Did the British really invent Northeastern tribes?

Philippe Ramirez, CNRS Paris

Reconsidering seriously the making of ethnic identities in North-east India has become an urgent task. The comfortable attribution of all collective identities to the "colonial project" is not more useful in this complex region than in others. And beyond, NE India poses major questions to the current anthropological and sociological debates about the ontology of social groups. In this respect, the performance, which I think should be taken in the most general acception, is central indeed in the making, sometimes perharps in the invention of collective identities. Contributions to this workshop show how many recent works take the challenge of plunging into the intricacy of multi-layered and evolving assemblages which characterize Northeast Indian society.

My own contribution will, I hope, follow the same path. I will shortly list what I consider to be the major questions posed to the study of social identity in North-east India, through the presentation of data, collected mostly from the Assam-Meghalaya borderland. These concern transethnic phenomena. The methodological asset of observations focused on cultural and ethnic borders, rather than centers, have proven critical in the uncovering of some little known identity processes.