I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
—Song of Myself, Walt Whitman
I’m a human being.
This introduction is absurd for we are all humans. However, when we talk on an issue like that of identity it becomes significant. We identify by our nationalities and religions. We identify by our professions and areas of interest. And it is human nature that we aspire to be in a group, which gives us a sense of purpose and belongingness.
So far, so good. Now, when this concept of identification slides towards the negative coordinates, all hell breaks loose. Consider the politics of identity in and around the Northeast India that is a home to hundreds of ethnic groups. Many of them do not even see eye to eye. On another level, this region is more Southeast Asian than Indian or South Asian in terms of history, race, politics and geography. All these differences are another reason that legitimises identity politics.
Tensions exist in the form of armed conflicts and ethnic rivalries between the groups as well as between the natives and the union of India. In this complex situation, identity becomes even more significant, not necessarily in the articulation of an ethnic group, but how the existence of such thinking affects the politics of the region.
Identity politics is comparatively a new phenomenon that arose in the 20th century, along with the progress of democratic and human rights ideals plus the development of newer approaches in studying gender issues, LGBTQ narratives and racial studies and so on. In the West, its origin has been traced back to the decline of socialism, the end of Cold War and the emergence of people’s movements in the post-colonial period. Ours began after the departure of the British Raj when the aspiring nationalists of present-day mainland India started utilising extra-constitutional measures to build a nation-state.
In social psychology, meanwhile, the concept of group polarisation explains how our decisions become more extreme when we are in a group. In The Law of Group Polarisation, Cass R Sunstein elaborates on the foundation of polarisation that it grows out of extreme times such as a war or a conflict—and that when we spend more time with our group, our assumptions and belief systems develop into a more concrete form and often go overboard—up to the extent of resorting to violence as a means to realise an end of the group.
In this context we can refer to the case of Manipur. Its politically vocal group has three broad types of people: the Nagas, the Kukis and the Meiteis, who are further divided officially into 34 groups. Sometimes critics claim that we are force-fed with a nation and a religion as soon as we are born. In our case, the classification is even more extensive with the additional tags of, amongst others, an ethnic group, indigenity, cultural identity, language and the likes. The existing social and political orders help little in reducing the discord; in fact, the circumstances are becoming severe as evident from the ever-growing and contrasting voices articulated by the Nagas and the Meiteis in the last couple of decades or so.
We have been a witness to such fanaticism in more brutal form on several occasions. In the early Ninenties, we came across the conflict between the Meiteis and Pangals or the Manipuri Muslims. Around the same time, the Nagas had launched an onslaught on the Kukis but we never understood why people would kill each others. Above all these are the ceaseless confrontation between the state and non-state actors. Arguments and counter-arguments from each group had been aplenty but none explained why those arguments cropped up in the first place.
Still one thing is clear: we always like to appropriate an identity that defines us, that makes us a sort of ‘unique’ people. Some of us are Sankritised and others Christianised; and the existing dynamics show why religion should be eliminated and build a rational society but that will be too much when we are still bound invisibly by identity-based politics.
A man, a Meitei, a son, a brother, a Manipuri, a professional, a ‘mountain’ enthusiast, a valley dweller, a blogger, a graphic designer, an adherent of social artistry, a bibliophile, a logophile, a Mongoloid, a black comedy fan, an atheist, a Southeast Asian, an Asian, a believer in radical politics—there are various identities but I identify myself as a human being above anything else. However, the crux of identity politics lies in deliberating on only one of the determinants such as Meitei nationalism or Meitei hegemony and that is the problem. We fail to see the others in ourselves and similarly we see only that particular element in other people.
From the personal to the political, identity politics is perhaps an offshoot from political grievances. There is always a confrontation between a dominant group and a minority; for instance in our case, New Delhi and Manipur or the Hindus and Muslims in the mainland. It is also reactionary because there is always a tendency of challenging the dominant group as one of the primary markers of such a politics. In defiance, we build newer vocabularies like neocolonialism and cultural imperialism.
Nearly 16 years ago, Hindi films were banned in Manipur by non-state actors on the ground of cultural pollution. These are also the same people, who advocate the regaining of sovereignty for the erstwhile kingdom, from historical perspectives rather than based on identity yet it is entirely different story that it has been often reduced to a Meitei-centric movement. Likewise, the Nagas have been articulating its nationalist stance to create Greater Nagalim while the Kukis have developed the concept of ‘Zale’n-gam’ or the Land of Freedom and the identity of Manmasi that comprises the Chin-Kuki-Mizo or Chikumi stock.
In the larger Indian polity, these have been clubbed under the issues of regionalism but that is just for the sake of convenience rather than as a part of political commitment to sort out the problems. (Read Minority Report: Regionalism Is a Lie)
If not for the enmity and violence, identity politics could have been more democratic and egalitarian, particularly in indigenous societies like ours. We have populations that make no difference in the Indian democracy that solely exists on numbers. In the last decadal Census report, the Meiteis were a little more than a million heads while the combination of Kukis and Nagas is even slightly lesser. All of us are like the Pale Blue Dot in the space of India that has a population of more than 1.2 billion.
In the pursuit of building an identity it runs the risk of jeopardising the politics of other identities and we need not look far to understand the danger. The Tangkhuls, who belong to a non-genuine group of Nagas, are believed to have a blood relationship with the Meiteis that trace back to antiquity. However, a Tangkhul leader runs the NSCN-IM faction, which has been spearheading the Naga mobilisation process and taking part in the Indo-Naga political talks. Time will only tell the outcome of the emerging gap between the Meiteis and the Nagas with their overlapping yet exclusive homelands.
I do not endorse the oft-quoted but half-baked ideas of fraternity but this matter is a perfect example of how a loose sense of self-hood can be detrimental to people on both sides of the fence. I would support sorting out the disagreement over power structure and the conflict on interest though nothing is in black and white.
In this kind of situation, the already disjointed politics on the line of one’s identity becomes more incoherent except for mindless polarisation in a group. The gravity of the condition is also so acute that we cannot relate to the identity politics of Dalits, castes and religions in mainland India, to those of our neighbours extending from Burma to Thailand and to those of women’s liberation and LGBTQ elsewhere on the globe, except for expressing solidarity on and off.
No wonder, it is criticised that identity politics drives a wedge between the people, creates a group of oppressed ‘identical’ people and divides the ‘others’. One of the main casualties is unity, which paradoxically is an entity that is needed the most in a region rife with this kind of politics.
Just imagine the confusion in this context when you are asked repeatedly about your nationality. It is almost a regular affair when people in the mainland, when we are in the mainland, ask us about our nationality. Many a times we would retort in jest that we are from Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and what not—and if we are not in a good mood, we would curse the geography-challenged people whose number is little less than one billion. To be clear, as noted above, we look more like Southeast Asian than South Asian. The country has been independent for nearly 69 years but under the veil of its world-famous multiculturalism, the idea of India remains incomplete, fragmented and contested.
The consequence is harsh on us as we become identity-less and nosedive into a sort of crisis, and further aggravated by the force of ethno-nationalism that appears in the form of identity politics. Identity-less; so identity politics—it is a kind of irony, even more so if we consider that the groups are becoming partisan in the name of shared or imagined identities. This unintentionally makes the work for the oppressor easy as well. It is all in front of us to see in a conflict area like ours but common sense, as they say, is rarely common.
In times of hardship it is human nature to help each other and not discriminate against one another in the name of identity that keeps changing every decade and century. A universal politics of ideas can be a worthwhile alternative to that of identity.