Report on workshop: ‘Performing Identity: Ethnicity and Ethno-nationalism in the South-east Asian Borderland Region of North-east India’.
The workshop titled ‘Performing Identity: Ethnicity and Ethno-nationalism in the South-east Asian Borderland Region of North-east India’ was held 15-17 Dec. 2011 in Göttingen, Germany. It was hosted by the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology in co-operation with the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen. The BMBF-funded competence network “Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia” at Göttingen University was actively involved in the local organisation of the workshop. The workshop was sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation, the University of Göttingen and the Asian Borderlands Research Network.
The event was inaugurated jointly by the Dean of the Social Science Faculty of Göttingen Univeristy, Professor Roman Loimeier and the Cultural Attaché at the Indian Embassy in Berlin, Professor H.S. Shivaprakash. The event also included a special screening of the film ‘A measure of Impunity’ produced and introduced by Professor Sanjoy Hazarika. Screening of two ethnographic films from the region, a book exhibition, a photo exhibition on the Asian Borderlands and a book-reading (of a recent publication: Unruly Hills by BG Karlsson) were also organised within the framework of this workshop.
The interdisciplinary workshop brought together more than forty social scientists, including several leading experts and many young researchers, from over a dozen countries and over thirty universities world-wide. The main speakers included Professor Barend Jan Terwiel, Professor Sanjib Baruah, (Bard College, New York), Professor Guido Sprenger, (Heidelberg), Professor Ülo Valk, (University of Tartu in Estonia) and Dr. Philippe Ramirez (CNRS).
21 papers on the themes politics of identity, dynamics of religious conversions, belief narratives, new approaches, performance of identity as well as on the immediate region beyond the north-east, and belonging to the disciplines of anthropology, political science, sociology, folklore and religion, history, geography and literature were presented.
The principal objective of the workshop of bringing together European scholars – both beginners and established scholars — working on the north-east was really fulfilled as an overwhelming majority of the participants were from Europe. Since most of them were sole representatives of their home institutions, the initial assumption that European scholars working on north-east India were often working in very small groups in their departments and hence were rather isolated within their research environments was confirmed. Moreover, there were a dozen Indian scholars, about half of them actually native to north-east India, and this brought in a new dimension to the deliberations. There were many new faces, and lots of interaction between the experts and the beginners, the ones from the region and those form outside, all united by their common interest in the region.
Professor Sanjib Baruah’s talk titled provocatively ‘After Identity: Hydropower and the Politics of Anxiety in the Eastern Himalayas in which he claimed that it is no longer ethnicity and identity issues but issues like dams, earthquakes and floods that are and will bring people from the north-east together, started the proceedings on Friday morning while Dr. Ramirez’s catchy title, ‘Did the British Really Invent the Northeastern Tribes?’ in which he maintained that the north-east forms a consistent regional system – an idea worth exploring in itself and which might form the basis of a lot of future work on the north-east – brought up the end on Saturday afternoon. Several excellent student presentations, especially those by Kaustubh Deka (JNU, New Delhi) on the role of student organisations in ethnicity formation, by Miriam Bishokarma (Zuerich) on the Gorkhaland state demand issue, by Margaret Lyngdoh (Tartu, Estonia) on the Name Magic of the Khasis and by Andreas Kuechle (Berlin) on using Bourdieu’s theory to understand Naga village society were the highlights of the workshop. The participation of native researchers like Dr. Abraham Lotha (Nagaland) and Charisma Lepcha (Sikkim) added depth and value to the discussions and the well-researched and illuminating papers of European researchers like Dr. Erik de Maaker (Leiden) and Professor Gunnel Cederloef (Uppsala) ensured the high academic standards of the meet. Several new research projects, book projects and Ph.D. projects were also presented and discussed during the meet. On the whole, it was a great learning experience for everyone.
The workshop ended with the hope that this kind of initiative would be taken by others at other locations in the future and that a network of scholars working on the north-east could be formed. It was also quite a pleasure to hear that this was the very first time that a workshop focussing on Northeast India had been organised in Europe, and as the organiser, I can only hope and wish that it will not be the last.
For more on the workshop, please go to www.uni-goettingen.de/de/215003.html