Book review: Jelle J. P. Wouters, ed. Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity & Indigeneity

Published date01 June 2023
AuthorAnkur Tamuli Phukan
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Jelle J. P. Wouters, ed. Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity & Indigeneity. New Delhi:
Oxford University Press, 2022, 426 pages, `1,638.
The book is an elaborate effort to understand the local figuration of vernacular politics in India’s
Northeast, and how these figurations are contingent with ethnic articulations, politics of indigeneity and
specific manifestation(s) of Indian democracy in the region. In the introduction, delineating the
conceptual and theoretical agenda of the volume, editor Wouters emphasizes the significance of historical
and contemporary contingencies, particularly the dialectical relation between the Indian centre and
Northeast, and how such relationship has produced interwoven vernacularization(s) in the region. This
dialectic, its underlying logic and the institutional and discursive modalities it emphasizes articulate
different regimes of fixation and flexibility, claims and counterclaims in imagining ethnic identities,
community sovereignties, and the language and actual arithmetic of voting.
A 15 authors’ collective of emerging and senior scholars with multidisciplinary background, largely
using ethnographic methodology, traverses almost the entire political geography of the region. With rich
empirical documentation, they inquire into the articulation of vernacular politics in the realms of the
locals. The first two chapters of the volume discuss the potential of traditional vernacular institutions and
their conceptualization, entanglement and effects in the shapes of democracy in the region. In the second
chapter, Sean Dowdy, through an intimate understanding of Assam’s traditional raijmel (public assembly)
and the recent attempt for its revitalization, emphasizes the link between the survival of certain vernacular
institutions and their governmental logic in the region. He shows how these traditional institutions
structure the dialectics of political subjectivity and popular sovereignty outside the logic of the state,
which is why historically they would produce a temporary moment of counter-sovereignties. In the
specific context of counter-sovereign claims by the separatist movements in the region, the resurgence
of such institutes allows space of proliferation of counter-sovereign polities that complicates or weakens
the separatist movements. In the third chapter, Milinda Banerjee argues how pre-colonial polycentric
distribution of power has produced plural forms of democracy in Tripura, very different from the Western
constitutional or Eurocentric forms of democracy that in its Indian derivative has favoured Western
educated caste Hindu elites in most cases.
The next four chapters concentrate on the question of ethno-territorial politics, election and distribution
of power within the region. Saba Sharma, focusing on a sixth schedule area of Assam, argues how in this
specific ethno-territorial administrative geography, the performative politics of vote mobilization and
voting itself becomes a primary mode of expressing citizenship for so-called non-indigenous communities.
Focusing upon a very different landscape, Swargajyoti Gohain discusses the emerging creed of monk-
politicians in Arunachal Pradesh. While these monk politicians participate in the formal politics to
Studies in Indian Politics
11(1) 150–157, 2023
© 2023 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/23210230231166185

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