Languages of Gifting

Gifting is a political process and an event in itself. We ought to ask if a bridge, a hospital, a dam, a research institute, among others, can be a gift to society. One would notice that in India, the language of a gift has become central to the inauguration of any infrastructural project. Be it the Bhupen-Hazarika Setu (the longest bridge in the country) or the Sardar Sarovar Dam or an agricultural institute, we seem to have a distinctive language of them being gifted to the people. What is this new language of gift in Modi’s New India? Or, can one attach such a language to infrastructure and nation-building, historically speaking? What does it do to the common sense of people? What does it do to our understanding of our government?

Gifting is a very common practice in human history. Apart from being an economic and cultural encounter, it also signifies a multitude of things. It symbolizes an action and is signified by an object which makes gifting possible. Gifting also results in the crossing of social boundaries. The French sociologist Marcel Mauss’ study of gifting in an archaic society focused on the significance of the practice of gift in human society and it follows that gifting builds networks and flows across social groups of a variety. It involves and signals a condition where the obligation to give, receive and reciprocate is available, and although our common sense perception of gifting can be very individualistic, it invariably is only a practice that is possible due to a larger social and cultural contours that are at play. Gifting, thus, is more than action. It is a process embedded in larger social, cultural, economic and cultural worlds.

Speaking at this point of history, or even if one takes into account that kind of imagery we have from movies or advertisements, our primary memory of gifts are located around birthdays, marriages or some form of celebration that bring together our friends and family around us. Even Narendra Modi couldn’t help but gift himself and to the nation the Sardar Sarovar dam on his birthday! One would also remember not too long ago when Modi gifted the longest bridge to the people of India. Gifting is as much an event as it is a process.[1]

Returning to Mauss, one would find that gift is never free. One can add that beyond reciprocation, there are certain costs tied to it—human, ecological, environmental and cultural. Displacement by dams touches all those aspects of social life without which life cannot move on. The reciprocation is maintained by making this gifting process an event of his own. An attempt is being made to remember just Modi, not the government or the state. This is just the first part of the kind reciprocation process that Mauss spoke of, generated out of gifting process. The other aspect successfully promoted by Modi and his government is that of the call of the religious, spiritual and historical categories on the eve of the event. An invocation of river gods and other mythic figures are infused to sediment a kind of belonging in this process of gifting, drawn from the domain of larger Hindu culture. Such an act creates a kind of bond, which in the long run may work towards maintaining his political discourse and the agents and agendas of the right-wing government. Seemingly, they stand likely to gain from the reciprocation of the receiver of a gift, here of infrastructure of a variety.

Among others, gifting creates a memory and a sense of solidarity. It enters the mnemonics of our present and affects the public psyche. Such affects are ordinary but powerful. One is made to believe that they are part of the process and existence of the very infrastructure itself. It creates a new everyday. Our desires, needs, and wants undergo stimulation. Gifting in this case also becomes symbolic, attached to an individual, to a party or to a nation.

Infrastructures can also be alienating. It creates margins that become seditious in the eyes of the state. Gifting is a language that is used in many ways to displace loss, tears, and suffering of hundreds of people. For those who have lost lands due to dam construction and aren’t rehabilitated, such gifting is an irony, at the very least. No amount of gifting can make up for their losses. Losing land means a return to poverty and homelessness. Hence, inside the veil of the language of gifting of infrastructures, such as Sardar Sarovar dam or Bhupen Hazarika Setu, one can locate new margins and forcefully orchestrated marginality.

Grounds that make up the everyday are constantly in flux and shifting. Gifting in this manner adds to such a complex, where there is an attempt to create a utopic, euphoric and maybe even real presentation of the powers, limits, and resources of the state. It is the darkest of ironies if not the ‘worst returns to laughter’.

Suraj Gogoi

(This article was first published in Indian Cultural Forum)

[1]I grew up in a village called 5 No Shantipur in the sub-division of Sadiya, just two kilometres away from the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border in eastern Assam. We would meet many people from Arunachal in schools, markets, or even as co-passengers, sharing a boat over river Lohit, among others. In such encounters, many become friends and are invited to each other’s’ festivities. One such festival is known as Solung which is celebrated among the Adi community of eastern Arunachal. Apart from being offered the usual delicacies in the festival, one also receives a piece of meat, wrapped in some kind of leaf or paper, and if willing to carry back home, even some local liquor. It is a very typical practice of gifting and a way to thank and include the ones from the invited family who could not attend the Solung. Such encounters are not only instances of crossing boundaries of contiguous ethnic communities but also underline structural homology of hills and plains.

Writing North-East

North-East of India or India’s North-East is essentially an idea of space. It is a hybrid space, with each community that makes up this region having a distinctive history of their own. The structural homology of the hills and the plains presents us with a social world that is both complex and contested. The various complexities and contestations that are witnessed in contemporary North-East are manufactured by various actors with their own agendas. Phenomenons such as insurgency, counter-insurgency, uneven-development, autonomy demands, floods, natural resource extraction, Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA), inter-ethnic conflict, inter-religious violence and festivals, among others, make up the everyday social world in the North-East.

As far as historical accounts allow us, the different communities that are home to the North-East, migrated into the region at some point or the other. Pangsau Pass, located in the Patkai hills, forms one among the many entry points of communities into the North-East. We wish to use Pangsau as a symbolic and historical entity to draw attention to the shared history of critical crossings and human interactions.

The idea for Pangsau is rooted in our collective efforts to understand India’s North-East from diverse perspectives, with the help of individuals from multiple backgrounds. While specific state or issues remain the core focus of research that activists and scholars engage with, thinking of those, in terms of the region, throws questions which have no simple answer. The inability of the national media to report about the region is a truth beyond doubt. Alternative media platforms have either become commercialised, or limits itself to specific questions or parts of the North-East. Pangsau intricately captures the fluidity, hybridity, creolised processes, migration history, cultural, economic and political exchanges, among others, that constitutes the North-East as a region. In its essence, it seeks to recover the life-worlds and multiple experiences of various communities of the region, and archive common and possible universal grounds that make everyday life possible. This blog attempts to implicitly bring out the various concerns and commitments of the region.

We welcome contributions in the form of articles, commentaries, fiction, poems, photographs, essays, videos, cartoons, and memes, among others to reflect on the following questions and beyond:

Is there any difference in everyday life from the colonial to the post-colonial government in the region? What has been the nature of state-making in India’s North-East? How are social boundaries formed, maintained, transgressed and crossed in the region? Will there be a New North-East, concomitant to the invocation of ‘New India’ by Narendra Modi? Who defines indigenous and autochthonous in the North-East? Who envisions and finalises the measurement of North-East’s legitimate history? What is the role of ethnology and anthropology in museumization and governing the people and their land? Why are indigenous models of development bypassed in the development of the region? Are people in the North-East still a ‘known’ category, if so how and why? Is the scholarship that reflects, articulates, and defines the North-East adequate? How does one deal with the egoistic and Mein-Kampf like literature and action that are home to the North-East? Who are the ‘Others’ in the various states of the North-East? What is the nature of relationship and interaction of the ‘great-traditions’, ‘little traditions’, and the syncretic world of beliefs? Are cultural debts that make up broader identities and inter-ethnic agro-cultural-complex such as Assamese, Meitei or Mi-Zo acknowledged with humility? These are some of the questions that stir our collective interest in the region and its specificities.

We look forward to your contribution, and hope that together we can re-think, re-articulate, write, read, discuss and debate about the various issues and life-worlds of India’s North-East and beyond.

Thanking You,

The Pangsau Collective