Struggling identities

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One area which the state and the civil society have continually neglected in the last few decades is the issue of the struggling identities or the smaller ethnic communities inhabiting the hills of Manipur as against the political assertions of new overarching ethnic formations. The British used the word ‘Old Kuki’ to mean these lesser communities. The number of villages and the community-wise population of these lesser communities have shrunked in recent times and it has reached to such a state that they may soon be categorized as ‘endangered’. Some of these communities had experimented with a new formation or grouping but it fizzled out due to pressure from bigger assertions and for lack of adequate political support structure among other reasons. The pressure is such that they are forced to attach themselves to new identity tags of the bigger ethnic formations. When the village is located in a Naga dominated area they are necessarily attached to the Naga identity and when they are in the Kuki backyard they identify themselves with the Kuki tag. Mention may be made of the Aimol, Koireng, Purum, Kom, Anal, Chothe, Moyon, Monsang, Lamkang and the Maring communities. The Old Kuki tag given by British ethnographers are being challenged by new research. Their argument is that the ‘Old Kuki’ identity was a colonial construct arbitrarily given based on some linguistic affinity and geographical location in their bid to compartmentalize the different tribes for military and administrative strategy rather than on the ‘sameness’ of socio-political and cultural life of the so called “Kuki-Chin” group. Besides the conflicting claims and research findings, one common feature among these communities is the diminishing population of the groups and its associated problems. The tragedy is that, some of these groups are some earliest inhabitants of the state. Eminent Historian Prof Gangumei Kabui had stated in one of his writings, `Some kuki tribes migrated to Manipur Hills in the pre-historic times along with or after the Meitei advent into the Manipur valley`. While not being patronizing we must say that we should not wait for a natural death of these small ethnic communities. It is indeed an alarming situation and these communities are already vanishing and they have started seeking refuge in a few communities with larger population. They are part of the ethnic fabric of this region at the crossroads of South Asia and South East Asia. The rich cultural imprint that these smaller communities have made in the shared historical experience of the state would simply vanish. The culture and lifestyle and the language that they have gifted to the state would also fade away from our memories. It is at this point that, the state and civil society must intervene and act through a consultative process involving leaders of these communities. Every community, big or small, has aspirations of its own and one must respect that. The state and the civil society must provide the necessary support structure to these aspirations so as to rejuvenate the smaller ethnic communities. We are consciously avoiding here the term ‘tribe’ in the discourse so as to start another discourse on the nomenclature given to communities inhabiting the hills of the Northeast region. Another area of concern is the dispute over identity between the Maring and the Khoibu, and the recent dispute sparked off by the clubbing of the Kabui and the Inpui into the Rongmei identity under the re-classification of the Scheduled Tribes in the state. The British ethnographers clubbed these ethnic communities including some others like the Zeme and Liangmei as ‘Kacha Naga’ and in recent times a broader ‘Zeliangrong’ identity was forged to bring together these ethnic communities inhabiting the Tamenglong district and some areas of Assam and Nagaland. These issues also need to be addressed along with the process of bridging the gap between the hill and the valley or among major groupings in the hills.

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