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Ethnic conflicts and traditional self-governing institutions: a study of Laitumkhrah Dorbar

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Ethnic conflicts have been plaguing the North Eastern states of India. The situation is so serious that in April 2000, while inaugurating a seminar, the Governor of Meghalaya pointed out that each community of the region was involved in violent conflicts with one or more of the other communities. He maintained that this violence was affecting the everyday life of the ordinary citizens in a manner that threatened their rights as members of a democratic society. What effect do these conflicts have on democratic governance? Are these conflicts related to the problems arising out of the introduction of modern democratic governance in traditional societies? How is tradition responding to modern governance? Many of the ethnic communities of the region are rooted in traditional tribal cultures, which some sections zealously guard. The most visible assertion of tradition is to be seen in the attempt to retain ‘traditional political authorities’ in the name of protecting traditional cultures. For instance, in Meghalaya, the most advanced of the hill states of North East India, certain sections are trying to revive virtually defunct tribal chiefdoms called Syiemships and are demanding direct funding for those institutions from the Government of India. How is modern governance dealing with tradition? Is the interaction between modernity and tradition in the area of governance aggravating ethnic and communal conflicts? These are some questions that seemed to be relevant in contemporary North-East India. To find answers to these questions we decided to look at the tribal state of Meghalaya. This state has been experiencing ethnic violence at almost regular intervals since 1979. But what is more important is that in this state the perception of the social reality itself seems to have acquired an ethnocentric character. A look at the programmes of all the major political parties shows that ethnicity governs the politics of this state. Each community in Meghalaya views social reality from its own perspective. This becomes clear from the fact that whether it is the political parties (even the national parties are national only in a formal sense), underground extremist groups, student and youth organizations, or human rights organizations, all are organized as organizations of particular communities. In view of the above we proposed to examine the consequences of such perspectives at the local level of governance.

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