Theme of the Workshop

‘Performing Identity: Ethnicity and Ethno-nationalism in the South-east Asian Borderland Region of North-east India ’

Recent years have seen many movements for assertion of identities and claims for indigenous rights amongst several ethnic groups in North-east India. While these can be seen as processes of coming of age of these groups, they cannot be understood independently from the role of the state, as many of these movements have been shaped by factors like state intervention and insensitive government policies. Other processes like religious conversion and change of lifestyle and worldview brought about by changes in agro-ecology and increased population pressure have also contributed, while improvements in education, infrastructure, telecommunications and media-accessibility have had a big impact on the levels of awareness and of inter-connectedness between different groups in the region spear-heading movements with similar goals and aspirations for their people. Time and again dissatisfaction with the achievements of popular movements has often lent additional validation for the creation of more radical armed groups with more stringent demands for self-determination .
In the face of the fact that most government responses so far, while they have succeeded in appeasing local aspirations and diffusing tensions for a while, have not been lasting, it is perhaps time to use other perspectives to understand and come to grips with this phenomenon. An attempt at an ‘emic’ understanding of factors affecting religious conversion, land use, and the economic choices made on the basis of relevant state policies could perhaps bring in new ideas about how local communities see state intervention and respond to it. A micro-level analysis based on participant observation and informed by historical analysis of contemporary struggles in North-east India could help to bring out what identity for these ethnic groups could really mean or imply or be a consequence of. Identity assertions as manifested not only in mass uprisings but also in festivals, election campaigns, sports and other public events can be studied.
Furthermore, there is a growing need not just to have a better comparative understanding of the commonalities and differences in ethnic identity assertions in the region, but also to find relevant theoretical perspectives with which to make sense of the situation, where a more ‘grounded’ theory is called for than has been hitherto applied. Concepts like inventedness of traditions, mimicry of ritual, religious syncretism, objectification of culture, political instrumentalization of ethnicity and wresting of agency by ethnic groups, need to be studied in light of newer categories like ‘hierarchies of modernity’, ‘internal orientalisms’, ‘cultural politics’ and the subalterity of ethnic groups. Furthermore, the performative aspects of these phenomena as well as methods of doing more engaged and more collaborative ethnography (resulting in greater community participation in research) also need to be investigated.