Identity conundrum

Relationships between ethnic groups have often met with various setbacks due to distrust…

By Samudra Gupta Kashyap

Often referred to as the anthropologist’s paradise, Northeastern India not only presents a wonderful ethnic and cultural mosaic, but is also a region where numerous ethnic groups have been struggling for their existence and survival.
Prior to the arrival of the British, these groups had largely lived in harmony, though there were occasional conflicts, often devising their own mutual mechanisms of co-existence. The British on their part had pursued a policy of protection of the numerous ethnic tribal communities of the region by way of segregating them – non-interference, exclusion and partial exclusion – from the larger non-tribal plains people. But then, many of these communities have also lost their original ethnic culture due to large-scale conversion to Christianity, a policy that the British rulers had clearly patronised.
Scholars have often referred to the presence of several ethnic types in the Northeastern region. These include elements of the Australoids, Mongoloids, different Mediterranean races, Alpines or Armenoids, Indo-Aryans, Irano-Scythians, and even a few strains of Negritos, descendants of all these making this region their home over the past several thousand years.
According to SK Chatterjee, the earliest inhabitants of the North East were the Proto-Australoids, the Khasis being the modern-day descendants of that strain.
Though there is a strong school which subscribes to the Bharatavarsha – ancient or epic India – concept that had covered the Northeastern region too, it is a fact that there was also the mainland reference to the rulers and communities of this region including ancient Kamarupa (present-day Assam) as asura, danava and daitya – all meaning demons.
The various movements among different ethnic communities and groups of the region in the past two hundred years – and more particularly in the post-Independence era – present an interesting case-study for scholars of various fields. While these movements for assertion of their respective identities have different socio-political dimensions and implications, it is a fact that there is a strong underlying struggle for survival too, with some groups many a time taking recourse to armed and separatist movements.
Careful examination reveals an interesting outcome of the British policy of exclusion; while most of the non-tribal plains communities got exposure to education, communication and development, the tribal communities were left behind.
Interestingly, tribal communities in the plains of Assam too suffered from the left-behind syndrome; one possible reason could be that the others had entered the British era through the Ahom administration. This had happened in various fields, including in areas of higher education, and this despite the penetration of missionaries into the interior hill areas, who had taken with them primary education and healthcare.
It is a fact that there has been a lot of tension between the original indigenous/tribal communities of the region and the outsiders and later migrants, with the former putting the entire blame on the latter for all the woes that they face. While there have been tensions between tribals and non-tribals (like in Assam and Manipur), the larger issue is definitely of large-scale immigration.
One must always keep in mind the several successive waves of immigration that began with the annexation of Assam with British India in 1826 which irreversibly changed the demography of certain parts of the region. The most prominent waves of immigration are – (i) Arrival of labourers from Bengal, Bihar, United Provinces, Telangana and the Chotanagpur region from the 1850s onwards to work in tea gardens, (ii) ‘Land-hungry’ Muslim peasants from East Bengal since 1905 when Lord Curzon clubbed Assam and the Northeast with the newly-partitioned Eastern Bengal, (iii) Partition of India in 1947 and inflow of Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist migrants from East Pakistan, and (iv) large-scale influx triggered by the civil war in East Pakistan that led to creation of Bangladesh.
It is a fact that ethnic groups within a given diverse society like the ones in the Northeastern region, may vary from one another in various aspects – population strengths, political inclination and representation, socio-economic status, impact of national policies and so on.
As has been seen, relationships between ethnic groups have often met with various setbacks due to distrust, development disparities, feeling of deprivation, disagreement, social, cultural and economic insecurity, and many other factors. Majority politics, where smaller communities have very insignificant representation in decision-making bodies like State Assemblies and Parliament, too is often a reason. Land and language are two other factors that play a major role in triggering movements for ethnic assertions, as the region has seen in the past several decades.
Though it is not possible in a limited space to delve into all the different ethnic movements in the North East, mention must be made of a few, like the Naga, Ahom, Mizo, Bodo, Rabha, Karbi and Dimasa communities, which have all experienced difficult times during their respective journeys through time.
While Christianity is one factor that brought various warring Naga tribes closer and under one umbrella, mention must be made of the Naga Club, established in 1918 – the first ever forum of different Naga communities which finally emerged as a common political platform – which is considered the foundation of modern Naga society.
Though there is not much scope in this discussion to go into details of the Naga movement for self-assertion and identity, it is a fact that emergence of a common Naga identity was largely due to the combined effect of British administration and conversion. But then, one must underline the various factors that the Naga Club memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 had focused on while asserting the rights of the community – population, education, language, culture, and so on.
Even prior to that, the emergence of Assamese nationalism too had similar roots and reasons – language being the most important driver. Mention must be made of how removal of Assamese and introduction of Bengali for all official purposes in 1837 had triggered a huge movement, one that was also backed by the American Baptist Mission who had published, among others, the first Assamese newspaper, until Assamese was reinstated in its original status in 1873. From that foundation later emerged several other movements, the most important being the Asam Sahitya Sabha which had recently completed one hundred years of its existence. Likewise, formation of the All Assam Ahom Association – later named Ahom Association – in 1893 too had similar reasons and aspirations, especially after the rapid diminishing of the Ahom identity despite 600 years of running a glorious kingdom. While there was a time when it demanded minority status for the Ahoms, the community is currently engaged in getting itself recognised as a Scheduled Tribe.
One must at this juncture recall the name of Bhimbor Deori, a brilliant young man from the Deuri community of Assam who refused the take up a magistrate’s job in 1931 because his community was not duly recognised by the government, and later set up the Assam Backward Plains Tribal League in 1933. He was of the view that the tribal communities of Assam would benefit only if the Deoris, Sonowals, Mataks, Kacharis, Misings, Bodos, Tiwas and Rabhas etc were united on one platform.
While it was because of Deori and his Tribal League’s untiring efforts that the government reserved four seats in the Assam Legislative Assembly for tribal communities, thus providing them political space, he was most vocal about rapid shrinking of tribal land due to the arrival of immigrants from then East Bengal under the patronage of then Assam Premier Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadulla, whose Muslim League had headed the first elected government in Assam in 1937.
A strong opponent of Saadulla’s ‘invitation policy to immigrants from East Bengal’, it was at Deori’s insistence that the government was compelled to create “tribal belts and blocks” in Assam. Deori was also one leader who had brought three top leaders —Saadulla, Gopinath Bardoloi and Rev JJM Nichols Roy— of the region together on one platform in Kokrajhar in 1938 in the interest of the tribal communities.
That language plays a very significant role in determining the course of ethnic assertions can be best illustrated by the example of Meghalaya. Apart from other reasons, one major incident that had triggered the movement for creation of a separate state for the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo communities was a decision of the Assam Legislative Assembly in 1960 declaring Assamese as Official Language of the state.
Though the Assam Official Language Act, 1960 had also provided for use of English “so long as the use thereof is permissible under Article 343 of the Constitution of India” for official purposes, though it also provided for “any other language” in Autonomous Districts/Regions, and though Bengali was specifically mentioned for use in Cachar (the Barak Valley), and though the rights of various linguistic groups were categorically protected, it could not prevent the division of Assam on ethnic lines in the next two decades.
This led to the birth of the All Party Hill Leaders’ Conference, which built up a movement for a separate state for comprising the two districts – United Khasi and Jaintia Hills, and Garo Hills – one that took more than a decade to become a reality. Issues that the APHLC had flagged off while opposing the Assam Official Language Act, 1960 included the following – (i) It would place the Assamese in a more dominant position and lead to assimilation of all Hill people into the Assamese community, (ii) It would overburden the Hill people with so many languages, (iii) It would adversely affect employment prospects of the Hill tribes, (iv) It was not justified because Assamese was not mother tongue of more than 50 per cent of the state’s population, (v) It had already caused discord among different communities, (vi) It would cause more chaos and insecurity, which would be catastrophic in view of the Chinese aggression, and (vii) Assam being a mini-India, the proper official language should be Hindi, with continuation of English till the people were ready to adopt Hindi.
The Bodo movement, also in Assam, on the other hand dates back to 1967 when the Plains Tribal Council of Assam, mostly dominated by and representing the Bodo community, raised the demand for creation of a separate Udayachal state. While Udayachal is now a forgotten chapter, the “Divide Assam fifty-fifty” movement launched by the All Bodo Students’ Union in 1986 continues even today despite creation of a separate territorial council for the community and extending certain provisions of the Sixth Schedule – erstwhile applicable only to the hill tribes of the Northeast – covering the Bodos. In this case, land and language were two important factors, while political space too emerged as a significant driver.
While how and why the Bodo movement had turned violent is another subject of research, the main provisions of the Memorandum of Settlement of the Bodo movement relate “to creation of the BTC, an autonomous self-governing body within the state of Assam and under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India to fulfill economic, educational and linguistic aspirations, socio-cultural and ethnic identity of the Bodos; and to speed up the infrastructure development in BTC area.” The Bodo People’s Front today shares power in the Assam government.
While acknowledging that it is not possible to incorporate all the ethnic movements in the region, at close, one is tempted to quote from what Prof Sanjib Baruah had written in EPW in 1989, “The successful political incorporation of dissenting minority groups by giving them significant levels of political autonomy and a major say in determining public policy is an important part of the Indian record in the Northeast.”
(Samudra Gupta Kashyap is a journalist and author based in Guwahati)

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