By: Alex Akhup
This paper is an attempt to evolve an analytical frame of understanding identity and ethnicity in the ‘northeast region’. Positioned from an emic perspective, the article conceptualizes the reality of the Komrem tribes of Manipur vis-à-vis their identity and ethnicity. Manipur is one of the States in ‘northeast region’, with a high degree of cultural diversity. A number of ethnic groups reside in the region giving rise to a unique ethnic socio-political environment rarely witnessed in any other parts of the country. Ethnic Identity political processes become a prominent mobilization strategy for ethnic groups to negotiate for space within a democratic frame. This process manifests itself in self-determination movements expressed in the forms of ‘proto-nationalism’ and ‘infra-nationalism’ vividly observable among tribes in Manipur.
Mr. Alex Akhup is Assistant Professor, Centre for Social Justice and Governance, School of Social Work in the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. His areas of interest are identity, ethnicity and northeast studies.
The ‘Spirit of Northeast’ within the domain of identity is an experience and a celebration of multiple realities, a co-existence of many nations and ethnic groups within specific boundaries of the eight States . The process of Identity and ethnicity is multidimensional and dynamic, requiring problematization at various levels and drawing connections from particular to universal. It arises as a consequence of multi-cultural or multi-people realities which are closely related to the social structure and larger socio-political environment. There are various situations leading to identity and ethnicity which generates dynamic interactions of specific socio-ethnic structures located in a particular geopolitical milieu of State , districts, nations and frontier region, and also in the broader context of hegemonic capitalist globalization. This, as argued by Burman (Burman in Bhadra, 2007, p.11) has had profound impact on the struggle of world democratic forces.
If one looks at the process in totality, there is broad framework of analysis which is required to understand the context objectively. The ‘northeast’ region is culturally and politically distinct from the rest of India because of its multiple ethnic characteristics. This distinction or the difference marks the specific ethnic context which is in constant dynamic process of interaction with external environment; social, economic and political circumstances. This dynamic process is expressed in varied forms of culture drawing an understanding within a framework of boundary definition, extension and resilience (Barth, 1970). There is a tension in the process of self identification (Jenkins, 1997) and change processes.
Identity from the perspective of ethnicity is very often considered as basic ‘givens’ of an identity in social science. This understanding has very often confined the conceptualization along exclusivist approach within primordial school of thought (refer Geertz, 1973), as also seen in ethnonalism processes achored along the colonial constructs in the region. However, Barth regards ethnicity more as a product of interaction, rather than reflecting essential qualities inherent to human groups. Barth’s conceptualization is a major shift from cultural specific studies to a movement focusing on interaction of boundaries. This conceptualization has brought in a shift of paradigm in the understanding of ethnicity and given the concept a political dimension (refers Glazer and Moynihan, 1970, Phadnis, 1989, Doshi, 1990, and Cohen, 1996). Here, there is shift from ‘culture as given’ to ‘permeability of boundary’, ‘ethnic identity as idiosyncratic characteristic’ to ‘ethnicity as political processes’, a circumstantial product and/or instrument.
Identity Process in Manipur – Context and Frame
Manipur is consistently and constantly in the limelight, because of its highly intricate and complex political reality. This vibrant political reality exerts immense pressure on processes of identity formation of various distinct cultural groups in the State which manifests in observable symptoms of assertion and resistance across ethnic groups. The geopolitical reality of the state has had an important bearing on political and social identity configuration. The relationship that exists between state politics, its territorial space and population distribution , defines power and positions, and shape identity of various societies, people and communities.
The state-society consists of differential ethnic groups (arround 36 in number) which have been referred as ‘ethnic groups’ by recent scholars (refer Zehol, 1998). These ethnic groups have a distinct history and culture. The distinctiveness of an ethnic group penetrates down to the village community. These villages have a long history of contact and co-existence with the plain culture under the Meitei Kings . The present political consciousness of tribes or ethnic groups in Manipur is largely an outcome of modern political and social processes generated through the nation-state frame and concomitant system of electoral politics.
The hill areas, constituting five hill districts, are inhabited by ethnic groups categorized as ‘Scheduled Tribes’. Due to the diversity of social structure between tribes expressed in culture and region, politico-administrative categorization hardly permits a common consensual socio-political platform for negotiation. The tribes would rather prefer to be identified by specific cultural and political entities which influence the processes of identity in State. Therefore, ‘tribe’, as political identity and political process is exogenous and thereby very negligible consciousness about the term in the area and perhaps remains only at the level of welfare policies of politico-administrative term used for Government. In the present state of affairs in the State of Manipur, there is no single operational tribal specific policy except for skewed and highly disparate system of political representation in the State.
British administrative agents were the first who made attempts to classify the collective identities in Manipur within linguistic criteria and a politico-administrative frame. Today these exogenous categorizations determines a considerably the forces of identity and ethnicity process. They are being tested at the consciousness level of the people in the present social and political environment. These processes of categorizations have often misperceived and subverted the articulations of a perspective ‘from within’ the community, and are at times operationally coercive, as is seen in case of ‘old kuki’ (Shakespear, 1909, 1912). People rarely identify themselves by such categorizations and in fact it has become detrimental to preservation and creation of cultural and political space for numerically fewer tribes.
The contribution of Christianity to education and development towards an articulation of culturo-political identity especially in the context of tribes has been very significant. This process have enhanced, re-enforced and augmented identity boundary within a ‘Barthian’ frame. Collective identities have become better adept to face other cultures and global forces and negotiate with state systems proactively. Had it not been for Christianity, education and development for multiple ethnic groups in the region would have been significantly different from what is being observed presently. In fact the smaller communities would have been in a critical position as regards their culture and political entity.
The various articulation of self determination of ethnic groups in the State is a socio-political phenomenon of negotiation between ‘culturally indigenous tribes’ . Here, self determination process ‘within the State’ is comparatively different from self determination from ‘without’. The former negotiates within the democratic frame of the country and latter refers to a ‘demand for independent Sovereign State’. The articulation comes from definite experience of common shared culture and history which according to Burman (Burman in Kabui, 1985) are processes of ‘infra-nationalism’ and ‘proto-nationalism’ referring to twin processes of ‘spontaneous internal self identification’ and ‘self identification inspired by educated leaders of the community’. In these processes boundary of common shared culture is defined and intensified by territory and language. They are defined as ‘nationalities’ (B.K. Roy Burman ). ‘Nationalities’ as argued by Burman is understood as having a common or shared cultural identity but not necessarily implicating a demand for an independent sovereign State. They are perceived and also referred to as being ‘ethnically marginalized’ (Oommen, 1997). But one thing is obvious, embedded culturo-political elements forming the core of distinct entities, spread across territorial boundaries explicitly indicates that modern state and nation is not co-terminus in the context of northeast. Therefore formulation of collective identity has to be situated in the context of state and multiple collective identities.
Identity and ethnicity processes in Manipur is complex and challenging yet opens up to a unique and significant opportunity for conceptualizing culture, identity and ethnicity within a volatile political environment. The State is a conglomeration of ‘culturally embedded communities’ (Biswas, 2000) which have distinct boundaries, yet having a mutual relatively inclusive social fabric within the co-existence frame. The existence of multiplicity of ethnic identity in the State represents a microcosm of the larger ‘northeast’ reality from the perspective of a numerically less significant and yet culturally, and politically distinct entities which many a time has not been perceived as significant, consciously or unconsciously within the current policy, politics and academic discourse. In fact the mainstream or dominant discourse on ethnic groups have largely been from the perspective of numerically larger and politically well placed ethnic groups in the State. Therefore the state of ‘non-recognition’ of such entities is often in a disempowered position and thus appropriated by dominant group discourse within the frame of electoral democracy. The strength of discourse or policy of the state on ethnic groups in a democratic system lies on how it handles the space of numerically lesser tribes, which are equally critical for the functioning of a well meaning democratic system.
A Khurpui (Komrem) Narrative
The cultural and historical experience of identity and ethnicity among the tribes of Komrem community exemplify an endogenous self-identification as an ethnic group. The community defines and redefines itself consistently to be able to maintain and adapt its cultural and political reality in the context of the emerging cultural and political environment.
The community proactively defines itself as ‘Komrem’; the ersthwhile ‘composite culturo-political entity’ consisting of the six kindred ethnic groups constitutionally categorized as Aimol, Kom, Kharam, Chiru, Purum and Koireng (also listed in Kom, 1990) in Manipur. However, as response to the emerging socio political context of the state, the Komrem people social organization has given birth to other kindred tribe specific independent social organizations in the recent times. Infact, as it stands today, Komrem as socio-religious or political collective entity confines itself pridominantly to the Kom speaking kindred group. However, the shared cultural and historical experiences of these kindred group is intrinsically connected and extends far into the prehistoric times, usually termed as ‘Khurpui narrative’, origin narrative. The narrative usually sung among all these kindred as:
Kan hongsuk e kan hongsuk, e Khurpui e kan hongsuk e
Khurpui akhan hongsuk e
Thingkalat lhongkatet mhorang e
Heiya he heiya he ya
Heiya he heiya he yo
Koms (collectively) identity self ascription, Kakom inchangna, is derived from this song of history. It is the basic foundation on which community ethnonym, Kakom or Kom got constructed.
Kan hongsuk e kan hongsuk e Khurpui e kahong suk e
Heiya he heiya he
Kan honsuk e kan hongsuk e
Khurpui a kan hongsuk e
KanKom luin abong heiye
KaKom kachang ung a
The history of Komrem ethnicity processes dates back to 1927 under a nomenclature of Sadar Hills Kom Union which was initiated to define and re-enforce a common identity based on cultural and historical experiences. In the post independence era the Union resurrected with a new nomenclature ‘Komrem’; conceptually a configuration of endogenous and exogenous terminology. ‘Kom’ basically is a Meitei word, a derivative of ‘Khurpui’, a kom terminology of the origin theory. ‘Rem’ as in ‘Komrem’ refers to ‘people’. Therefore, Komrems (Koms) identify as ‘Khurmi’s. However, ‘Komrem’ as an ethnonym was given birth during the initial stage of the socio religious movement as commonly accepted nomenclature for peoplehood and mobilization in the context and process of history and has found space in the consciousness of the community and other ethnic groups in the State. The Komrem historical reality implicitly and explicitly is premised on the frame of harmony, co-existence and mutual interactions within the State-community.
An observation of Komrem Identity process reflects that Identity is multidimensional and is closely linked to culture which has its own dynamics and exerts its own political status. For example, documentation of Kom culture by Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts (IGNCA), in collaboration with state institutions and Kom Cultural Society of Khoirentak Village Society is unique and occupies prominent place in defining cultural identity of Kom tribe (Purvottari, 2009). Religion has also emerged as an important factor of identity re-enforcement and change. Infact, Komrem community today is basically Christian in religion. There is direct and mutual interaction between religion and culture of the people which continuously define and redefine the identity of Komrem from ‘socio-religious perspective’ anchored through Kemrem Baptist Church Association (KRBCA) and the Komrem Union (KRU). The role of these emerging institutions in Komrem identity and peoplehood consciousness and organization is prominent. Education and development of Komrem community is definitely a direct contribution of Christianity which has augmented the cultural and political identity of the people.
In the historical and cultural reality of the Komrem community, Identity is more a means towards social and political empowerment. It is a strategy or organization which could be defined as ethnicity, ethnicity understood as political identity assertion within the context of inter-power relations between communities and also between the communities and the State. ‘Komrem Identity’ is therefore basically a political identity. It emerged in 1927 and got further re-enforced in context of asserting better political participation particularly in the then Autonomous District Councils of the state (Kom, 1990) and various other emerging internal and external social and political circumstances that constitute the environment of the community.
Komrem tribes occupy an important geopolitical standpoint in the socio-political and economic cycle of the State of Manipur as one of the indigenous tribes. The political space of their identity remains resilient even in the midst of majority-minority identity politics in the time when larger cultural political identity process become not only a mere pro-active self identification but forceful categorization, or co-option by the larger identity politics. There is, as observed by Burman (Kabui, 1985 and Kamkhenthang, 1988), constant defining and redefining of numerically fewer tribes manifested through oscillation of identity on political consideration. In such reality, ‘Komrem’ identity has been a strategy of cultural and political assertion within the politics of coercive categorization which has resisted and negotiated with the politics of categorization as was observed in the ‘neutral stance’ taken by the community during the ethnic conflict in the 1990s. The community has always demonstrated a cultural and political ability to negotiate in relation to the politics of its immediate larger ethnic group within the paradigm of ‘co-existence’ and ‘peaceful living’ .
Concluding Analysis; A Komrem Perspective
The change processes is all pervasive with inherent tension of interface between emic and etic processes within the socio-politico reality. Identity is thus best understood within the frame of change and recreation, which is greatly influenced by processes of identity politics (especially played along the colonial construct of Naga, Kuki or Meitei dialectics) that at times spirals into acts of hostility as often witnessed in Manipur. The process of political assertion based on identity has tremendous political and social impact on distinct identities of the varied ethnic groups. The impact of the processes related to the interplay of identity politics is felt much more by numerically fewer communities who are also geographically sparsely populated and spread out across revenue districts. Within this reality, the principle of coexistence reveals itself as the determining law of both state and community in which ethnic life worlds (Biswas, 2006), inter and intra community relationships and rational socio-legal governance structure of the state must be premised. This formulation furthers the importance of understanding co-existence as an organic trajectory of the peaceful existence and relationships of all collective identities. Existence and co-existence of every collective identity requires mutual understanding and respect of spatial needs, human security and social development of entwined communities within the socio-legal democratic set up. All are equally important as units of society. It is an issue of grave concern that the status of ‘invisibility’ of culturally indigenous tribes who are numerically fewer in number, are often ‘notionally non-existent’ within the realm of the consciousness of both state and dominant ethnic groups. A democratic system that facilitates, provides and promote a responsive public space for a respectful articulation of voices of the ‘invisibles’ within the public sphere is imperative. The author firmly opines and envisions that the argument articulated in this paper will find a critical space in the emerging political and reality discourse of the northeast region.
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