Dialogue  January - March, 2006 , Volume 7  No. 3

Are Ethnic Homelands Possible?

Patricia Mukhim

The above question was flagged by one of the authors at the peace dialogue organized by the Center for Peace and Development Studies (CPDS), Guwahati in December last year. This bold question was of course left unanswered because the author said she did not have an answer and only wanted it to be a poser that could elicit many more debates. Considering that the demand for homelands (separate states) by several ethnic groups within the North Eastern region of India has led to political conflicts and armed insurgency, the topic merits serious debate so that the groups themselves learn to appreciate whether their demands are practically implementable or whether they are mere ideological arguments that are aimed at keeping the pot of political discourse boiling. 
    India’s North East presents an amazing array of peoples and races. It is not possible to be precise about the number of ethnic groups inhabiting the region because new ones keep surfacing almost on a recurrent basis. Among the Nagas for instance there are 26 major tribes and many more sub tribes. Each sub-tribe constitutes an ethnic group. So what is an ethnic group we might ask. Sociologists define an ethnic group as one with a common cultural tradition and a sense of identity which exists as a sub-group of a larger society. The most important aspect is their feeling of identification as a traditionally distinct group. The term ethnic group normally applies to a minority group. However if there are several culturally distinct groups in a society, sociologists would also apply the same term to the more dominant cultural group.
    Nagas therefore constitute an ethnic group even though there are several sub-groups with different dialects and cultural practices under that banner. Although some groups among the Nagas such as the Ao, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Chakesang are much more advanced in terms of education and have made substantial economic progress, there are others like the Konyaks who have remained in the periphery of development. I have intentionally refrained from mentioning the Tangkhuls, Mao and Zeliangrong tribes who also call themselves Nagas but whose living space is within the state of Manipur. All of the above tribes are exceedingly enterprising and innovative and many have moved out of their habitat to carve out successful careers for themselves. But there are still many more tribes in Manipur who have just come out of their amorphousness and are claiming to be Nagas.
    By implication therefore, the word Naga is inclusive and the number of tribes affiliating themselves to that banner seems at this point of time, almost infinite. Nagalim or Greater Nagaland therefore seems to grow bigger in population and that perhaps gives the leaders of the NSCN(IM) more teeth to negotiate their terms with the Indian Government. These smaller, hitherto amorphous tribes also believe they have a brighter future under a dispensation whose performance they are yet to see, rather than being governed by a government which has all but failed to deliver. Since the future is something conjured in peoples’ minds they have also learnt to build their hopes and dreams on it. Anyone who attempts to shatter that hope is seen as the enemy.
    Mr SC Jamir, Nagaland’s longest serving chief minister, for instance, has all but debunked the notion of Nagalim, terming it an ‘eldorado’. An astute statesman he probably understands better than many that political negotiations in the twenty-first century are not about the breaking of states but of the coming together of even the most unlikely entities. The European Union is an example of economics dictating politics. Germans, French, Swiss, Italian may be passionate bout their identities but the reality of a strong Euro obliterates those human passions. The need to survive in a cruel, demanding market environment acts like a deterrent to all those romantic dreams of independent homelands with little reason for interdependence.
    Should Nagalim become a reality there will be too many contenders to political power. Politics is a selfish game of takers only. It would be a romantic notion if Nagas were to believe that the leaders of the NSCN(IM) would step aside once their agamnda is achieved and make way for younger politicians to lead the “country”. Mr TH Muivah has been running the organization by remote control for years. He is hardly likely to play the role of an elderly patriarch and to step aside in the larger interest of his people. Political ambition and power is what sustains people like Muivah. And indeed if one is to delve deeper into the Naga question, one cannot but detect a strong political drive among its leaders, which unfortunately the Naga people are unwilling to admit.
    This demand for a homeland is very often not the battle cry of the man on the street. It is fuelled by those with political ambition or those who need to create a political platform for themselves. There are no dearth of self-styled political wannabes among small ethnic communities. These leaders use their educational backgrounds and oratorical skills to brainwash people. They speak of an ideological homeland where the future will be brighter and where there will be fewer people to share resources. Whether the demand for a homeland becomes a reality is immaterial. In the intervening period these self-styled leaders accumulate a lot of political clout. They are catapulted to a position of leadership and are invited to the negotiating table to bargain for a better deal for their people. By the next parliamentary or state legislature election these ‘pretenders’ are in the fray contesting elections on the plank of a ‘separate homeland for our people’.
    Sometimes, as in the case of Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland etc, homelands are granted through some stroke of political magnanimity or expediency of the Central Government. But does a homeland necessarily mean a better deal for the common man? None would know better than the people themselves that their sufferings have increased ten-fold after a homeland was granted to them. Not even a fraction of the population have gained from the change. The only ones who profited most are politicians, their family members, bureaucrats and businessmen. For ordinary mortals the dreams have already turned sour. I think it is a fallacy to believe that politicians would work for the greater good of the people. A homeland is useless is the resources within it are not equitably shared and if the opportunities for economic upheaval are replaced by deals and scams.  
    For a region with so many ethnic groups, some numbering only a few thousand, it is time to think of practical alternatives. Ethnic transpositions or the exchange of people between two or more cultures, where each is assimilated into the original culture of the other, would be more meaningful and more abiding. In Tamilnadu, there are many merchants of Gujarati or Rajasthani antecedents. Today all of them speak Tamil and live like Tamilians. They stand to gain by doing so than by creating little Gujarati or Rajasthani ghettos. Political expediency dictates that politicians pick out differences among peoples and highlight those as reasons for incompatibility. Ordinary citizens who have nothing to gain from divisions and mindless ethnic assertions should get together and thwart the selfish motives of those who thrive on divisions. 
    Ethnic homelands are not possible. The earlier people accept this reality the better. Then we would not lose precious time chasing a mirage. What we could do instead is consolidate our strength as a region, push for sound economic policies and demand good governance from the rulers.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati