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Seeds of Ethnicity

Urmila Phadnis

By Nirmal Nibedon
Lancers Books, New Delhi, 1981, pp. xviii 220, Rs. 95.00

VOLUME V NUMBER 5 March/April 1981

Three major approaches underline the bourgeoning literature on North­eastern India—the historico-political, the Marxian and the Pluralist. Emphasiz­ing on the class dimension of the turbu­lences in the various states of the region, the Marxian perspective has noted with concern, the evolution and growth of 'little nationalism' and nativist chauvin­ism. The pluralists on the other hand, have emphasized on the perseverance of ethnic identities and the elite mobiliza­tion of the ethnic group's sense of rela­tive deprivation. The others, while not getting bogged down to the ethnic/class dimension of the North-eastern turbulen­ce encompassing the 'seven sisters', have attempted to explore its causes by pre­senting a socio-political account. Notwithstanding the title, Nirmal Nibedon's book falls into the third category. However, the questions which he raises in the beginning of his study are of common concern to all interested in this region. In a racy style characteristic of his earlier books on Nagaland and Mizoram, he asks: ‘How did it all begin? Who planted the seeds of ethnicity and when? How many years did it take to strike roots and grow into a gigantic tree? Who gave the call to the people of Indo-­China and peripheral Indian states mak­ing them aware of their strong ethnic identity?’ Unlike V.IK. Sarin's study on ‘North East in Flames’, Nibedon does not provide a state-wise account in this book. Instead, it is a chronologically structured panoramic view of the region as a whole, taking the readers back to more than 3000 years to identify first, 'the seeds' of ethnicity. The waves of migration around the Lhit Knot, he maintains, did expose the. Brahmaputra valley in politico-cultural spheres with the atoms providing some sort of an identity. On the other hand, the hill tribals remained more or less insular and isolated vis-a-vis the cultural threats from the Indo-Gangetic plain. During the British colonial period, while the nomenclature of 'excluded areas' more or less meant their non-control therein and therefore a virtually uninterrupted continuation of traditional tribal social structures, the pattern of migration from the west, in other areas was far more purposive. It is not with­out significance that these migrants were described by different names by the in­digenous people which had more than often a perjurative connotation: they were viewed as 'coolies, small-time eco­nomic exploiters and lackeys of British imperialism. As for Assam in particu­...

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