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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .

Politics, Society and Cosmology in India'a North East
N. Vijaylakshmi Brara

(Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1998)
263pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $24.95; ISBN 0-19-564331-3.

How can the concept of the state best be understood in terms of seeking explanations of such phenomena as ethnic conflict, social and cultural change and political dissent? And what discipline or disciplines provides the most appropriate methodology for exploring the concept of the state? Certainly, the concept of the state is central to both the study of ethnic conflict, and to the origins of much ethnic conflict. The creation of states by the administrative decrees of former colonial or military powers underlies much of the ethnic conflict in the contemporary world. The assumptions that a state is whatever a ruling power defines it to be, and that residents within its borders will both conform to the definition and find a sufficient basis for common identity, have been demonstrated, time and time again, to be false. N. Vijaylakshmi Brara's fascinating book is less significant in the study of ethnic conflict for its description of Manipur society and culture than for its innovative and challenging theoretical and methodological approaches. It focus on the state as defined by collective memory, common culture and myth, and the continuing ritual of the people, and provides a model which might profitably be applied to other societies. Its emphasis on the importance of how people remember their past (as distinct from, and often in contradiction with official or academic histories) might also be usefully considered in other contexts.

Manipur is a state on the north eastern edge of India, sharing part of its border with Myanmar (Burma). Originally a collection of heterogeneous principalities, its population includes the Meiteis, who are mainly Hindu and live in the Manipur Valley, and various Naga and Kuki tribes, who are predominantly Christian and live in the surrounding hills. Although culturally different and geographically separated, the peoples have, as the author shows, developed myths of a common origin, and share many cultural characteristics, including religious rituals. Manipur only acquired statehood with responsible government in 1971; prior to that it was administered by the President of India through an appointed Chief Commissioner.

Brara explores the concept of the state from the perspective of culture, rather than as an entity defined by governance, rules and power. Applying the methodology of cultural anthropology, she seeks to understand how collective memories, perceptions of the cosmic world, rituals, belief systems and kinship structures provide the basis for a holistic definition of the state, and enable the conflicts currently existing within the region to be understood. Importantly, Brara has not relied on traditional historical sources alone, but has sought to understand the history as it is remembered by the people; she endeavoured to comprehend 'peoples' perception of their own history and society' [p.5]. The work uses Clifford Geertz's concept of the 'theatre state' which 'involves studying the state structure of a given society through the elements of culture, an understanding of rituals, an observance of symbolic codes in interpersonal behaviour among people, a study of the emphasis placed on myths, including origin myths, and in considering the peoplešs perception of their state, their kings and their society. So, it evolves from and revolves around a comprehensive understanding of a given society.' [p.7] Geertz explained his concept by drawing a parallel between the state-craft of the Balinese State and theatrical art in his Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980). However, as Brara notes: 'The limitation in Clifford Geertz's methodology of cultural constructs lies in the fact that it does not emphasise the need for interaction with the people one is studying, dwelling only on the realms of mythology and legend.' [p.23] Brara has used Geertz's approach as a basis for her study, but has added to it both 'the observation and interaction approach by conducting rigorous fieldwork' and 'an attempt to relate these cultural aspects and structures to contemporary social and political relations in Manipur.' [p.25] Thus she endeavours to analyse the cultural constructs of the state both from an historical and an anthropological perspective, and to use this analysis to understand the culture within the contemporary state. In doing so, she shares in the 'growing interest among anthropologists in the historical approach and in combining this with the anthropological approach in studying beliefs and practices.' [p.242] But, beyond that, she 'wanted to go further and link culture and the past of the society to its present. My main aim was to make this study relevant by analysing the new problems emerging in Manipur and the consequent changes in the state apparatus, as well as the changing perceptions of the concept of the state in people's minds.' [p.252] And, as external influences promoting or even compelling change impact upon traditional indigenous societies throughout the world, there is often (as there is in Manipur) a 'resurgence of interest in the past': 'Even while opening up more and more to the outside world, these societies are returning to their roots, their culture and their belief systems, informed by an understanding that such a return to the past could help preserve the identity of their communities that are constantly being threatened by the inroads made by more dominant cultures.' [p. vi]

Beyond the (to the western reader) obscurity of the peoples being studied, this fine work should provoke much thought about the approach taken in attempts to understand conflicts within and between states. It includes a good bibliography of works on social theory and methodology, as well as on Indian society and culture.

Gregory Tillett, University of Western Sydney, Nepean

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