|Quiet History, Unquiet Peoples: The “Tribal Question” in Assam
[Forthcoming publication with a foreword by Sanjib Baruah (Guwahati: Anwesha Publications, 2005)]
“…(If) the Northeast as a whole has been has long been neglected by the centre, so the hill tribes have also faced callous disregard by the state of Assam, and both these factors have given rise to separatist movements, from Nagas struggling for complete independence to Mizos wanting independence but settling for statehood, Bodos still fighting for their own state, and smaller groups simply demanding more local autonomy. All too often, it is the contempt with which these claims have been met that has turned them into violent uprisings”
-India: The Rough Guide2
“The…(argument is) that the ‘tribal’ situation in northeast India cannot be properly understood except by viewing it in its historical perspective…British policy with regard to the hill people was one of least interference, the impact of administration and its corollary, the church, significantly corroded their internal system of authority and exposed them to territorial power”
- S.K. Chaube3
The quotes above desperately seek to represents a political and social milieu where the subject is peculiarly silent. For those who are critical of such reductionism and socio-historical short hand, the issue of representation of regions, peoples and situations become a question that has to be engaged with and qualified over and over again. However, in the case of this particular representation of the Northeast (in general) and Assam (in particular), one senses an air of resignation, in the ability of both democratic logic and academic scholarship, to be able to qualify such representations. It is true that secessionism and identity politics have defined political discourse in this region that was once the undivided (colonial) province of Assam. It is also true that disparities and differences have been at the core of this discourse. Chaube, suggests that the “tribal situation” is at an unfortunate position because its internal system was corroded by external actors. Similarly, the quote lifted from the Rough Guide, paints a chaotic political picture, where political positions are laced with violence. In short, there is a general understanding that something is happening in the hills of the region, but academic (and leisure) pursuits stop short of asking questions that can adequately express the unrest, violence and assertions of ethnic identity. What this paper argues is that in the inability to tackle these questions, academic discourse on the tribal question has also been guilty, like the Rough Guide authors, of producing short-hand, easily accessible “knowledge” about the tribal question in the Northeast. This paper tries to argue that the method of framing the tribal question within a particular political moment happened at a particular period when “frontiers” were being created. It was this process (of creation of “frontiers”) that the “tribal question” was silenced by conventional historiography of the region.
Since the middle of the twentieth century, the colonial province of Assam has had to engage with a multitude of ethnic assertions. There is an element of surprise in the commentaries that try to explain any of the ethnic assertions. To a large extent, this sense of sociological rootless-ness is blamed on the lack of any historiography of the tribal people. In response, tribal/ indigenous movements and assertions periodically raise their history, reaffirm their myths and legends and stake a claim for equality. What is striking about this phenomenon is that despite the passions they ignite in people, the contested symbols and iconography that they create, they are seldom subjected to a historical analysis that can explain the serious contests and revival of a community’s sense of self. There is no coherent historiography on the tribal question, in the erstwhile colonial province of Assam that is free from the overwhelming influence of an ethnological tradition steeped in romanticism and idealism. In fact, it is so common that even travel books do not hesitate to repeat what is appears as an unproblematic silence on the “tribal question” by historiographers. It is as if the (tribal) question is irrelevant and by the same extension, the political realities of the Karbi, Tiwa, Boro and other indigenous peoples, being either a matter of journalistic political columns alone, or a rehashing of old ethnographic accounts in sociological research. The historiography of tribal people of the region is presented as not something that is necessarily fluid. It is presented in a form that fixes their history within a realm of myths and possibilities culled from secondary texts. The historian dealing with the tribal question in Assam (and the Northeast) writes history in a form that will be accepted. In everyday life, people judge this act of writing history on criteria that may not quite correspond to the historian’s. In the difference between how history is written and the manner in which it becomes relevant to political discourse lies the politics of categorisation of people to margins and partially explains the silence on the “tribal question”.
“Frontiers, Landscapes and Peoples”: Frameworks of Colonial Ethnography
It is almost the norm to begin a historical study of any of the tribal/ indigenous4 communities of Assam with a roll call of secondary sources that purport to be the “myth of origin” of the particular community in question. In Assam, usually it is some reference to nineteenth and twentieth century reconstruction of the chronicles of the Ahom period in eastern Assam. In the modern reconstruction, the chronicles (bu’ranji) appear as the substitute for the truth, as though the historian by some twist in time is transported back to the day and age of the Ahom kings. Somehow, the tribes appear as extras in a grand production with the usual odd characters that shine briefly before disappearing again. Another way to begin would start with the physiognomy of the people in question which are then added to a liberal dose of possibilities from reconstructed Vedic texts. For example:
“…(The) Mishing tribe of Assam…a fragment of the great Mongoloid horde occupying the hills and dales of north-eastern India. Sir George Grierson has categorically divided these Mongoloids into (a) primitive long headed (b) less primitive short headed and (c) Tibeto-Mongoloids…and the Mishings form a fraction of this race”5
This quote has been rather arbitrarily singled out from a multitude of similar texts. What is common to all of them is this (almost) naïve belief in secondary sources and their urge to rush headlong into finding a location and anthropological type for the subjects in question. Granted, that the lack of written sources play a huge in role in the manner in which they are defined. For scholars, this always remains a barrier in constructing a history of a people. The reference to Grierson, a functionary of the colonial government and the director of the Linguistic Survey of India in the late nineteenth century6, is quite significant. In a sense, it is difficult to circumvent colonial ethnography while working on any of the indigenous groups in the Northeast and in Assam in particular. However, the question bears repeating: just how useful are these sources in understanding the dynamics of the tribal question? Are they, in any way, so irrefutable that they must be reproduced in every subsequent text on any tribe/ indigenous population in Assam?
Obviously, colonial documents are good place to start for anyone who wants to construct a historiography of the Tiwa, Karbi or any of the other major/ minor indigenous groups in Assam. They tell a part of the story that can be used to build any historical edifice. In that case, what are the presuppositions and contingencies upon which the colonial ethnographic project came to be constructed? Some of the answers are captured in Pemberton’s report to government in 1835:
“…(In the following report on) the eastern frontier of the British territories, it is proposed: …In the first place to give a general description of the great chain of mountains…Secondly, to describe the nature and passes and countries by which the great mountain chain has been penetrated…”7
The reference to frontier is quite obvious in this historical context. The nineteenth century was in fact the era of expansion of capital to hitherto untrammelled landscapes such as Assam. This “discovery” precipitated a move towards a fundamentally different type of economy, where the movement of populations became a condition for growth and colonisation.8 The process of creating “frontiers” became a condition peculiar to the type of economy introduced. Pemberton was not directing his report to a prospective “pleasure traveller”, but to policy makers keen on knowing the landscape they were entering. More importantly, these were policy makers who saw the region as political frontier on the geographical northeast of their territories. This geographical location, would not only place the region in a hierarchical relationship with the metropolitan centres, but also remain rooted as a frontier, in the nationalist challenges that came later. The politics of a descriptive generalisation of the political geography had one inherent problem. It was hardly the “uninhabited wasteland” that the descriptions made them out be. The presence of groups of people, locked in a political and economic relationship with one another, was underplayed in the initial colonial reports of the period. Hence, a complicated process of mapping the region within notions of centre-periphery was being undertaken. With it, there was visible move towards what Rumley and Minghi call the “consideration of border landscapes as a set of cultural, economic and political interactions and processes occurring in space”9. Those inhabiting regions that were not immediately earmarked for expansion of capital and colonial administration were clearly subjected to a position of marginality precisely because they constituted a new periphery. It was only with the need to engage with policy making that Pemberton’s exotic landscape became “populated” with people.
Not many years after Pemberton’s geographical descriptions, the economy of the Luit (Brahmaputra) valley underwent changes where the colonial administration began an elaborate process of categorising the different regions, the people who lived there and their social and economic relations. In his still popular “report”, Moffatt-Mills, began the intellectually challenging work of mapping the region, along with its people. His work can be seen as the natural corollary to what Pemberton had done a decade or two earlier. Moffatt-Mills had the challenging task of rationalising the complex relations between the hills and plains, forest-dwellers, traders, agriculturists and others, and securing this knowledge to governance and administration. It was imperative, for example, to have an adequate knowledge of the complex relations surrounding the haats (local marts) for the purpose of taxation and at times for retribution. The punitive expeditions against the Bhutiyas, Khasis and Nagas were all related to the need to secure land, by force as well as by law.10 This project is a fascinating dossier of manipulation of territory and people that is centrally linked to administering a frontier. Politics of the times dictated not only the fixing of people to territory, but also to “reopening” roads and trade routes.11
In doing so, a particular intellectual space was created. A certain form of reading the histories of the indigenous peoples came to be accepted as the norm. The form and content of this reading followed a strict regimentation where the historical and anthropological location of the subject was made conditional to the linear passage of time and social formation. Hence, Gait’s subsequent rendition of the history of Assam, now accepted as the standard text for history students, mixed an eclectic selection of Persian and Ahom texts and presented to the readers a view of history that was reassuring. This reassurance, however, should be read as a product of its time. The weight of textual representations and archaeology meant that only selected formations appeared as actors in the ensemble of historiography. Thus, kings, texts and conquests formed the basis of recognition for the indigenous people. It is not surprising that Gait’s book, in its published (and prescribed) form, appears with an introduction that first refers back to an older, idealistic notion of ethnography, wildly plotting the possible places of origin of the different peoples of the region. Having done that, the ‘Introduction’ meanders into a realm of myth and memory- the latter presented in medieval Persian texts.12 Hills and plains become mere textual markers and their inhabitants, the subjects of different disciplines. Those who were part of a semi-feudal state formation, with kings/ chiefs, and a cosmology that allowed social hierarchy, such as the Koch, Dimasa and Ahom are accorded a ‘history’, an identity that freezes them in time and politics.
Identity, Politics and Economic Transformations: Case for a Tribal Mode of Production?
It is in this intellectual moment that the tribal populations appear, without kings, texts and state-formations, for historians to speculate on what they might be doing in the new economy. Incidentally, this is also the moment when a nationalist critique of colonial hegemony is launched in the sub-continent. While the struggles of peasants and workers, the problems of caste and race occupy a central position in the polemics, the tribal question remains a concern for the frontier. In their designated frontier, the indigenous tribes seem out of sorts with the new economic and political milieu. They continue to raid, loot and demand reparations from the new order. For some, they become the classical noble savages while for others they become irritants to stability, law and order.13 A common thread in these arguments for and against the indigenous peoples was their supposed isolation and barbarity. Both views emanated from a romantic notion of what the “isolated” peoples were supposed to represent- i.e. either wronged/ misunderstood subjects, or recalcitrant people not quite used to the ways of the modern world. According to Dirks, this process symbolises the colonial state engaging in “…policing and proselytising…justified by the identification of barbarity and normalised by the professionalisation of anthropology”.14 What it also does, is to divest any notion of agency from the subject, in this case the indigenous tribal. This condition is recounted in almost all subsequent attempts at unravelling a ‘history’ of any given tribe in Assam (and the Northeast).
There is no doubt that pre-colonial modes of production were altered. The prime example in this context was the establishment of the plantation complex. Having said that, even the most detailed study of the effects of the plantation complex on the political economy of the region failed to locate the linkages between terrain, deprivation and identity formation.15 The obvious concerns of this particular reading of colonial history are that of documenting the reaction of subjects to the changes brought about in the economy. Yet, subjects appear as peasants and workers, categories that are well founded within the discourse but lacking the language to incorporate other forms of mobilisation. The economic transformations did have a profound impact on the way society viewed neighbours. Added to this, were new regulations that marked the landscape, creating barriers and impediments in the uninterrupted contiguity between hills and valleys.16 In these interruptions, the disruption of contiguities (between hills and valleys) also created a body of literature on the isolation of the hills and relative prosperity in the valley. Kar explains this predilection in colonial (and subsequently nationalist challenges to) historiography in the desire to place Assam within the colony, not as if it were “a latecomer to, but one of the earliest members of the Indian nation”.17
A significant section of the history of modern Assam is devoted to the study of this phenomenon. Historians have adequately addressed the formation of new classes and the dismantling of the pre-colonial structures in Assam. The peasant rebellions are documented in great detail, as are the activities of an emerging national bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. On the surface, it would seem that this historiography adequately addresses issues of economic and cultural hegemony of the colonial state, as well as the means adopted by those who resist. Even so, there is little that explains the impact of these changes in the consolidation of a people, especially the tribes. While Guha recounts the impact of inner-line regulations on the agricultural practices of frontier tribes,18 as Roy recalls the impact of the bureaucratisation of forests in the North Bank of the Luit, 19 there is very little sense that one gets of shared/ contested histories of the contests over resources. Some nagging questions remain unanswered. How did the re-drawing of boundaries and the incorporation into a new economy affect the tribes of Assam? Were they to share the same fate as the dispossessed indentured workers from the central hills of the Indian sub-continent? Were they going to be placed in an increasingly hierarchical relationship with those who controlled the economy? Indeed, it would seem almost axiomatic within this scheme to see the “end” of traditional systems and the “emergence” of new classes within the colonial mode of production. Saikia claims that “within the lifetime of a single generation, old ruling classes, including vassal chiefs of Beltola, Rani, Dimoria, Gobha etc. ceased to exist…(their world) vanished without a trace”.20
The Truth (Still) Lies Out There!
Perhaps much of what has been expressed in the preceding section is true. There can be little doubt that with changes in the mode of production, social and economic relations were altered. Identities, perhaps, became inscribed in stone for colonial administrators. Just as the Assamese was categorised as “indolent” and “lazy”, the tribes were categorised as “wild” and “savage”. There is a remarkable sense of achievement in such categorisation- a sense that things are in place and policies will move along. In this moment of achievement, the history of indigenous tribes of Assam celebrated more than just the triumph of reason. It also accepted colonial ethnography, thereby ignoring the finer modes of looking at the past. While colonial anthropology and history, displayed a remarkable symbiosis, so too did the alternative discourses. The historiography of subaltern resistance and class formation in Assam still has not answered why impoverishment has not created lines of vertical solidarity among classes and ethnic groups. If anything, the tribal question in Assam seems to be demanding another chance. It is true that in the space of a generation, traditional institutions and structures disappeared. Worlds ceased to exist. Yet, they are continuously being re-created. If the vassals of Gobha went quietly into the night in the nineteenth century, they reappear with great pomp and vigour in the personage of the Tiwa kings in the present day.21 To such assertions of agency, history has either tepid objections, or uncritical acceptance. There is the tendency to either disown such displays of identity by vociferously citing the lack of historical evidence to such claims, or to play into the game by “discovering” kings and “texts-that-are-irretrievable.”
The nation (and society) that emerges out of the colonial process, whether that of the coloniser or the colonised, is no simplistic central totality. The process of cultural exchange are too varied and hybrid to allow for any simple dualities such as the ones that characterise the paucity of anthropological and historical treatment of the tribal question. Yet it is also true that the assertion of identity and selfhood, one of the most important aspects to postcoloniality, has often been framed within the ideology and activity of the nation. When dealing with the assertion of tribal identity, one gets the distinct feeling that the post-colonial nation failed to include the feelings of grievance of those in its cultural, economic and geographical margins. Balibar proclaims that “…every ‘people’, which is a product of a national process of ethnicisation, is forced today to find its own means of going beyond exclusivism and identitarian ideology in the world of trans-national communications and global relations of force”.22 History has simplified the nationalisation process in Assam. While it does sound a trifle unkind and sociologically reckless, there is a polemical point to be made. The tribal question has rather been the anti-thesis of a nation. It is coded and categorised as a “real” anthropological entity, based nevertheless on myths and markets. The truth remains that the tribal question finds only a marginal space in the project of nationalising knowledge. It disallows, even discourages the processes of “going beyond” exclusivism by its silence. The transformation of the region into a colonial “frontier” remains the key to understanding what Anderson calls, “communities that conceived of themselves as cosmically central, through the medium of a sacred language linked to a super terrestrial order of power…(and yet) differed from the (innovative) imagined national communities.”23
It is obvious that the transformation of the region into a frontier meant several things for its denizens. In the paragraphs above, one has tried to tell part of the story- a chronological account of sorts- to create the context within which much of the historiography of the indigenous peoples of the region seems trapped in. It would seem like the progression from “descriptions” of the landscape, to the “discovery” of people and finally to the “theorising” of their linguistic and historical “roots”, follow a seamless progression. However, what is missing from this account is another view of frontiers. Frontiers, as processes, have four crucial dimensions. First, they are instruments of state policy, where governments seek to protect interests, ideas and wealth for a particular purpose. Second, the policies and practices of governments are constrained by the degree of de facto control, which they have over the state frontier.24 Third, frontiers are markers of identity, in the twentieth century usually national identity, although political identities may be larger or smaller than the nation state. They (frontiers) are in this sense part of political beliefs and myths of the unity of people and sometimes about the ‘natural’ unity of a territory.25 Fourth, frontier is also a term of discourse as one has tried to show earlier. In scholarly exegeses, it has different meanings depending on the approaches adopted. In the case of Assam, it has undoubtedly been subjected to political power and nationalist movements both during the initial period of their transformation and later, in the period of consolidation. Translations of Ahom chronicles and other historical material, from South Asia, helped fix Assam and its people within a frame. Against such a backdrop, as serious a question as that confronted by the indigenous tribes is reflected only as a sterile product of the unhappy association between history and a particular mode of anthropology. The need to get beyond the debilitating dichotomies of myth versus history, oral versus written, is most urgent in this case.
Blackburn notes that the conventional criteria of historical writing- sequence and causality- are (but) elements of an interpretation of the past, which also embraces various forms of memory.26 One also wishes to add that in doing so, one has to also include a radical critique of the denial of difference to the history of tribal peoples in Assam (and Northeast India). Thus far, anthropologists of different persuasions seem keen only to discover history, which end up constructing a partial history of peoples and of the relationship between history and anthropology. Likewise, historians appropriate particular versions of cultural anthropology that often ignores a much longer tradition and argument that often remain subterranean. One has to reach beyond such descriptions, to analyse other means of recording and remembering history. Specifically, this would include a reconceptualisation of anthropological knowledge and historiography of the “tribal question”, to include the importance of performed and material culture. The former would include the parades, rituals, festivals and socio-political events that have been instrumental in re-creating iconic constructions among the tribal/ indigenous people of Assam today. Why, for example, does Me-dam-me-phi suddenly reappear as the marker of Ahom identity in eastern Assam today? Or, for that matter, why is there a renewed interest in reclaiming a Tiwa sense of identity in the annual parade in Morigaon district? In terms of material culture, there is the need to ascertain the centrality of monuments, objects, photographs and such-like, in the reassertion of tribal identity. For instance, why do the ruins of Maibong and Dimapur, infuse a sense of pride and identity to the Dimasa people of Assam? Explaining the persistent demands for creating sculptures and busts of icons among the Dimasa and Karbi, Singha, states that “… (Our) haste to ally with Indian history has meant that we (still) seek to reflect our society in terms that are palatable to them (Indians). The demands (of the tribal people) remind us of our commitment to recognise our “other”, more Southeast Asian kinship”.27
The polemics discussed above are not to take away anything from the great advances in the historical sciences in Assam. Nor is there any intention of trivialising the methods of social anthropology or history. Yet, when faced with the frustrating silence on the tribal question in Assam, one has to constantly reiterate to historiographers that writing history has never been a neutral activity. So far, the “tribal question”, seems to have been caricaturised into a dossier of “myths of origin”. This is quite out of sorts with the rising chorus of peoples claiming “nationhood”, “autonomy” and even “secession”. The re-emergence of new kinds of colonial relationships in the unequal distribution of (global) wealth and the operations of capital, and the dispersal through migration and relocation has also added to the chorus. The re-conceptualisation of history (and folklore, anthropology, sociology etc.) in Assam needs to be a genuine intellectual breakthrough, in order to reveal what “quiet history” (and the eponymous labels of modern travel books) does not say. That is: the “tribal question” in Assam (and Northeast India) is urging us to come up with a more precise vocabulary to tell the story of peoples without written chronicles that date back to antiquity.
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