Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Identity is another intriguing question. Is it real or imagined?

There is Nothing Static or Intrinsic About Identity and Therefore Periodic Changes to it Must be Accepted

It is difficult to do a running commentary on issues with such deep roots as the indigenous people’s movement, of which without doubt the current Manipur problem is one. However, difficult though it is, this is precisely the task journalists cannot escape from. It is for this reason that journalism is often referred to as “literature in a hurry”. It is again for the same reason that practitioners of this profession are also as often referred to as the “first draft writers of history”. Despite these limitations, nobody will argue the vital role journalism plays in any society’s attempt to understand itself and its problems, with a view finally to resolve them.

It is perhaps a vindication of the first of these two assertions that many of the best creators of literary works in the world are former journalists, some even going as far to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are an equal number of examples of journalists who switched professions to turned academics and excelled in that field too. While on the job however, journalists normally do not have the leisure or the inclination to do scholarly articles needing months of rigorous researches, with referencing and footnotes etc, for they are perpetually chasing very short deadlines.

With this little acknowledgement of limitation of the profession, one important notion which everybody presumes they know must be revisited. The understanding of the idea of “indigenous” and its free use is one which needs a great deal of moderation. The question who is an indigenous person itself has been problematic even for researchers in the field such as Christian Erni. Is this person somebody belonging to a primitive or pre-modern economy? Is he or she a practitioner of traditional, animistic religions? Is he somebody who lives in the wild and therefore stateless in the modern sense? Is a person indigenous only because she is believed to be the original inhabitant of a land?

Probably the indigenous person has attributes of some or all of these, and is vulnerable precisely because these attributes are pitted against the encroachment of the modern economy and political system into their spiritual and physical spheres. But it is quite obvious, each of these attributes are also accompanied by unresolved problems? Take the last postulate that an indigenous person is the original inhabitant of a place. Does this imply he evolved out of the soil and never moved anywhere else? Or is it just a question of his having arrived at his place of settlement earlier than later migrants? What about nomadic people? Do they cease to be indigenous?

This problem, as Erni notes in his introduction to the edited volume “The Concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia” is compounded in Asia where numerous groups contest to be classed as indigenous, unlike say in Europe or America where the dividing lines are much more distinct. This contest has been made even more complex in India because of the notion of Schedule Tribe and the incentive structuring that comes along with this.

Interestingly, in the Indian context, a distinction has emerged between “Schedule Tribe” and “Tribe”, for obviously the two are not identical. One is a technical Constitutional categorisation and the other is a sociological condition? Small wonder then there are communities wanting to come under the ST list, and others, though by any sociological standards cannot anymore be considered tribal, refusing to forgo the ST status. It is for this reason that the understanding of the concept “indigenous” has to be flexible in places like Manipur. The truth is, this notion has a great deal of arbitrariness, and the fact that the criteria belonging to this category differs from continent to continent and country to country. Many countries, including India, do not even distinguish between indigenous and non-indigenous, and instead prefer the categories of tribe and non-tribe, with the former implying primitive cultures and the latter as those who have internalised the notion of the modern state and its values.

This musing on the volatility of the term “indigenous” is important for one more reason. If a genome study were to be done today, in all likelihood, Meiteis, Nagas, Kukis and most other communities in the state, may not even share the same ancestry even within their own communities. The opposite is also likely to be true and each of the different groups can turn out to be genetically related.

Consider the valley. Many traditions, folklores and also semi-scientific studies by colonial writers have pointed out the valley has been a melting pot where different ethnicities descended and merged into a single identity since prehistoric times. Besides the hill tribes, names of many places in the valley also suggest they were early settlements of Kabaw, Awa, Khagi (Chinese), Kege, Pong, Takhel, Tekhao etc.

Yale professor James C. Scott vouches this population amalgamation was a prominent feature of his and Willem Scheldel’s imaginary landscape of “Zomia” (or the mountain massif of upland SE Asia), to which Manipur obviously would belong. The valley dwellers today probably would have the DNA of many different ethnicities. If these happened in the pre and proto-historical times, this indigenisation process continued into the historical period too. If not, the Bamon and Pangal would still be aliens.

This brings in another thought. If settlers come to colonise, as indeed modern settlers do, and instead of seeking to indigenise they try to marginalise or obliterate the existing indigenous cultures, the danger perceived from the standpoint of the original population is obvious, and their reactions against it should be understandable. But if the settlers come and seek to sink into the local milieu and ultimately indigenise, it is equally obvious why leniency must meet them from the original populations.

Multiplicity of identity

Given the juncture of history Manipur is in today, what other issue can be more relevant that the question of identity and violence as of this moment. So many scholars have argued that identity, individual as well as those of communities or even the nation, is a moving target. Another of Amartya Sen’s important books “Identity and Violence: Illusion of Destiny” also says just this. Before him it was Benedict Anderson who said virtually the same thing in his book “Imagined Community” where he asserts that the modern nation itself is an imagined community. If this was not so, how would somebody in Manipur and another from Chennai, who have no knowledge of each other’s existence and who may never ever meet, be able to say they belong to the same Indian national identity?

Again, much of the conflict situations we face are also on account of many different traditional world-views juxtaposed in a single modern time frame. Ultimately, all will have to come to term with the modern, given the fact that progress follows a linear trajectory and those who refuse to budge will ultimately be left being in the march of development. On the question of the notion of territory and its ownership, for instance, it is only but natural for a settled agriculturist, a nomadic shifting cultivator, a subject of a feudal polity or a citizen of a modern democracy would see differently. From their different standpoints, the same stretch of land may be seen as belonging to each of them. This overlap, results in frictions and in extreme cases, conflicts. Can there be any way to decide which of these different standpoints are just and which not? In Manipur’s hill-valley divide for instance, between the man sitting on top of the mountain peak claiming the entire mountain ranges to be his, and the man sitting in the valley below, claiming the same mountain ranges also belong to him, where must the verdict go and by what criteria?

In fact these conflicts too can be the self-ordained fate of traditional communities inhabiting the same hill ranges, or people inhabiting the same valley. In making these claims to ownership of land, all are wont to invoked their individual traditions of “time immemorial” antiquity. Given this adherence to impervious traditional views, intellectually and logically inaccessible to each other, can there ever be a common ground on which the issue is put up for discourse and settled? On a smaller canvas, this is what the theory of “Clash of Civilisations” is about? Conflict resolution would have to about all parties agreeing to emerge out of these insular worlds and evolve a common platform of scientific, humanitarian rationality on which these issues can be thrashed out together for mutual benefits of all concerned. Failure to do this would amount to accepting “Clash of Civilisations” as a human destiny – our destiny.

Quite interestingly, among many others, Sen’s “Identity and Violence” debunks the assumption that the “Clash of Civilisations” predicament is an intrinsic human destiny. He points out that in most of the bloody clashes that the world has seen, be it the Hutu-Tutsi clashes in Africa, the Serb-Muslims-Croats clashes in the former Yugoslavia, the Nazi pogrom against the European Jews, or the present bitter antagonism between what are supposedly “Western” and “Islamic” worlds, there isn’t anything so grand as destiny, and these dangerous antagonisms are creations of extraneous and arbitrary factors such as politics, economics, demagogic incitements etc. Differences in worldviews may also have been extremely compelling factors, but the mere fact that they were compelling does not necessarily mean that they are proofs that conflicts are destiny ordained and unavoidable. Sen attributes such fatalistic approaches to the causes of conflicts to vain hunt for intellectual profundity in explaining social situations.

We can ask the same rhetorical question that Sen poses as explanation and illustration of his arguments to try and have a grip of our own situation. Was the Kuki-Naga clashes of the 1990s destiny, or was it Machiavellian politics? Was it something that would have happened whatever the circumstance, or was it a by-product of electoral equations, underground power game, economics of land ownership and trade routes etc? If it was destiny, why did it happen in the 1990s and not a century ago? Can the present clash between Meiteis and Kukis be seen as determined by the same “Clash of Civilisation” logic? Or on the contrary, is it a again by-products of selfish politics and human shortcomings? I would rather prefer wallowing in Sen’s optimism and basic generosity of heart that makes him see in every conflict situation, not destiny, but a failure to see what are perfectly resolvable human issues. Not all problems translate to a zero-sum game. They can also be more akin to “the game theory” in which each party’s gain is consequent upon the gains of the other parties as well. Or to put it another way, a little sacrifice from one in the anticipation that his or her sacrifice will be reciprocated by the other parties in the game, will result in a cycle of goodwill ending in gain by every party, or in ordinary parlance – a win-win situation.

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