The fluidity of identities in the Northeast

Tribal identities in the Northeast have evolved over time. The British colonial administration left a deep imprint, as did the tribesmen’s experience in the world wars
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The Northeast ethnic cauldron is known for regularly boiling over. This is only to be expected. Long before the arrival of modern administration brought by the British, this cauldron has always had a mix of “state carrying populations” and “non-state” tribesmen. This resulted in a unique internal friction that was so well characterised by James C Scott in his book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Much of the ethnic turmoil the region is witnessing today is a continuation—and sometimes a complication—of this tension within.

As non-state tribesmen wake up to the reality of the modern state and begin aspiring for one for themselves, they find their statehood already defined. Much of the insurgencies in the region, as well as the ethnic rivalries, are consequences of this unsettled question of identity. The current ethnic violence in Manipur between the Kuki-Zo tribes and Meiteis has elements of this, though there were also other immediate triggers. It is another story that the Union and state governments have not done enough to resolve the crisis seven months into it.

Demonstrated in this unfolding drama is also the contention that identity is fluid and dynamic, and not by any means static or fixed. Identity, like so many attributes of the human story, is fiction. It has all to do with choosing to belong to one story or the other of peoplehood and nationhood. Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and, much before him, Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities pointed out that humans have a unique ability to tell stories and, on the basis of these stories, unite to build communities.

This capability came after the cognitive revolution that humans are estimated to have gone through 60,000 years ago. It was brought about by certain evolutionary neurological changes in the human brain circuitry, giving us the ability to create and understand symbols. In this scheme, community identities are not intrinsically determined, but depend on the ideas of community built and internalised by groups of people. These stories can obviously be accommodative or exclusive; identities can accordingly expand and evolve, or narrow down and become more rigid.

The 1826 Treaty of Yandabo—in which the British ended the Burmese occupation of Assam by direct intervention and in Manipur by indirect assistance—marked the start of the colonial era in the northeastern region. British Assam, which then was the entire Northeast except for the kingdoms of Tripura and Manipur, was merged with Bengal. Manipur was allowed to remain a protectorate state.

From the start, the pattern of British administration in Assam reflected the challenges of dealing with this mix of state and non-state communities. The plains of Assam, which were already familiar with the centralised bureaucracy of a state, were much easier for the British to handle. This was unlike the non-state spaces, where the authorities of a village, tribe and clan did not run beyond the closed communities. So the British introduced a normal land revenue administration in the plains, but left the surrounding hills unadministered and, after the Government of India Act of 1919, demarcated them as ‘excluded’ or ‘partially excluded’ areas.

The scant importance the British initially gave the region is also evident from the fact that they withdrew most of their regular troops from there not long after the Burma debacle. In 1835, when the Bruce brothers’ experiment in tea plantations began succeeding phenomenally, British officer E R Grange conceived of the idea of raising a civil militia that was “less paid than the military, better armed than the police” to aid the administration. This, called the Cachar Levy, met the British needs well. Three years later, the Jorhat Militia was also raised and then merged with the former. In the years after, it came to be known by different names depending on where they were posted.

One of the incentives given to these militiamen was that those who performed well would be absorbed in the Indian Army’s Gurkha Rifles; in time, they became a fertile nursery for the latter. During the First World War, the original five battalions of this militia sent a total of 3,174 soldiers and 23 Indian officers (now known as junior commissioned officers) to the Gurkha rifles for duties in Europe. For this contribution, at the end of the war, the unit came to be redesignated formally as a paramilitary force and rechristened as Assam Rifles.

The two world wars had a great impact on the identity churns in the Northeast. The First World War experience was especially interesting for the contrasting ways it initiated identity formation among the Naga and Kuki tribes. The British administration raised a Labour Corps from among these tribesmen to be taken to Europe. While the Nagas cooperated, the Kukis in Manipur refused to be enlisted, leading to what British chroniclers describe as the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-19. The delay in subduing the rebellion is generally attributed to the Assam Rifles sending away practically all its fighting force to the war in Europe. Indeed, the rebellion ended as the war in Europe concluded and the troops returned. Nonetheless, this is an important chapter in the birth of a consolidated Kuki identity.

The Naga story is even more intriguing. Disparate Naga tribesmen who enlisted in the British Labour Corps discovered in Europe that they were treated as one, and differently from other Indians. As Naga author Charles Chasie writes in his book, The Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission, 1929, they returned enlightened by their experience in Europe. With the help of sympathetic British officials, they formed the Naga Club in Kohima in 1918 to work for unity and friendship among the Naga tribes. Their message soon spread to the administered areas of Assam’s Naga hills and beyond in time. In 1929, the memorandum they submitted to the visiting Simon Commission is today considered an important marker of the rise of Naga nationalism. Among other things, they told the commission that Nagas were not Indians.

This is the mystique of the identity question. It may look simple and straightforward to some, but the question has been behind some of the most bitter and bloody conflicts in history.

Pradip Phanjoubam

Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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