpreting Identity Consciousness of the Past From the Vantage of Ethnonationalists of Today

When things get too complicated and stretched, it is often helpful to deconstruct and begin from the beginning, at least imagine what it would have been like in the beginning by extrapolating backwards in time. Often again in unbinding knotty and entangled socio-political issues, it is helpful to go beyond the known disciplines of social sciences into the realm of philosophy and the arts. These thoughts are provoked by the manner the interpretation of identity and ethnicity in modern time by those with ethnonationalist leanings, presuming their own identity consciousness were not theirs alone, fomented by their own peculiar times, giving rise to their own unique crises of belonging, but also was a given condition always from what they call “time immemorial”. Even a consideration of the scant records and memories of who bitterly fought who in the not so distant past should debunk these presumptions. These thoughts also once again bring up the old question of whether everything about history is a continuity, or are certain phenomena unique and therefore have meaning only while they lasted. A philosopher of repute and one of the greatest historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, has some very interesting things to say on this subject, many of which can serve as invaluable lessons in our own effort to understand our own past, including this vexed question of identity. Are identities intrinsic or are they conscious political constructs? If history always follows a definite trajectory, why is it that even the greatest minds have been unable to predict by extrapolative extensions into the future, some of the most explosive events that laid ahead of them?

Isaiah Berlin, deals with this in his essay “In Search of an Ideal” in the volume “Crooked Timber of Humanity” and points out that not a single one amongst the most perceptive social thinkers of the 19th Century, undoubtedly one of the most creative periods of human history, ever predicted the ethnic identity predicament of the 20th Century. None of them foresaw the politics of religious fundamentalism or any preoccupation with the issue of terrorism either. Marx, Hegel, Luxembourg et al, who predicted, and quite accurately too, devastating wars and bloody revolutions, for some mysterious reason, seemed never to have had a hint of these. How did this distinctive characteristic of the late 20th Century which has spilled over into the 21st Century, get so well screened out from the vision of social scientists of the preceding era? The indication, Berlin says, is that many events in history are not exactly a continuity. Many of them simply pop up within a specific historical time frame so that they would be virtually invisible from outside this time frame. The ethnic question certainly seems to be just one of these. The optimistic inference from this is, just as these problems sprang up into existence suddenly, in all likelihood, on the other edge of the time frame that circumscribed them, they may age out and fade away as quickly.

This also would mean the popular method of historiography of logically sequencing major events and epochs in chronological time into a single coherent narrative may not always be justified and hence has fallen short of explaining every historical experience satisfactorily, much less predict the future. Berlin takes the middle path in this, so that while most events in history are seen as dovetailing each other, others follow unpredictable trajectories, independent of any such tangible historical streams or patterns. If at all these explosive events are predictable, it would only be within the time frame of their existence. Take the case of the ethnic strife in Manipur. Who would have predicted things would come to such a pass as it has today, even as late at the earlier half of the 20th Century? Communities which have been together for aeons have suddenly begun to see themselves as irreconcilably different, having always lived in “unique”, non-overlapping histories. Similarly, other communities which have in a different era considered each other as natural enemies and fought each other murderously are now being led to believe they are part of the same family.

The other thing that is interesting is, similar problems seem to be surfacing in other parts of the world too. This question is interesting for it cannot be by coincidence that the explosion of ethnic identity strife here seems to be following the law of physics that predicts a “sympathetic oscillation of pendulums” when in close proximity. The ethnic problem in Manipur is not in any way an isolated phenomenon, for almost simultaneously, similar problems exploded with equal, if not greater ferocity in so many different parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, they were so viciously xenophobic and many of the conflicts turned genocidal. Very much the same thing can be said of “terrorism” and religious fundamentalism. So what? one may ask. What great difference does it make if our present misery is part of an inherited sin or is a singular cataclysmic historical turbulence? For one thing, if our actions are not merely reactions but are driven by independent urges and aspirations, our different communities can stop shifting blame on each other and instead learn to live up to the challenges of the time and evolve a consensual solutions. The second implication is, as in the case of “sympathetic oscillation” when the oscillation of one pendulum halts, the others oscillation energies of the other bodies too die out. At the turn of another epoch then, ethnic problems, including our own, may have seen its obituary. We will be amongst the first to wish it an eternal “Rest in Peace”.

How Unbroken is Progress

Berlin has other interesting observations on the continuity of history and they get most intriguing when considering artistic creativity. Indeed, as he implies, while the postmodern theory of “deconstruction” cannot be a complete and rounded system of philosophy as such, there can be little serious doubts about the irrefutability of the cautions it flagged against many presumptions of traditional thinking, especially in the fields of humanities and arts. While history cannot be simply “one damn thing after another”, how far can we be justified in saying it has followed a linear or even a traceable multi-directional locus.

In the world of art, he points out the ridiculous nature of the query eloquently. He demolishes the uncritical presumption that art too has always “progressed” with one era dovetailing the other, and because this is so, the latest era would come out on top at the end of this continuing progression because the latest would always have the advantage of hindsight. Since art has to do with human aspirations and inner urges, it should follow from the progress theory that what a great master of an earlier era like Rembrandt aspired to be, would be to a great extent what Picasso of a later era represented. The earlier era’s achievements would also always be lower down on the hierarchy of excellence. This logic would also imply that Homer’s epics “Odyssey” and “Iliad” were incomplete expressions of the writer’s aspiration to achieve what John Milton in “Paradise Lost” achieved two thousand years later.

All familiar with these works obviously know this is not the case at all? For all they are worth, a Rembrandt masterpiece may be a greater work of art than one by Picasso, or Homer’s artistic talent may be way ahead of Milton’s. Or, alternatively, and more plausibly, there are no perfect scales on which these expressions in art can be measured and compared. Epochal achievements in these fields are definitely related, and certain elements are definitely passed down generation to generation, but it would be absurd to even imagine that a progression works in the manner that popular presumptions in social sciences have led most to believe. Human aspirations and creativity are inextricably linked to the contextual backgrounds they spawned in, and often they cannot cross the boundaries of these backgrounds. Hence in all likelihood, epics of the Homerian proportion cannot ever be written again, just as the inspirations that resulted in the “Ramayan”, “Mahabharat” or “Khamba Thoibi”, are unique, and in all likelihood the creativity and imagination that gave them birth belonged to their specific epochs only. This proposition, probably is true of all other social sciences as well, including history. Even history cannot be characterized as a simple progression of one building block piling atop another in endless successions.

This thought of postmodern “deconstruction” is often evoked when confronted with the question, sometimes posed provocatively and at other times honestly, as to what the nature of the presumably ancient “imagining” called Manipur is all about. How could it ever qualify to be a “nation” or even a polity before the modern times? Where are the proofs that the Kabaw Valley ever belonged to Manipur etc? We sense a similar flawed presumption of historical progression in these questions. Who says a nation has always to have hard boundaries with boundary pillars, fenced off by barbed wires, guarded zealously by professional soldiers etc. The pre-colonial world outside of Europe did not understand nations and territory this way. Among many others, George N. Curzon, in his Romanes lecture 1907, says this in no uncertain terms that the notion of modern national boundary was unknown outside of Europe before colonialism took them there. Rather than national boundaries, there were frontiers. Hindu epics such as “Ramayana” play out a Vedic ceremony ashwamedha yagya performed to demarcate the domain of a ruler’s kingdom, whereby a ceremonial horse is let loose and allowed to roam freely followed by the ruler’s army. If anybody stood in the way of the free run of the horse, he would have to face the might of the ruler and if he manages to stop any further advance of the horse, that point would be where the extent of the kingdom of the ruler performing the horse ritual was deemed to end. Such and similar alternate understandings would be more applicable in say the contested ownership of the uninhabited Kabaw Valley of the time between the kingdoms of Ava and Manipur. For that matter the very frontiers of Ava or Manipur or other Southeast Asian kingdoms, and indeed the rest of the non-European world would have been determined by such principles. If a king stuck his flag on the bank of a certain river and if nobody dared oppose him, that point would have come to be considered the extent of the king’s kingdom, and so on. These understandings cannot simply be forced into the Westphalian paradigm of nationhood with justice as too many have attempted so naively in the present times.

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