Thank you all for coming today.
I just wanted to take about 15 minutes to review some of the major points of the dissertation, my major findings and argument, and some of my ideas for moving forward with the project; but, presented in a slightly different, maybe fresher way.
I am going to try and do so without too much reference to place names and ethnonyms, because the dissertation is chalk full of that already, and I’m sure you’ve all had enough of it!
Regarding the theoretical backbone of this dissertation, I think it is hardly surprising that what started out as a dissertation about autonomy and conflict resolution quickly became a dissertation first and foremost about nationality and ethnic identity. I started with the question: How do KCMZ self-determination groups frame and justify their political demands? But what I quickly found was that the major political discussions around issues of autonomy really revolved quite explicitly around questions of ethnic identity.
Which KCMZ subgroups, or “tribes” should and should not be included in various movements for self-determination? Which subgroups should or should not have separate autonomous powers because of their difference from other ethnic kin?
Indeed, it is exactly in the second part of my research question, namely “justify”, that I found the richest, most engaging data during my fieldwork. It was in the process of justification that the tensions and contradictions of KCMZ identity, as presented by SD groups, really came into focus.
The reality on the ground really necessitated, therefore, my treatment of nationalism as action, or, to be more clear, to think of nationalism as a set of ideas around a normative social order that then justifies collective action to bring those ideas into fruition.
In the KCMZ borderlands, these ideas about the social order are far more open, far more flexible than anywhere else I have seen. They are not only flexible on the margins, but really flexible all the way through. There simply is no center, no core. And yet, SD groups present, or try to present, a picture of themselves and the communities they claim to represent as an internally homogeneous and externally heterogeneous ethnic unit.
As I hope is painfully clear to you all, this is simply not the case. The reality is deeply diverse. Yes, they are all Christian, but denominational differences still matter. Yes, their languages are related, but they are rarely mutually intelligible. Yes, they can unproblematically be categorized as indigenous or autochthonous to Mizoram, Manipur, and Chin State, but they also rely on origin stories that place them far outside of these places to further distance themselves from what we might call the “mainstream” in India and Myanmar.
And yet, these terms of recognition, set by Indian and Myanmar institutional requirements, are central to the kinds of narratives put forth by SD groups to both demand autonomy from the state and to justify these demands. Of course, the process doesn’t stop here. These very same terms- religion, language, location- become the foundation of counterclaims put forth by other KCMZ subgroups or tribes to maintain, bolster, or establish their autonomy from more dominant ethnic kin.
And, then, of course, for this case study in particular, these political claims and counterclaims play out not just in the institutional arena, but carry on into the very names that these actors use to refer to their communities, and into the space or territory that they imagine as theirs. This being, as I say in the dissertation, largely a question of inclusion and exclusion with respect to ethnic subgroups.
Contributions: Empirical/Case Study
The major contribution that I think this dissertation makes is first and foremost empirical, by which I mean it presents an investigation into a case that has, in some sense, really never been dealt with before. There is simply no other work on KCMZ movements for self-determination that attempts to take on the whole of the KCMZ borderlands.
The issue of nomenclature , for example, has never had a comprehensive treatment, and just putting together the charts on these terms at the three different levels of usage was a massive undertaking. What analysis on ethnonyms that does exist relies more on historical emergence instead of a look at the underlying variables (i.e. relative power) that motivate the contemporary selection and usage of these terms.
While I am dealing with the issue of self-determination, mainly with regard to autonomy, the real lesson learned here relates back to nationalism and how we conceptualize it. We usually talk about the literature on nationalism as a question between primordialists and constructivists, and then divide constructivists down by causation, namely institutional incentives, modernization, hybridity, and so on. And, of course, the reality is that the primordialists don’t really exist today, and that constructivism is kind of a truism at this point.
Work within the study of nationalism tends to focus on origins, as well, often entirely missing what I consider the point: to understand the political actions motivated by nationalist ideology and the variables that motivate actors to present such ideology in the first place. To put it another way, nationalism is a meaning making endeavor- it allows human beings to conceptualize and categorize themselves and others.
In this dissertation, I draw of picture of KCMZ nationalist movements as competing ideologies, all vying to be seen as the sole legitimate purveyor of a normative social order. What I mean by this, they frame the issues in terms that outline to whom and, by extension, where, autonomous institutions should be established. In other words, who deserves autonomy.
What this allows is for the real-time observation of the constructive process, the ways these stories about KCMZ identity are put forward, debated, and, most importantly for me, the ways they are contested and counter-narratives are put forth.
Contribution: Territory and Territorial Claims
Building on my approach to nationalism, I end up dealing with territory and territorial claims in several ways that I believe shed important light on the meaning behind territorial claims and starts to dismantle its frequent invocation as central to self-determination movements.
I argue that territorial claims in this region are not the primary concern of SD groups. Their open willingness to significantly modify these demands as well as the vague and hugely inconsistent demands that they present in the first place reveals as much. The impetus is clearly on the institutional incentives that territorial autonomy provides. But, more than that these pseudo-imaginary claims also work to remake how KCMZ peoples think of themselves and their connections outside of their immediate territory. Albeit with limited success, as my participant-mapping results highlight.
My participant mapping project really does make a contribution not only to our understanding of spatial conception in the area, but also to the method of participant-mapping in some way. Most of the participant-mapping projects that I am aware of in the social sciences make use of this data collection method by having groups of people participate in making a map. My project utilized more of a survey approach, with about 260 participants working on maps as individuals, across Mizoram, allowing me to compare across cases from a reasonably large sample.
Contributions: Area Studies and Borderlands
Yes, this is certainly an area studies dissertation, but it also challenges the status quo of area studies by breaking down the idea of a wholly separate South and Southeast Asia. Indeed, any review of the area studies literature would have one thinking the South Asia stops east at Bengal, and Southeast Asia at Mandalay, if not Bangkok! So, I really ended up in “no-man’s land,” simultaneously connecting and working outside of South and Southeast Asian Studies. In fact, it is really this critique of our contemporary regional borders that motivated van Schendel’s creation of the term “Zomia” in the first place. It was proposed as a space that transcends ideas of South, Southeast, and East Asia by connecting peoples and places by terrain, political culture, livelihood, and so on. And, its quite true that the peoples of van Schendel and Scott’s Zomia have more in common with each other than with the states and regions they find themselves placed in today.
Beyond this critique of area studies, I also bring in the literature of Borderland Studies to inform my analysis. Borderland Studies, while increasingly important in History, has little to no foothold in political science. This dissertation suggests that borderlands, that space that is both in-between and yet separate from the core regions, is an area where questions of identity and self-determination really come into their own. It is, really by definition, a space in which state power is both on its most ostentatious display and at its most variable. By virtue of being at the margins and always artificial and almost imposed the site of popular challenge to the state. KCMZ irredentist claims or transnational unification projects are one such challenge.
I do imagine turning this dissertation into a book project, because I really do think that I have something important to say about self-determination, ethnicity, and nationalism, and this case in particular deserves some attention.
To that end, I was considering three ways to strengthen the dissertation. First, I think that I could use a more thorough treatment of the role of religion. I do include religion and the role of Christianity at several points in the dissertation, but I think that a more thorough treatment of religion would round out the analysis. Churches are important public spaces in all three of the my fieldsites, and spaces where religious elites really have a weight in public discussions about identity and about difference, drawing distinctions between KCMZ peoples and surrounding Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims.
Secondly, there is a regional puzzle to work out here. Namely, why is it that KCMZ SD movements display such marked contradictions as to effectively stop the emergence of a coherent national narrative? Why does this appear not to be the case with neighboring Naga and Kachin communities? Or, even if they haven’t, how have they managed to appear as if they have. With state-level institutions and borderlands being a constant, what might the variable be here?
Third, I would like to really tease out this idea of uncertainty, ambiguity, and anxiety. During my fieldwork, it really became apparent early on just how uncertainty played a role in the proliferation of narratives about KCMZ identity. Uncertainty seems to function like a causal variable, having a direct impact on how SD groups frame and justify their demands. Uncertainty allows for multiple narratives to exist, because there is no widely agreed upon core narrative that guides this conversation.
After almost a year, I am finally starting to scan, georeference, and analyze my participant-mapping survey that I designed and implemented during my fieldwork in Mizoram from February through April 2017.
Method and Process
While my research was primarily interview-based, interested as I am in the narratives used to support claims for territorial autonomy, I also decided that I needed a more comprehensive way to deal with the spatial aspect of the project. While many of the political organizations making these claims have created their own maps, I wanted to get at the popular imagining and understanding of territory and how it related to issues of nomenclature, ethnonyms, and the inclusion/exclusion dynamics that I have written about here. To that end, I printed off 260 maps, and with my team of very talented local research assistants, asked participants to outline the areas where Mizo, Lai, Mara, Chakma, Kuki, Zo, and a number of other ethnonyms, natively inhabited. The maps varied slightly because of technical limitations at the fieldsites, but here is one for Lawngtlai.
Although I also conducted fieldwork in Manipur and various areas of Myanmar, I only used this survey in Mizoram. I did not feel like it would be appropriate for use in Manipur, because of the very active insurgent presence in the state. While I trusted my hosts in Manipur to keep me out of harms way, I did not trust that I could get neutral research assistants, nor could I guarantee that “wrong” answers would not be harmful to participants. There is no insurgent presence in Mizoram, and there is no reason to suspect that such a survey would cause any tension on the ground. In Myanmar, I felt that conducting a survey would draw too much attention from the local authorities, who likely found my activities somewhat suspicious even as they were. There is also enough uncertainty about cooperating with foreign researchers in Myanmar, let alone those asking one to draw lines on a map.
Most participant-mapping exercises are organized slightly differently. Often, groups of individuals are given a blank surface and drawing tool, and the participants complete the map as a group. I would call this the focus group approach. It is very good for creating one or several final products as well as listening to how participants negotiate with each other over contentious areas. However, I chose to use a survey approach for this participant-mapping exercise, for several reasons: 1) My interview data and informal focus groups revealed a lot of the major debates already; 2) I wanted a slightly more quantitative component to my dissertation research, despite finding statistics to often be tacky; 3) I wanted to get at what individual people thought, not what a couple of strong men forced on the group. My research experience in Mizoram, suggests that this is exactly what would most likely happen if I had gone for a focus group approach.
We did this at 5 different sites throughout Mizoram:
Siaha, Mara Autonomous District, Mizoram: 50 participants
Lawngtlai, Lai Autonomous District, Mizoram: 50 participants
Lunglei, Mizoram: 50 participants
Kamalanagar/Chawgte, Chakma Autonomous District, Mizoram: 50 participants
Aizawl, Mizoram: 60 participants
Here is a general view of the QGIS Map I have created thus far without the survey data.
While I think I deserve a gold medal for just keeping all these surveys safe and sound over my travels, there comes a time when every PhD Candidate has to actually look at their data. This week, I scanned all the map surveys from Lawngtlai as TIFF files, which are particularly well suited to GIS software. I then georeferenced each map individually, adding coordinate points for Dhaka, Mandalay, and Chittagong, so that my GIS software (loyal QGIS user here) could plot the scans as raster data. As I told my students during our one-week GIS module this semester, raster data is, by itself, a lot less useful than you might think. So, I painstakingly created vector data for all the outlined areas. This whole process took four days, just for the 20% of the data…ugh!
Below is an image of the base map I have created thus far, followed by the same base map with several survey responses uploaded to it.
Regardless of the limited scope, the initial results are fascinating and go a long way towards revealing the unique dynamics of territorial claims by transnational populations and borderland inhabitants.
Here are some of the results I’m seeing so far:
1. Most participants seemed to understand the territories of their group and kin in terms of specific localities. Many participants circled specific cities/towns, even though we asked them specifically to only use those cities on the map as a reference point.
2. There is widespread confusion about who exactly the various ethnic/tribal names refer to.
3. Umbrella terms meant to refer to the whole KCMZ population are not widely understood or used. ‘Zo,’ for example, was used as an umbrella term by only 2 people, and a handful of others said that the term only refered to a specific area of Manipur, perhaps reflecting the connection between the Kuki National Organization and the Zo Reunification Organization Northern Front, both of which are Manipur-based.
4. A surprising number of participants did outline the Chakma Autonomous District (CADC) as a “Chakma area.” While many others put the Chakma in various areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar, a good number seemed fine outlining Chakma territory within Mizoram. Considering that many in Mizoram consider the CADC illegitimate (a view I emphatically do NOT endorse), it was surprising that a number of people placed them in the state. This confirms my general feeling that Lai and Mara peoples are less concerns about the Chakma’s status in Mizoram than Mizos living in the north of the state.
5. Very few participants considered Lai or Mara to be part of the Mizo-fold. In Aizawl, most people I talked to considered Lai and Mara peoples to be ‘Mizo,’ but this is clearly not a view shared by Lai themselves. (The results in Siaha among Mara were similar).
6. No one, repeat, not a single participant, outlined the borders of the territory under the administration of the LADC or MADC as equivalent to Lai or Mara areas. No one! This is HUGE!
7. International and domestic borders are seen as both artificial/imposed and (increasingly) natural and internalized. Many participants recognized that they had ethnic kin across the border in Myanmar, but they were not exactly sure where, and were unsure whether Chin and Mizo where equivalent, or whether all Chin were Lai, and so on.
These are, of course, just some initial impressions. Still, they are fascinating and point to some very interesting theoretical and policy conclusions. But, like a good academic, I shall save that for another day!
If you want to know what the future of international affairs in the Asia-Pacific will look like stop looking at India, China, and the United States. Most states in Asia are not great powers, and it how they relate with regional and global hegemons that will set the tone for the future of the region and perhaps the international order.
The small states of South and Southeast Asia are not simply squares on the check-board of the New Great Game. Rather, they are seeking to balance the influence of multiple regional and global actors simultaneously. And, its working in their favor.
The rise of China and its potential challenge to U.S. dominance in the Asia-Pacific remains a major debate for many international analysts, International Relations scholars, and everyone in-between. There is now little question that China is a global power, and it is hard to imagine a future where the United State’s unipolar moment can sustain itself beyond a vague memory. How the relationship between these two massive economic and military powers develops can tell us a lot about what happens when established global powers are confronted with a rising challenger, and its repercussions for international politics, security, and stability.
However, to understand the future of Chinese hegemony in what has long been assumed to be America’s playground, we need to look beyond these two competing great powers. Analysts must first understand how small states are responding to shifting balances of power in the region. Maps that suggest smaller states either align or balance against a rising China miss the unique characteristics of small state foreign policy decision-making.
Small states (defined in loosely relative terms) make foreign policy choices in markedly different ways than their more powerful neighbors.
Scholars and analysts have never really moved past Thucydides’ often (mis)quoted observation that “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.” Fortunately, for Asia’s smaller countries it is the the weak that will ultimately decide the future balance of power in the region.
Smaller/less power states do not simply bandwagon with a rising power or balance against it. It is clear that such states are actually uniquely positioned to do both, and do it with a level of sophistication that few great powers could hope to muster. Professor Evelyn Goh has noted that Southeast Asian states pursue a strategy of “omni-entrenchment,” whereby they seek to attract the interest and influence of multiple regional and global great powers simultaneously. Their primary concern is ensuring their sovereignty. They do that by ensuring that no one country holds the trump card on their economies, security policy, and general decision-making ability.
Mongolia has done this explicitly since its transition to democracy in 1991, where the “Third Neighbor Policy” has been a central component of the small states’ ability to balance the influence of its two overbearing neighbors, China and Russia. It does this by developing strong ties to the United States, Japan, South Korea, India, and the E.U. so as to ensure that multiple countries are entrenched, or have a stake in its continued autonomy and sovereignty. While it is not really possible to balance out the economic influence of China, as a key market for Mongolian natural resources, the country is more than capable of ensuring significant military and diplomatic relations with the U.S., E.U., and U.N. to diversify its economic ties by trade relations with South Korea, Japan, and India.
In Southeast Asia, ASEAN states, with some exceptions, have been an ideal model of omni-entrenchment for quite some time. The goal of countries like Singapore and Indonesia clearly have nothing to do with alignment or balancing. These small states recognize that their interest lies in ensuring an optimal balance of Chinese and American influence. This gives them access to Chinese markets and goods, while relying on U.S. military prowess to guard their security interests.
Myanmar’s own fast-pace democratization and liberalization was largely motivated by its increasing isolation and reliance on Chinese diplomatic and economic relations to the possible detriment of its own sovereignty. The Generals of the Burmese Tatmadaw may have been worried about loosing their own hold on power, but they were even more worried about being isolated with China holding their only lifeline.
For South Asia’s smaller states, namely Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, the circumstances are a bit more complicated, but the guiding logic of omni-entrenchment remains. Rather then concern about the the U.S. or China, these states look almost exclusively to another aspiring, regional hegemon: India. Despite New Delhi’s explicit interest in developing and maintaining friendly relationships with the rest of South Asia, India has taken provocative actions against its neighbors, interfering in domestic politics and trade. India implemented an undeclared trade embargo on Nepal following the passing its new constitution, has supported opposition forces in Bangladesh, and meddled in Sri Lanka’s Tamil areas, to name some examples that would set any state or government on edge.
China is on track to challenge U.S. hegemony around the globe, unless its own tendency towards belligerence, especially, but not exclusively, in the South China Sea holds it back. The United States is not necessarily a more reliable partner for small states in the region, with its history of supporting authoritarian regimes and destabilizing rhetoric and actions in the region.
That said, many observers seem to have missed that small states have more freedom to act and develop their own foreign policy objectives that at any other time in history. The norms of the international system, especially the broad consensus against overt imperialism and colonialism, means that small states cannot be simply conquered and forced to comply with the strong.
Small states that are in the driving seat of Asia-Pacific geopolitics. The good news is that they are not interested in unipolarity, regardless of who is on top. They don’t want Chinese predominance in the region any more than U.S. hegemony. This means that no one powerful state need worry that it will lose all influence or interest. The bad news is that great powers and scholars of international affairs still haven’t gotten the memo, continuing to assume that small states balance or bandwagon (align) in an imagined all-or-nothing game.
Here is the first 1000 words of my dissertation introduction as it stands now. I think it is looking pretty good, all things considered.
The mountainous border areas at the intersection of India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar got a sudden boost in publicity with the publication of The Art of Not Being Governed, in which James C. Scott argues that the highlands of Southeast Asia, for which he borrows the term Zomia, was the world’s largest remaining non-state, self-governing zone until after the Second World War. This book, while perhaps more important to historians and anthropologists than mainstream political scientists, conceptualized hill peoples as “runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys- slavery, conscription, taxes, corvee labour, epidemics, and warfare (ix).” Scott goes onto say that “Virtually everything about these people’s livelihoods, social organizations, ideologies, and…largely oral cultures, can be read as strategic positioning designed to keep the state at arm’s length (x).” However, Scott is the first to admit that none of this holds true for the period roughly after WWII, because the state is now free to advance into these mountainous shatter zones through major technological innovations that allow the state access to what used to be impassable and ungovernable terrain. Almost the entire globe is now “administered space and the periphery is not much more than a folkloric remnant (324).”
What happens after the Second World War and the creation of independent India, Burma/Myanmar, and Pakistan/Bangladesh? When non-state peoples are thrust into a state dominated by the very peoples that Scott argues their cultures were designed to resist, what (political) directions are now available for escape? This is the conceptual territory, from which this dissertation starts. Escaping the state means very different things now than it does in The Art of Not Being Governed. Ethnic groups seeking self-government today are doing so in terms of the emerging right to self-determination, political-territorial autonomy, federalism, and other decentralized forms of government. Not surprisingly, it is still in Zomia that we find movements for self-determination at the center of the political discourse, closely and explicitly tied to developing ethno-national identities, insurgency movements, ethnic conflict, and the institutions designed to contain/control all three. Maintain political difference from the plains below remains the guiding precept of hill politics.
The people that call Zomia home continue to debate the terms of their incorporation into neighboring states. While independence movements have all but died away since the 1980s, movements for autonomy, statehood, or other federal arrangements to keep the state at bay continue to dominate the political landscape. The language of ethnic minority rights, nationalism, indigeneity and other forms of cohesive political identity are taken up with gusto as a way to force the state to concede to demands for self-governance and perhaps even attract some international pressure in the process. This language relies on self-determination seeking groups presenting themselves as representatives of long-established ethno-national communities. However, the picture on the ground is wholly different. Rather than established and identifiable ethno-national communities, many people in Zomia hold widely different views on how their chosen identity is inclusive or exclusive of other related communities, and what the terms should be for collaboration between them. This is true for many communities in the mountainous borderlands at the intersection of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh; however, movements coalescing around the the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zo(mi) supra-ethnic group are especially suitable for studying how national identities have been proposed, contested, and debated in contemporary Zomia, especially at the point in time where James Scott’s analysis becomes untenable. It is here that the process of building a coherent national imaginary is on-going, with little to no signs of a resolution in sight; yet, the political demands on behalf of ethnic groups that have not been entirely imagined or broadly agreed upon continue. Political demands for self-determination coming before a given political identity has even coalesced runs counter to many of the underlying assumptions in literature on autonomy (Safran and Maiz, 2000; Gagnon and Keating, 2012; Benedickter, 2007; Ghai, 2000; and, Weller and Wolf, 2005). It is almost always implicitly assumed that autonomy is granted to groups with at least some level of internal coherence, having passed through the process of nation-building and imagining, and emerging from the other side with political demands.
I argue that, contrary to the assumptions made by much of the literature on territorial autonomy, demands for self-determination do not necessarily proceed the creation of solidified, or broadly agreed upon ethnic or national identities. Rather, it is the process of making, framing, and justifying these demands that actually drives the process of debate and contestation over who is or is not included in the various possible ethnic groupings of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zo(mi) borderlands. The need to frame these debates around the institutional requirements of the state force communities to speak in terms of common languages, religion, ethnic origins, indigeneity, and racial categories, even when these terms are largely inappropriate to the reality on the ground. While the leaders of these diverse social movements might privately admit to the disconnect between their framing and reality, they are reluctant to publicly acknowledge the complexity and ambiguities on the ground. While previous research by James Scott and Willem van Schendel (2002), among others, has shown how these populations operated outside of the state previous to colonial intervention and decolonization, I show how these populations think about their contemporary political struggles, how they simultaneously accept and actively modify the political possibilities of the states they have been incorporated into, and how scholars can best conceptualize conflict and social movements in the new, non-anarchic Zomia.
This is a draft of an op-ed I was working on before winter break. It got lost in the shuffle, but I thought I would publish here for possible reference later.
As fighting continues in Rakhine State, Myanmar, the Rohingya crisis has achieved remarkable international attention. Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State have been denied government services and citizenship, subjected to massive violence at the hands of the Myanmar military and Rakhine/Buddhist nationalists. Many in Myanmar accuse the group of crimes ranging from illegal immigration, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and the rape and molestation of Buddhist women. Recent bombings in Rakhine State have reignited violence in the state, resulting in massive flows of Rohingya refugees in India and Bangladesh. Despite close linguistic and religious connections with Bangladesh, especially so with Chittagong, where most refugees have settled, their position in the state is precarious at best. Many have also sought refuge in India, where they have had better access to relief services, but are still in a precarious position, largely unwelcome, with many calling for their immediate repatriation, despite no signs of improvement in the situation their places of origin.
While the Rohingya crisis is certainly a major tragedy, with strong genocidal undertones and a disturbing glance at the future of ethno-religious politics in a transitional Myanmar, the conflict has not been confined to the dyadic relationship between Rakhine nationalists and Rohingya Muslims. Rakhine state is also home to a significant Chin population. In the past two days, over 1200 Chin refugees from the northern Arakan Hills have entered Mizoram through Lawngtlai, capital of the Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC).
These Chin refugees are fleeing violent clashes between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the Arakan Army, one of the few insurgent groups in the country that hasn’t signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, or been active in political negotiations between Myanmar’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the military, and the government.
Chin communities in Rakhine State are ethnically closely related to Mizos, and even more so to the Lai communities of Lawngtlai District, seat of the LADC. Despite religious connections through a shared Baptist-Christian faith and linguistic similarities, Chin refugees have not always been welcome in Mizoram. Major clashes have broken out twice in the past two decades, with far-right, conservative elements in the Young Mizo Association and Mizo Student Association (Mizo Zirlai Pawl) accusing refugees of rape, drug smuggling, and human trafficking. Both clashes included the distribution of “Quit Mizoram” notices, a slogan also used by the Mizo National Front during the insurgency period from 1966 to 1987. Recently, relations between Mizos and their ethnic kin in Myanmar have improved dramatically, with the creation of TV documentaries highlighting the similarities between the two groups, and exchange programs encouraging interaction and communication across international borders. However, Chin civil society leaders remain unsure about how long this improvement will last. The LADC has historically been welcoming of Lai/Hakha refugees, but that acceptance has never been tested in so intensive a way.
At present, the Union Minister of India has instructed the Chief Minister of Mizoram, Pu Lalthanhawla, to allow the refugees to stay in Mizoram, and the LADC has been preparing food and shelter arrangements. However, moving provisions in this extremely mountainous state often takes days, even in the best road and weather conditions.
Beyond logical limitations, the influx of refugees comes at a particularly difficult time for the Mizoram state government, which has been dealing with its own refugee crisis in the western part of the state. Over the past couple months, protests have been breaking out against the state’s growing Chakma population, many of whom are accused of being illegal immigrants from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Although many Chakma in Mizoram are indigenous to the area, their is an undoubtable influx of refugees and other types of migrants from the restive CHT. Chakma speak an Indo-European language, far closer to Bangla than the Tibeto-Burman languages of Mizoram. They are also Theravada Buddhists, marking them for extra suspicion in the strongly and reactively Christian state. Tensions between the communities have slowly simmered since the influx of refugees during the flooding of huge swaths of traditional Chakma territory by the Pakistan government with the creation of the Kaptai Dam in 1962, and the insurgent movements in the CHT from 1977 to 1997. This year, tensions took on a more aggressive tone, with calls for massive anti-immigration drives and the immediate forced repatriation of Chakma asylum seekers. Prompted by the inclusion of one Chakma student from Mizoram for a position in the state university, the YMA and MZP have organized protests and threatened violence for what they see as a reduction in the rights of Mizo youth for a population whose residence in Mizoram is commonly seen as illegitimate.
Earlier this year, reports of hundreds of refugees entering Mizoram through Siaha, capital of the Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC) just southeast of Lawngtlai, marked the connection between the Rohingya crisis and Mizoram. While Muslims have been fleeing for the relative safety of Bangladesh, Chin communities caught in the crossfire are fleeing to Mizoram in unprecedented numbers. The LADC has noted that the refugees are settling just on the other side of the border, and that the local police and Assam Rifles are working closely together to patrol the border, with the likely aim to both control the influx of refugees and ensure that the Mizoram does not become a safe haven for the Arakan Army.
The crisis in Rakhine State has far greater repercussions than the already sufficiently tragic circumstances of the Rohingya population. While fighting has more or less ceased in Chin State, Chin peoples in Rakhine find themselves in the crosshairs and cross fire of a conflict that really has nothing to do with them. The repercussions of their fleeing to Mizoram may have pronounced effects on politics in a state that already prides itself on not being welcoming to refugees. Indeed, President Trump’s anti-immigration message is extremely possible in Mizoram, where populist messages and fears of being over powered by outsiders ring true, even if taken outside the US context.
Let's just admit that it is quite impossible to adequately prepare for fieldwork to a place that you have never visited before and few have written on. When I ventured into the borderlands at the intersection of India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, I was ready to learn a lot about life in the hills, about Mizoram's political movements, about Manipur's multiple and overlapping insurgencies, and Chin State's position within a liberalizing Myanmar. I was wholly unaware however, that even finding an adequate name to call this group of people is politically contentious. This is one of the few places that I know of where the basic question of what to call ones' group (ethnic, national, "tribal," etc.) is a political act. It indicates your own geographical position, your political affiliations, and any number of other identity characteristics. These are not small debates, they are central to political movements for autonomy and self-determination; tied explicitly and implicitly to insurgent movements, party politics, identity debates, and civil society.
As part of an article/dissertation chapter on nomenclature and power, I have tried to come up with a basic typology of different ethnonyms and their use across the entirety of the Kuki-Chin-Mizo-Zomi sphere (itself a rather cumbersome and contentious phrase, which I am shortening to KCMZ in the dissertation).
Here, I call those terms meant to refer to all Kuki-Chin-Mizo peoples without tribal/clan distinctions of geographic specificity as “umbrella terms.” Terms that include all KCMZ peoples, but that are geographically bounded by existing international or domestic/administrative boundaries are “middle-range.” While “short-range terms” can refer to any tribal/clan distinction, on this list I only include those communities that display a large degree of political activity and have rejected both umbrella and middle-range terms. To add another element of confusion, many of the terms used can move between levels of inclusivity/exclusivity.
*This is all based on 6.5 months of intensive fieldwork in the areas inhabited by KCMZ peoples, making use of 100s of interviews, participant-observation, participant-mapping, and archival work.
Zo (1): In its first usage, Zo is used in reference to a mythical progenitor of the nation, and inclusive of all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speaking peoples. Since 2015, some have included Kachin peoples in northern Myanmar in this grouping. This is more often articulated in Mizo as Zo hnathlak, or branches of Zo. This is the usage used most often by ZoRO (Zo Reunification Organization), which aims to reunite the Zo people culturally, socially, and politically. ZoRO’s northern front in southern Manipur uses the term exclusively in this sense.
Zo (2): In its second usage, Zo is used to mean highlands, highlander, or related to highlands (i.e. as an adjective). This is most often encountered understanding of the term in Mizoram, and used by the Mizoram branches of ZoRO. It is inclusive of all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speaking peoples, and occasionally Kachin people as well, although I can find no example of Kachin using the term themselves. It does NOT refer to neighboring communities, such as Bru, Chakma, and Naga.
Zomi: As an umbrella term, Zomi is used in Manipur and northern Chin State as an alternative to Zo (1). It is used explicitly as an alternative to Kuki in Manipur and to Chin in Chin State. Supporters of this term argue that Zomi is an indigenous ethnonym and, as such, is more appropriate than the supposedly foreign Kuki. Supporters also argue that Zomi is not dominated by a specific subgroup, tribe, or linguistic group; therefore, it has the most opportunity to unite a diverse range of people.
Mizo: Although more often used in the middle to short range, Mizo is occasionally used as an umbrella term, more or less synonymous with Zo (2). This usage was most popular during the insurgency in Mizoram, led by the Mizo National Front (MNF). This is rarely encountered, but the political and economic success of Mizoram as a state and the common use of the Mizo language as a lingua franca play a major role. Chakma activists fighting for basic political rights in Mizoram have recently referred to themselves as Mizo, in the sense of highland-dwelling peoples, translating the term Jumma Jati from Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Kuki: When used as an umbrella term, Kuki is in direct conflict with Zomi. The Kuki National Organization (KNO) uses the term as both an umbrella term and a middle-range term. Supporters of this term note that Kuki is more recognizable and more widely used than Zomi. They point to its use in the Manipuri Chronicles as evidence of its long-term application to their community. In the KNO’s chronology, Kuki precedes the use of Chin and Mizo, a chronology largely supported by the available evidence.
Chin: While no one denies that Chin is a Burmese word, the indigenous communities of Chin State use the term usually unproblematically. Its use as an umbrella term is rare, but it is occasionally heard.
Tlangmi: This is a rather under-utilized term, meaning something like Mountaineer. Its exact application is difficult to delineate, but it is normally used as a depoliticized version of Zo (2). In theory it could, but rarely does, apply to other highland dwelling peoples, including Nagas, Khasi, and Kachin/Jingpaw.
Zomi (1): In Chin State, Zomi is used as a middle-range term to refer to all Kuki-Chin-Mizo speakers in Chin State, only. This sense of the term is used by some Zomi organizations in Chin State and the Kalay-Kabaw valley. It use is largely confined to a community also termed Tedim (Chin).
Zomi (2): In Manipur, Zomi can be used to refer to Kuki-Chin-Mizo (hereafter KCM) peoples in Manipur only. While many supporters of the term might hold onto Zomi as an umbrella term, they recognize the difficulty of changing the nomenclature across state or international borders; therefore, they have scaled back the application of the term for practical considerations.
Mizo: In Mizoram, many will argue that Mizo can be applied to all KCM speakers residing in Mizoram, especially if they can speak Mizo in addition to whatever their mother language might be. Most often, the majority Lushai residing in central Mizoram apply this term to smaller communities, often without their consent.
Kuki: Much like the Zomi supporters, Kuki users usually apply the term Kuki to all KCM speakers in Manipur. This is done for practical purposes, with groups like the KNO noting that they felt they needed to focus on their communities in Manipur first, and let the next generation worry about unity across state/country lines. This restriction in usage comes after the Mizo Peace Accord, which effectively ended irredentist movements by these communities.
Chin: In Chin State, Chin is almost always used in the middle sense to refer to those KCM communities in Chin State and adjoining areas of Myanmar.
Lai: In Chin State, Lai can be used as a synonym with Chin, with some arguing that other tribal names are actually sub-divisions of Lai. Much of this appears to be the result of confusion, because of Lai political dominance in Chin State. It is unsurprising, therefore, that only Lai-speakers use Lai in the middle-range, whereas all other tribal groups use it is a most more restricted sense.
Zomi: While Zomi ideally refers to a middle-range or umbrella term, most of the people who have adopted this term are from a particular linguistic/cultural group: Paite in Manipur and Tedim in Chin State. While its use as a short range term in Manipur is rare, in Chin State and the Kalay-Kabaw valley, it is very common, especially for outsiders to refer to a Zomi language or Zomi people as a subgroup of Chin.
Mizo: Those communities not part of the Lushai tribe/clan or whose first language is not Duhlian, usually use Mizo to refer specifically to those people specifically, and almost never to themselves. While the term emerged as an umbrella term, after the insurgency period in Mizoram, its usage was restricted. Smaller, non-Mizo communities have to further restrict the term to maintain their own identity. These include Mara, Paite, Hmar, and Lai in Mizoram.
Mara: Mara language speakers living in Mizoram largely reject the term Mizo as a middle-range term, seeing it as a threat to their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness. Previously, the term Lakher was applied to community, but it was later rejected as a Mizo-imposed term, with Mara replacing it in all official contexts. Mara have a degree of political influence in Mizoram through the Mara Autonomous District Council (MADC).
Lai: While Lai are dominant in Chin State, in Mizoram they represent a minority population currently experience of a significant amount of linguistic shift, with many young Lai only fluent in Mizo. Politically, many Lai reject the term Mizo as a middle-range term. Like the Mara, they were previously called Pawi by Mizo speakers. They also have a degree of power in the state through the Lai Autonomous District Council (LADC).
Paite/Tedim: Paite and Tedim refer to the same linguistic group, known as Paite in India (foothill dwellers) and Tedim in Chin State. In both countries Paite/Tedim have largely adopted the term Zomi, but some maintain the use of Paite or Tedim, especially in Mizoram, where Zomi sounds distinctly Manipuri in origin and irrelevant to Mizoram’s political/demographic concerns.
Hmar: Hmar (meaning “north”) are a diverse subgroup of the KCM peoples, and have many political divisions. Hmar living in Aizawl and surrounding areas often accept Mizo as a middle-range term, while Hmar in the northern areas of Mizoram, far removed from the state capital, have at various times asserted their rights as a distinct community. A short-lived insurgency movement resulted in the creation of the Sinlung Hills Development Council (SHDC) as a step towards a Hmar Autonomous District Council in the north of Mizoram. There are Hmar armed groups in Manipur fighting under both Zomi and Kuki groups, as well as under their own name. In Assam, Hmar insurgents demand separate recognition as well, without any apparent reference to KCMZ unity.
This is, of course, just a first attempt, and given the complexity and confusion on the ground, let alone those that an outsider brings to the situation, I am sure there are things that can be phrased more elegantly, and perhaps even options that I have missed. This confusion and the contestation embedded in these terms is likely why I have seen no such attempt at this kind of nomenclature/ethnonym categorization before. Still, the categories seem to make sense and may, with some revision, be a useful resource for others working in similar areas.
Do let me know what you think!
First of all let me extend my gratitude to the ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute for arranging this seminar as well as my whole month at ANU and Canberra. I want to highly encourage everyone to look into the resources available to them through this collaboration between ANU and Indiana University. Especially have a look at the graduate exchange option, and feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about possibilities at Indiana University. I hope to see some of you in Bloomington soon!
This seminar is based off the most recent iteration of my dissertation prospectus, which I have had to modify significantly in the past 6 weeks or so. Indeed, I had originally planned to conduct my field research in Dhaka, but with recent events in Bangladesh, I have decided that is no longer feasible. The new project is, I believe, actually an improvement though, so I have certainly gotten over any professional distress that I might have been feeling on July 1st.
My dissertation project is driven by a simple puzzle: How do people deal with the contradictions inherent in any national identity? We are all aware that nations are constructed entities. We also all know that, thanks to Benedict Anderson and others, that all nations are” imagined.” Not in the sense that they are not real, but in the sense that no one individual actually knows the entirety of the nation, nor does one’s conception of that national identity hold true for the entirety of the population and territory claimed. There are, I would say, inherent and glaringly obvious contradictions in any national claim, and, importantly, most people are likely to be completely aware of these contradictions! They have, however, reasoned around them, framed them, mostly in god-awful political speak, in such ways as to appear more consistent or logically palatable to insiders. Not only are these conceptual deals not immediately obvious to outsiders, but uncovering them is a puzzling undertaking, because of the numerous, almost infinite, options available to individuals and groups to frame and bracket off national identity contradictions and inconsistencies. Indeed, I would argue that it cannot be done through a positivist approach to political “science”, but rather is an almost ideal application for interpretativist and ethnographic approaches to social inquiry and explanation.
In this seminar, I want to go over some of the more recent developments in the study of “nationalism,” focusing on the exciting new work going beyond the rather simple “it’s all socially constructed” truism. I then want to talk a bit about interpretative methods in American political science and how this fits in with the study of nationalism and the kind of social meaning-making/semiotic systems that I am interested in. I then want to jump into some of the areas, in which I see contradictions in Bengali national identity, and some of the important and politically significant outcomes of these inconsistencies. Finally, I want to share how I propose studying this topic from an interpretative standpoint and what my initial claims are going forward.
New Nationalism Literature
Some recent books on the origins of nationalism have, thankfully, stepped away from ideas that national identity is an inherently “modern” phenomenon, with relatively shallow roots. Rather, the trend, as I read it anyways, is to appreciate that nationalism has a deep history and is just as much tied to ethnic or cultural identities and practice as it is to history and the emergence of the state and subsequently the nation-state. In this regard, new scholars are problematizing Anderson’s argument and pushing it in different and, I think, intellectually exciting and analytically useful directions.
Surely, what defined Anderson’s work is its clear contribution to the field and its wholehearted dismissal of primordial and especially biological theories of nationalism. Thank the goddesses that we can get rid of ideas of biological nationalism, at least in the academy! However, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I am absolutely on board with the idea that nationalism, like any identity, is constructed, and I might be able to concede that the contemporary use of the word “nation” and its related terms are a thoroughly modern concept. That said, the idea of political identities, affiliations, and communities being based on ethno-national identity is not new at all. This is best shown in Gat and Yakonson’s 2012 book Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. These authors argue that nationalism is part of a broader notion of political ethnicity. Defining ethnicity as shared kinship and culture- real or perceived- they show that ethnicity has always been highly politicized and was a clear factor in the types of political arrangements that predated the “modern” states, if we accept that such a category truly exists. Petty-states, city-states, empires, etc. all had a component of shared identity, that we would now call ethnicity. Anthony Smith’s 1986 book The Ethnic Origins of Nations, is a good example that this is not necessarily a new line of thought, but it is one that needs to keep being modified in response to important critiques from the “modernists” and more ahistorical conceptions of constructivism. For my research question, this points to the deep roots of nationalism as well as the continually adaptive nature of national identity discourses. That is to say that while nationalism is not the thoroughly modern concept that some might consider it to be, it is also in a constant state of flux to adapt itself so as to remain relevant to as large a section of a given population as possible. National discourse have to ring true to people in order to be taken up and believed in.
As a lean in to interpretativist methodologies, let me finish this section on nationalism by discussing Lisa Wedeen’s fantastic 2009 book Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen. In this book, Wedeen takes on an important question: How is it that Yemenis have come to invoke and seemingly believe in a Yemeni nation without strong state institutions and in the face of other competing nationalist claims, such as the Islamic Ummah or pan-Arab identity. (Many of these same concerns with a little revision apply to Bangladesh as well!). To answer this question, she treats nationalism as a contingent category, which is what I want to focus on here. By “contingent”, Wedeen means more than the simple idea of nationalism as constructed. Rather, she invokes the idea that nationalism as a concept exists because it is performed. In other words, nationalism as an identity or an ideology is contingent on people referencing it and performing it in their day-to-day lives. In many ways, this is a continuation of her argument in her 1999 book Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbolism in Syria, in which she argues that the lack of obvious opposition to Syria’s authoritarian leader, Hafiz al-Asad, is based on Syrians performing obedience to the state alongside more underground critiques of the political situation. Few actually supported Damascus, but almost all were willing to perform obedience publically and disobedience privately. Again, political identity is treated as performative. So, to bring this into a more subjective light, “American” national identity exists because people behave as if it is a real thing. We salute the flag in primary school, and our national history is told as if the “US” was a natural entity, unproblematic in both its genesis and reach. But, outside of the rhetorical and discursive debates that invoke certain ideas of an “American” and “America.” As Gertrude Stein wrote in reference in Oakland, California in
1937, “there is no there there”, in the strict objective and material sense, but rather a concept that is given meaning by people.
Interpretive social science, as explained by Lisa Wedeen, likely its most well-known champion in the United States, is driven by four important ideas. Interpretative social scientists question the power presumed to accompany “science”; see the world as constructed and socially made; eschew the individualist orientation of rational choice and behavioralism; and tend to focus on language and symbolic systems, sometimes referred to as culture. The questions guiding such research are often along the lines of “How does X get taken for granted” and “How does Y change over time.” In this sense it is an ideal approach, methodologically, ontologically, and epistemologically for the study of national identity. Of course, identities are constantly in flux. Of course, it is impossible for me to make any claims to complete scientific Truth about what other people are thinking or how they make sense of their world. And, of course, nationalism is often taken as a granted by many people, a natural category that is true because its falsehood is not an option.
I understand interpretivism as a methodology rather than as a method, a distinction that is hugely important for understanding interpretive social inquiry and also its incommensurability with more mainstream, positivist approaches . I use methodology to refer to a way of understanding the world: what can we know, how can we know it, and why is it important. Methodologies guide researchers in forming research questions and determine the basic underlying logic of any research project. Methods, then, refer to the actual data collection tools employed to carry out one’s research. After deciding what kinds of data are important and what is actual out there to study, then and only then can specific methods be chosen.
Interpretivism comes along with a commitment to understanding how people make sense of their own world, and how we create systems of meaning, so that our actions are not simply what we are in fact doing, but what we are intending to do. Clifford Geertz’s story about winking is a good example. A wink is literally just a closing and opening of the eyelid, but it is given meaning through context and shared understandings so that a wink can be a secret signal, a flirtation, or a gesture of reassurance. In other words, any action must be recognizable to others. In order to find these patterns of meaning, the researcher will usually rely on historical, ethnographic, or textual/discursive methods of inquiry. Furthermore, she will give up on the false gods of positivist research such as deduction, falsifiability, replicability, and any notion of neutral objectivity. However, and this is where interpretivists differ from post-modernists and post-structuralists, there is generally believed to be a some degree of empirical truth. In my case and many others, there is also a normative framework and a decidedly critical foundation to such research. In this way, I find that interpretative analysis is less prone to saying that there are only discourses and no truths out there, as if everyone’s point of view is equal. Rather, there is something out there to study, and while you can never know it without reference to your own cultural context and can never hold onto the entirety of it, you can reveal and important piece of it.
In the study of nationalism, this suggests that how people make sense of their nation, the specific ways that they understand their “imagined community” is actually more important than the fact that the identity is constructed. How they deal with the contradictions or inconsistencies of their identity reveals a lot about the ways that people attribute meaning and even stability to what is by definition an unstable concept.
Now, I noted above that interpretive methodologies are emphatically not post-modern. Indeed, they are still concerned with explaining the empirical world. So, let me now get into the empirical meat of this seminar. My study is concerned with Bengal, which I would broadly equate with the Bengal Delta, including at a minimum West Bengal and Bangladesh; however, as I will point out even this modest claim is contentious. I don’t wish to spend a lot of time talking about the general history of the region; rather, I want to jump right into 2 areas that I find particularly interesting: language and religion. There are certainly more, but I think that these two are enough to understand the basic logic of my project.
Bengali nationalism is tied to Bangla, the major language spoken in the delta. Bangla, an Indo-European language, linked to Sanskrit, but with a fairly distinct grammar and phonology, is spoken by around 300 million, making it, by some estimates, the sixth or seventh most spoken language on the planet. (And yet, my mother, bless her heart, didn’t think it was a real language). And yet, the boundaries of what is considered “Bangla” and what is not is not just political, but often in a state of change. For example, as the British pushed north from Calcutta into Assam, they were convinced, by Bengali middlemen, that Assamese was an irregular and corrupted form of Bangla, and as such initial language policy in Assam was designed to promote spoken and written Bangla. Nowadays, however, Assamese is not only considered a separate language, politically and linguistically, but the divisions between Assamese and Bangla are important markers of difference and “the other”, if you will permit me to use such cliched language. However, languages just as distinct as Assamese from Standard Bangla are fully accepted as within the Bengali fold. Chittagonian and Rohingya, for example, display markedly different pronunciation, verb endings, negation, and pronouns. For example: I have done- ami korechi- becomes “ai gojonde” and “I didn’t do” goes from “ami kori ni” to “ai nagori.” At the same time, Chakma, a language with Tibetan-Burman roots, but has taken on such a large degree of Bangla vocabulary and grammar structures, that it is now considered Indo-European, are distinctly outside the bounds of Bengali nationalism.
This is not about objective criteria. Rather the discourse of Bengali nationalism is what ties Chittagong to Dhaka and keeps the Chakma at arms length. Chittagongians are Muslims, and, as far as I know, they do not have a separate literary tradition. While the colloquial might be linguistically distinct- far too distinct to count as a dialect- the political affiliation is clear. Chittagongians and other Bengalis consider people in Chittagong to be Bengali, and so it is true and performed as if it is true. On the other hand, Chakma are culturally and religiously distinct, perhaps even more so by these two markers than by language. There is no discourse or national identity option that allows for Chakma to be considered part of the Bengali nation, on either side. Importantly, however, there is also no room in the alternative discourse of Bangladeshi nationalism that recognizes non-Bengalis and non-Muslims as part of the nation.
Linguistic nationalism might be the prevalent in South Asia, where state external and internal boundaries have often been decided along linguistic lines; however, we also know that religion can, and often is, treated, as just as salient an ethnic marker in the region. Indeed, there are many books written on South Asia where “ethnic” conflict is actually Hindu-Muslim conflict. Ashutosh Varshney’s 2002 book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, comes to mind as a good example. There are at least four major world faiths practiced in the Delta in addition to animistic belief systems: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Buddhism and Christianity are comparatively rather minor and less politically important, so I will set them aside for now. Of course religious nationalism was behind partitioning Bengal in 1947, and its contestation is clearly central to Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, during which Bengalis fought against the Pakistani military for independence from West Pakistan on the grounds of linguistic, cultural, and economic rights. It was also the impetus behind the 1905 partition of Bengal. In both cases the reaction was mixed. In 1905, the opposition to the partition was made by Hindu Bengalis who relied on the discourse of national unity as well as economic necessity for overturning the decision in 1911. East Bengalis were, however, largely supportive of the deal because it provided the opportunity for freedom from landowners, largely based in Calcutta. In the 1947 partition, clearly ideas of a united Pakistan played a role. However, Joya Chatterji in her 1995 book Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition has also shown that Hindu Bengali elites were also supportive of the partition, because they recognized that in a democratic system a united Bengal would have a Muslim majority. (I should point out the this book is highly controversial, but I think it is an important contribution nonetheless). Since 1971, independent Bangladesh has been almost strangled by contested national discourses, where different sectors of the population profess different ideas of national identity ranging from secular Bengali nationalism to a distinctly Bengali-Muslim identity, and even into pan-Islamic nationalism where ethnicity is irrelevant within the bounds of a united Muslim ummah or community.
I want to now move to a quick discussion of how I intend to actually utilize an interpretativist methodology to the study of contradictions and reasoning in Bengali nationalism. Remember that my broad research question is: How do people deal with the contradictions inherent in any national identity? Bengal is really an awesome and ideal case study for this type of research because of the political boundaries that divide it, as well as the dynamic, indeed often incendiary nature of nationalist debates in the region. Bengali intellectuals, which if we take the national stereotype to the extreme, is practically every literate Bengali, have hotly debated the emergence and the challenges to Bengali nationalism. What's more, these debates seem to have a kind of depth to them, where many people not conventionally concerned with elite nationalism do take part in conversations about identity, the country, and their political identity. With this mind, I am proposing that my research utilize ordinary language interviews and participant mapping alongside textual analysis of archival and other locally published materials, all conducted with a certain “ethnographic sensibility.” My current plan is to conduct fieldwork from January-July 2017, based in Kolkata, but with additional travel to other areas of West Bengal and perhaps Bangladesh, if the security situation allows.
The best examples of ordinary language interviews that I can think of are Fred Schaffer’s work on the use of “democracy” in the Wolof and other linguistic groups in Senegal. By focusing in on how the concept of the “demokaraasi” is used less in reference to voting and leadership and more in reference to community ties and dealing with crises through consensus, Schaffer shows us that while “democracy” might be used globally, what people mean when they actually use the term is highly variable. (Here I think about a fun Russian word play where demokratiya is changed slightly to dermokratiya, meaning shit-ocracy, a reflection on the instability experienced during the 1990s). A fellow IU graduate, Ahmed Khanani, did a similar study in Morocco looking at the meaning behind the term “demokratiiya” as used by Islamist parties in the country.
The underlying logic here is that you focus on words that have a lot of conceptual ambiguity or are used inconsistently across cultural linguistic groups and with enough interviews you begin to delimit the actual meaning of the concept as people actually use it. This is, of course, quite a radical departure from the Goertz-like obsession with conceptual clarity or even the more classical Santori-esque argument about conceptual stretching. Rather, we recognize that terms are never well defined, but that we can find out what these terms actually mean to the people using them to better understand political processes. In my project, it seems useful to use ordinary language interviews as a way to get at what people mean when they use the term “Bengali” and what other terms might be available that modify that identity, such as “Bangladeshi”, “Bengali Muslim”, etc. The emphasis will be on understanding the limits of these terms, but also identifying and pushing people on aspects of the definition that don’t add up. In this way, I will hear their justifications and reasonings, which is, of course, the core concern of my research.
Participant mapping here might come as a bit of a surprise, but I am extremely interested in geospatial analysis and its applications to interpretive work. Now, every time I seem to talk about my project most people are invariably confused with why I have this GIS component, because I have in the past treated it as a separate component. Rather, I want to emphasize here that geospatial analysis in my research will be utilized through participant mapping and historical maps. I am thinking that I will have each interviewee draw out where they consider the territory of the Bengali nation to be on a map with only the land masses delineated, but without reference to current political boundaries. I can then digitize these and use GIS software - I’ll be using QGIS over ArcGIS, because I am more familiar with that program- to compare across interviews and highlight areas that vary the most significantly. This approach can then be extended and deepened by comparing these maps to those published in archival and other secondary sources. The goal with this approach is to understand where the areas of contention lie, what importance internal and international borders may or may not have, and how people deal with the clearly non-Bengali areas of the Delta.
Archival resources and locally published materials will be a hugely important component of this research program. But, rather than try and construct a historical narrative, I am more interested in the ways that “Bengali” and its derivative terms have been used over time. I am also hugely interested in how Bengali intellectuals have historically been and continue to deal with the idea of Bengal and Bengali-ness. Ideally, I would be able to interview a large number of these authors, focusing on the differences between their writings and information given in the interview, with proper anonymity, of course.
Ethnographic sensibility, an embarrassingly cumbersome term, is essentially an attempt to indicate that while I think of this as an ethnographic, participant-observation-based project, my timeline is a bit condensed. Rather than be a stand-alone ethnography, my combination of methods is designed to fill in the gaps that would inherently arise from a more ethnographic or participant-observation-based project with only 7 months of fieldwork. We might then think of this as following the supposed logic of multi-method research, but without the need for or want of statistical analysis, which would be completely inappropriate for this type of research.
By way of conclusion, I thought I would end where most finished studies begin, namely, what I expect to find in the field. Now, this is explicitly not a deductive project, and I am not making claims to a timeless and objective TRUTH. But, I will be offering explanations of the phenomenon I observe backed with “data” gathered in the field. So, I thought perhaps in place of “hypotheses”, I would offer some expected findings or “claims”, that I expect to be guiding explanations for my future dissertation:
1.Bengali Nationalism is performative, and treated that way by the majority of people that invoke it. Being Bengali will depend on choosing “good Bangla” words, referencing core Bengali literary figures, and referring to connections with other Bengalis across borders. As a side note, I really love this idea of a “good Bangla words”. Many people in Bangladesh would tell me something along the lines “there is a good Bangla words for X” “Bhalo Bangla ache”, where X is either an English or Persian loan word. The good Bangla word is almost invariably a high register Sanskrit loan word, by the way.
2.Contradictions, while widely acknowledged, become unimportant in the space and context of when Bengali identity is evoked or invoked, as the case may be. I suspect that the key differences in language and religion are widely known, and that many people recognize the different and competing national claims at work throughout the Delta, such as Indian, Hindu, Islamic, and/or Bangladeshi nationalist claims. However, the concept of a Bengali nation will be referenced and rhetorically strengthened in contexts where those contradictions appear to be irrelevant to those making the identity claim.
3.The importance of the identity is subject to temporal change, depending on its utility and ability to stick. Here I am thinking about how certain sectors of the population will be unconcerned with national claims. Not only class barriers, but also age may play a difference. Certainly even the most artificial of borders can over a generation or so be completely normalized.
So, let me stop here and turn the floor over to you, because I am sure you are thinking…
…”OMG, is he done yet?”
Thank you all for coming today, and let’s jump into the more interactive half of the seminar, shall we?
Much media attention has been paid to the foreign policy platforms of Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump; however, we know almost nothing about Jill Stein’s or the Green Party of the United States’ (GPUS) foreign policy proposals. Yes, we can be reasonably confident that that Jill 2016 will not be winning the 2016 election (although we should not discount the possibility completely), but with Stein polling at 7% nationally in a recent CNN poll and many Sanders supporters having pledged #BernieOrBust and, more importantly, #BernieOrStein, maybe it is time to pay at least passing attention to Dr. Jill Stein’s foreign policy platform.
The GPUS official platform and Jill Stein’s official campaign website make a clear and consistent foreign policy position based on diplomacy, soft power, and a radical rethinking of U.S. foreign policy priorities. The platform highlights 6 key points, which range from the predictable to the completely underappreciated: Peace and Disarmament, Peace in the Middle East, Trade, Human Rights, and Puerto Rican Independence. Within these six points, the Green Party highlights in detail their interest in multilateralism, noninterventionism, diplomacy, serious restrictions on chemical and biological weapons and landmines, and increasing soft power through the support of human rights and the rights to self-determination outlined in the UN charter.
Specifically, the campaign’s platform proposes cutting the US military budget by 50% and the closure of over 700 military bases. This is to be followed with the immediate suspension of military and financial support to human rights abusers, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Under a Stein presidency, she would also move to work with Russia to jointly reduce the two countries’ nuclear arsenal. All of these proposals have been internally consistent, and more importantly correspond to a clear, theoretically informed understanding of how the US can best guarantee its security in the contemporary international system.
Theory and Context
What becomes immediately clear to anyone reading the GPUS platform and listening to Jill Stein’s numerous interviews on news networks like The Young Turks, The Real News Network, RT, and CNN is that the foreign policy priorities of the party and its candidates are not as far out there as one might expect. Furthermore, they are firmly based in IR theory and supported by the findings of several important studies in the discipline. Namely, Greens seem to implicitly understand the arguments of defensive realism.
Although Green Party is primarily a party for social justice, and their platform is constructed with an eye towards improving the condition of marginalized and oppressed peoples both in the United States and elsewhere, their foreign policy is not based on impractical idealism but rather explicitly recognizes the anarchy of the international system and the ways that states compete within that system.
The basic tenant of realism is that states are the primary actors in an international system defined by anarchy, meaning that all states are operating without an overarching order or another more powerful actor dictating their interactions. This basic reality means one of two things: 1) states will pursue policies that aim to make them the dominant power in the system taking offensive, bellicose actions to fight for supremacy (offensive realism); 2) states will be hesitant to take actions that could result in a coalition of other states against them, and will instead work to ensure their own stability and national security through defensive means (defensive realism).
The Green Party platform clearly recognizes some of the basic tenants of defensive realism and soft power, while simultaneously proposing reforms based on ideas of social and environmental justice. It is not about idealism or hopes for a utopian future, but rather reflects substantive thought about the nature of power and the international system. Today, the United States facing challenges to its presumed authority in many parts of the globe and has been on a collision course with many states since the emergence of the unipolar moment with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Jill Stein’s foreign policy proposals are designed to shift US priorities away from offensive notions of the national interest and to a grand strategy that seeks to make the US less of an international threat to peace and security. By reducing military spending and foreign bases, other global powers such as Russia and China will be less incentivized to develop parallel capabilities and adopt bellicose positions vis-à-vis US interests. By reengaging the US in a serious way with international treaties, disarmament, and human rights, the Green Party will allow the US to live up to its own rhetoric. Washington has too long relied on the language of human rights and international peace without shaping its own policies to actually achieve these goals. A Stein presidency would put the US back in the driver’s seat of international cooperation and ensure its own security in a much more effective way, assuming that the logic of defensive realism hold true.
Taking Stein Seriously
The Hillary, Bernie, and Trump campaigns’ foreign policies have been dissected by numerous journalists and international affairs analysts. And while they have spanned the gamut from the truly insane and divorced from reality (guess who’s?), to business as usual and progressive reforms, they have all been thoroughly considered by the voting public. Jill Stein’s bid for the presidency is not based on winning the 2016 election, but on the long game of encouraging reform and changing the electoral system. As this brief theoretical analysis of her foreign policy has shown, this not a critique based on unrealistic idealism but on the hard realities of our current domestic political system and foreign policy business as usual. Certainly, that deserves as much attention as the leading candidates, and perhaps even more so.
Green Party is an amazing political organization, but has a hard time getting the support it deserves from the American public. While the system is clearly controlled by corporations and the two-party system seemingly designed to prevent any real change from taking root, there are things the Green Party and its presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein can do right now to increase their visibility in spite of the barriers in place. I propose the following three, humble suggestions: 1) focus on the production of videos and other visuals over long written statements; 2) jump into material culture by working with artists to produce eye-catching works of art for fundraising; 3) highlight and strengthen relations with Green parties outside of the US.
A Unique Political Moment
Many Americans have been feeling the Bern over the past months, and why not? Finally, a candidate seeking massive radical change to the foundations of the American political-economic system. Finally, a politician with a clear leftist ideology, not weakened by concerns for SUPERPAC funding. Finally, a candidate for social justice and equality. Certainly, Bernie’s amazing improvement in the polls from 2% to over 40% support from Democratic voters is the result of Americans never having a choice like this before, right?
NO! In actuality, American voters in many states (although not all) have had the choice to support Green Party Presidential Candidates like Ralph Nader and Jill Stein for decades. The American voting public has had the opportunity to rally around a demand for progressive change that not only far outshines the credentials of most Democratic Party members, but also has not required the kind of time that politicians such as President Obama and Hillary Clinton have required to get on board with even the most basic of progressive demands. (Who doesn’t remember how nice it was when Obama came around on marriage equality? And hasn’t it been refreshing to hear Hillary move beyond the new deal democratic mantra of neoliberal economics with a small safety net to something broadly resembling an incremental approach to Sanders-style reforms?) Turns out, Green Party candidates like Dr. Jill Stein and Dr. Flowers have been there a lot longer and more consistently. And while the party is happy with its huge increase to 2% national support, they seem unable to make the jump to the kind of support Bernie enjoys. While I love the Sanders image, and who couldn’t get on board the whole “Birdie Sanders” moment, I’m sure that the old man shtick is not the only thing propelling Bernie 2016.
Now is the time for Greens to not only show their stuff, but to campaign on the momentum and growing production of a new American Left. This is a unique moment in history. It is unclear whether the momentum Sanders enjoys will continue much past the Democratic convention, but if Green Party was able to get its message out there loud and clear, it could certainly capitalize on Bernie 2016, and make Jill Stein 2016 the most successful Green Party campaign to date.
Where We Stand
So, what is holding Green Party back? The Sanders campaign is proving that the old adage of “they’ll never win, so I won’t vote for them” is a farce. We can be sure that Bernie, barring unforeseen circumstances, will not become the Democratic presidential candidate. In fact, we knew that as early as the loss of New York. But (and it is an impressive ‘but’), his supporters have still turned out in force to vote for their preferred candidate. Always eager to tear down my own discipline, I think it is safe to say that political science-especially Americanist-predictions about heuristics and party affiliation are being proven largely incorrect. Indeed, issues do matter, and people vote in line with those values, when they see a choice. The fact is that Green Party of the US (GPUS) and its presidential candidate, Dr. Jill Stein, have been supporting these values for a long time, and yet I am still running into potential-GPUS voters that have never heard of Green Party, assume that it is part of Green Peace, or that think it is just about environmental issues.
“Lesser evilism” style voting, complete lack of media attention, and election rules that aim to keep out third-party contenders are obviously a huge part of GPUS marginality in American politics. One need only turn to the barriers put up against Bernie Sanders running WITHIN the Democratic Party to understand how election rules are biased against the status quo. However, despite months of mainstream media claiming that the Sanders campaign was dead before it started, Bernie managed to get his message heard and an amazing support base established. Now, these barriers are even higher for Jill Stein and Green Party more generally, and Dr. Stein’s dedication to fostering connections with other organizations through direct action and protest are exactly what I want to see. The party and its talented array of candidates, volunteers, and staff have done amazing and admirable work for little reward.
I propose that GPUS could take some additional steps to increasing the visibility of their message. My gut feeling is that Green Party is crippled primarily from a lack of publicity, “lesser evil” voting practices, and the political disenfranchisement of millions of Americans. The latter two issues reach far too deeply to be effectively taken on during this election cycle. However, the PR factor can be remedied easily and, I suspect, quickly and inexpensively. Yes, Jill Stein is often barred from taking place in national debates, but there is little stopping her from having a huge online presence, a visually-rich campaign, and an international support base. To that end, I propose that GPUS and Jill Stein 2016 tackle the following three actions: a coordinated digital campaign making use of videos, recordings, and info-graphics; a push for tangible campaign materials modeled after the “artists for Bernie” phenomenon; and a re-emphasis of international connections.
The interviews with Jill Stein and Margaret Flowers on The Young Turks, The Real News Network, etc. are hugely important. But, talking about the issues is a lot different that showing people in rich, visually-engaging ways what the GPUS intends to do. The Green Party does have a well-thought out plan, but you have to read the entirety of the platform for a rather large document on the Green New Deal to understand what they are all about. The sad truth is that people are simply not interested in reading even a page of information, let alone 10, 20, 30 pages of a well-crafted political platform. And listening to an interview is really not all that more engaging. We have to start with short shareable videos that people are willing to watch on their Facebook feed. The Green Party of England and Wales has come up with a good example. Outside of the political realm Pimsleur (highly recommended) released a similar video about their language programs. Now, GPUS and Jill Stein has come up with some examples, like this, but I still suspect more can be done. Combine this with eye-catching online fliers and promotional materials would get younger people well acquainted with Green Party in a short amount of time and on their own terms. These things kind be accomplished through volunteers or at a relatively low cost for professional services, like PiktoChart.
I am also very excited by the potential revolutionary and PR power of the Artists of Bernie type material culture and artistic promotional materials. I know that I would proudly hang up a punk rock Stein poster and rock a GPUS series of tees with some artistic image. In fact, I have this “Rise, Resist, Rebel” shirt on right now. More please! Now I don’t have any real data on this, but I suspect that artists, being the bohemian bunch they are, would be quite happy to support GPUS and create new promotional materials. Selling them could not only improve publicity but also create some additional funds for campaigners and GPUS more generally.
Finally, let’s restress the international linkages between Green Parties abroad. GPUS could benefit immensely from partnerships with Green Parties around the globe. Indeed, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with the Green Party of Mongolia, and can already imagine fruitful conversations between Dr. Jill Stein and Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren. Green parties in Europe would also provide key international linkages and increase the profile of GPUS.
Wrapping it Up
I think that the GPUS, Dr. Jill Stein, and other candidates have done an excellent job of speaking truth to power, challenging the two-party domination of our political system, the corporate corruption of our politicians, and the distasteful results of neoliberal grow-and-destroy economics that define mainstream international and domestic politics. I do think though that re-emphasizing my three suggestions above would help immensely with the campaign and capitalize on this unique moment in American politics. Naturally, I suspect that Green candidates are hard at work on these issues already, and have nothing but respect for the work they have done; however, it never hurts to offer a friendly nudge and maybe even a helping hand. Jill Stein 2016!
Over the past 3 weeks, I have been working hard to gain a basic understanding of how to use geospatial analysis and GIS software for my research on territorial autonomy/ethno-federalism in Bangladesh, NE India, and Myanmar. To that end, I decided to work with QGIS, an open source GIS software. I am using the QGIS training manual alongside a course from Geo Academy, to learn the basics this summer, and hopefully continue onto to advanced/professional competency by the end of next academic year.
In addition to the tutorials and guided exercises, this week I began work on my own project. I combined data on ethnic groups from the "Georeferencing of Ethnic Groups" dataset (GRED).* I added administrative boundaries from DIVA-GIS.
THIS IS A WORK IN PROGRESS. Not only am I just beginning to scratch the surface of what I can do in QGIS, but the GRED is somewhat limiting on its own. This data was created through digitizing the Soviet "Atlas Narodov Mira" (Atlas of the Peoples of the World), published in the late 60s. Not only is it outdated, but I find it extremely doubtful that it would have been accurate in places like Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), NE India, or Myanmar. Is one really to believe that Soviet ethnographers had access to all the nooks and crannies of the world? Furthermore, can we really buy that where the researchers had access they always learned the truth about a given group and its borders? Clearly not. However, it is perfectly reasonable to take this a starting point, which is exactly what I plan on doing.
In subsequent versions of this map, I plan to add data about language groups from Ethnologue's World Language Mapping System (assuming I can get access through IU), data obtained though participant mapping during my fieldwork (AY 2016-17), as well as basic demographic data from national census, etc.
In terms of display, I can't get all the ethnic groups to show up in the JPEG file I have attached here. I will also add some bordering states back in, to make sure that it doesn't look like the subcontinent and Myanmar are an island, surrounded by ocean.
Furthermore, there are some immediately apparent errors. For example: in Bangladesh, Chakmas are not mentioned, and Marma seem to be listed as "Burmese"; in Burma, Arakan/Rakhaine are listed as "Burmese"; in India, Lushai is used in place of Mizo. Some of these omissions have some historical underpinning, but many others are simply wrong. There are also many other errors that I will be working on, but I wanted to specifically note the above to make clear to all the readers that this is NOT AUTHORITATIVE!!!
Now to the actual map:
* Weidmann, Nils B., Jan Ketil Rød and Lars-Erik Cederman (2010). "Representing Ethnic Groups in Space: A New Dataset". Journal of Peace Research, in press.
I would love to here comments on things that I could do to make this map more useful as well as connect with other social scientists studying ethnic conflict through the use of geospatial analysis, GIS software, etc.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.