Memorial Lecture UA Shimray Negotiating Identity Politics: Crafting the future of a Fractured Fraternity

By A. Bimol Akoijam

Chairperson, distinguished invitees, friends, and ladies and  gentlemen.

There are lots of academic professionals in this world. But there are few amongst them who pursue their vocation with a gifted intellectual competence and endearing commitment and style that draw the attention of not only the members of the academic tribe but also that of the larger society. Dr. UA Shimray was definitely on the way to becoming, if not already, one of those rare professionals. I knew of him as one of the most promising minds, particularly from my home state Manipur. Couple of times, I have met him in seminars, including one in Imphal as well. He came to me as a gentle and perhaps not a very vivacious person. Though partly that impression could be due to, I suspect, his deference towards me as someone who is senior, professionally or otherwise, to him. But still I could sense the fertile mind and the passion, which I knew of him through his works, in an informal conversation that I had once with him in one of those seminars as we waited together for the dinner to be served. Although that conversation came about after we were amply rejuvenated by the much welcomed pre-dinner drinks, I must insist that my judgment of this man cannot be faulted. After all I am not the only one who will testify the same about this man on whose memory I stand here to deliver this lecture on a theme, I suppose, he would have continued to engage and pursue had he been alive.

Before I go further with the lecture, allow me to convey my condolence to his parents, family and friends. His untimely death is a great loss, particularly for his community and Manipur at large. In fact, rather than delivering a lecture in his memory this way, I would have preferred to be presenting a paper in a seminar or giving a talk/speech in a public meeting in which he also partakes as a fellow participant I say this because, with people like him, that would have provided us with an opportunity to engage in a much-needed debate and dialogue in order to make sense of our own wretched of the earth called Manipur. Vested propaganda and hearsay cannot provide us insights or solutions or exorcise the ghosts of the past, particularly the remnants of feudal and colonial imprints that informed and nurtured our fractured society and polity today. And debates and dialogues to craft and secure a life with dignity and well-being for the people in this part of the world could only be pursued, I believe, with people like him.

It is with this belief that I have accepted the invitation to deliver this lecture. And I intend to share today certain concerns, which, I suppose, also have resonance with issues that confront us in India`s northeast in general to provoke and promote ideas and values to craft the future of this land beyond the mess that marks the present It is with this purpose in mind, I have titled this memorial lecture as “Negotiating Identity Politics: Crafting the future of a fractured fraternity”

Implosion of terminology and its distortions

India`s northeast is home to a myriad of communities. So is the state of Manipur. This fact can be asserted as a statement of celebration of `differences` or the beauty of diversity. In fact, sometimes we do that, mostly in symbolic or rhetorical manner and rarely perhaps with real intent However, as it stands today, more often than not, this fact has come to be flagged off as the cause as well as the symptom of identity politics that presides over the `ethnic conundrum` in India`s northeast and more so in

Manipur. Almost all issues of public concerns are more or less tended to be framed within the parameter of identity politics and its `ethnic` contestation. Even the articulation of concern on the popular Human Rights issues gets mediated by this or that `ethnic` group interests. Take for instance, some of the responses during the height of the outcry against the alleged rape and murder of Manorama under custody of state security agency. Throwing the basic tenets of Human Rights principles that a man or woman, including hardened criminals, cannot be killed or raped, certain sections of the Human Rights and civil society groups expressed resentment (or surprise) against the attention given by the Government of India`s to what they termed the `hue and cry` over the dead of a `confirmed` underground cadre from the valley of Manipur.

On the other hand, many tend to treat the `ethnic conundrum` as an inherent character of India`s northeast which come in the way of its development and progress. In fact, just as western scholars tend to see `tribalism` in Africa and `communalism` in South Asia as inherent characters of those societies which come in the way of their modernization and progress, `ethnicity` has more or less come to be seen as the one for India`s northeast There are enough scholarships amongst African and South Asians who argued that such perspectives are parts of the Eurocentric scholarship and that these phenomena (`tribalism` and `communalism`) as parts of the structural aspects of colonial and imperial discourses and practices. In a similar sense, the essentilization of `ethnicity` in this part of the world can be seen as structurally produced aspects of the post-colonial Indian State, its discourses and practices.

Besides, having internalized such worldviews, many seem to have, if I may say, recklessly invoked the conceptual categories such as `ethnic group` while talking about various communities in this part of the world That these terms have historical baggage rooted in certain intellectual and political contexts. For instance, the underlying subtext of migration which is implicitly implicated in the expression (especially in the North American context) and the emergence of this term as a preferred substitute for the expression `race` amongst many western scholars are rarely understood Incidentally, many seems to be oblivious of the fact that this term has been used largely, if not exclusively, in this country with reference to the communities in India`s northeast. In fact, the specificity of deployment of the term with reference to this part of the world is deeply related to a specific exclusion of India`s northeast as the `other` in the very imagination of Indian nationhood. The issue here is not merely that of the semantics; it about understands the political and economic contexts within which these concepts and terminologies get deployed And that the very act of deploying these terms is also an act of reproducing and refining realities. This can be seen in a phenomenon that has come to represent the `ethnic conundrum` in India`s northeast demands for `homeland`.

Politics of Homeland:

House is not home. To be a `home`, it requires something more than its physical structure. And that something is fundamentally subjective in nature; only when a matrix of ide as and sentiments are imputed to that physical structure; it becomes a `home`. In a similar sense, land is merely a physical reality, a material space where one may live or work. Only when such physical space has been invested with some ideas and sentiments, it can become a `homeland`. Indeed, in a critical sense, the `land` which is
implicated in `homeland` is not given but constituted through some ideas and feelings. Historically speaking, such ideas and feelings are parts/ products of myths, political ideologies and mobilizations.

Modern ideas and Fusion of Land and People:

Over and above the plethora of `homeIand` demands and conflicts thereof in contemporary India`s northeast, the evolution of the Indian `nation-state` as a geo-political entity stands as testimony to the above constitutive nature of `homeland`. The idea of `home rule`, which was flagged off during freedom struggle, was about running a `home` called `India`. And that this `India` was constituted through the nationalist struggle is a well accepted historical reality. That the `land` in the idea of `homeland` is constituted through a mobilization that involved a spatial imagination that goes beyond mere physical space where one lives or works, and that such imagination has to be simultaneously informed by and fused with some notion of `people` can be seen from an off quoted episode in Nehru`s Discovery of India. When a group of people greeted Nehru with “a great roar” of Bharat Mata ki Jai-Victory to Mother India”, he would asked them as to “who is this Bharat Mata, Mother India, whose victory they wanted?” What follows is instructive for us. In Nehru`s own words,

“My question would amuse them and surprise them, and then, not knowing exactly what to answer, they would look at each other and at me … a vigorous


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