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Ethnicity and Development – A Civil Society Perspective from North-East India

Susmita Sen Gupta

Department of Political Science, North- Eastern Hill University, Shillong, India



Civil society in northeast India has emerged gradually over the last few decades. It is observed that civil society organizations especially student and youth groups have thrived on the margins of the Indian political system, in the buffer space between political parties and insurgent groups. It is significant to note that most of these organizations in the northeast are based on ethnic affiliations, and hence ethnicity creeps into all civic spheres into which these organizations intervene, prompting some scholars to describe these organizations as “civic representatives” of ethnic groups and communities. In the context of the above, the proposed research paper seeks to examine the role of some major student and youth organizations of Meghalaya, a state of northeast India, as champions of the interests of the respective ethnic communities they claim to represent. The paper also proposes to focus on the developmental agenda of the Indian State and to enquire into the contradictions and dilemmas that have arisen as a result of the vigorous pursuit of ethnic agenda by these civil society organizations. The paper is structured into the following sections. The first section conceptualizes student and youth organizations as important components of the civil society in northeast India. In the second section, development constraints in northeast India have been discussed. The next section highlights the role of some of the student and youth organizations of Meghalaya as champions of ethnic interests. The fourth section identifies a few contemporary issues are dominating the developmental agenda in Meghalaya and focuses on the views of these organizations on the same. The final section examines the contradictions between ethnic sensitivities and the developmental agenda in Meghalaya and summarizes the main observations of the paper.


The existing literature on ethnicity and nationalism shows that while some scholars have looked upon these phenomena as primordial identities and have even sought to discover historical evidence of their existence in the past centuries, other scholars like Paul Brass consider ethnicity in terms of manipulation of culture by an elite and regard it as a contemporary phenomenon. According to the latter viewpoint, ethnicity becomes manifest when a cultural group led by its dominant sections uses various aspects of culture like language, traditions, and cultural practices to distinguish itself from other groups (Brass, 1991).

In the Indian context, the presence of multiple linguistic and cultural groups has led to ethnic pluralism, and each ethnic group has been articulating its interests in terms of the protection of its distinct identity. This phenomenon has assumed a lot of significance in the context of northeast India which is a homeland of diverse ethnic communities.

The capitalist path of development undertaken by India since independence has further intensified in the post-liberalization and post-globalization era. This process has its own dynamics and compulsions with far-reaching implications for India's multi-ethnic society in general and for the multiple ethnicities of northeast India in particular. The interface between the multi-ethnic setting and the developmental agenda of the Indian State brings into sharp focus the role of the civil society as the champion of distinct ethnic interests.

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