Editorial – A Lot in a Name


“In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten, in the human kingdom, define or be defined” said wrote Thomas Szasz, capturing a concern of much of the hitherto inarticulate world of the modern times, in particular various native non-European and indigenous communities which have relatively recently come to belong to the modern literate world. The statement undoubtedly is profound. It says much of the notions and mechanisms of identity formation. We bring up this idea up in contemplating what postcolonial identity has been for various communities, in particular the indigenous world. It is not surprising that much of the identities we know of today were given and brought forth from within. Thanks to new energy given to scholarship in this direction, we are now cognisant of how much of the identities that have come to be internalised amongst not just outside observers who caused these identity formation but also communities given these identities, buttressing in the process, and contrary to what William Shakespeare implied in the famous statement in “Romeo and Juliet”, there is a lot in a name, for often it is the name which gives an identity. The Northeast was a nomenclature once defining a certain cartographical location on the Indian political and geographical map. Today it is an identity. The same can be said of the Arunachalis, Mizos, Nagas, Manipuris and Assamese, and as a matter of fact, Indian. Do these identities conform to ethnicity or do they signify domicile and citizenship status, are some of the problematic questions. Without going too deep into these queries, suffices it to say that once upon a time, people who today profess these identities, never knew of themselves by these identities. They were given these names by others to broadly define them, and today, many of those thus defined, would zealously defend these identities as their own intrinsic self understanding, even to violent extents.

That these understanding of identities have their liberal shares of inner tensions and hegemonies is also an undeniable fact today. Indeed, much of the conflict situations we witness in the region are a manifestation of these tensions within. Again, there is no gainsaying these understanding have a profound bearing on the way policies and programmes of the government are formulated and unfolded. This being the case, we are proposing a need to deconstruct these identities which although were given to the communities have crystallised solidly, and attempt a reconstruction in the manner that French philosopher, Jacques Derrida recommends. This is important, because the new identities thus constructed would be informed by inner needs and dynamics of the communities rather than imposed from outside alone. They would also have shed the redundant and at the same time incorporated answers to new challenges, which indeed different times always throw up. We can begin this process by asking some very basic questions like who is a Manipuri or Naga or Assamese etc. Honest and probing queries into these seemingly simple questions should bring in new and refreshing lights as to how many of the tensions within our societies can be resolved.

It goes without saying that this exercise must not mean the total rejection of what is already there. History can never be reversed and historical events cannot be erased. So if certain identities have evolved because of historical logic of a time, even if it meant identities forming out of nomenclatures assigned to peoples for the convenience of anthropological conveniences of outside researchers of the past, they have become engraved in indelible ink as historical experiences of the place, sparking off myriad chains of other historical events, which in their turns set off other chains of events and these too their own chains etc, in a never ending process. In other words, what has happened has happened and cannot be reversed. They have come to have strong historical roots of their own. But acknowledging the limitations of the circumstances they came into being and the consequences they have caused, should be the beginning of a new dawn of understanding of the way forward for our societies in resolving many of the issues of conflict embedded within. As for instance, new courses can be charted in which the old and the new understandings of identities can confluence and evolve more democratic and mutually acceptable ground for coexistence, and in time perhaps even evolving new identities which are inclusive of all stakeholders in an equitable way informed by the noble idea of justice for all.


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