Insight into parallel evolution of Paite elite & identity

IN the seemingly classless “tribal egalitarian societies” of the North-east where more than 200 groups or ethnic communities live, a new book, Elite, Identity and Politics in Manipur, by S Thianlalmuan Ngaihte reveals an (already) existent and emerging group of the “elite class”, their influence and impact on shaping the thoughts and minds of the community.

Brought out by Mittal Publication, New Delhi, and priced at Rs 850, Ngaihte’s study of the Paite society, a trans-border ethnic community, gives an insight into the parallel evolution of an elite group and identity, (trans) formation of communities, inter-connected issues in the process of the making of identity in communities such as Mainpur’s Paites.

Given that the Paite society under study, like any other “tribal” group in the North-east or other parts of India, has no caste stratification, nor the monetary assets or economy of the Paite elite, cannot be compared to other elite segment in other parts of India or elsewhere, the author rightly draws the class lines in terms of “education” rather than “economy”. Ngaihte’s study shows that identity formation and consciousness amongst the Paites, the educated class to be specific, arises from their encounter with colonisation and modernisation. Paite elites successfully mobilised the community, taking the lead in the forward movement from recognition as a distinct tribal group to an ethnic community further to the process of nationalism consciousness .

Based on the Paul Brass theory of elite competition, Ngaihte’s study on the Paite community and its elite segment shows that the formation of identity, or transformation of identity, further to nationalism, is a modern emerging phenomenon and that the process involved competition and conflict.

In fact, the Paite community undergoes dramatic changes; from oral to written language, from village traditional (chieftainship) administration to (modern) state administration, beliefs and practices.

Jealously guarding and promoting Paite culture, customs and traditions, the Paite elite have taken up a leadership role, though this was not actually acknowledged as a “political” leadership. Perhaps due to the understanding that politics is either elections (electoral politics), or, as political parties or otherwise popularly known in the North-east as being part of the underground movement. According to Ngaihte’s study, this set of politicised elites was actually “social and political agents”.

One of the key contributions and impact of the Paite elite comes in the form of mass media that includes print, songs and other literature. A complex phenomenon, the ethnic consolidation of the community was not only based on culture or literature – another key factor in their success is the emotions, attachment and sense of belonging of the first group of the Paite educated class, such as H Nengzachin ,who returned from the USA “to serve his community” after studying theology in 1939. Denying an offer of a lucrative job in the British Indian government, he said, “The job is good,  but I was convinced and choose to remain with my people”.

The Paites, a community inhabiting the periphery of the Manipur-Myanmar border, is isolated from mainstream development and Paite elite work is geared towards the empowerment and uplift of their brethren. In due process, while the uplift (socially) and emotional attachment was much stronger in the earlier century, in later years it has more to do with protection from other dominant groups. With parallel “identity formation” by other ethnic groups also underway, the inter-intra conflict was eventually inevitable. 

It may also be added that Paite society or the North-east societies at large are non-industrial in nature and that the said elite class, vis-a-vis class lines (as universally understood), does not come under  the “ proletariat and bourgeoisie” line or the Karl Marx’s class concept . In the case of the Paites the elite do not fully hold or direct community discourse. In the present situation, Paite class lines or the class divide is still thin and not very visible. This can be witnessed in their socialisation, such as the Young Paite Association, or community events, where even an IAS officer would be seen performing his duty if he is asked to serve a community feast.

An insightful analysis that Ngaihte has  brought out is that the economic factor was not what pulled the Paite community together; unlike the common presumption of poverty, vis-a-vis economic under-development as a key rationale for the struggle for “identity”, ethnic conflict, or even a violent struggle for self-determination in Manipur.

Modernity has seeped in deeply and the Paites have undergone tremendous changes in every sphere of their way of life. As Ngaihte points out, the taditional elites had compromised on emerging modern elites.  Though Ngaihte does not put much weight on the intra-conflict, an undercurrent of conflict between the traditional and modern elite in terms of traditional chiefs and political class are very much in existence. The case can be cited of the recent demand for more “power” by members of the local self-governance set-ups, the district councils. It may also be noted that the ADCs were non-functional for over 20 years. While the chief rights were abolished under the Acquisition of Chief Rights Act, 1967, it may be noted that village chiefs still enjoy respect from the people and that their existence and role are still recognised.

As Ngaihte observes, in the current context the Zomi federation has not  been able to include all the Zosuante (descendants of Zo). The Paite elite attempted to further broaden their interest in taking the key leadership role in  propagating Zomi consciousness or Zomi nationalism, through successfully mobilising and consolidating  the Paite identity. As it stands today, they have not been able to articulate or consolidate a common platform amongst the Zo community. This,  according to Ngaihte,  is due to political conflicts and competition, most importantly an existence of parallel identity labels such as Kukis or Hmars .

Fortunately or unfortunately, as in Fredrik Barth’s view of the transient nature of ethnic boundaries, the Paites’ boundaries, too, have been drawn. Moreover,  ethnic, ethnicity, ethnicisation  is a complex and ongoing process, therefore the nationalist consolidation under the Paite leadership is “inconclusive”, Ngaihte observes. In fact, this is the case not only of the Paites. Moreover, Ngaihte’s study gives an insightful thought on the numerous conflicts encountered, witnessed and experienced in Manipur and the North-east at large.

S Thianlalmuan Ngaihte is currently teaching Political Science in Morning Star College, Shillong. He completed his Master’s and Doctorate degree from the Department of Political Science, North- Eastern Hill University, Shillong

The reviewer is a Delhi-based freelance contributor
The Statesman North East page , April 29,2013