‘Civilised’ or ‘Backward’: The Creation of the Scheduled Tribe Category ‘Memba’ and its Effects on Local Identities in Arunachal Pradesh, India

Kerstin Grothmann, Humboldt University, Berlin

This paper discusses the creation of the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category ‘Memba’ by the Indian administration and how for the Memba settling in the Menchukha Valley (West Siang District Arunachal Pradesh) this category has led to the development of a new tribal group identity.
Different ethnic groups of the Buddhist population settling south of the Indian-Chinese border (McMahon Line) in the districts West Siang and Upper Siang of central Arunachal Pradesh have been classified by the Indian administration as ST ‘Memba.’ The source of this classification is the uncritical use of the generic Tibetan term ‘Mönpa’ or its phonetic variant ‘Memba’ by early explorers serving the British Administration to report about Tibetan-speaking Buddhist groups they had come in contact with. Tibetan elites applied this name - associated with a notion of being non-Buddhist or less civilised - to different groups living on the South-eastern slopes of the Himalaya. Later this highly pejorative term was adopted by the Indian administration to subsume these communities and classify them as ST ‘Memba’ in order to incorporate them into the modern Indian state.
I argue that the Scheduled Tribe Category ‘Memba’ is an artificial creation that the groups labeled as Memba cannot identify with and therefore has been rejected among them. Reasons for this are that this externally generated classification has paid little attention to the self-perception and self-presentation of these different groups and further subsumes them under a pejorative term that is perceived as degradation and therefore has led to subtle anti-government resentments.

Taking allegedly shared cultural features without any further sufficient field studies and critical and comparative analysis of the available data, anthropological descriptions or encyclopaedia entries published in India have produced generalising and incorrect assertions about the Memba, which has led to much confusion and mistaken identities and needs to be reassessed.

Based upon their local tradition of origin, migration and language the paper will first introduce the different Buddhist societies in Menchukha and Tuting, specifically the Memba of Menchukha. A brief account of the historical events connected with the arrival of the Indian administration in Menchukha Valley in the early 1950s will illustrate the creation of the ST category ‘Memba’. By comparing assertions the Memba make about their identity with the meaning and connotation the term Mönpa carries, the paper will demonstrate that an uncritical use of this generic term as such and as a name for a ST category is problematic and can evoke rejection and resentments.

The paper draws on ethnographic material collected among the Memba of Menchukha (West Siang District) and the Memba of Tuting (Upper Siang District) during several field trips to the region between 2007 and 2009, and further includes administrative documents of the British-Indian and (post-independence) Indian administration available at the regional archive of the Directorate of Research Arunachal Pradesh.