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E-Pao! Essays - Tribalism Or Detribalization

Tribalism Or Detribalization ?

By Laldena Intoate Hmar *



Tribalism has become one of the major ills of a state. It is used as a term of abuse-like 'bourgeois', 'capitalist' or 'communist' are used in other parts of world. In any state with multi-ethnic groups or tribes, inter-tribal relationship has always played an important role in social development. This inter-tribal relationship has assumed different characters. It has sometimes been reduced to tribalism. There is now a tendency even among social scientists to attribute to tribalism everything reactionary that is affecting national unity.

I. Conceptual problem:
What is, after all, tribalism? The term is vague and its current usage embodies a number of separate concepts. One may describe a person as a 'tribalist' if he adheres to the norms of his traditional society, however inappropriate those norms may be, to the modern situation. Others use the term to describe a person who does adapt his behavior to modern situations, yet retains his ethnic loyalty which parallels or transcends loyalty to a state. For instance, a person belonging to a Hmar tribe in Manipur owes his allegiance or loyalty to both of his community and the state of Manipur. But at the same time he is also a member of the wider ethnic-based organization like Hmar Inpui which cuts across the state boundaries and in such cases, his loyalty to his community may sometimes transcend his loyalty to the state of his birth.

In another sense, tribalism may also mean a hostile attitude to members of some other ethnic group. It is a kind of folk expression signifying fears that one group is establishing dominance over others. It may also mean a policy directed to granting certain favors and privileges to persons who belong to the same ethnic group of a leader, and to subsiding development plans for one's own area and so on.

Writing in the American context, Abner Cohen, a noted sociologist, argues that tribalism is the result, not of ethnic groups disengaging themselves from one another after independence, but of increasing interaction between them within the context of the new political situation. It is the outcome, not of conservation, but of a dynamic socio-cultural changes brought about by the new cleavages and new alignments of power within the framework of a new state.

Tribalism is thus to a large extent an urban modern phenomenon, and one which develops with increasing modernization of the tribal economy. According to others, tribalism is a political expression of the form of consciousness characteristic of the stage of class formation. Still some other scholars understand it very broadly, "as an aggregate of surviving archaic institutions and organization associated with the tribal system, like kinship, forms of inheritance, traditional ceremonies and customs, the strength of bonds of blood relationship, a sense of ethnic solidarity and so on".

From the given diversified views, it is quite clear that tribalism which is a complex urban phenomenon, has the following characteristics:
(a) primordial attachment to the basic tribal system--kingship, inheritance, traditional ceremonies and customs which are strong bonds of blood relationship;
(b) ethnic loyalty or ethnic solidarity;
(c) tribal elitist conflict and competition among different ethnic groups within the framework of emerging socio-economic situation.

II. Tribalism and Detribalization:
Surprisingly enough, tribalism emerges in a situation where tribes and tribesman are vanishing. This is to say that tribalism flourishes among the detribalized elites which include politicians, bureaucrats, university and college teachers, doctors, church leaders, wealthy businessmen and contractors. In order to distinguish themselves from the rest of indigenous masses, the elite group tends to uncritically imitate western or modern values and life-styles. It also tends to look with disgust at their established traditional values and life-styles. What is important is a change in their mental outlook. They think and act as other urbanized people do, beginning to impose upon themselves heavy bourgeois values. They are thus placed in a contradictory situation- the simultaneous adaptation to two mentally contrapozing elements: one traditional and the other 'western'.

In a sense, every professional tribal is detribalized as soon as he leaves his tribal area. He begins to live in different kinds of social groupings, earns his livelihood in a different way and come under different authorities. But the question is: is he really free from the influences of his tribes? In this connection, Bluckman argues that urbanization does not necessarily disrupt tribal solidarity. It is true that a person who lands up in a town or city, becomes isolated from his ethnic environment. But it always happens that he continues to live even there with his fellow tribesmen and this can strengthen his communal or tribal ties.

For instance, different tribal groups settle permanently in different parts of Imphal, Calcutta, Delhi, etc. They continue to organize themselves on the basis of tribes or communities. Any ethnic-based political parties or voluntary associations are always the visible operational arms of tribalism. These are again instrumental for the development of ethnic nationality. Very often, the leadership of these ethnic-based parties or associations is drawn from the detribalized elites who at the same time form a part of national elite in a wider context. They identify themselves with the state and its government. Yet, as and when occasion demands, the detribalized elitists use these parties or associations to protect or promote their own communal interests.

This is to say that tribalism is the outcome of conflicts between segments of detribalized elites in a pluralistic society. Because of the very nature of inner contradiction inherent in the class relationship, one ethnic group always tries to dominate or compete with the other tribal group. A cabinet or government, in which one ethnic group is dominant, is suspected to favor that ethnic group at the expense of others. In this way, we see both competition and conflict for power and position among rival ethnic groups.

According to Professor Peter P. Ekeh, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, tribalism is the direct result of the dialectical confrontation between the two publics: primordial public and civic public. The primordial public is closely identified with primordial groupings, sentiments and activities. Whereas the civic public is based on civil structure: the military, the civil service, the police, etc. The leaders of the primordial public should not be confused with ethnic leadership. They want to channelize as great a share of resources from the civic public to individuals or to his community as they can.

The protagonists of tribalism strengthen the positive value of ethnic loyalty. They also create in many cases, cohesive groups much larger than those that existed in pre-colonial era. For instance, the concept of Nagaisation is still an expanding and unending process and some tribes who are more akin to the Kuki-Mizo groups linguistically and culturally, are now in the process of Nagaisation. Among the Kuki-Mizo groups also, the search for more accommodating nomenclature is still on and the options opened for them are: Kukiaisation, Zomiasation and Mizoaisation. The Paites, the Vaipheis, the Zous, and Simtes, etc. tend to opt for Zomi. Whereas the Hmars in and outside Mizoram prefer to identify themselves as Mizo by still retaining their identity as Hmar. Of course, the Gangtes, too, have recently merged with the Mizos.

In the final analysis, tribalism, good or bad, ensures ethnic loyalty which in its turn, provides for the tribal people sense of their identity and values of their culture and tradition. At the same time it also provides a material basis for political and socio-religious separatist movements. Even church organizations are based on tribal lines. The whole tragedy with most of the tribal Christians is that their ethnic loyalty often transcends their commitment to Christianity. In other words, they are tribal first and Christians second. In this way, the process of tribalism and detribalization are dove-tailing in a changing tribal society today.




Prof(Dr). Laldena Intoate Hmar writes regularly to e-pao.net
He can be contacted at laldenas@rediffmail.com

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