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Once More on Ethnicity and the North-east

Given the extent to which ethnicity has come to be regarded as a reliable index of group-identity in India's north-east, and in the context of heedless assertions of cultural uniqueness accompanied by flare-ups of uncontrolled hostility and murderous rage, it is time to closely scrutinise the very concept itself. While ethnicity is an indubitable feature of social life there, it has experienced both deep internal contradictions and active intercourse with the outside world, leading to the absorption of considerable extraneous elements. An ethnic group need not be regarded as an enemy of other such groups or of some larger nationality.


Once More on Ethnicity and the North-east

Hiren Gohain

Given the extent to which ethnicity has come to be regarded as a reliable index of groupidentity in India’s north-east, and in the context of heedless assertions of cultural uniqueness accompanied by flare-ups of uncontrolled hostility and murderous rage, it is time to closely scrutinise the very concept itself. While ethnicity is an indubitable feature of social life there, it has experienced both deep internal contradictions and active intercourse with the outside world, leading to the absorption of considerable extraneous elements. An ethnic group need not be regarded as an enemy of other such groups or of some larger nationality.

Hiren Gohain ( is a distinguished Assamese literary and social critic.

he received wisdom today seems to suggest that, to put it bluntly, the nation has been exposed as a fraud perpetrated by an hegemonic power-bloc of capitalists, their political allies and spokespersons, enterprising intellectuals and writers on an unsuspecting population. It is as much conspiracy as construction. This belated realisation seems to have undermined faith in nationhood to such an extent that ethnicity came to be regarded as a more reliable index of group-identity. Certain problems of the concept were acknowledged, but there was no attempt to address the problems of conceptualisation.

Some 10 years back, driven by distress and horror at the blind mistrust and violence generated by the concept of ethnicity and the confusions spawned in politics by the wide use of the term, I expressed my apprehensions about the validity of the concept and my doubt about some invisible imperialist manipulation behind those events. I fear that my reservations appeared as a breach of academic good manners to certain circles far removed from such scenes of carnage. However, my experience and observations since then of quicksilver permutations and combinations, heedless assertions of cultural uniqueness and flare-ups of uncontrolled hostility and murderous rage, have only deepened my unease. Hence I am taking this opportunity to call for a closer scrutiny of the concept itself.

There is some solid evidence that extraneous forces had a hand in bringing to birth internal divisions of long-standing communities and movements of ethnic self-assertion. The element of artifice and manipulation in recent instances of ethnic assertion would seem to rival those during phases of nation-builiding highlighted by critics of nationalism. The socio-economic context of the country and the world at large has an unquestionable critical role in shaping the content of the concept.

Post-modernism has come to recognise the limits and unstable nature of the categories of bourgeois reason – often subsumed under the Enlightenment. But it has strenuously evaded a dialectical approach to concepts of social science advocated by Marxism. History has borne

ample witness to what post-modernism has laid bare in nationhood – that it is a product of a particular type of discourse, that it conceals under slogans of unity serious divisions and an hegemonic repressive control by class and social elite, and that it fosters an aggressive attitude to “the other”; it constructs in the very process of national self-fashioning. But with all its conventionalism and radical relativism it fails to realise that ethnicity is equally contentious and conflict-ridden, and far from the given fact that social science can take over uncritically.

It has been assumed rather naively, perhaps taking at face value the assertions of the ethnic subject, that the ethnic group is insulated from serious extraneous influence, and that it is marked by homogeneity that overrides all contradictions. Indeed such tensions and conflicts are assumed to be contamination of an original essence, both by ethnic spokespersons and partial scholars. A dialectical approach, on the other hand, grants at the very outset that such internal contradictions, contacts and influences by forces and forms from the outside, are conditions of ethnic constitution. A parallel instance is to be found in discussions of caste, where definition as abstract rigid category or as an immovable part of a stable system tends to freeze the dynamics of caste as a living reality.

Assertions of Ethnicity

At the moment several groups that had since the late middle ages formed part of Assamese society as ethnic castes, more or less loosely integrated, have sought to break away from that identity and are vociferously claiming the status of scheduled tribes. So far they have been fobbed off by the centre with the plea that they do not fulfil such criteria as exclusiveness and isolation.

Undeterred, such groups are reviving and passionately cultivating long-dead and obsolete rites and institutions and

May 24, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


purging themselves more and more of the ancient heritage they share with their neighbours. Some links that have formed over centuries of intercourse are being jettisoned and memories of old conflicts, betrayals and atrocities are being dredged up to bolster the exclusivist identities, not much unlike Hindutva-vadi attempts to settle ancient scores with Muslim rulers. That the common people of such communities live in abject poverty and that in a sense they are under pressure from more advanced neighbours to whom they might lose their land and livelihood is beyond dispute. But the attempt to redress those wrongs with assertions of ethnicity is a recent phenomenon that has followed in the wake of the Assam movement. In fact there is incontrovertible historical evidence that most of such ethnic communities have absorbed racial and cultural elements from outside to such an extent that the claim to pristine ethnic purity must be called a myth.

The second example has elements of farce that an ad hoc approach by an unmindful ruling class to problems of Assam habitually give rise to. When after six years of chronic turmoil and upheaval, arson and bloodshed, raucous Gandhian rhetoric and murderous mass terror on the ground, the Assam Accord was signed in 1985 to bring the anti-foreigner movement to an end, a clause in the accord provided for an undertaking to ensure constitutional safeguards for the Assamese. During the movement, sympathetic observers from outside including the scholarly Myron Weiner, underscored the ethnic status of the native Assamese. On the other hand, leftists trashed such claims with anxiety as opening floodgates of secessionism. However, the consensus at that time was that some concessions could be made to assuage Assamese fears. When the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) came to power however, they appeared to be in no hurry to secure those safeguards, and the centre fell into a profound slumber as far as the demand was concerned. Following the AGP’s second term, which left the Assamese with inconsolable disillusionment, the Congress not only returned to power but won power for a successive second term in the state. In order to placate “ethnic” Assamese sentiments for electoral

Economic & Political Weekly

may 24, 2008

security, chief minister Torun Gogoi revived the idea of constitutional safeguards to the relief and acclaim of the chastened Assamese.

However, the centre, doubtless with complicity of the state Congress government, expressed some honest confusion about the term “Assamese” and shot a query to the government that once again led to turmoil and uproar. The query was “Who is an Assamese?”, as though the centre had signed the accord two decades back without a clue on the matter. The chief minister referred the matter to the prestigious Assam Sahitya Sabha (all the ethnic groups in the region have acquired a Sahitya Sabha and a students’ organisation to press ethnic claims), which convened a meeting of all sister Sahitya Sabhas with a view to arriving at a solu-tion.When discussions proved intractable, the Assam Sahitya Sabha unilaterally made a pronouncement that was at once rejected vehemently by the other Sahitya Sabhas.The Assamese were willing enough to accommodate indigenous tribal groups among themselves, but denied the privilege to immigrant Muslims who arrived on the scene roughly one hundred years ago. But the tribals were no longer keen to join the Assamese mainstream; they wished to preserve their separate identity. Disputes on semantics are likely to deprive the people of the state of a much-needed buffer against big-nation chauvinists.

Strife among Bodo Factions

The two examples above should provide sufficient proof that ethnicity cannot be determined by essentialist criteria. Indeed such criteria being out of step with actual phenomena force on their proponents unconscious duplicity, and even a fascist mindset bending real circumstances to such theoretical criteria. On the other hand, post-modernist emphasis on discursive construction to the neglect of the socio-political contexts of such social categories has also tended to mask contemporary reality, to say nothing of treating ethnicity as an unproblematic residuum. Both these approaches may in fact be placed against a background of ideological stasis where both theory and practice are divorced from goals of social transformation.

During the better part of April this year there has been a tremendous row between two Bodo factions in the Bodo Territorial Autonomous District (BTAD) threatening to tear it apart. The latter came into existence as an autonomous region within Assam as a result of the amendment of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution replacing the earlier Bodo Autonomous Council (BAC), which had no such sanction and functioned at the pleasure of the state government. The centre’s role has given its rulers greater independence from state control but made them more dependent on the centre.

The BTAD is now being administered by the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), led largely by former cadres of the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) a dreaded ruthless militant group that once blazed its name with massacres and acts of extreme terror. It is opposed by the Bodo Progressive People’s Front (BPPF), composed of veterans of the political movement for Bodoland and the All Bodo Students’ Union (ABSU), which has been instrumental in putting in Parliament a couple of Bodo leaders. Both are in tactical alliance with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), an armed outfit of militants who demand outright secession from India but are at present sheltered under a ceasefire in designated camps to the dismay of the BLT.

The formation of the BTAD has stirred unrest among another and different indigenous ethnic group who feel cheated out of their political rights in their ancestral territory in a dispensation which grants majority status to the Bodos. In their outrage and disgust they are raising a clamour for a Kamtapuri state comprising of areas carved out of western Assam and north Bengal. So far they have indulged only in sporadic acts of violence, which are perceived as indispensable in compelling the attention of the centre.

The current explosions of violence in BTAD are of a different order as these involve clashes between two Bodo groups. Several people have lost their lives in armed clashes between them, in raids and ambushes carried out by members of one group against unarmed and unsuspecting members of the other. Often innocent villagers who are ingnorant of the niceties


of political difference between the two groups, and who have simply switched their traditional communal solidarity to either of the groups were mobilised in support by the two groups in large numbers and casualties have been high among them. A typical incident shown on a regional TV channel had a young mother throwing herself on the lifeless body of her son and shrieking in agony and grief. Because of the unwritten rule that has come into force, non-Bodos dare not take any active interest in settling such intragroup conflicts for fear of grim social boycott and/or armed reprisal.

Internal Hostilities

The BPF/BLT-led administration of the BTAD has been accused by their critics and political opponents of rampant corruption and nepotism. The wedding celebrations of the BPF chief has been pointed out as a flagrant exhibition of ill-gotten wealth wasted on private aggrandisement. To put the record straight, the BPF administration has made investments in education and communications, and connectivity has been improved to some extent. But the notion of abstract ethnic identity has driven grandiose projects to the neglect of basic livelihood needs of the common Bodos, as in the “War Memorial” in Kokrajhar dedicated to the martyrs of the Bodo movement to be built at an expense of Rs 7 crore. It seems that the Bodo leaders are following the same trajectory as the AGP leaders after the Assam movement. Ethnicity thus has become separated from the democratic aspirations of the masses who were mobilised in its support.

It has been whispered that the present clashes have been started in order to liquidate the NDFB which has a more radical agenda, including secession from India, but is said to be more inclined towards basic popular demands. The BPF has formed an alliance with the Congress in Assam and has two members – Pramila Rani Brahma and Chandan Brahma – in the state cabinet. It has been suggested that the Congress government is conniving at the campaign against the radical and secessionist politics of the NDFB. The methods of such campaign have been tested in the struggles of the past through which the present leadership has come to power.

These political torrents have spilled over into the cultural field, thanks to the close links between ethnic politics and ethnic cultural self-assertion. The prestigiuous Bodo Sahitya Sabha, two of whose presidents had succumbed to deadly attacks by “miscreants” in the last 20 years, recently held its annual session amidst colourful fanfare and tremendous popular enthusiasm. It was expected to attain new heights, but it ended in abrupt, unexpected and unprecedented confusion when an armed group raided delegates’ camps and forced the delegates to disperse, allegedly in order to prevent the election to the office of the president of a candidate who is unlikely to dance to the tune of the group in control of the BTAD.

International Conference on

Better Business Practices for Sustainable Social Change
Call for papers

Justice K.S. Hegde Institute of Management, Nitte, in association with the School of Social Policy and Practice, University of Pennsylvania, USA, announces the International Conference on Better Business Practices for Sustainable Social Change to be held on 29-30 December, 2008 at Nitte, Karnataka, India. The conference aims at bringing together academicians, business leaders, policymakers and other stakeholders from around the world to deliberate on the following themes:

  • Globalization and Corporate Social Responsibilities
  • State Influences on Corporate Policies
  • Sustainable Development and Social Change
  • Social Accounting and Audit
  • Financial Inclusion
  • Ethical Dilemmas in Strategic Business Management
  • Global Ambitions and Local Compulsions.
  • Strategies to Seek Local Acceptance for Mega Business
  • Social Responsibility and Marketing Practices
  • Stakeholder Activism
  • Corporate Governance and Stakeholder Focus
  • Social Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprises
  • Advocacy for Better Business Practices
  • Gender Issues and the Corporate Sector
  • Global Civil Society and Business Policies
  • HR Practices for Sustainable Corporate Growth.
  • Managing Cross-Cultural Conflicts in International Business
  • Corporate-NGO Partnerships
  • Knowledge Management for Sustainable Development
  • Other dimensions
  • Deadline for Submission of Abstracts (with not more than 500 words) is 30th June, 2008 and for submission of completed papers (with not more than 5000 words) is 30th November, 2008.

    For more details please visit or Contact – Prof. Sudhir

    May 24, 2008

    Economic & Political Weekly


    In this transitional phase of social develop ment religion has assumed an overriding importance in social life and group identity. However, the Bodos are now divided among three intransigent religious groups: (1) the followers of the Brahma cult founded by the still revered Kali Charan Brahma, pioneer of the Bodo revival, who emulated revivalist puritan Hindu movements to the extent of prescribing abstention from forbidden meat and spiritous liquor. Notably the earlier phase of Bodo ethnic movement had many leaders from this stream;

    (2) followers of ancient Bodo “Bathou” rites, where rice beer was a holy ingredient, more oriented to celebration of the spirit of community and distant from relatively abstract notions of Godhead, championed by a contemporary of Kali Charan, popularly known as “Pharlang Baba”; (3) a sizeable number of Christan converts educated in missionary schools, who have abandoned traditional Bodo religious beliefs and practices, but are committed to preserving Bodo language and Bodo musical forms.

    They are strong in and around urban areas like Odalguri and Kokrajhar and in NDFB and allied groups. Christian missionaries had during the 1980s and early 1990s been supportive of the Bodo ethnic movement, but retreated when a section of Bodo militants began targeting adivasi immigrants as aliens. Hence political mobilisation intermeshes with political affiliations, but not in a one-to-one manner. All three groups however passionately reject the religious forms, whether orthodox Hindu or Vaishnavite, prevalent among their close neighbours, the Assamese.

    Thus the ethnic community is riven by deep internal divisions and hostilities. Nor is it immune to powerful extraneous influence, whether of the church or the state, or of some other source. Essentialist criteria do not take these material facts into account. Post-modernist approaches either accept ethnicity as an uncritical and untested condition of organised social life,or are so attuned to the kaleidoscopic permutations and combinations, that they do not care to seek norms that can guide political practice. But it seems clear that while ethnicity is an indubitable feature of social life in the north-east, to which any democratic order must accord due recognition, during the course of social development it has experienced both deep internal contradictions and active intercourse with the outside world, leading to absorption of considerable extraneous elements. But the recent trend to regard such propensities as aberrations and abnormalities tends to encourage intolerant and fascist attitudes and an urge to settle all questions of difference with violence. As long as there is room for democratic understanding and participation, an ethnic group need not be regarded as an enemy of other ethnic groups of the same region, or for that matter, of some larger nationality. A contrary attitude makes for both social stagnation and fascist terror.

    Economic & Political Weekly

    may 24, 2008

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