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Identity, Violence And Boundaries : From Identity Politics To Politics Of Distinction

By Suraj Gogoi

03 November, 2015

Why is that a 'bagania/tea labourer' or a 'Nepali' is not as 'Other' as a 'Bangladeshi' in contemporary North-East? Why is there a difference in treatment towards these communities who come from a very different set of cultural and political landscapes and share a very vivid and violent history? The contemporary nature of politics in India's North-East can be seen as a movement from identity politics to politics of distinction. From Bodoland and similar demands of autonomy to ongoing demands of ILP regulations in Manipur and Meghalaya, the nature of politics has been such that difference is used as the tool for mobilization of different politically motivated groups. Violence against such 'concretised other' to use Seyla Benhabib's categorization, becomes a just act and to go with it there is silence and absolute absence of solidarity from the within. Between silence and absence of solidarity distinction makes its strong ground and still continue to produce indigenous and son of the soil narratives- in politics and theory.

Defining distinction

For distinction to operate there is the necessary condition of formation of identity which assumes a unity at the level of language, cultural practices, of a shared past and so on. Different tropes have been used to explore the notion of identity and its formation after the War. They are—the instrumental approach, primordialist understanding, of the nation-state, religion, subalterns and memory. As we observe that identities are fluid and the agents and agendas differ over time that survives any identity. Neither they are formed in isolation. In the case of India's North-East, in the 70s and 80s and with renewed vigor again in the recent years 'Bangladeshi immigrants' have been a distinct group against whom claims of identity has been asserted. The different markers of an ethnic identity for instance the Bodos, Mishings, Mizos, Nagas, Meitais and so on provides for an immediate case for differentiating oneself from all the others. The differentiation is not just a simplistic 'other'. The notion of 'other' or 'outsider' has been historically present among different communities of North East. To give a few examples we have in Bodo- gubun mansi- used to refer to other people like the Ahoms, 'dosra hador' - other country- for people from the 'mainland'. On the other hand 'mipak' is used by the Missing community of Assam or 'mayang' by Meitais to refer to outsiders. Now question arises is there a distinction being made within the other? Is there a different nature of politics being played out for the people who are imposed the level of 'Bangladeshi' or other people from 'mainland' India?

It appears as if there is an explosion of bodies and there are many group formations being otherised in the process. In such a process the differential treatment and views held against various groups by a particular group suggests a kind of politics which I term as distinction. The conscious process of identifying and weighing these identities against the grain of history in a manner which is convenient enough to keep a distance from everyone and yet keep some close, opens up possibilities to study the formation of the new nature of politics and its associated tactics used to mobilize, benefit and keep the identity movements alive. Such a becoming suggests a rapture in what is understood as ethnic politics. Such a politics takes its cue both from 'politics of culture' and 'cultural politics' and hence can be termed as a distinctive nature of politics whereby distinction at the level of differential alterity is a basic feature of the political imagination in popular discourses. The multiplied identities in India's North east is creating boundaries for themselves and from a point of view of a particular groups the others with a distinct self are identified and distinguished by their own discrete markers. The dominant identities are trying to maintain a larger identity (Assamese, Mizos and so on) and the smaller ones (Bodos, Mishings, Chakmas etc) are demanding a separation from the larger notion of identity thereby creating more boundaries and more distinctions.

Boundary formations

The possibilities of boundary-making and boundary crossing is immense due to the heterogeneity of people in the region, making it an ‘internally differentiated’ and yet ‘nominally integrated space of difference’. Ethnic heterogeneity, ever elusive call of freedom and self-determination produce a different space and time with its in-appropriable unbounded imagination of diasporic homelands. Does ethnic politics address the notion of the other? One has to here make a distinction between politics of distinction and ethnic politics, as we see major departure in terms of claims.

The discourse of distinction now is forwarded by almost all groups in contemporary North-East where it has also assumed a non-negotiable difference. Both the acts combined i.e. politics of distinction and non-negotiable difference has released violence or has voiced an exclusionist nature which calls for inescapable conflict amongst communities. Post-coloniality created increased domination in a multi-ethnic society like North-East when it came under a centralized nature of governance. With the formation of the state of India and also the historical construction of larger identities like Assamese, Maitei and so on created a forceful overlapping of the ethnic boundaries in many regards. Why is it so that a constitutional provision such as sixth schedule which is to overturn the historic injustice releases a politics which assumes violence? The larger question still remains which is—does the indigenous self needs a territory in geography to articulate one's imaginations?


There are identities and marginalized groups which are created by the state and there are the ones that are created by cultural politics. We need to be very careful in internalizing such narratives of politics and of people which are pregnant with misplaced sense of ideology. Such politics has led to 'hard boundaries' in North-East which is now a hot bed for autonomy movements and multiplied identities. Most importantly politics of distinction has made concrete space for 'ethnocracy' to flourish.

Suraj Gogoi a research scholar at Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. His area of interest are social and political history of India's North East, Violence, Theravada Buddhism and ontology of wet-rice cultivation.



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