The opposite of a fact is falsehood, but the opposite of one profound truth may be another profound truth. -Niels Bohr
The practice of historiography came to be formally adopted and recognised in Assam only with the coming of the Ahoms in 1228 A.D. Following the invasion and subsequent formation of the Ahom State, regimes of governmentality (‘the art of government’) were set up, of which the Buranjis formed a crucial part. The Buranjis were chronicles that were written by ordained scribes of the Ahom court. Apart from their other functionalities, these served as records for all physical contact the Ahoms made with the many tribes inhabiting the region during their perilous journey inwards. It is also in the Buranjis where the first mention of the Moran and the Matak people was supposedly recorded. The British administrators who carefully pursued the project of colonial modernity sought to ‘demystify’ the thick cavernous swathes of the ‘frontier tracts’ and thereby initiated the second wave of historiography. The historical scholarship towards knowing the reasons for the rupture of the Ahom State as the aftermath of the Moamaria Rebellion was instrumentalised by enumerator-turned-historians and colonial administrators. In light of this, some of the British-given definitions challenged, and in some cases altered, the etymological basis of the Moran-Matak peoples’ identity as recorded in the Buranjis. Needless to say, the Moamaria Rebellion was a dark chapter in the course of the history of Assam, an event that literally broke the spine of the Ahom rule and also changed the region’s demographics. The confusion relating to the Moran-Matak identity precisely blooms to force with the perusal of this historical event, as the Rebellion was purported to be chiefly orchestrated by the Moran-Mataks.
The Moran-Matak binary is one of the most contentious of topics that baffles historians studying this arena. In recent decades, Assam has become an ethnic cauldron with diversified demands for recognition and representation. The terminological dilemma encasing the Morans and the Mataks, if otherwise considered distinct ethnic groups by politico-legal considerations has been aggravated under such circumstances. The murky domain of history, scattered and incoherent, has acted profusely in generating new movements of resistance, assertion, and recognition. Alternatively, a politics of non-disclosure has also emerged whereby some members belonging to the group(s) shield their identities from the public gaze. It is yet to be established whether such behaviour has a class factor attached to it. What have been noticed in conversations with elders— both high priests and common people, is that there are narrative fissures when it comes to retellings of history. The presence of a largely undocumented oral history, access to which is available only through a handful of octagenarians, has not been given its due place in the making of the varied discourses. More so, the newer generation has exposed themselves to a contorted version of their past rendering hazy their sense of belongingness. The sometimes-synonymous and sometimes-distinct usage of the Moran-Matak terminology raises more questions than answers. Researchers are yet to understand the present-day modalities that have been played upon by such historical obfuscations/aberrations and how these in turn translate into the ongoing political demand for recognising the Moran-Mataks as not one monolithic category, but as separate ethnic groups.
The Moran-Matak population, being concentrated in pockets and corridors mainly in the five districts of Upper Assam, viz. Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Lakhimpur have been much the subject of political invisibility in terms of resource allocations and opportunities. Contrary to it, they have been looked at more as perennial rebellion-seekers, for a huge number of youngsters from their ranks in the 1980s and 1990s actively involved themselves in the call for freedom vis-à-vis the larger paradigm of Assamese nationality formation. Added to that, the dated depiction of the Moran-Matak in some colonial-era dictionaries, commentaries, and other archival material as ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilised’ has transmuted as a given characteristic of both the peoples. Furthermore, religious isolation through the Mayamara sect of neo-vaishnavism, the spiritual custodians of the Moran-Matak, replete with a set of incoherent practices has fuelled the controversy of whether they are a community or a tribe. Discontinuity is also observed in the various literatures pertaining to the subject. Hence, an atmosphere of crossing over the shared boundaries has emerged followed by a politics of de-hyphenation.
The Moran-Mataks have historically bore the brunt of being situated in a liminal zone, through the many terminological inconsistencies that have resulted in a propensity to use both the categories as at once similar and dissimilar. Colonial era ethnology contests such a merger of ethnicities, by alluding to the ‘Matak’ mostly as a geographical designator and the Morans as a separate tribe with a language of their own. It is worth mentioning that the colonial historiographers have fancifully applied the categories to denote geography, language, tribe etc., as it would suit their imagination. Even if it were considered that they had the Buranjis interpreted to them, there was a veritable chance of misreading. Under such a backdrop, the politics of becoming Morans/Mataks can be seen as a movement towards boundary-making by which ethnicity becomes a “process of constituting and re-configuring groups by defining the boundaries between them”. The reconstitution can happen either through tightening of the boundaries, or dilating them vis-à-vis the domain of the included/excluded.
Fredrik Barth, the Norwegian social anthropologist who died last year, argued in one of his books that the analysis of cultures drew far more anthropological attention than the analysis of ethnic organisations, for which ethnic groups began to be understood in terms of the morphological features of the cultures of which they were the bearers. The objective definition of ethnic groups rests on the assumption that they have some culturally distinguising feature, be it geographical, habitual, or customary. However, these definitions make it harder to locate the boundaries, as they are in a constant lookout for cultural markers. The problem arises when there is an overlap of some of these markers, as is the case with the Moran-Mataks who as adherents of the Mayamara sect are constituted under the same religious fold. The performance of ethnicity on the other hand, by the Moran-Mataks can be understood as the realisation of a subjective self-consciousness that is contingent on interactional and political contexts. Anthony D. Smith borrows the concept of the ‘myth-symbol complex’ from John Armstrong’s work Nations Before Nationalism and applies it to conceptualise the persistence of ethnic identities across boundaries. The Moran-Mataks have for long been partaking in the creation of a similar complex to validate the different histories as per situational demands. On that note, an ethno-symbolic approach may come in handy for it is the linkage between culture and politics that it is most concerned about.
Dedicating two chapters, one each to the Morans and the Mataks, Sristidhar Dutta in his book The Mataks, the Morans, and the Moamoria Rebellion, gives an early historical account of the origins of both, and also the confusion that emanates in any interpretation of these terms. For instance, he expresses some credence in the account that posits that the original word for the Matak was ‘Matek’, which was later corrupted to a derogatory usage as the Mataks were thought to be chiefly composed of the lower rungs of the society. Matek is interpreted as a portmanteau word that was a combination of Mat— principle or creed, and Ek— one. As disciples of the Mayamara Satra established by Aniruddhadeva, many tribal proselytes to Hinduism came under the religious dominion of the Kala Samhati order. Dutta argues that Matak is a composite term whereby the disciples of the Mayamara Satra form a conglomerate. Similar nebulosity clouds the term Moran. In the British records, it finds mention as a distinct tribe inhabiting the Matak country (!). In another version, derived from the Tai-Ahom and Assamese chronicles, it denoted a tribe, tribesman of which were conferred the title of ‘Matak’ (Ma— powerful or scholar; Tak— tested) by the invading Ahoms upon getting a taste of their valour. In yet another version it is contended that the different tribal groups and communities who subsumed themselves under a homogenous order, as disciples of the Mayamara Satra, took up the identity of the Matak. Dutta further argues that towards the end of the British rule when the flames of communalism were fanned, the Morans also affixed (prefixed) their original identities to the preponderant identity of the Matak just like many other communities and tribes did, “such as, Moran-Matak, Kachari-Matak, Ahom-Matak etc”. Dutta also writes about how the British officials ascribed to the Morans an ethnic origin based on language, having affinities to Bodo.
Such variances in the different accounts as cited above can perhaps be dealt with through a “reconceptualization of the ethnic life-world”, as Biswas and Suklabaidya argue in their 2008 published book Ethnic Life-Worlds in North-East India: An Analysis. The authors talk of the notion of a ‘possible world’ that they deem important “in order to describe the making of an identity, in terms of certain determinate designations of characteristics, the presence of which gives rise to an identity”. Identities, they believe, are culturally and contextually contingent upon, specific social and historical forces. They also argue about modes of articulation of identities during a lookout for avenues of expression. Articulation is thereby an ancillary factor for representation that often is enmeshed with ‘interests’, which leads to identities being formed as specific social constructs. Furthering the debate on the ‘self-identity’ and ‘multiple identities’, the authors argue along the lines of Anthony Giddens’ notion of ‘reflexive modernity’, that with the coming of modernity the claim to a common identity only became an instrument of cultural and political mobilization. There arose a possibility of simultaneously being something and not being something, without being antithetical to either. This phenomenon can be crudely called ‘multiplicity within singularity’, bound by a unificatory logic.
From the discussion above, some light can be shed on the tussle between history and memory that has been manifested in the Moran-Matak binary, thus awakening a historiographical consciousness. Very briefly, we can say that no act of remembrance is complete without harking back to memory. Memory is lived; history is a mere reconstruction. It transcends beyond historical notations and brings the emphasis on participation. In participation, collective memory dwells. The two-fold process of collective memory creation and collective memory maintenance serves to designate an object of reference while assuring a continuity of the past onto the present. They make up the gestalt of the binary while also fostering a roadmap forward to build inclusive policies to ameliorate historical imbalances. To that end, the Moran-Mataks have to articulate their political visibility and not just keep distinguishing among themselves by devising new modes of ritualization and identifying new cultural markers.0