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The Dialogue of Multiple Identities

Ananya S Guha *

A map of the North East States showing Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur
A map of the North East States showing Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur



Indian sub nationalism gained momentum in the 1980s with cries for seccessionism in states such as those in North East India and Punjab. However, even before such a call in North East India the Anna DMK in Tamilnadu raised slogans for a separate country. So, contrary to popular thinking the demand for seccessionism actually started in South India.

Such separatism openly preached a separate country. Somewhere in our discourse we have to make a clear distinction between separatism that is separate identities and a volatile preaching of nationhood.

Pandit Nehru in his infinite wisdom took the Indian people for granted when he divided the states on a linguistic basis, not being able to foresee the linguistic chauvinism of each and every state of the country. His unity in diversity precept was rather idealistic and not on the basis of political, administrative or geographical divisions and entities.

He had a very holistic vision of India which was rather idealistic and which was staggering under the new found nationalism and reprieve from obdurate British rule. This lasted for a while though also the strains and elements of discord were very prevalent in taunting generalization such as: Madrassi, Tribal, Sardarji, Asami etc. These clearly indicated that seeds of separatism were already fomenting, with each state clinging to its own cultural and ethnic identity.

Soon, there was an outburst of trouble in the North East with Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and later on Assam and Meghalaya having militant outfits which demanded separate nationalities. Tripura also came into the picture in the 1980s. It was discovered as studies were done that Nagaland, Manipur and even Meghalaya which were protected by British hegemony had separate kingdoms of their own and did not as such acede to the Indian Union, by popular consent.

A proper historical perspective is needed to study the forces of nationalism and subnationalism in North East India. The Punjab imbroglios in the 1980s and 1990s have also a historical background in the sense that the Sikhs had a historical militancy of fighting Moghul rule. But unlike the states of North East India, Punjab did not suffer from socio-economic crises. The Mizoram insurgency for example had its genesis in a famine.

However, what critics fail to note is that in certain communities of North East India such as the Bodos, Karbis, and Cacharis of Assam as well as the Garos of Meghalaya their demand is for separate state based on language and ethnicity, and not for a separate country. Similar is the case with the Gorkha districts of West Bengal and a similar sentiment had arisen in North, Central and East India leading to the formation of states such as Uttarakhand, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand.

Another interesting aspect is that now even within the same linguistic community there is a demand for a separate state such as the Telengana Movement in Andhra Pradesh.

Added to this in the Indian Polity; there was a rapid decentralization of power in the states with the mushrooming of regional political parties and coalition governments. The same happened at the centre. This dualism of centrifugal forces as against centripetal forces has dominated Indian political situation for almost three decades now. This is separatism of local politics.

So, separatism at the community level, separatism at the political level and separatism leading to seccessionism have been dominating the body politic of India since the last three decades or so. Ethnic identities are one thing, so is parochialism at its extreme. However, the forces of insurgency demanding a separate country have to be looked into considering historical evidence and its backdrop.

So the whole question is whether regionalism, separatism and sub nationalism go hand in hand? Will it be at the cost of the dimensions of unity, or will they co-exist? Writing in the 1980s in the Sunday Magazine, Calcutta Amartya Sen once said that he never for one believes that the Indian Nation and its unity will ever be at stake. In his recent book on Identities and Ethnicity the Nobel Laureate looks at issues of identity in much broader senses than local identities or ethnic identities.

He categorically feels that one individual has many identities, or could have many identities operating at the same time, such as belonging to a religion, club or an alumni association. But when people limit identity only to ethnicity then the danger of a single identity comes into awakening, where the other identities are lost in hidden and ecesoteric dimensions. Once this happens then he feels there is illogic and irrationality.

So the biggest question in India is whether we can maintain our multiple identities at tandem, without them coming into seeming conflict with each other threatening the fabric of the country. This is an argument with Sen builds in his classic “The Argumentative Indian” The Argumentative Indian is the historical and ahistorical Indian, the Indian maintaining and upholdng many identities and a conscience, not so much a consciousness of being an Indian.

For understanding this we will also have to be ahistorical and accept the fact that after British rule certain areas of the country became a part of it because of geographical contiguity and a cultural diversity which infused itself into already existing pluralistic cultures. Some were more diverse than the rest undoubtedly but it is exactly this diversity which attracted the realms of a pluralistic Indian culture, though retaining vestiges of sub nationalism.

The argument that is India can only subsist at multiple levels of identity and the forces of secularism, a term often misused for what some people call pseudo secularism. In such a situation it is debatable as to who the secularist is and, who the pseudo secularist. Even rabid rightists in the Indian Polity claim to be secularists but they are at the extreme of ahistorical sense which blinds their entire notion and historical dimensions of the Indian reality.

So, fragmentation and divisiveness in the Indian body politic and ethos can be combated if multiple loyalties and identities are maintained in harmony and not in perpetual warring conflict with each other. Can we do it?


* Ananya S Guha wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao (English Edition)
The writer is OSD, IGNOU Institute for Vocational Education & Training (IIVET), Shillong
This article was posted on October 20, 2012.



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