Dancing to the State: Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam

GateBy Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh            Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself, the region and the people — the Tangsa — with whom I worked and some of the questions that I explored. Although I live in Germany now, I am Indian, more specifically an Assamese from the state of Assam in northeast India. Northeast India is a region which is geographically (and according to many, also emotionally) remote from the national capital at New Delhi. Separated from the rest of India except at a corridor, not much more than 20 kms at its narrowest, this region is surrounded by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and the Tibet region of China.

Map Tsanga
The location of the Tangsa in India

Northeast India is also a region of extreme ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural diversity with more than 220 distinct ethnic groups living there. 75% of its population, most of them living in the densely populated valleys, speak Indo-Aryan languages such as Assamese and Bengali, are predominantly Hindu, and link this region linguistically and also in terms of life-styles and political orientation, to the rest of India. The real diversity in the region lies in the so called ‘tribal’ populations, many speaking Tibeto-Burman languages, as do the Tangsa, and showing greater similarity and affinity, culturally as well as linguistically, to people living in countries of Southeast Asia rather than to their countrymen elsewhere in India. This unique configuration of the Northeast, both in terms of location and in terms of composition, have caused many problems and tensions between the national government and regional leaders, and, as my work shows, also among people living there .

Most of my fieldwork for this book was done as part of a international multi-disciplinary documentation project team. Although I had lived in Assam most of my life and my hometown was not very far from where the Tangsa live, to my eternal shame I realized that I had never heard about the Tangsa before. My subsequent realization that this blindness to our neighbours, was nothing pathological about me, but extended to most other Assamese as well, only added to my outrage. On their part, initially the Tangsa had doubts about my motives and intentions, since I belonged to the majority caste Hindu Assamese community, who, they believed, ran the state. What was worse, I was also a married woman, that too one, belonging to the highest Hindu caste, roaming about with a bunch of foreign men, none of whom was my husband. When not labelled a government informer, I was supposed to be a journalist or at best an interpreter for my foreign colleagues. But those doubts were laid to rest very quickly.Meenaxi sitting

Over the years, my somewhat unusual position as not quite an insider, but not also not quite an outsider has given me some unique insights into the Tangsa world and also about the nature of doing ethnography. Working with the Tangsa has also told me a few things about my own Assamese community, and the kind of colonial and paternalising condescension with which some Assamese even today think of tribal groups like the Tangsa, sentiments which are partly responsible for the problems that the Tangsa face today.

But who are the Tangsa? The Tangsa living in Assam are a tiny community, of less than 5000, living together with people of other communities, in mixed villages scattered over a relatively large area. The term Tangsa was coined post Indian independence by Indian administrators, as a name for a collection of small tribal groups, who have migrated from present-day Myanmar, most of them within the last couple of centuries, over the Patkai hills, to the northeast Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Since the Tangsa comprise not one or a few but several tribal groups, divided linguistically, culturally and more recently, also by religion, my brief in the project as an aspiring anthropologist, was to figure out what it meant, if anything at all, for people to be Tangsa. But given their myriad differences, it was not easy, even for the Tangsa, to agree on what their Tangsaness could mean. Nonetheless, a section of the Tangsa were actively engaged in trying to construct a pan-Tangsa identity which would secure their tribal position and gain them special concessions from the Indian state.

Circle with drums

Since my job at documentation required me to attend many Tangsa festivals, I decided to make festivals the point of entry for my ethnographic investigations. Looking at the larger questions of ethnicity and identity construction through the lens of festivals would be a completely novel approach. And could be very productive, as what the Tangsa chose to present at their festivals would give me important clues about how they wished to define themselves.

However, there remained the methodological problems of figuring out how to go about doing it. Therefore, although I visited many Tangsa villages both in Assam and Arunachal, I decided to narrow my focus on festivals that took place in only three Tangsa villages in Assam, and use those in Arunachali villages only to bring out the difference.

Three villages were interesting for different reasons. The first Kharangkong because it was the only Tangsa village where most people had not converted to Buddhism or Christianity and hence were still following their older traditional practices, Kharangkong is also the home of the most important Tangsa elder in Assam who quickly became my Tangsa father; the second Malugaon because it was located on top of a hill very close to a open-cast coal mine and where there was still ongoing migration from Myanmar (and a flourishing illegal trade in coal and also opium); the third Phulbari because it was a Baptist Christian village close to the Assam-Arunachal border where their new religion played a big role in the lives of most of the inhabitants. Festivals in these three Tangsa villages in Assam looked very different from each other and were used for different ends — and also differed from those in Arunachal where many more Tangsa lived.

Drinking women

Staying in those villages for longer than just the days of the festival gave me a chance not only to look behind the scenes but also to understand the Tangsa world a little better. While the independent and very hard-working Tangsa women have always impressed me, the fierce integrity, wisdom and incorruptible simplicity of some Tangsa elders I met have taught me a few lessons for life. ”Never believe what someone tells you till you hear the same thing from another person somewhere else” — one Tangsa elder had advised me once, without realizing that he could well have been reading out a fieldwork manual.

Soon I also began to understand the role that significant ‘othersʼ of the Tangsa, notably the state and the neighboring larger, more robust communities, had in forcing the Tangsa into their present position of vulnerability and insecurity. The area where the Tangsa live in Assam is part of a Tribal Belt reserved for ‘tribal’ communities, but that has not stopped new settlers from coming. I could see how and why the Tangsa were gradually losing their land to those new settlers; I could sense their fear of losing out to the other more assertive communities around them; I could figure that most of what they did as a community, including how and why they organized festivals, by inviting foreign researchers (like us), government officials and politicians from Assam were not much more than attempts to remain in the reckoning.

And this was true, not only of the Tangsa, but of many other numerically weak ethnic communities living in the area; Therefore I decided to investigate the connection between performance of culture as seen at various festivals, and the question of survival of marginal communities in Assam — that became my central research question.

Girls in blue dresses

A Singpho friend had told me one day, many years ago, that when faced with the imminent threat of losing out, small village communities had three options – The first is to assimilate into a more robust group as was beginning to happen to the Tangsa in Kharangkong, the second is to move back beyond the border into the tribal majority state of Arunachal as one had some evidence of in Phulbari and the third is to learn to play the game according to the new rules in order to survive, as one had ample evidence of in the village of Malugaon. It was rather uncanny to realize that the three villages I had chosen to work in (for completely different reasons) turned out to be the perfect locations to prove the veracity of all three of my friend’s claims.

Finally, to end where I began: what about Tangsaness, that I had set out to understand? My years in the field have told me a thing or two about what it could mean. And also that there was more to it than simply definition. For, in many Tangsa persons I met, there was a strong inherent sense of belonging, a perception of Tangsaness, even if they could not really define what it was, but which none of them was willing to give up. It was this sense that forced them to do something, to select, standardize and modify their songs and dances, and sometimes even invent new cultural markers, with the hope that if not everything, at least something about them and their Tangsaness will remain in the end. What I have seen in the field and have described in my dissertation are some of those attempts at self-definition, in order to resist marginalization and possible erasure.

Hence my work contributes also to the larger and more potent question — ‘can small tribal communities survive in a multi-ethnic state like Assam?’ the answer to which will decide not only who will remain and who will opt out of the state but will also be indicative of whether subaltern voices will matter in this world of ours which is growing increasingly insular and intolerant.

For more about the Tangsa and their stories, visit my blog.

Meenaxi Barkataki-Ruscheweyh is fellow and graduate of the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. She has recently published a monograph on the Tangsa entitled: Dancing to the State: Ethnic Compulsions of the Tangsa in Assam.

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