Where Do I Belong?: Evolving Reform and Identity Amongst the Zeme Heraka of North Cachar Hills, Assam, India.
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The focus of this thesis is the Heraka movement and its impact on the Zeme, a ‘Naga tribe’, in the North Cachar Hills of Assam, India. The Heraka is a religious reform movement derived from the traditional practice known as Paupaise. It was organised from disparate groups of the early 1930s into a centralised and effective movement in 1974. This thesis examines the formation of the movement through to its present state. A pivotal concern is the evolution of Heraka identity, and its emergence into the arena of competing and often contested ideologies of ‘religion’ and ‘ethnicity’ in North East India. The processes by which the movement has evolved, exhibiting the contextualisation of an indigenous identity, grounded in custom and tradition, are also outlined. These factors, along with significant and complex relationships with Paupaise, ‘neo-Hindu’ organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Zeme Christians, and the larger ‘Naga’ Christian groups, have shaped pronounced yet fluctuating Heraka identities. This demonstrates the difficult transition the Heraka movement faces as it shifts from the local to the regional and even the national. The time period studied spans the anti-British Heraka period of the late 1930s, extensive Zeme village reorganisation and the renaissance of the reform during the 1950s, through to the present. A variety of sources is brought to bear on this investigation: imperial archives, the official Heraka Hingde Book, Heraka use of written documents, and fieldwork materials, including oral histories and case studies. The thesis begins by examining the symbol of the Bhuban cave, an important pilgrimage site for Hindus of various kinds, as well as the Heraka. The way the Heraka have come to negotiate their identity is considered. This occurs on two levels: on the one hand, they claim to be a ‘traditional’ group in their quest for ‘authenticity’ and ‘indigeneity’; on the other, they assert their ‘modernity’ and are hence reformist. This developing identity clearly derives from the agrarian reforms of the 1930s onwards, an initial response to what was a millenarian tendency, which in turn influenced these changes. Hence, a different cosmology developed, incorporating monotheistic principles, in order to accommodate the now changing village structure, and the increasing mobility and flexibility of the people. Contact with the outside world also brought about a nuanced and subtle reading of ‘tradition’ vis-à-vis other groups considered ‘traditional’, while similarly adapting to the pressures of other dominant religious traditions by distinguishing themselves as inherently ‘religious’. The introduction of ‘divine rules’, exemplified in the Hingde Book, and the establishment of a Kelumki (prayer house), as ‘sacred’ space, mandated and reflected the formation of this ‘religious community’. This construction of community entails a consideration of notions of boundaries in different contexts: Paupaise, Christian and ‘Hindu’. Boundary-making attitudes and behaviour largely determine group membership, legitimated by ‘primordial’ ethnic notions within the Zeme community itself. Since such notions are largely confined to the realm of perception, these boundaries are fluid; they fluctuate according to context. The leaders’ efforts to manage Heraka reforms give rise to visible tensions between rural and urban communities. Hangrum village has become the symbol for the rural community of a millenarian age, ritualised with its ‘king’s court’, while the urban community disputes such claims as ‘superstition’. The juxtaposition of these two views amplifies the struggle within the Heraka community, as they strive to maintain a balance between the past legitimising ‘tradition’, and the present and future legitimising ‘reform’. The attempt to construct a viable Heraka identity against other group identities has given rise to oscillating differences in the way the Heraka locate and re-locate themselves, both within and outside their community. These positional referents are vital for understanding the evolving nature of Heraka identity in relation to their reform.