Ethnic encapsulation and ethnocentrism : The Manipur experience

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By Rajendra Kshetri

Ethnocentrism as Prelude to the Conflict:
Human beings everywhere live in societies. Some hundreds of thousands years ago, all societies are homogeneous in that the members of such societies were alike in race, religion, culture, language and practised the same custom. The emergence of heterogeneous societies, a few thousand years ago, changed all this. Heterogeneous societies came about as a result of migration and conquest through which came the extensive and continuous contact and interaction between the members of different societies. This in time led to the development of larger socio­political units and multi-group societies. There were conquerors and conquered and rulers and ruled. This is to say that under favourable or unfavourable circumstances, Empires and/or Nation states were formed out of this contact. However it so happened that one or more of the groups thus brought together were less powerful than others in the society and therefore less able to protect themselves. They became minority groups-subject to all sorts of discrimination. ‘Theories were advanced, policies were and are framed to assimilate and/or integrate the minorities. But the problem of minority-majority remained and indeed the minority, in many cases, cling to its former ethnic identity.
In a multi-ethnic society, it is quite natural that differences in value-judgements and perceptions among the members of different ethnic groups exist. Conflicts of both violent and non-violent type between the groups are also bound to occur. The social tensions and conflicts between the ethnic groups may successfully be resolved through various social mechanism evolved by the society. On the other hand the contradictions may be of antagonistic nature that violence appears to be the only way out. And violence, once it erupts, is such that it turns rational man to irrational, logical to illogical, sane to insane and religious man to bigots. As Hannah Arendt puts it, ‘violence begets violence’. Within the larger framework of violence, ethnic violence is singularly peculiar in that ethnic status means more to the warring ethnic groups than any social or economic status. Such a situation is very conducive for ethnocentrism to raise its ugly head. Ethnocentrism involves the belief that one’s own group is culturally “superior” to other groups. Thus, one’s own culture is considered to be radically, morally and culturally of greater value or significance than that of others. Because of greater economic, political or military power one group dominates the other thus giving one or some kind of ‘reality’ to their superiority. It was through this belief of ‘superiority’ that the whole process of hate, distrust and suspicion started taking shape in the minds of members of each ethnic group. It is when ethnocentrism becomes the forte of ethnic resurgence that the social order will change and lawlessness will prevail in the society. The extremists and the opportunists of the worst kind will then take over. The society instead of moving one step forward will be moving two-steps backward. The multi-ethnic society of Manipur is today faced with such a social situation that threatens the very fate of every Manipur-be it Meeteis, Nagas, Kukis, or Pangals.
Need for an Open Pluralistic Society:
How to create unity out of diversity so that the society functions progressively and moves toward its desired goal? This has been and is still the most primary and difficult task of most multi-ethnic societies. What had happened in the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Eastern Europe has proved not only the failure of “official” communism as an effective system of Governance but more importantly that of “assimilation” and “integration” as social ideologies. The Indian experience of assimilation and integration for the last sixty five years is now in its most crucial juncture and it remains to be seen whether or not India will go the erstwhile Soviet way. But the failure or the near-failure to create unity out of diverse ethnic origins and sustain a multi-ethnic society does not necessarily mean that we should go back to the old tribal idea that all members of a society should look alike and think alike. Societies continue to change and new ideologies evolve that go beyond the earlier idea of the homogeneous society as the only good society. What is required is that such multi-ethnic societies should always keep on looking and searching for new ideologies that will enable the minorities to live with their sense of roots intact. In fact, variations in language, culture, religion are not necessarily injurious to the health of a society if attempts are not made and policies not implemented to strip the minorities of their culture and traditions. This means that ethnic minorities are not to be assimilated, converted or integrated. Nor should they be encapsulated in some special status or territory or driven out. Rather it is imperative that the separateness and distinctiveness of each ethnic minority is encouraged and choices and options given to live within the framework of an open pluralistic society; A pluralistic society would offer the people of majority group an escape from homogenized blandness and give each people the right to choose what to retain of their own cultural heritage. In an open pluralistic society, ethnic minority would enter the larger society with their sense of roots consciously aware that they have something unique and valuable to contribute and are indeed contributing something important and positive to the society. Therefore the desired goal of the members of a multi­ethnic society must be to move beyond ethnocentrism and create an open pluralistic society. A society where all human beings belonging to different ethnic origins can flourish and develop. A pluralistic society where ethnic and cultural differences are not stifled for monotonous conformity. A society that would encourage creative diversity and create unity out of diversity.
The 1990s was the most turbulent period in the socio­political history of Manipur. This was the period that challenged the semi-modern and multi-ethnic society of Manipur. This decade will be remembered as one in which the seeds of violence, hatred, distrust, communal virus and ethnocentrism burst forth so widely and extravagantly as to destroy the very existence of civil liberties and social justice. The ethnic violence in Manipur had been gathering for a long time. But it was only when ethnic violence swept nearly every village in Manipur in the early 90s that people did finally understand that we are indeed caught within an ethnic imbroglio. There are still people who refuse to accept the seriousness of the ethnic crisis. A study of a years’s headlines and a running tape of a year’ newscasts would reveal that violence, killing and murder have become endemic, if not a way of life, in Manipur. There would be scarcely any account of friendly acts, negotiations or development activities. What happened? What went wrong in the hitherto tranquil hills and valley of Manipur? What or/and who set Manipur ablaze?
(To be contd)

The article was originally published in TSE.

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