Rituals of Ethnicity

The first comprehensive ethnography of the Thangmi, a marginalized community who migrate between Himalayan border zones, Rituals of Ethnicity explores Thangmi cultural worlds and regional political histories to offer a new explanation for the persistence of enduring ethnic identities despite the realities of mobile, hybrid lives.

Rituals of Ethnicity
Thangmi Identities Between Nepal and India

Sara Shneiderman

2015 | 328 pages | Cloth $75.00 | Paper $26.50
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Of Rocks and Rivers—Being Both at Once
Chapter 2. Framing, Practicing, and Performing Ethnicity
Chapter 3. Origin Myths and Myths of Originality
Chapter 4. Circular Migration, Circular Economies of Belonging and Citizenship
Chapter 5. Developing Associations of Ethnicity and Class
Chapter 6. Transcendent Territory, Portable Deities, and the Problem of Indigeneity
Chapter 7. The Work of Life-Cycle Rituals and the Power of Parallel Descent
Chapter 8. Resisting the End of a Ritual
Epilogue: Thami ke ho?—What Is Thami?


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Chapter 1
Of Rocks and Rivers—Being Both at Once

We are solid like rocks and viscous like mud. We have offered incense to our deities . . . Come, deities, strung in a straight line like the necklaces of the sparrow, of our ancestors . . . come strung in a straight line . . . As the deities rose, the rocks dissolved. It was light and the wood dissolved. As it dissolved, everything became fluid. . . . Let's create humans, the deities said.
Chanting these lines, the voices of Thangmi shamans rise and fall to the beat of an animal-skin drum. Monotonous yet captivating, every ritual event begins with these recitations about the origins of the world. This is also the soundtrack I always hear in my mind as I write about Thangmi lives. I can almost smell the incense, recalling myself in the midst of one ritual after another, some over a decade ago now. Weddings, funerals, supplications to territorial deities for a good harvest, most taking place late at night, lit first by kerosene lamps and candles and in later years by bare electric bulbs strung along mud walls. Some Thangmi listen attentively, some drink grain beer and joke loudly about the shamans' performance, others coo children to sleep in corners amid the hubbub. I struggle to stay awake and make sense of what the words, actions, and beliefs behind them might mean.

These chants are part of the Thangmi paloke, a narrative cycle about origins and being in the world. It is a story that Thangmi tell themselves about themselves and their relations to others. It is a story heard from childhood onward that plays a crucial role in shaping Thangmi sensibilities about who they are, as individuals, members of an ethnic community, inhabitants of particular pieces of territory, and mobile citizens of multiple states. Repeated again and again throughout each ritual cycle, the first line sums up an apparent paradox of Thangmi being. As they propitiate their deities, the speakers are at once "solid like rocks and viscous like mud," both immovable objects and malleable forms. For a group of people who openly acknowledge themselves as peripheral to dominant formulations of national, ethnic, and religious identity, and who practice circular migration between three countries as a primary socioeconomic strategy, this fluid state of being is not only a ritual metaphor but a fact of daily life.

I was listening to academic addresses—eerily evocative of the Thangmi paloke in their cadence—at a conference on "Ethnicity and Federalisation" in Kathmandu, Nepal, in April 2011. Leading scholars, activists, and policy makers had gathered to discuss the role of ethnicity in restructuring the Nepali state. After a ten-year civil conflict between Maoist insurgents and state forces ended in 2006, Nepal began the transformation from a unitary Hindu monarchy to a secular democratic federal republic. The country's first Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008, and the process of constitution writing began amid great hope for a more equitable future. By the time of the conference in 2011, however, the deadline for a new constitution had been extended several times beyond the initial two years, and agreement on the shape of the new state was still uncertain. Ultimately, the Constituent Assembly would be dissolved in 2012 without promulgating a constitution. The role of ethnicity in determining new provincial boundaries was at the center of contentious debate.

There were no Thangmi, and few members of other marginalized groups like them, in the hotel ballroom filled to capacity with several hundred representatives of Nepal's political and academic elite. I was invited to present a paper as a "foreign expert" on ethnicity in Nepal but found myself unsure of the implications of my statements in this highly politicized context. Social scientific arguments about the nature of ethnicity were being deployed in novel ways to argue for or against recognizing ethnicity as a valid basis for demarcating Nepal's newly proposed federal units.

An influential sociologist from Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu took the podium. "Ethnic distinctions and boundaries keep shifting and multiplying and coalescing," he said, " 'before' and 'after' and in-between are akin to waves on the move rather than to fixed rocks" (Mishra 2012:88). He was describing ethnicity in terms similar to those I had heard over and over in the Thangmi chants. But here the relationship between the two possibilities was cast in oppositional terms—either a rock or a wave, a fixed object or a mutable flow—while in the shamans' formulation these were complementary properties of a holistic state of being reproduced through ritualized action.

This book considers the implications of each of these points of view for contemporary understandings of ethnicity. Is ethnicity a rock or a river? Fixed or fluid? Both at once? To whom? At what particular places and times? How can interpreting the process of ethnicization as a process of ritualization, which brings disparate individuals together around the shared sacred object of identity, offer new explanations for the powerful persistence of ethnic identities despite the increasing realities of mobile, hybrid lives?

I consider these questions through the story of one putatively singular community, the Thangmi, and their life experiences as they move across the Himalayan borders of Nepal, India, and China's Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). But this story raises larger questions about how ethnicity and identity are produced, ritual and politics enacted, cross-border migration lived, and consciousness experienced for many people across the region and the world who have something in common with those who recognize themselves as Thangmi. At the most intimate level, this category of commonality includes those who identify as members of other adivasi janajati (indigenous nationality) groups in Nepal, as Indians of Nepali heritage, and as border people in China.1 At the next level of abstraction, it includes those who define themselves, or are defined by others, as indigenous, tribal, marginal, or "out-of-the-way" (Tsing 1993) anywhere in the world. At the most general level, the category can be expanded to include all those whose lives entail cross-border, transnational, diasporic, or migratory movements and hybrid or synthetic practices. While I tell the Thangmi story for its own sake, this narrative comes to articulate with many others through the telling.

Why Ethnicity?

Mishra (2012) was not the first scholar to use the metaphor of rocks and rivers to describe the nature of cultural processes in the Himalayas. In his ethnography of the Thakali, Fluid Boundaries, William Fisher writes of the Kali Gandaki river running through his informants' villages in western Nepal in just such a way:

Thakali culture . . . is like the Kali Gandaki River. It flows in a wide riverbed that allows it to break up into several meandering streams that merge again downstream. These separations and mergings vary unpredictably over time, but the separated channels always rejoin further downstream. . . . The river changes over time . . . . But it is nevertheless the same river.

Similarly, any description of Thakali culture is at best a representation of a moment in an ongoing cultural process. The difficulty of locating cultural coherence does not mean that Thakali culture has broken down or that it is in a transitional phase between one coherent structure or another. It merely reflects the process in which Thakali culture has been continually renewed. (2001:19-20)

I read this description early in my fieldwork and pondered it often as I struggled to understand the eddies of Thangmi culture swirling around me. I took my cue from ethnographers like Fisher and Arjun Guneratne (2002), whose work was emerging just as I began my research, to define the initial subject of my study as the process of producing Thangmi identity in its totality in a cross-border context.

Yet I entered the field at a very different historical moment, in both scholarly and political terms, than my immediate predecessors in the lineage of Himalayan anthropology. By the late 1990s, cultural critique was at its pinnacle, and much anthropological writing on the region demonstrated the constructedness of ethnic categories and cultural forms. During the same period, both Nepal and India experienced an explosion of public debate over the nature of social difference. This was due in part to national political developments, including the 1990 return of democracy in Nepal, and the subsequent promulgation of a new constitution that for the first time recognized this extremely diverse country as a "multiethnic" nation, but stopped short of attaching entitlements to specific identities. The year 1990 also saw India's implementation of the Mandal Commission report, which revised that country's system of affirmative action—constitutionally mandated since 1950—followed in 1991 by economic liberalization (Gupta and Sivaramakrishnan 2011). The accelerated circulation of global discourses also played a role in fostering debate: multiculturalism, indigeneity, and inclusion, all couched in the broader terms of "rights." These were often given programmatic teeth by international development actors (Shneiderman 2013a).

Taken together, these developments yielded the somewhat paradoxical intellectual environment of the late 1990s in which I first became acquainted with the Thangmi. On the one hand, the constructed nature of ethnicity and its limitations as an analytical tool were becoming taken for granted in the scholarly world. On the other hand, the ability to make political claims in ethnic terms was viewed as an increasingly valuable skill by people I encountered on the ground. I began to feel that the processual interpretation of culture espoused by Fisher and others was incomplete. It was not wrong, but it could not account entirely for the proliferation of ethnic expressions I observed or for the desire among those with whom I worked to possess what we might call the objects, rather than the processes, of culture. I do not mean objects only in the tangible sense but also in the intangible sense in which such concepts as identity, origins, territory, and indigeneity can be constituted as sacred objects through ritualized action.

To pursue Fisher's metaphor, most of the Thangmi I met were not content just to watch the river flow, as a tourist—or a scholar—might be. Rather, they sought to engage with it as an entity in the phenomenal world: to build a bridge across it, to drink from it, to catch fish in it. In other words, many Thangmi were aware at some level that identity was produced through processual action, but this consciousness of identity-as-process did not preclude their desire for identity-as-object. The capacity to engage in ritualized action that produced 'Thangminess' as a recognizable object was the key to community membership. That such ritualized action could take multiple forms, from deity propitiations to political conferences, was understood as a key feature of the synthetic, collectively produced nature of Thangmi identity itself.

The persistence of this fundamental human desire to objectify one's identity in terms recognizable to others is, I argue, why ethnicity still matters, as an analytical construct, a political resource, and an affective anchor for identity. This is the case despite a general agreement by the late 1990s within anthropology and perhaps across much of the social sciences that ethnicity, and even the concept of "the group," was dead. In a 1996 survey of the topic, Marcus Banks concluded that "while ethnicity has an ever more insubstantial place within the narrow world of academia, . . . it appears to be increasingly important in the wider world" (1996:183). "Unfortunately," he continued, "it is too late to kill it off or pronounce ethnicity dead; the discourse on ethnicity has escaped from the academy and into the field" (189). In this formulation, ethnicity exists first as an analytical rubric and only subsequently as a subjective experience.

To ground this discussion in the South Asian contexts in which my ethnography unfolds, consider this 1997 comment from David Gellner: "There is a bitter irony in the fact . . . that just when a scholarly and anthropological consensus is emerging that a Hindu-tribe dichotomy was hopelessly flawed as a tool for understanding Nepalese society, Nepalese intellectuals should begin to take it up with a vengeance" (22). More than fifteen years later, at the time of writing in 2014, Nepal is engaged in a historically unprecedented process of "post-conflict" federal restructuring, stalled due to the political impasse over the demand for ethnically delineated states that would take what Gellner calls the "Hindu-tribe dichotomy" for granted. Across the border in Nepali-speaking areas of India, the call for a separate state of Gorkhaland for Indian citizens of Nepali heritage (often called Gorkhas) was newly revived in 2008. An earlier agitation ended in 1989 with the creation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC). Debate over Darjeeling's future remains a key political issue for the Indian state of West Bengal.

Portraying such large-scale political transformations as the ironic result of the "escape" of a scholarly paradigm for ethnicity into "the field" would be analytically insufficient. Rather, we must evaluate what ethnicity signifies for those who claim it. We must investigate anew how such forms of consciousness are produced by all kinds of individuals—not only by selfproclaimed ethnic activists—who see themselves as members of a collectivity and seek recognition as such from others. Acknowledging that ethnicity is inevitably constructed is not the end of the story but rather the beginning of understanding the ongoing life of such constructions. "Tracing the contours of this new life" (Banks 1996:189) of ethnicity is important not because scholars necessarily believe it to be the most accurate way of understanding "the group," "belonging," or "difference" but because many contemporary ethnic subjects and the recognizing agents with which they must engage—both state and nonstate—do.

Scholarship indicates an emerging realization that ethnicity's case is not yet closed. Whether by highlighting the cross-border nature of ethnogenesis (Scott 2009) or the power of global market forces (Comaroff and Comaroff 2009), contemporary explorations of ethnicity broaden analyses beyond the frame of the nation-state, while recognizing the power of national borders and state-specific regimes of recognition in shaping ethnic configurations. In this vein, which productively tempers 1990s arguments about the ascendance of transnational, deterritorialized identities, this book argues that nation-states remain a key frame in relation to which ethnicity is produced, even and perhaps especially in contexts of high cross-border mobility. Furthermore, I argue that ethnicity is a result not only of the prerogatives of state control or market forces but also of a ritual process through which identity is produced as a sacred object that binds diverse people together. Such sacred objects serve as shared referents, enabling heterogeneous individuals—often dispersed across multiple nation-states, with multiple class, gender, age and educational experiences—to contribute in diverse ways to collective projects of ethnicity in action.

This argument returns to traditional anthropological formulations by building upon Edmund Leach's supposition that "the maintenance and insistence upon cultural difference can itself become a ritual action expressive of social relations" (1964:17). Leach's insight reveals ethnicity as not only a political project but also an affective domain in which the cultural difference constitutive of social relations is expressed to both selves and others through ritual action. In this spirit, I refocus attention on the objectification of identity as a fundamental human process that persists through ritualized action regardless of the contingencies of state formation or economic paradigm. I hope readers will find here an ethnographic explanation of how ethnicity may be both a rock and a river at once, solid yet also viscous like the muddy flow of a swollen monsoon watershed that carries boulders through Himalayan valleys.

This argument shifts attention away from the representational construction of ethnicity through discourse to foreground instead the expressive production of ethnicity in action (Bentley 1987) and its ongoing pragmatic effects, and affect, for those who enact it. The Comaroffs suggest that in academic studies of ethnicity, the overwhelming "stress on the politics of ethnicity above all else has a number of critical costs: it depends on an underspecified, almost metaphorical conception of the political, the primary referent of which is the pursuit of interest; it reduces cultural identity to a utility function, the measure of which is power, again underspecified; and it confuses the deployment of ethnicity as a tactical claim to entitlement and as a means of mobilization for instrumental ends, with the substantive content of ethnic consciousness" (2009:44). Indeed, much of the last great spell of anthropological work on ethnicity, particularly in South Asia, focused on "ethnonationalist conflict" (Tambiah 1996) and "ethnic violence" (Appadurai 1998). Although these works built valuably upon Frederik Barth's (1969) formative insights to explain why, in certain cases, ethnic boundaries become aggravated sites of contestation, they shifted focus away from the group-specific, culturally contextual, substantive content of ethnic consciousness that lies between and animates such boundaries. Moreover, while many scholars have effectively explored how state paradigms for recognition in South Asia shape ethnic consciousness writ large, much literature presumes that the contents of all such consciousnesses are interchangeable. I contend instead that although the mechanisms of and criteria for state recognition with which all groups must engage may be the same, the substantive content of ethnic consciousness develops in large part through the process of mobilizing specific cultural and ethnographic content, the nature of which varies widely between groups. If we wish to understand the dialectic between ethnic consciousness and legal paradigms for recognition, we must attend to the ethnographic specifics of individual contemporary groups, both within and beyond the political frame.

The Comaroffs are hardly the first scholars to suggest that the political life of ethnicity is not its only one (Leach 1964; Williams 1989; Jenkins 2002). But the Comaroffs newly situate ethnicity under the sign of the market, understood in neoliberal terms. They call upon scholars to investigate the dialectic between "the incorporation of identity and the commodification of culture" (2009:89) as a means of moving beyond the analysis of ethnicity as a purely political construct, and to "fashion a critical scholarship to deal with its ambiguous promises, its material and moral vision for times to come, the deep affective attachments it engenders" (149).

So how do we do that? The fact that academic interests in the "political" aspects of ethnicity often occlude attention to its embodied, affective aspects is a methodological problem as much as a theoretical one. It is relatively straightforward to examine the discursive production of ethnicity through the analysis of texts and media, but understanding "the substantive content of ethnic consciousness" is more complicated. This book takes up the challenge through in-depth ethnography that emphasizes ritualized action, a concept that I take to encompass both "practice" and "performance." These terms are defined and their analytical value explored in Chapter 2.

By recognizing diverse forms of action as constitutive of ethnicity— from private household practices to public political performances—I consider an equally broad range of actors as legitimate cultural producers. In so doing, I move beyond the idea that activists who objectify cultural forms to achieve specific political goals are somehow outside the realm of "authentic" cultural production or must be viewed in conceptual opposition to "the rural poor" (Shah 2010:31). Rather, I consider Thangmi activists within an overarching framework that also includes shamans, elders, housewives, youth group members, schoolchildren, and multiple others as differently agentive but mutually influential producers of the shared social field of ethnicity in action. By the same token, I do not take at face value activist assertions as authentic statements of ethnic consciousness but rather calibrate these with competing claims from other, equally Thangmi, actors.

This dynamic view of ethnicity as a collective production to which multiple, diverse actors contribute shifts the focus away from the concern with authenticity that has preoccupied much earlier work on ethnicity, identity, and indigeneity. Debates centered on the discursive formation of "indigeneity" in particular challenge conventional stereotypes to reveal the diversity of indigenous experiences, not all of which entail social and economic marginality in the same measures (de la Cadena and Starn 2007; Cattelino 2008). Yet as explained in Chapter 6, indigeneity itself is a contested term within the Thangmi community, as well as within the broader public spheres of both Nepal and India. It is therefore only one component of my discussion rather than the primary analytical rubric. Considering the relationship between ethnicity and indigeneity allows us to explore the multiple scales on which contemporary subaltern identities are articulated (Li 2000).