The region we call Northeast India has often been described or qualified by two connotative signifiers for decades now. The first one is the word “unique” and the second one which we rarely set our eyes upon is “exceptional”. Uniqueness shows the state of being incomparable, and also being exceptionally distinct. Exceptionality indicates a spatial and temporal state beyond any set of established rules. While there are differences in understanding the spatial and temporal state of the collective Indian union, the region and the people of Northeast India are often seen as “exception”.
Setting the region beyond the purview of any comparative framework do at times closes down the possibility of any reflection that can be uniformly shared.
Whether or not, the region framed under such signifiers needs an epistemic break, it has been experienced that utterance of the word “Northeast” gives one and all strange images of contradictory phenomena. While one of the images shows the region inhabited by “exotic and peace-loving people”, the other image is of a space endemic to violence. It has indeed become difficult to make sense of certain comprehension. Related to this thought is the way how the region has been mapped out as a “borderland”, a term fondly used today by historians and political anthropologists. This term is being used to make sense of the region as understood by the colonial ethnographers and the administrators on how the region was seen as buffer zone between the two or more colonial powers.
Representations made by these ethnographers, officers, and also early Christian missionaries, were the beginning of marking the region as part of global politics. However, this should not give the impression that there were no records made on the lives of the people prior to the colonial interventions, as if the region was a blank slate. There were practices of writing royal chronicles at four different kingdoms – Ahom, Manipuri, Tripuri, and Koch Rajbongshis. These records not only narrate the achievements of the respective kingdoms but also their relationships with neighbouring kingdoms and communities. There were also practices of counter narratives by people who do not agree with the kings and the royal records. These counter narratives are still evident in certain folk cultures with rich oral traditions of different ethnic communities. Despite this fact, colonial ethnographers and British administrators had preconceived readings about the communities.
Historically, use of the idea of exceptionality is often traced to the writings of colonial ethnographers for whom lack of reference point makes certain regions and people an exception to the mainstream historiography on India. While such a reading may be purely about methodological considerations, it also conveys the inability of the historians to put the region within a conceptually comprehensible framework and create connections. There are also epistemic understandings that show the region as ‘exception’ with negative connotation. The rich ethical concepts of the communities do not find mention in the works by colonial ethnographers or even by Indian scholars. This opens up the possibility of studying the region in cultural and religious terms, striking a depth of difference with the mainstream and the existing body of knowledge which has produced a ‘homogenized’ frame of knowledge.