The Northeast’s identities’ fluidity

It’s well known that the ethnic cauldron in the Northeast often boils over. This is to be anticipated, after all. This cauldron has always included a mixture of “state-carrying populations” and “non-state” tribesmen, even before the British introduced modern governance. As a consequence, there was a distinct internal conflict, which James C. Scott brilliantly captured in The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. Much of the current ethnic unrest in the area is a result of this internal conflict, sometimes intensifying it.

Tribes living outside of states discover that their statehood is predetermined when they become aware of the existence of contemporary states and start to dream of establishing their own. This unresolved identification issue is the root cause of many of the insurgencies and ethnic conflicts in the area. There are aspects of this in the ongoing ethnic fighting between the Kuki-Zo tribes and Meiteis in Manipur, albeit there were other immediate catalysts as well. The fact that, even after seven months of the crisis, the federal and state governments have not done anything to address it is a different story.

The argument that identity is dynamic and flexible rather than static or fixed is further shown by the drama that is playing out. Like so many other aspects of the human experience, identity is a fabrication. It ultimately comes down to choosing which side of the nationhood and peoplehood narrative to support. Humans have a special capacity to make tales, and people come together to form communities based on these stories, as noted by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and, much earlier, Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities.

After the cognitive revolution that humans are thought to have undergone about 60,000 years ago, this skill emerged. The capacity to produce and comprehend symbols was brought about by specific evolutionary neurological modifications in the human brain circuitry. According to this theory, community identities are formed and internalized by groups of people rather than being innately predetermined. These narratives may, of course, be inclusive or restrictive; identities can grow and change or contract and harden as a result.

The northeastern region’s colonial history began with the 1826 Treaty of Yandabo, which saw the British terminate the Burmese control of Assam by direct action and Manipur through indirect support. Bengal combined with British Assam, which at the time included the whole Northeast except the kingdoms of Tripura and Manipur. Manipur was permitted to continue operating as a protectorate.

The form of British rule in Assam from the outset was a reflection of the difficulties in managing this mixture of non-state and state groups. The British found it considerably simpler to deal with the Assamese plains, where they were already used to a state’s centralized administration. In contrast, the government of a village, tribe, or clan did not extend beyond the enclosed settlements in non-state domains. Thus, the hills around the plains were left unadministered by the British, who established a standard land tax administration there. Following the Government of India Act of 1919, these hills were designated as “excluded” or “partially excluded” districts.

The British evacuated the majority of their regular forces from the region shortly after the Burma catastrophe, further demonstrating the little significance they originally placed on the area. When the Bruce brothers’ tea plantation experiment started to flourish spectacularly in 1835, British commander E R Grange came up with the notion to support the government by organizing a civil militia that was “better armed than the police, but less paid than the military.” This, known as the Cachar Levy, effectively satisfied British demands. The Jorhat Militia was likewise created and amalgamated with the former three years later. Depending on where they were stationed, it acquired distinct names in the years that followed.

These militiamen were offered incentives, one of which was that they would eventually become a fruitful nursery for the Indian Army’s Gurkha Rifles if they performed well. The initial five battalions of this militia dispatched 3,174 troops and twenty-three Indian officers, now called junior commissioned officers, to serve with the Gurkha rifles in Europe during the First World War. Because of its effort, the unit was officially renamed as the Assam Rifles and recognized as a paramilitary force after the conclusion of the war.

The identity turbulence in the Northeast was greatly influenced by the two world wars. The First World War was particularly fascinating because of the divergent manner in which it sparked the construction of identities among the Kuki and Naga tribes. From these tribesmen, the British government organized a Labour Corps to be sent to Europe. The Kukis of Manipur refused to be enrolled, resulting in what British chroniclers refer to as the Kuki Rebellion of 1917–19, while the Nagas complied. Most people believe that the Assam Rifles’ decision to transfer almost all of their combat force to the European war is what caused the delay in putting an end to the uprising. In fact, the uprising came to a stop when the European War finished and the soldiers went home. Still, this marks a significant turning point in the development of a cohesive Kuki identity.

Even more fascinating is the tale of the Naga. Diverse Naga tribesmen found that they were regarded differently from other Indians and as one when they joined the British Labour Corps in Europe. They returned to Nagaland, as noted by author Charles Chasie in his book The Naga Memorandum to the Simon Commission, 1929, with newfound insight from their travels in Europe. They established the Naga Club in Kohima in 1918 with the assistance of understanding British authorities in an effort to promote harmony and camaraderie among the Naga tribes. Their message quickly extended across the governed regions of the Naga hills in Assam and beyond. The memorandum that the visiting Simon Commission received from them in 1929 is now seen as a crucial indicator of the emergence of Naga nationalism. They informed the panel, among other things, that Nagas were not Indians.

This is the identity question’s mystery. Although the issue may seem simple and uncomplicated to some, it has been the source of some of the bloodiest and most terrible battles in recorded history.

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