Thursday, 22 December 2011

Report on the recently concluded workshop at Goettingen

I recently organised a workshop titled ‘Performing Identity: Ethnicity and Ethno-nationalism in the South-east Asian Borderland Region of North-east India’ 15-17 Dec. 2011 at Göttingen, Germany. When I first started toying with the idea of organising a workshop in spring this year, it was mainly with the aim of connecting with scholars working on north-east India in other European universities. In its final form in mid December it grew into much more than that -- thanks to the very enthusiastic response I received from scholars from Europe, the US and India, to the generous sponsorship we received and to the immense support that was extended by Professor Lauser and her DORISEA team at the University of Goettingen. A (rather impersonal) report of the highlights follows.

The workshop was hosted by the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology in co-operation with the Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen. The BMBF-funded competence network "Dynamics of Religion in Southeast Asia" at Göttingen University was actively involved in the local organisation of the workshop. The workshop was sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation, the University of Göttingen and the Asian Borderlands Research Network.

The event was inaugurated on Thursday, 15 Dec. afternoon, jointly by the Dean of the Social Science Faculty of Göttingen Univeristy, Professor Roman Loimeier and the Cultural Attaché at the Indian Embassy in Berlin, Professor H.S. Shivaprakash, who is also a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New-Delhi. The event also included a special screening of the film ‘A Measure of Impunity’ produced and introduced by Professor Sanjoy Hazarika, a renowned media personality, columnist and intellectual from Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. Furthermore, screening of two ethnographic films from the region, a book exhibition, a photo exhibition on the Asian Borderlands and a book-reading (of a recent publication: Unruly Hills by BG Karlsson) were also organised within the framework of this workshop.

The interdisciplinary workshop brought together more than forty social scientists, including several leading experts and many young researchers, from over a dozen countries and over thirty universities world-wide, working on issues of identity and ethnicity in North-east India, and provided them a platform for sharing and discussing their field-work experiences and ongoing projects, and for making contacts for future collaboration. The main speakers included Professor Barend Jan Terwiel, an established expert on the Tai-Ahoms in Assam, Professor Sanjib Baruah, a distinguished political scientist from Bard College, New York, Professor Guido Sprenger, a well-known South-east Asia expert from Heidelberg University, Professor Ülo Valk, a reputed folklorist and religion expert from the University of Tartu in Estonia and Dr. Philippe Ramirez, a distinguished anthropologist working on the region at CNRS, Paris.

Besides the five special lectures delivered by the distinguished experts named above, the 21 papers accepted for presentation at the workshop was divided thematically into 7 panels, each led by a discussant. Only one paper-presenter could not attend (due to passport problems) and his paper was read out in absentia. All the papers had been submitted earlier so that participants were expected to have read and to come prepared for the discussion. Papers on the themes politics of identity, dynamics of religious conversions, belief narratives, new approaches, performance of identity as well as on the immediate region beyond the north-east, and belonging to the disciplines of anthropology, political science, sociology, folklore and religion, history, geography and literature were presented.

The principal objective of the workshop of bringing together European scholars – both beginners and established scholars -- working on the north-east was really fulfilled as an overwhelming majority of the participants were from Europe. Since most of them were sole representatives of their home institutions, the initial assumption that European scholars working on north-east India were often working in very small groups in their departments and hence were rather isolated within their research environments was confirmed. Moreover, there were a dozen Indian scholars, about half of them actually native to north-east India, and this brought in a new dimension to the deliberations. There were many new faces, and lots of interaction between the experts and the beginners, the ones from the region and those form outside, all united by their common interest in the region.

Professor Sanjib Baruah’s talk titled provocatively ‘After Identity: Hydropower and the Politics of Anxiety in the Eastern Himalayas' in which he claimed that it is no longer ethnicity and identity issues but issues like dams, earthquakes and floods that are and will bring people from the north-east together, started the proceedings on Friday morning while Dr. Ramirez’s catchy title, ‘Did the British Really Invent the Northeastern Tribes?’ in which he maintained that the north-east forms a consistent regional system – an idea worth exploring in itself and which might form the basis of a lot of future work on the north-east -- brought up the end on Saturday afternoon. Several excellent student presentations, especially those by Kaustubh Deka (JNU, New Delhi) on the role of student organisations in ethnicity formation, by Miriam Bishokarma (Zuerich) on the Gorkhaland state demand issue, by Margaret Lyngdoh (Tartu, Estonia) on the Name Magic of the Khasis and by Andreas Kuechle (Berlin) on using Bourdieu’s theory to understand Naga village society were the highlights of the workshop. The participation of native researchers like Dr. Abraham Lotha (Nagaland) and Charisma Lepcha (Sikkim) added depth and value to the discussions and the well-researched and illuminating papers of European researchers like Dr. Erik de Maaker (Leiden) and Professor Gunnel Cederloef (Uppsala) ensured the high academic standards of the meet. Several new research projects, book projects and Ph.D. projects were also presented and discussed during the meet.On the whole, it was a great learning experience for everyone.

Of course there were also faults and shortcomings. Despite the great diversity of themes represented, some disciplines like philosophy, languages and the humanities were not well-represented. Another issue was that the workshop schedule was just too tight and the half an hour time allotted for discussions at the end of the panels was never enough to do justice to the many issues that the papers brought up. But then there was a lot of support for the single session format as it enabled people to get introduced to each other’s work. These views were expressed at the Round Table Discussion which took place just before the closing and there were many suggestions for venues and locations for the next workshop, also in India, as well as announcements of a few forthcoming conferences.

The workshop ended with the hope that this kind of initiative would be taken by others at other locations in the future and that a network of scholars working on the north-east could be formed, perhaps using the ABRN site or the Brahmaputra Studies site as the means. It was also quite a pleasure to hear that this was the very first time that a workshop focussing on Northeast India had been organised in Europe, and as the organiser, I can only hope and wish that it will not be the last.

For more on the workshop, please go to