Journey Through Time: A Sense of Belonging & the Curse of Utilitarianism


The current crises we face in India on matters of identity, of governance and conflict resolution for example the very term, north east, Dr Kusum Gopal argues is a consequence of the divisive colonial policies and erroneous historical interpretations which continue to exert a profound, albeit injurious influence on  our sense of identity, of personhood, indeed, of governance.  Some excerpts:

Dr Gopal, at a recent gathering you stated unequivocally that there remain erroneous understandings that we, in the Indian Subcontinent take for granted and do not question, the primary cause of moral and social dislocation leading to poor governance, unabated violence and the deep unhappiness we witness today. What exactly do you mean? Let’s begin this discussion this with reference to the north east the terms tribal and ethnic identities, and then, to the legacy of colonial subjugation, shall we?

Yes, certainly. Confining these regions by the label north-east, I would include here, Kashmir, is terribly restrictive as the landscapes of human endeavour extend far beyond these geographies; it includes Tibet as also what was deemed as the “Frontier Areas”, Myanmar’s geographic composition today where the Chin, the Shan, the Kachin and the Karenni reside—these erring ethnic labels must be also be re-evaluated; they seriously undermine historical truths: all of which needs to be corrected urgently for successful conflict resolution. Doubtless, the Indian Subcontinent has for millennia encouraged the free and open frontier traditions of hospitality and conviviality permitting the movement of peoples, trade and new communities to coexist here. Integral to open frontier traditions has been a ready acceptance to forge voluntarily kinship relations between different groups and individuals through formal adoption of one by the other mainly governed by traditional customs such as the offer of sanctuary, intermarriage, exchange of material goods made explicit through ceremonial rituals of mutual hospitality which extended all through these territories. With diverse settlements of peoples, a pluralistic culture emerged in the Brahmaputra valley and the terrains beyond; communities treating with reverence its bio-diversity resulting in a symbiosis between farmers and the pastoral matrix of complementary communities came to exist at various levels. Let’s remember all this changed with the seizure of the Goalpara Deewani from the Mughal Emperor in 1765 following which the thanas of Dhubri, Nageswari, Goalpara and Karaibari were created under a special police /administrative unit called “North-Eastern Parts of Rangpur. The region came to be officially demarcated as the north-east comprising the states of Assam, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh. Now Sikkim has been added but bear in mind, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and former Burma region have participated and contributed to shared traditions derived from ancient principles of moral authority and customary etiquette specific to the Subcontinent. 

Unlike the previous residents and migrant communities– the English never accepted nor, sought to learn from the locals nor, indeed, attempt to integrate: it was always the principium divisionis relationship where obligatory superiority of the Europeans whilst simultaneously seeking to lalel as inferior and fragment the local populations. Subsequently through  chicanery and deceit, the British for example, dishonoured and exiled the Kachari King, subdued the Ahom King and his vassal, and also seized Burma, banishing the Burmese king, introducing new regulations, violating local forms of governance and customs-all this can be got from history books. It has been well documented as the great betrayal by the Dr Saikia. This region was active in opposing the British and in 1857 joined forces to reinstate the Ahom King and other rulers; also during the the Non Cooperation movement of 1921-23, as Dipti Sarna the historian has noted:  Mungri or Malatimen who laboured in the tea estate in Tezpur championed the Temperance movement inspired many to participate such as Bidyutpruva Devi of Gauhati, Sundari Kakati of Sibsagar, Ratneshheari Phukanani of Lakhimpur to name a few to espouse Non Violence and spin Khadi. Underground organisations have been a tradition here since colonial rule and during the Quit India movement, a considerable number were brutally murdered. Many here note that government must honour these martyrs. What we need to emphasise further is that colonial rule caused considerable uncertainty, fragmented communities controlled by corrupt authoritarianism–  which replaced the egalitarian, sophisticated traditions of this region— for the next hundred and thirty years years leaving behind a bloody separatist legacy. 

We continue to walk catawampus seventy years after Independence: scholarship remains deeply estranged, if not ignorant of our heritage Which is why, I think it is essential we reflect, and challenge the received wisdom; discuss the relevance of the Black Letter Laws and forms of governance today. As a case in point: the specific philosophical traditions and cultural fusion in all spheres of life have been profoundly influenced by the geography and ancient affinity with undivided Indian subcontinent as definitively with Tibet and Burma. Historically it is further recorded that until the disastrous exploitation by the British, this region had profited from the extremely rich encounters and exchange, both contributing to and benefiting from the Silk trade, for example. Scholars further note the etymology of the valuable spice malabathrum in Greek with its origins in Sanskrit as tamalapattram is eulogised in the first century Greek text, Periplus Maris Erytraei as the spice was used by the Greeks to flavour wine and various forms of cuisine. It was collected by the  Sêsatai who can be  identified with Kirradai (Kirata) of Ptolemy. Though malabathrum was a product of this region it was rarely traded by the Sêsatai but its trade was  carried out in the south-western Indian ports of Muziris and Nelkynda. We need to engage with and to encourage rigorous scholarship to study these points of entry as part of resurrecting the histories and cultures of the Subcontinent which informed interpersonal relationships of trust and civic participation between oral and literate cultures. Indeed, the languages, dialects and rituals are an excellent source to discuss the egalitarian cultures which co-existed. What we need to acknowledge further is that this region has remained an integral part of India and contributed to the Subcontinent’s vibrant syncretic heritage.

Could you elaborate on the impropriety of the terms tribe and ethnic groups? 

We know that race constructions or tribe constructions did not originate from the existence of ‘races’ nor, indeed, tribes. These constructions were created through colonialism which institutionalised processes of social division into arbitrary categories fixing racial profiles independent of people’s somatic, cultural, religious belief systems. Disturbing as it is official administrative knowledge of human diversity remains influenced by these descriptions written some over four centuries ago under the aegis of European colonial regimes around the world. Images of origin and purity helped most practically to justify efforts to describe and propagate divisiveness, territorially distinct races; politics of society was determined by the politics of knowledge to be expressed through tribe, ethnic group/race. Indeed, recent ethnographic findings/scientific scholarship dispute the veracity of such descriptions. In India, under colonial rule, for the first time, through random physical measurements, classification and separation of the subject populations using anthropometry, skin colour, racial classifications, and, creation of ethnic identities occurred. H.H. Risley, an influential administrator for example whom we discussed earlier, ludicrously determined that, the social position of the caste varies inversely as the nasal index, that, caste status was fixed, unchangeable; nearly all native practices and customs were reinterpreted distorting indigenous understandings and legislated customary ways of being out of existence. The colonial system supplemented its own formal institutions by manipulating these indigenous social networks in producing and reproducing social and political identities– for ordinary people such official social identities ultimately determined their fate, and they were forced by circumstance into relying upon those identities. We have to reject outright colonial anthropometry —the cephalic index, the bigonial diameter, the bizygomatic diameter as indeed, all the rest. At any rate, there has always been so much assimilation between human populations that it would be meaningless to talk of fixed boundaries between races in most parts of the world. Also, the distribution of hereditary physical traits does not follow clear boundaries. In other words, there is often greater variation within a “racial” group than there is systematic variation between two groups. As geneticists acknowledge with the scientific rejection of Newtonian mechanics and concurring taxonomy… far from splitting up into subspecies which would be definitely adapted to the particular environment in which they had settled, and would differ from each other all the more for being genetically isolated (a frequent occurrence in animal species), the human race is composed of populations whose inheritances are being continually modified by gene exchanges.There are, scientifically, no races that can be demarcated, only cultures that need to be honoured and languages/dialects to be learned.

Why the specific naming of communities as tribes? Please elaborate.

It was more than sheer casuistry motivated by Principium divisionis or Utilitarian thinking -to classify, to separate and fragment interpersonal relations between communities Meitis and Pangalis or Miah Meitei or Muslims had co-existed but were now pitted against each other. The roots of this conflict can be traced to colonial rule– similarly, the Rohingas are being persecuted in Myanmar when earlier Buddhist and all the minorities had co-existed. By designating communities as tribes and giving them tribal identities when they themselves had not prior to colonial rule never ever imagined such identities nor regarded themselves as definitive, distinct, separate ethnic entities. Such understandings remain entrenched on account of Black Letter Law legalising such erroneous, arbitrary impositions: the designations Naga, Mizo, Chin, and Garos etc were thus thrust upon them. As a scholar has observed, Robinson, the surveyor states in the 1850s the people here were divided into numerous communities and this appellation (Naga) entirely unknown to the hill people. To quote from this text–The name is quite foreign to and unrecognised by the Nagas themselves.  A Naga when asked who he is, he generally replies that he is of such and such a village. Like the other communities, here, the Nagas and other communities here were also proficient agriculturists: very sophisticated use of terrace cultivation and variety of crops with canals for irrigation. There were also other marginal groups who contributed such as the Bhotiyas who live in the northern and eastern regions of Nepal, Tibet, (also Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand , Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal), Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura. There is no evidence to show that the people labelled as Nagas used this terms for self identification. Nevertheless these designations were applied assiduously marking out communities as separate and pitted against each other. As Appiah has noted the act of naming specifically when it comes to race and other aspects has the potential to inscribe identity onto the subject and to shape its relationships to self and others. If one reads trawls further through colonial documents, they never cease to amaze. Note this entry in the diary of Lt Bigge who in 1842 following on the steps of W Grange expedition 1839-40 made it an assessment to discover what facets could separate these communities such as the distinctive customs of the several tribes in order to assess potential weaknesses. Lt Bigge also advised a leisurely tour, village to village to document meticulously the Nagas resources –the land, water resources, botanical wealth  to measure what would benefit the British: the tremendous botanical and geological diversity was to be harnessed, landscapes to be peopled and crops that could be cultivated. Noting their conviviality he also advocated, The separation of the Angami Nagas and all inferior tribes from the Nagas of Mannipore would be useful to weaken them. This was how the series of Inner Line Regulations came to be formulated to isolate these communities by giving them new names and creating segregationhill communities were not to be allowed into the plains and not permitted to interact with them and thus all commercial activities of pre-colonial times as well as interpersonal relations and norms of reciprocity was forcibly terminated. These steps were reinforced by neatly bounded and culturally homogeneous tribes and a bureaucratic preoccupation with demarcating, classifying and counting subject populations, as well as by the activities of missionaries and anthropologists. These ethnic inventions emerged through internal struggles over moral economy and political legitimacy tied to the definition of ethnic communities moral ethnicity; external conflicts over differential access to the resources of modernity and economic accumulation or labelled as political tribalism. But is it just that? I would suggest reading Sacrifice of the Human Being by Felix Padelwhere he looks at the British as a tribe imposing themselves on the Konds. 

What about Culture and Christianity?     

The belief in the sacred is very powerful within the immanent traditions of the Subcontinent. Since ancient times these communities practiced polytheism in which cosmological beliefs were refracted among different categories of supernatural beings; it was widely believed that the world was inhabited not only by human beings and animals but also supernatural beings, deities who were vested with powers of eternal life, specialised responsibilities relating to fertility, health, agriculture, weather and well-being of communities and ancestor worship. Vaishnavism had a stronghold in Manipur incorporating indigenous belief systems.  However, all these traditions were seen as pagan and heathen by the Christian missionaries who were assisted by the colonial government. They had mapped the cultures of the local communities by a graded physiological index; they deemed communities as races without religion, total anarchy, a heathen people, a people whose speedy conversion was possible. Thus the Nagas as also the Mizos, Lushais, Garos, Hamr, Chins, Zomis Khasis among all other communities seen as inferior, Mongoloid wild animals, to be civilised like other natives of the Subcontinent. 

The Protestant Baptist missionaries (Catholics were not permitted here by the British until 1947) had been given permission in 1872 to set up their church unleashed their evangelicalism, unrestrained. To begin, they met with phenomenal resistance to the Gospel which took various forms. Many communities felt it violated their sacred, indigenous belief systems. What the church did then was to appropriate local deities. For example, scholars note that the missionaries preached Pathian revered in the Lushai hills was in truth, was none other than Christus Victor; another example was Assamese Sankaradeva was said to be Jesus and stanzas came to be composed in his honour; the belief of life after death was linked to resurrection of Christ etc. Many Nagas and other communities rapidly converted to Christianity. It is interesting to read contemporary accounts, for example, the ethnographer, Fürer-Haimendorf who became extremely critical of colonial rule, particularly of exploitative practices such as commercialism, tribal rehabilitation, and the alienation of tribal land rights, which became visible during the 1930s and 1940s. He further noted that the large-scale aggressive conversions of tribal peoples to Christianity were catastrophic in their effect on the values that had governed tribal cultures for centuries. The eschatological concepts introduced by Christianity had resulted in severe social and mental dislocation as it was intolerant and opposed syncreticism. The converts were banned from participating in Sad/Suk Mynstem festival or Nongkre festival in Meghalaya; similarly in Arunachal—Solung or Mopin and Christian Garos from from Wangle festival dance. None of them could participate in any ceremony or festival of yore. In Arunachal Pradesh, for instance younger tribal members broke with tradition and became abusive and intolerant of non-Christian practices. For example, these younger members ill-treated and taunted older kinsfolk as ‘devil worshippers’ for their belief in the sacred powers of the forest or the capacity of human beings to enter the spirit world and associate with its denizens. There was also considerable anguish at the murder of the Bodo linguist Dr Bineshwar Sinha who was gunned down in Tripura as he favoured the use of  Devanagiri script over the Roman script and here it was alleged that the Baptists were involved, Whatever the religious beliefs we need to acknowledge that morality lies in the total sympathy between cultures, in the desire to extend not only humanitarian rights but also human fulfilment, and, in a real sense, morality derived from a humanitarian commitment to respect and safeguard the genius of diverse people.

Let us now discuss the Colonial legacy and how can it be reversed.     

Yes, we can.. Before we do we need to re-visit Utilitarianism which bestowed guidelines for governance uprooting traditional forms human endeavour. Utilitarianism refers to “the Greatest Happiness Principle” — it seeks to promote the capability of achieving happiness (higher pleasures) for the most amount of people (this is its “extent”), benign paternalism or Pax Brittanica. Interestingly, in The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche attacks Utilitarianism, “on account of its harmful consequences for the exemplary human being.” He noted, Nowadays there is a profoundly erroneous moral doctrine that is celebrated in England: this holds that judgments of “good” and “evil” sum up experiences of what is “expedient” and “inexpedient.” One holds that what is called good preserves the species, while what is called evil harms the species…These historians of morality (mostly Englishman) do not amount to much…. they claimed the consensus of the nations, at least of the tame nations…and then they infer from this that these principles must be unconditionally binding also for you and me….Ultimately they all want English morality to prevail: inasmuch as mankind, or “the general utility,” or “the happiness of the greatest number”…. No! How the happiness of England would best be served; they would like with all their might to prove to themselves that to strive after English happiness, I mean after comfort and fashion…. indeed that all virtue there has ever been on earth has consisted in just such a striving…” 

Ethnicity as it was understood in Euro American terms came to be wrongly applied here. British policy deemed that every African or Indian belonged to a tribe or caste just as every European belonged to a nation. Tribes (and castes) became an invented concept: fixed in perpetuity, autonomous, separate, cultural units opposed to each other and defined thus: possessing a common language, a single social system, and an established customary law, incessantly in conflict with other tribes. As Appiah has observed brilliantly that once labels are applied to people, ideas about people are made to fit the label with profound social and psychological consequences. Under colonial rule, these labels also operated to mould identity, the process through which communities were forced to accept such designations which had significant consequences/ similarly in East Africa as also elsewhere, Sudan for example tribal designations came to be applied. For example, in Tanzania Dodoma the Wagogo designation itself is a relatively modern one. Until 1927, British colonial officers doubted any tribal authority in central Tanganyika, whether any outline of the composition of the Gogo tribe or any exposition of its original constitution was possible but, nevertheless, codified Laws to this effect. Prior to colonisation among the people there was never an indigenous concept of race, tribe other than a perception of a common language and culture. Social interactions between individual and within communities of people did not recognise tribe, but rather, strangers identified each other as belonging to clans, mbeyu and not their tribe, kabila.  The Wagogo identify themselves as Wanyambwa, Wanya-Ugogo, or Wanya-Takama, Wetumba and so forth in accordance with the area they live in the main form of personal identification is based on their particular location and, thus, dialectical differences in the choice of words used needs to be acknowledged for unambiguous communication. Thus, for example there are broadly two kinds of Kigogo Wanyambwa spoken in Bahi, Kitinku and Manyoni and, Nyanugogo spoken in  Mpwapwa and Dodoma. And, this is important to note: for example Mbukwenyi is a common greeting for Good morning the reply in Wanyambwa is tzaugono wenyu and, in Nyanugogo, it is mbukwa, AA welaa or kumekucha. In this former Assam region similarly dialects and local customs clearly indicate its widespread usage and we need to respect and honour all languages and dialects as these are integral to culture, personhood and emotional well-being.
Thus by obliterating local forms of governance and customary traditions be it labour or land cultivation serious distortions have been institutionalised bequeathing an agonising legacy. Note for example, the viability of pre-colonial concept of labour, known by different names such as khel system in Ahom kingdom and lalup in Manipur kingdom. In the khel and lalup system, there is no dichotomy between productive and unproductive economic activities. The tributary system intertwined ties of semi-feudal obligation and allegiances between the Raja and his subjects—there was always plenty of food and reciprocal activities that communities shared. Now we are left with fragmented and disconnected communities confined by tribal designations and given schedule caste/ tribe or criminal identities. Among these are alien forms of governance that divide people against one another in contests of power that are becoming increasingly dysfunctional and oppressive. We must confront such specious understandings that has knotted us, redress this pernicious legacy –overturn it in order to advance human prosperity and well-being in this region: we can no longer disregard such misrepresentations.

Territorial claims are tearing the framework of the region here- Could you explain why to our readers?

Yes, prior to colonialism, in the Subcontinent the sentiment was we belong to the land! Here  it was to the specific community thus there was no conflict. As L Lam Khan Piang scholarship also affirms such overlapping territorial claims have their roots in colonial construction of tribe and ethnic groups. Land ownership was traditionally attached to the entire village community. Thus there was no conflict as resources were shared.  And, as Capt. TH Lewin  the surveyor(quoted by the Robert Ralte) observed on the Mizos- Among the hill tribes we find an actual existing system in practical working, which might well be classes among the vision of Utopian philosophy. Their mode of government may be described as a democracy tempered by disposition. The right of rule is hereditary, that is, only men descended from a certain family can be chief. It does not, however, follow that all member of this ruling race should be chiefs; on the contrary, it is only those who are special gifted and endowed with the capacity of drawing men to them who become so. A chief?s power is measure by the number of his fellows, and as the people who follow him are perfect free agents. The same observations could be applied to all the communities here. This was to change adversely with the implementation of the Inner Line Regulations and land appropriations accompanied by draconian measures by the colonial state.

How can all this change and what steps should we take now to end this violence and anguish.

Unfortunately the colonial administrative infrastructure is very much in place. And, we need to keep our borders secure. It is laudatory that after 138 years, the government now has in 2011, removed the permit system on an experimental basis for a year from all Inner Line areas except Arunachal Pradesh.  What needs to change is the way tribes have been construed by colonial infrastructure, the source of current bureaucratic violence. We must seek to resuscitate pre-colonial understandings in this region once again for a harmonious existence. Bear in mind that bureaucracy was created as a social monolith to serve the colonial regime; it acted mainly on its own impulses free from any form of control. It has became a political organization without a legitimate constituency, unrepresentative and unresponsive to the needs of the people drawing upon pervasive patron-client relations; such personalistic, opportunistic networks remain fundamental to state-society linkages penetrating institutions of civil society and liberal democracy, undermining programmes of socio-economic and political reform. Certainly, by creating livelihoods and assisting in environmentally  protective industries  much prosperity can be brought to this region  promoting village and community linkages  as  units, as points of entry for discussions and reform. 

Indeed, there is a strong call in some universities for decolonisation of education. It is important to recognise that we need to re-examine all the philological scholarship of colonial administrators beginning with William Jones mainly, to re-evaluate once again this vast corpus of literature that came to be codified by the Black Letter Law. While excellent critiques exist, and such erudition has been published, academics have been remiss, indeed deeply careless in not making available such findings to the public as also, indeed with the government and its institutions. 

We need to educate through public discussions to address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism. Critically, to learn about and emphasise the syncretic cultures that enveloped the Subcontinent for millennia which encouraged rich cultures of tolerance allowing diverse peoples to intermarry, integrate and philosophies of being to co-exist!  In doing so, there is a need to deconstruct the logic of prejudices that are detrimental to mutual understanding – and this can be done through street theatre, music shows and dance. Also, scientific, philosophical and literary anthologies and writings, ethnographic studies- that take into account oral traditions. 

With the media– through education, and by films, negative images of others, religious intolerance, incitement of hatred, violence and contempt for one other could be removed. Teachers must be trained as they are the educators and they must not only transmit knowledge but also comment critically on the transmitted knowledge and its content. Cultural diversity is integral to these regions and has always been. It is important to recognise that personal identities are intimately linked with political processes and that social identities are not given once and for all, but are negotiated over. Thus, we urgently need to legislate and to discuss areas where we can co-operate and improve our lives and those of others.
All the laws can change through discussion and the state and national government must redress these shortcomings.

Socrates argued that the invisible world is the most intelligible and that the visible world is the least knowable, and the most obscure.” That is to say what we see happening has many layers and we need to look beyond the five senses, beyond the material understandings. We live in interconnected worlds all of us.  As a philosopher I met has remarked on our world: Much like the human body, the interdependent body of humanity is composed of diverse elements whose well-being can only be achieved through integration and coordination. No cell or organ lives apart from the human body, and the well-being of each derives from the well-being of the whole. At the same time, it is the unity and interdependence of the body’s diverse cells and organs that permits the full realization of the distinctive capacities inherent in each. 

Indisputably, what is happening today is an outcome of the administrative and legal measures imposed by colonial regimes such as the Black Letter Laws, uninformed partitioning of territories, of separating and misrepresenting communities and people with shared emotions, histories, cultures, demeanours and natural resources the root cause of all conflicts in the Indian Subcontinent, in the vast landscapes of Africa, as indeed, the MENA region.  A comprehensive approach to community and to citizenship – one which addresses people’s ideas about nationhood and belonging, in addition to the quality of their social relationships can lead to significant outcomes for making policy recommendations. Specifically I would advocate fresh ethnographic research and these findings made public. Addendum–  governments and policy makers must be prepared  to listen to these findings, to learn, to re-evaluate  the outdated preconceived erroneous, belief systems; also, the need to engage in these joint conversations–it is of moral and ethical urgency to redress the angst and,  put an end to the ongoing violence. We need to re-connect with our heritage and safeguard it. This would entail undertaking ethnographic research into our intangible cultural heritage as it is “the  mainspring of cultural diversity and a guarantee of sustainable development. And, as UNESCO has defined it –include the identification, documentation, research, preservation, protection, promotion, enhancement, transmission, particularly through formal and non-formal education, as well as the revitalization of the various aspects of such heritage.

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Dr Kusum Gopal

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