The intriguing nature of identity continues to fascinate scholars and politicians alike even to this day. Endless reams of newsprint spent on the subject as well as endless series of scholarships on it haven’t been able to bring about a conclusive answer to what must be one of the most vexing problems of the modern world. If it were not so, there would be no need and reason why new thoughts and books on the subject still has a huge market. Identity still matters, and sometimes for what are seemingly unintelligible reasons. What then are the deciding factors of identity? Is it language, race, ethnicity, religion, geography, culture? While all of them are constituents, none or any permutation and combination or them, seem to be sufficient explanation for the phenomenon of identity. The matter has never been allowed to be in the back burner for long, and in ethnic cauldrons like the Northeast, especially in the present times, it continues to tick like a time bomb, waiting for the next explosion, each time causing more than anything else, self-injury, if not self-destruction. In Manipur the drama far too often takes a tragic turn. However, amidst this tragic identity politics there are also voices which cry out for the notion of identity as choice. This is especially so amongst many smaller tribes for whom it is a defensive posture to say they would rather not belong to any of the generic classifications, and instead remain as themselves independently. These marginalised communities may in the end turn out to be on the right side of history, for through history, identity has been more volitional than destiny.
Benedict Anderson, in his influential 1983 book “Imagined Communities” has more examples of this paradoxical idea of “choosing or else assigning identity”. The question of the Mulattos, the Caucasian European settlers in Latin America, mostly Spanish and Portuguese, who immediately lost not just their citizenships of their mother countries once they settled in the South American colonies, but also their primary Spanish or Portuguese identities, is one such. Although speaking the languages of their mother countries, belonging to the same race and espousing the same cultures, they were presumed to have acquired a separate identity, and the distinctions came to be rigorously and sometimes brutally maintained. Similarly, it would be worthwhile noting that the war of independence that Americans fought was against their own forefathers. Nearer home, it may be recalled that in 1947 when India was partitioned, some Bihari Muslims opted to migrate to the then East Pakistan, believing idealistically they were choosing to be part of a Muslim nation. They soon found out they had walked into what was primarily a Bengali nation. When the Bangladesh war of independence commenced in 1971, they ended up siding with Pakistan. Today these Bihari Muslims, numbering about 10,000, are an issue for international human rights organisations like the Amnesty International to tackle, having been deprived of even Bangladesh citizenship, although bona fide residents of the country since the time of its birth. We in the Northeast also know of how a conflict between religious and linguistic identities at the time of the Indian partition led to Hindus of Sylhet and Manmesing ending up as a part of East Pakistan.
The point again is, there is nothing intrinsic about identity. It is a matter of choice. Let us then stop all these cock and bull stories of “time immemorial” affiliations and blood brotherhood as the basis of identity. If a genetic mapping of the peoples in the region were to be done, we are sure a lot of the identity myths would be blown apart. Let the separateness of identities remain, but if everybody was open enough, these separateness should be no cause for any fundamental conflicts of interests, as many are making it seem to be. “Identity as a choice”, also offers hope. It means, we can evolve rational choices rather than the blind, impulsive ones adhered to by most. Once the issue is put up on the rational, discursive space, meaningful discourses and negotiations can begin. The postulate of layered identities by Amartya Sen in “Identity and Violence: Illusion of Destiny” says as much. One can be a Meitei, a Manipuri, a Northeasterner, an Indian, an Asian etc, in widening concentric sets, without any one of these components coming into conflict with each other.