Sunday, 7 February 2016

Charting the difference

Having spent the last seven years working with the Tangsa people living in the Margherita subdivision of the Tinsukia district of Assam and in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh, I decided to spend a few days exploring possibilities with the Moran-Motok people living in the adjoining areas including Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Kakopothar and Bordumsa. The Tangsa are basically hills people while the Morans and Motaks have lived in the plains of the Brahmaputra valley as long as they can remember. But there are many other striking differences between these two groups.

Some of them were evident the moment I arrived. While I had used to shaking hands with the mostly Christian Tangsa, the Hindu Motoks and Morans still greeted others  with a Namaskar. The mandatory bota with tamul-paan that came next in the homes I visited in the Dibrugarh-Tinsukia-Kakopothar area as well as the constant chewing of beetle nut and pan were also missing in the Tangsa homes. Since it was Magh Bihu time, in almost every Moran-Motok home we visited, we were first served jalpan with sira/komal chaul, doi and gur which was followed with tea in shiny kahor batis with tasty pieces of gur on the side and a plate full of pithas and laroos. Although the Tangsa also make bora chaulor pitha in bamaboo sungas, they consume very little milk and milk products and also very little oil and sugar/gur. The clothes that the  women wore very also visibly different -- while the Tangsa ladies all wear mekhelas with tops, most of the Motok-Moran ladies wore mekhela sadors. Many Moran married women, at least in the villages, still wear methonis. That married women cover their hair seems to be common to all three communities, but the special white dukathi sadors that Moran-Motak ladies drape over themselves when they go to religious events was something very special.

And while my Tangsa consultants spoke to me in broken Assamese my new Motok-Moran friends spoke much better Assamese than me. Of course this was to be expected since the Moran-Motoks have been here for a very long time (pre-dating the Ahom arrival in the region) compared to the Tangsa whose migration into India is relatively recent. Very quickly it was clear to me that contrary to the Tangsa case where there is very little literature available, the Morans and Motoks have been studied extensively and there is a lot of written material available on them and the special brand of Vaishnavite Hinduism, also called Mayamora dharma, that they profess. Many Motoks and Morans are well educated, many have jobs in government and as professionals, live in towns and cities and belong to the middle class. Subsequently, there was more awareness and interest from within the communities about political and social issues that were relevant to them. Very few Tangsa in Assam could be described in similar terms, although the situation in Changlang was different.

As the days went by, the more subtle differences became evident -- most of them caused by the differences in their religions and also in their social organisation. While almost all the Morans and Motoks practised a strict form of Vaishnavite Hinduism, most of my Tangsa friends were Christian, Buddhist or Rangfraite (an institutionalised form of their traditional practices). The Moran-Motoks followed the normal Hindu norms of propriety, which meant that it was still markedly more patriarchal than that of the Tangsa. Although the Moran and the Tangsa women seemed to be equally hard-working, the rules were far more strict for the Moran married women (about what they should wear, what they have to do, with whom they can eat, etc.) than for the Tangsa.

I also had the chance to be present at a 'Sokam' for a deceased and also a 'tuloni biya' for a young girl and was completely taken aback by the sheer rigidity and number of rules that need to be followed at these ceremonies, not to speak of the costs in time, energy and expense. Also the very closely defined relationship between individual events in the lives of people such as those just mentioned and the Vaishnavite fraternity took me completely by surprise. The Tangsa on the other hand do nothing when a young girl starts to menstruate, and while the extent of lavishness to which the funeral or the death rituals are performed depends on the capacity of the family of the deceased, there were very few hard and fast rules. I realised that while I had managed to work with the Tangsa without going too deep into their religious practices, the same would not work with the Morans and Motoks. I had always imagined Hinduism to be very relaxed when it came to religious practice --  seeing this brand of Vaishnavite Hinduism in action made me realise that I was perhaps wrong.

However there were lots of similarities too. Most Moran homes in villages also have very rudimentary toilet facilities which were also the case in the homes of most of my Tangsa hosts in Assam.  All three groups are predominantly rice eaters and rice growers and most people own plenty of land, which they till themselves or give to others on a sharecropping basis. They are landowner and many often employ Adivasi people to work for them in their fields or in their tea gardens. There is considerable amount of opium consumption amongst  the Tangsa as well as the Moran-Motoks, and rice beer and alcohol is also consumed by all (mostly men) although both Baptist Christianity and the Mayamora Vaishnavism prohibit it. Of course Tangsa married women are perhaps more relaxed about drinking rice-beer at festival time than their Moran-Motok counterparts.

Many amongst the Morans and Motoks are making the transition from life as farmers living in villages to life as educated and salaried middle class people living in small towns.  The attendant mismatches and problems were visible especially amongst the  male youth, many of whom are graduates and postgraduates but are unemployed. Given that scenario it is not hard to understand why many opt to join some insurgent outfit or the other. The Tangsa living in Assam on the other hand have still some way to go in terms of the general education standards, but still there are many young men amongst them who have also gone to  become insurgents. It was clear how disastrous frustration amongst educated, energetic but unemployed young men can be. And as I spent time with the fashion-conscious, smart young girls, both Tangsa and Moran-Motok, I could see how much more limited their options were. Of course they all looked very pretty,  and they were all were very technically-savvy -- smartly sending photos and songs to each other using blue tooth and Whatsapp,  but many had dropped out after the 8th standard or latest when they failed to pass their Matric or HS exam. For them then the best option was to look for a suitable young man and elope with him on his smart motorcycle. Of course there was enough to eat and there was enough money going around for everyone there if one could live modestly, but a real crisis is looming in the wings with many of these educated young men having exorbitant lifestyles and having absolutely no bond with their land that their fathers have taken care of so far and the produce of which has paid for their higher education and for their motorcycles.

But just to square the record,  I have also met many educated and knowledgeable young men among the Moran-Motoks this time who are well-informed, who care for their communities and who also want to do something for their own people. The current demands for ST recognition for both the groups separately seems to consume a lot of their energy at the moment. The Tangsa (who are recognised as ST in Assam under the Other Naga Groups category) have also been active politically and that has resulted in the award of a Development Council (jointly with seven other groups) to the Tangsa. The Morans and Motaks already have Development Councils. So the political trajectories these groups have followed have been  different. However, the culture of calling bandhs at the slightest pretext is very prevalent amongst the Moran-Motoks. It had annoyed me in the past, it annoyed me again this time. I had imagined that by now everyone must have understood the sheer senselessness of doing so, but I guess, if calling a bandh is the only weapon of protest you have, then one uses it, even to the point of hurting nobody else but oneself by doing so. 

At the end of three weeks, I was not sure what to make of it all. If we were to assume that all three groups had distinct tribal characteristics to begin with (although it is not yet clear to me whether the Morans and Motoks were different entities to begin with) the processes of  Assamization, assimilation and integration were perhaps more marked in the few Motoks that I had met compared to the Morans; as for the Tangsa, while some groups (who had arrived earlier) have completely assimilated into mainstream Assamese society, for many others the process had not even begun.  Of course, I am not sure whether Assamization is the appropriate term to use in this context since the Morans and the Motoks can definitely claim to be part of the original fabric from which the Assamese have evolved.

I also am convinced that the Moran-Motoks have sufficiently highly qualified people from within their own communities to do the work of recording their social history and other significant aspects of their cultural traditions. Much of that has already been done, and history writing projects are underway for both communities. That knowledge can be liberating for an ethnographer  like me coming from the outside. And makes the prospect of working with the communities even more attractive. In any case it is clear that working with the Moran-Motoks will pose different challenges than those I had with the Tangsa. And that is what makes field work so very fascinating. 

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