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Posted on March 24, 2008

Rajesh Dev, Phd
(Professor of Political Science, Women’s College Shillong, and executive director, Advanced Research Group for Understanding Eastern India)


‘Identity’ in one sense is an essentialist construct that is “the sole cause or determinant constituting the social meanings of an individual’s experience”. In another sense, “identities are constituted differently in different historical contexts”, that reflects its malleability. Many of us hold the belief that “identity” is deeply embedded with our social experience and life-worlds; while at the same time, might not disagree that under the influence of new and different historical contexts, accelerated by a process called ‘globalization’, our “identity” has become more malleable and seldom reflects an authentic stability.

‘Governance’ refers to the way in which “social life is coordinated”, where the government forms only one of the component structures. The ‘market’, the rational-legal hierarchies and civil and social networks are considered by many scholars to be the other collaborating structures.

In the context of Northeast India, it is the dilemma between these two meanings of “identity’ that perhaps also motivates the need for our concerns in addressing the issues. While we appreciate the embedded nature of our social identity and its positive advantages, we are also conscious of the ethnocentrism and social polarization that emanates from an essentialist awareness of “identity” in this region. The assumed question that is latent in the motivation of our concerns is whether such embedded notions of community and their politicised character are impediments to ‘governance’; and whether engendering an individual political subjectivity would aid the process of unhindered governance.

It may, however, be important to recall that the linkages between “identity” and “governance” is not novel to the context of Northeast India; in many parts of India, religious identity has been the basis of polarisation and conflict that debilitates the possibility of formulating an inclusive process of governance. Therefore, it must be emphasized that the issue of identity and governance in Northeast India is not unique, it is only that the core defining principles of identity are at variance with other parts of India. In Northeast India, it is ‘ethnicity’ that forms the core of identity-related conflicts and polarisations that influences the processes of governance.

Ethnic identity, in its formal and informal sense, defines and structures the processes of governance in the region. Such identity conflicts and polarisations emasculate attempts at establishing democratic governance in the region as traditional social solidarity and ethnic nepotism is deeply embedded in the social life. Ironically socio-political pluralism that apparently should be the foundation of democratic governance becomes the basis for inter-ethnic conflict, social unrest, displacement of people and inserts “lawlessness to a state of insecurity” and a condition of politicized ethnicities.

In its formal sense, ethnic identity is coterminous with institutions and state structures in the region. Public institutions and state structures in the region perceptibly reflect the identity of the dominant ethnic groups. As such the identity of the dominant ethnic group/s and the state merge to reflect a subtle yet poignant ethnic character of the political society. This condition places a premium on ethnic identity as the source of all social and political entitlements and thus renders powerless the natural interplay of the vital characteristics of the “governance”. Governance consequently is thus often viewed as an exclusive process that fails to guarantee human security and development in an equitable and transparent manner amongst varied ethnic groups. The intervention of the principal actor in governance process, the government, in conflict situations is perceived to reflect a bias that impedes an impartial application of the rule of law. Effectively it enfeebles vital elements of the governance process. In short, a partisan political system poses institutional barriers to effective governance processes.

In its informal sense, the process of social and political decision-making is subject to the vagaries of fractured social consensus, differentiated along ethnic cleavages. The civil society and its constituent institutions and actors are so coloured by group bias and differences that they affect a deleterious influence on the processes of governance. An attitudinal exclusion by dominant groups of minority communities often pejoratively considered as ethnic ‘others’, fractures social consensus and disrupts governance.

A worrisome trend that policy planners and development specialists must view with concern is the exacerbation in inter-ethnic schisms centred on development issues. Many of the newly emerging conflicts in the region are a consequence of the disagreements over the sharing of the economic pie or the fruits of development. They are reflected in the competitive confrontation between ethnic groups in the region. Conventional development strategies being promoted in this ethnically polarised region merely take an impressionistic view of the relationship between identity and development.

Accepted paradigms of development have initiated “development” activities only in “core” areas of a state. These core areas are perceived to be those where the dominant and institution-controlling ethnic groups administrate and reign. The resulting perceptions have enhanced the feeling of deprivation among non-dominant and marginal ethnic groups. It is this feeling of deprivation, discrimination and dispossession that forms the foundation and motivation for ethnic mobilisation and in some cases even insurgent resistance. Such confrontations having an ethnic character have accentuated in recent years because of the logical dynamic between ethnic identity, the development imperative and governance processes.

A “tribal conclave” was formed in Manipur to bargain as a collective group for development of the tribal areas of the state. The formation of the Zeliangrong Revolutionary National Front in Manipur and their attack on Member of Parliament Charenamei’s house, accusing him of ignoring the community’s development concerns because of ethnic bias, is a case in point. The accusation of unequal resource allocation and claims for equal representation by 16 tribes in the Barak Valley Hills Tribes Development Council in Assam, perceived to be dominated by the Hmar tribe, are all indications of the emerging bases of conflict founded on an apparent mismatch between identity and development.

If social consensus and cohesion is a vital ingredient for governance, Meghalaya finds itself in the same platform as its proximate neighbours. In Meghalaya, too, inter-ethnic cleavages and inequities affect social cohesion and consensus. The disruptions in governance is most glaringly revealed in the inter-ethnic bitterness between the three dominant ethnic groups—the Garos, the Khasis and the Pnars (Jaintias)—and the feelings of animosity and difference amongst the dominant and non-dominant ethnic groups. The political consequence is the growing crisis of governance in a condition where numerous identities are jostling for ethnic equity and justice for resources distribution and control.

Like in other proximate states, in Meghalaya too, responses to a series of social, cultural, political and economic needs of the ‘people’ have been unhinged by exclusive concerns for identity. Where resource-allocation is perceived to be followed along ethnic considerations and power differentials between ethnic groups is the social and political norm, it is superfluous to argue that ethnicised socio-political conditions define governance perspectives and initiatives. The relation between ‘identity’ and ‘governance’ in Meghalaya has several levels.

The contest between the Garos and the Khasis related to issues of neglect in equitable distribution of resources and share of the development pie is one of the contemporary challenges to governance. The justification of a separate “Garoland” for the Garos was revived on the plea that the Garos were "treated as second class citizens and neglected by the rulers in Shillong". The subliminal attrition of inter-ethnic cohesion that subverts an inclusive process of governance is reflected in exclusionary social and political responses.

Governance becomes dysfunctional when the government also fails to implement the rule of law and many of the victims, several of whom are non-tribals, are yet to get justice for crimes committed during past communal flare-ups. In most cases, the criminals are identifiable but the local village councils that are largely constituted on kinship basis usually do not come forward to give evidence against ethnic kin.

Often institutions of traditional nature that have exclusive composition, and denies women and ethnic others any representation or role in decision-making, engage in conflict with rational-legal institutions, resulting in disjuncture in governance.

Therefore, in a condition where the identities are deeply embedded, and wield considerable control over the social discourse and structures, the ‘social common sense’ which becomes essentially ethnocentric intrudes upon the processes of effective governance.