Identity Politics and Search for Liberation


Assam has been an influential and integral part of India’s North-East region, having substantial socio-cultural linkages with the entire subcontinent. The North-East comprises of eight states—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura—and shares its border with the countries of Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar, China, and Bhutan. The region served as the only route for migration vis-á-vis trade and commerce with the South-East and East Asian countries. It served as a crossroads for many tribal communities for both migration as well as settling down for livelihood, leading to the diversity we see today in the region. Over time, various races settled and intermingled, developing shared common characteristics.
Such diversity is equally represented in Assam, home to a complex mix of various communities. The population comprises both tribal and non-tribal groups. This diverse social set-up, however, far from assimilation has found itself in a situation of alienation and isolation today. Ethnic diversity has caused a sense of social insecurity vis-á-vis identity and ethnicity among the various resident communities. The politicisation of identity and ethnicity has stemmed in ethnic distinctiveness and assertion, resulting in identity politics.
The term “identity politics” can be viewed as when culture and identity, variously perceived to be traditional, modern, radical, local, regional, religious, gender, class, and ethnic, are articulated, constructed, invented, and commodified as the means to achieve political ends (Hill and Wilson 2003: 2). It often includes a claim to power based on the articulation and mobilisation of a particular group identity (Kaldor 2012). Throughout the entire North-East today, political contentions along the lines of demands for secessionism, autonomy or statehood are based on ethnicity and worse, interethnic conflict centred on the question of identity. Identity forms the basis for aspiration and assertion of many ethnic communities, and is rooted in the social history of the region as well as the historical experiences of communities.
The identity struggles of the tea tribes are socially and politically significant in contemporary Assam, but have received scant attention in academic literature. This article seeks to contextualise this struggle with the use of both primary and secondary data. The primary data has been sourced from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, and department of tea tribes of the Governments of India and Assam.

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