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We Are Different but We Are the Same: Trans-ethnic Descent and Conversions in North-East India

Philippe Ramirez

Centre for Himalayan Studies, CNRS, Paris



The weight of contemporary ethnicization processes may conceal surviving social features which run against essentialist paradigms. In North-East India, people belonging to different tribes and possessing different mother tongues often pretend they share a common descent on the basis of their respective patronyms. Pairs of equivalent patronyms are understood to refer to the same descent groups, and as a consequence, clans are found to spread across ethnic borders. Moreover, individuals or entire groups easily convert from one tribe to the other, just translating their surname from one language to the other. After conversion, the memory of their previous ethnicity may quickly be forgotten.

"We are different (in terms of tribe) but we are the same (in terms of descent)" is a statement that is strongly rejected by ethno-nationalist elites, but which still grounds the natural sociology of many, with effective effects on the regulation of inter-ethnic marriages. A strikingly coherent network of exogamic relations resists below a patchwork of communities speaking different languages and with radically different social structures. It enables a fluid and transparent flow of individuals across seemingly waterproof societies. Such phenomena not only contradicts the ethno-nationalist assumptions on the co-substantiality of culture and bodies but also the tools anthropologists commonly use to portray multiethnic areas.