Course:ANTH309/2024/Eastern Himalayas

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Movement, Change, and Identity in the Eastern Himalayas

The Eastern Himalayas Region: Bhutan, Northeast India (Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura), and part of Nepal. [1]


The Eastern Himalayas, spanning across Bhutan and several states in Northeast India including Sikkim, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura, form a region of immense cultural, ecological, and geographical significance. This area is known for its mountain landscapes, rich biodiversity, and abundance of culture.

The Eastern Himalayas is home to a multitude of languages, traditions, and belief systems, and unfortunately, quite susceptible to change. This change, then, has the largest impact on identity for individuals and groups in this region.

As such, this page will touch on the various levels of identity that can be identified in some areas of the Eastern Himalayas.


Section 1 discusses the intersection between cultural identity and sexual orientation among youth in Bhutan. The cultural identity of Bhutan is deeply intertwined with Buddhism, which views homosexuality as a generally taboo subject. However, modernization has changed this notion within the country of Bhutan. The definition of Buddhism is evolving into one that is more open to the ideology of homosexuality, as it follows Theravada Buddhism. Furthermore, given the rise of Social Media among the youth in Bhutan, more and more of the LGBTQ community has been able to connect with one another.

Section 2 explores the profound effects of modernization and globalization on the cultural and gender identities of Sikkim. Traditional practices, ideologies, and beliefs are being redefined, challenging the very notion of what it means to be Sikkimese. Identity, particularly on individual levels, is being reshaped. Advancements have significantly improved the quality of life in Sikkim, yet they also bring drawbacks. Globalization leads to a sense of disconnection and struggle for belonging among the youth, who are caught between preserving their traditional identity and embracing modern lifestyles. The interplay between modernization/globalization and cultural/gender identities is complex and nuanced. Thus, in navigating these changes, humility, compassion, and respect play crucial roles. Despite the various challenges, efforts to raise this awareness reflect the importance of preserving identity in the face of globalization and modernization.

Section 3 analyzes the next generation of Bhutan, delving into challenges facing youth, the 2024 federal election, and how changes to policy will impact environmental and economic sectors of the country. Bhutan's reputation of a "people-centric" approach to politics has been criticized in the past due to the impact it has had on their economy. Though, change is on the horizon as their GDP is continuing to grow, so much so that the United Nations has removed the Bhutan from their list of the least developed countries. Several organizations such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), WWF Bhutan, and The Bhutan Youth Development Fund are working towards creating a better future for the nation's next generation with projects focused on job creation, environmental activism, and sustainable development.

Section 4 discusses the identity of rural Bhutanese people, shaped by domestic migration, rural traditions, family structures, and Buddhism. It highlights how migration to urban areas is changing rural communities, leaving behind aging populations and altering traditional roles. The page also covers the significant influence of Buddhism in maintaining community cohesion and ethical practices amidst these changes. Additionally, it explores the impact of ethnic nationalism and the Bhutanese refugee crisis on these communities. Overall, the article provides a detailed look at how modern challenges are reshaping rural Bhutanese identities.

Section 5 explores some of the multiplicities and contentions in identity formations for Northeast Indians, specifically in the context of increasing nationalist rhetoric within India. Nationalist ideologies within the country have attempted to cultivate a hegemonic conception of how the country looks and functions, with the Northeast of the country (not solely, but notably) providing a counterstory to this narrative. Northeast India is not just one culture or people but many diverse ethnic and religious groups. Perceptions of the region's underdevelopment and 'backwardness' have led to the marginalization and alienation of the Northeast. Through exploring these issues it can be seen that identity is much more than the passport that one holds and is influenced by conceptions of national identity and expectations of monoculturalism within a country as diverse as India.

Section 6...

Section 7 discusses how identity and language intersect for Bhutanese people within Bhutan and also those who have migrated outside of the country. New technological developments, like social media, have made sharing language and preserving it more accessible than ever before. In Bhutan, and the Himalayan region in general, it is not uncommon to know more than one language, these different languages all contribute to one’s identity and can make identity more fluid. Many people who are children of immigrants can have a difficult time learning the language of their parents through things like limited exposure to it and this can affect how they relate and identify to the language. Language intersects with identity in many different ways and language can be a cornerstone to one’s identity.

Section 8 explores the important relationship indigenous people of North East India have with their natural environment, and it's complex nature as youth are choosing to migrate away from the North East region and towards larger cities in search of new opportunities. The importance of traditional ecological knowledge is discussed, and how ancient sacred grove forests are keeping knowledge safe for further generations. Additionally, section 8 examines what indigenous people in North East India consider as indigenous identity, and the way these perceptions of themselves might be evolving or changing as migration becomes more common with the youth.

Evidently, there are a multitude of factors that play a role in the fluctuation of identity in the Eastern Himalayas. In the following sections, the multifaceted and nuanced impacts on identity in the Eastern Himalayas will be explored.

Section 9 focuses on the Indian state of Sikkim, examining how political identities intersect and interact with ethnic identities in this region. A basic framework of different ways in which political and ethnic identities are related is set out. Using this framework, three different short case studies from within Sikkim are examined. First, the Limbu's struggle for their reserved seats in the Sikkim state assembly is discussed. Next, the impacts of ethnicity on political policy as well as the impacts of British colonization are examined. Finally, the section turns to resistance by Bhutia communities to hydropower development projects on their traditional lands.

Section 1: Homosexuality and Cultural Identity in Bhutan

[2]Members of Queer Voices of Bhutan

Sexuality in Bhutan is a nuanced and multifaceted topic because its culture and history are deeply rooted in Buddhism[3]. Despite the fact that Bhutan is a pro-sex country, its historic viewpoints towards homosexuality have been generally negative. Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism has heavily influenced the political and cultural landscape of Bhutan since the establishment of the Bhutan state in the 17th century. Buddhism as a religious and cultural practice, seeps into every sphere of life for the Bhutanese people as it is a fundamental aspect of the cultural identities of the people of Bhutan [4]. Nevertheless, the differing non-heteronormative forms of sexuality in Bhutan are seen as an unmentionable and unspoken topic in Buddhist Bhutanese society (Chuki, 2019)[5]. Despite Bhutan’s strong cultural foundation of Vajrayana Buddhism, its growing youth culture is reshaping the landscape for its LGBTQ community through a redefining of cultural norms and Buddhist Dharma.

Religion and Sexuality in Bhutan

Buddhist dharma views sexual acts between the same gender as a form of sexual misconduct, which is one of the 10 non-virtuous deeds in Buddhism. Moreover, people who identify as being homosexual are explained as being a result of committing inappropriate sexual behaviour in a past life [6]. This is due to the pervading belief in karmic rebirth in Buddhist philosophy. If one has done a bad deed in his or her past life, then one will bear the consequences even in the next life. Buddhism is also heavily intertwined with the political sphere in Bhutan [3]. For example, due to this intertwining of religion and politics in Bhutan, the Bhutanese government has implemented a penal code that bans gay sex in 2004 and a violation of this code can lead to up to a year in jail .[5] This penal code was simply just an emphasis on pre-existing cultural and societal norms that viewed homosexuality as unacceptable. With the majority of people adhering to the traditional Buddhist dharma, homophobia is engrained within society, leading to homosexuality being a sort of taboo (Chan, 2022).[7] Nevertheless, attitudes towards the LGBTQ community are slowly changing in Bhutan.

Redefinition of Buddhism in Bhutan

Many homosexual Bhutanese youths who ascribed to Western Buddhism are now arguing that viewing homosexuality as sexual misconduct is an outdated perspective and a reflection of cultural biases [5]. Given that Western Buddhists view Buddhism through a re-interpreted modern lens that focuses on Theravada Buddhism (the oldest form of Buddhism), Western Buddhists posit that this viewpoint does not properly represent the core teachings of Buddhism [8]. Buddhism in principle, emphasizes the mental form over the physical form, and therefore enlightenment - the ultimate goal in Buddhism - is achievable regardless of gender [5]. Intrinsic individuality is also not taught in Buddhism, meaning that gender as a concept does not exist, and thus homosexuality does not exist [7]. Moreover, as the mind is the only thing that is permanent, whereas all other physical forms are impermanent, gender and sexual orientation should not matter in the eyes of the Buddhist Bhutanese people. This viewpoint is slowly gaining popularity in Bhutan, allowing a shift in the religious perspective of Homosexuality. Bhutanese scholar Karma Phuntso stated that “Bhutanese can differentiate between true spiritual teachings from the cultural baggage that came with it” [7]. Buddhism in Bhutan is now slowly seeing a redefinition of its sexual ethics and cultural viewpoints surrounding homosexuality through a renewal of understanding of Buddhist teachings. This evolving discourse on homosexuality within Buddhism has contributed towards the dismantling of the stigma and a shift in the conversation surrounding homosexuality in Bhutan.  

The Emergence of the LGBTQ Community within Youth in Bhutan

While Bhutan's landscape and religious foundation have initially presented challenges for the homosexual community in Bhutan, the emergence of LGBTQ youth in Bhutan has instigated societal shifts that are paving the way for a more inclusive future. Facebook and other social media have played a pivotal part in Bhutan’s fight for rights for the LGBTQ community [9]. Starting in 2015, the LGBTQ youth community in Bhutan began utilizing Facebook as a platform for mobilization. The LGBTQ youth initiatives began as a forum advocating for HIV issues, then the forum was transformed into a platform that connected the LGBTQ community and fought for LGBTQ issues [10]. These Facebook groups have allowed not only connections between the LGBTQ community and their allies but also resulted in the formation of LGBTQ organizations that are pushing for LGBTQ rights such as Rainbow Bhutan [10]. These groups, in association with their allies, have shifted the overall perspective of homosexuality in Bhutan by lobbying the government and creating a community primed to advocate for LGBTQ rights through an atmosphere of compassion and understanding [10]. The advocacy results were incredibly successful and led 2,516 people to sign a petition that resulted in the government unanimously agreeing to repeal the Penal Codes that criminalized homosexual acts)[11]. This increase in visibility for the LGBTQ community in Bhutan has allowed for a spread of awareness and understanding of the homosexual community among the Bhutanese people, leading to a decrease in stigma around homosexuality. Furthermore, by fostering compassionate conversations between community members while disseminating messages aimed at reducing the stigma around homosexuality, they are slowly reframing the societal narrative surrounding homosexuality.

With the implementation of youth initiatives through social media platforms like Facebook, many more of the people within the LGBTQ community feel more represented, and accepted within Bhutanese society. Moreover, the increase in awareness coupled with a changing definition of Buddhist Dharma has allowed for an increase in allyship and a safer country for the LGBTQ youth. While stigma still exists surrounding homosexuality in Bhutan, youth in Bhutan are paving the way for a more inclusive future step by step.

Section 2: Modernization and Globalization: Belonging and Identity in Sikkim

Sikkim, one of the smallest states in India, is recognized as a part of the eastern Himalayas. In accordance to the beauties of this mountain range, Sikkim is well-known for its rich array of traditions, languages, beliefs, and much more. Subsequently, this region is not immune to the effects of modernization and globalization, which are forces reshaping various aspects of identity in Sikkim.

It is true that positives are brought about, like technology and infrastructure advancements, but we must also recognize how they can bring negative impacts to the Sikkimese sense of personal identity and belonging. These impacts, then, correspond with cultural identity, gender identity, and such other related matters. Of course, it is important to note that while modernization and globalization have large impacts on identity in Sikkim, the consequences of such are much broader than the forms of identity discussed in this section. However, for the purposes of this discussion, exploration will revolve solely around individual levels of identity such as cultural identity and gender identity.

As such, this section will explore individual levels of identity that modernization and globalization impact and how such furthers the complexities of modern life in Sikkim, complicating efforts to preserve culture and maintain a sense of belonging in a rapidly changing world.

Development and Advancements

A photo of a teacher and students in a classroom in Sikkim. [12]

Modernization and globalization have been accompanied by significant advancements in technology, education, infrastructure; all of which are only some results that have significantly improved the quality of life for those in Sikkim.

However, with these benefits come drawbacks. For example, education is more common than it used to be. In fact, individuals in (eastern) villages think that “...these days, everyone in the world is educated…” [13] Looking back at the world’s history of a lack of education, especially in the East, this seems as if it should be a positive thing. However, in this context, such a statement alludes to a negative, empty feeling of abandonment, of fear… Advancements in the field of education give inhabitants (of villages) a reason to leave; people want to seek out education whether it means moving their entire lives elsewhere or allocating land and other resources toward buildings for education. Even within this, there are many issues.

The previous rarity of these education opportunities urges people to be more eager as they arise now. This can be harmful in a way that the village, the culture, the people become abandoned in the end.[13] Parents, grandparents, other family members are all left behind as the new generations move into the new world.[13] It is not promised that these individuals will come back, or if they do, it is not promised that they will have the capacity to learn the traditional cultural ways.[13] Further, It is important to acknowledge that moving away for whatever reason leads to the dispersal of these cultures across the world, and the increasing of the number of diasporic communities. Such only weakens cultural heritage, create integration challenges, and further dilute cultures.

In addition to the positive developments and advancements that education brings, it may also lead to a loss of culture and the weakening of family structures.[13] The influx of new ideas, lifestyles, and practices from the outside world leads to a dilution of traditional Sikkimese culture in various ways. As younger generations are enveloped in the current, traditional practices and beliefs are being left behind.


Globalization and modernization has profound impacts on the cultural identity of different communities. Factors of cultural identity, particularly in terms of language, traditions, and beliefs, are deeply impacted as a result of technology and communication advancements.[14] For example, the younger generation, influenced by global trends, often prioritizes more common languages (ie. English) rather than their own local languages, leading to a decline in fluency.[15]

The influx of external influences has created a sense of disconnection and struggle for belonging among youth, who often find themselves caught between preserving their heritage and embracing modern lifestyles. [14] [15] As mentioned above, there are various concerns raised about the (potential) erosion of traditional cultural practices and values. As such, the importance of striking a balance between embracing modernization and preserving cultural identity. [16] The roles of humility, compassion, and respect for ecology in navigating these changes are crucial. Despite these challenges, efforts to raise awareness about cultural heritage reflect a growing recognition of the importance of preserving identity in the face of globalization and modernization.

Bittersweet Opportunities: Gender

Another aspect of personal identity involves the interplay of gender identity. Across various cultural contexts, traditional norms have been challenged and societal structures have been reshaped. [17] As external influences come into play, they bring about changes regarding perceptions of gender roles and expectations. This has numerous outcomes, such as the reevaluation of women's roles in society. [17] With the introduction of new ideas, technologies, and practices, new opportunities for women are created, allowing them to assert their agency and challenge existing power dynamics. [17]

The influx from influences around the world has led to a redefinition of gender identities, and the creation of spaces for individuals to explore and express their gender in ways that may not have been possible before. [18] But, it is also important to acknowledge how Western-centric notions of gender and the like do not smoothly align with the cultural contexts and realities of different societies, such as those of Sikkim. As such, the interplay between modernization/globalization and cultural identity is quite complex and nuanced.


All in all, the forces of modernization and globalization have had a profound impact on cultural and gender identity in Sikkim. Moreover, the redefining of traditional practices, ideologies, and beliefs immensely challenge sense of personal identity and belonging in Sikkim. Finding a balance between embracing modernity and preserving cultural heritage is of utmost importance. It is only in this way that cultures can ensure the safety of the identity of future generations.

Section 3: The Next Generation of Bhutan: Youth, Politics, Economics, and the Environment

Bhutan is a country nestled in the Eastern Himalayas. The nation possesses natural beauty, wild landscapes, and rich culture, but unfortunately is no stranger to economic hardship. Only recently, Bhutan has become seventh country to graduate out of the United Nations "Least Developed Countries" list. Bhutan is currently working towards a more promising future for the youth of its country, focusing resources towards job creation and and education, in fears that the country might lose its most valuable generation. Bhutan's economy has seen significant growth in recent years from agriculture, forestry, tourism, and energy production [19]. There is a longstanding commitment within the country to prioritize the wellbeing of its citizens with a system known as "Gross National Happiness" (GNH), which offers both benefits and drawbacks politically. This section will analyze all of the above, as well as dive into details regarding the environmental and economic policies within the country.

Gross National Happiness

The current Prime Minister of Bhutan, Mr. Tshering Tobgay, who was re-elected in 2024.

Bhutan showcases a unique economic landscape distinguished by its commitment to Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and was in fact the first country in the world to pursue happiness as a state policy[20]. The country recently held its general election this past January, and the main topic of discussion was the nation-wide economic challenges brought fourth by this longstanding policy of GNH[21].

Released in 2019 was a film titled "Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom", which follows the life of a young Bhutanese man who is sent to teach children at one of the most remote schools in the world. The GNH index was one of the biggest motivations behind the movie's plot and resulted in the country’s first-ever Oscar nomination during the 94th Academy Awards [22].

Youth in Bhutan

As mentioned previously, the kingdom of Bhutan is facing extreme economic hardship, with the youngest generation being hit the hardest with rising rates of unemployment and subsequent migration as a result. Bhutan's youth unemployment rate currently stands at 29% [23], causing young citizens to leave the country in record numbers in search of better financial opportunities. Over 15,000 Bhutanese citizens were issued work visas to Australia in 2023, a number which is greater than the past 6 years combined, and almost 2% of the kingdom's population [24].

The young people of Bhutan are not alone during this time of hardship though, organizations like the Bhutan Youth Development Fund are actively working towards creating a greater future for Bhutanese children through scholarships, mentorship, counselling, and activities to preserve culture while instilling vocational skills and enhancing employment skills [25]. Seeing as Bhutan is a country with an ongoing commitment towards environmental conservation, WWF Bhutan focuses on programs that actively engage youth to develop the knowledge, motivation, and abilities to support conservation[26]. The organization operates through through two thematic areas - Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and Youth Empowerment and Leadership (YEL). EDS programs are open to all youth and aim to assist in the development of awareness, skills, and knowledge with a focus on environmental conservation, examples of past EDS programs include bird watching school activities, trips to an environmental education camp, or information sessions which promote the WWF's latest Living Planet Index [27]. YEL on the other hand is a program specifically for those aged 15-25, with a focus on career development or academic accomplishment through scholarships and awards recognizing ambassadorship and achievements among Bhutanese youth [28].

Environment and the Economy

Taktsang Heritage Forest, Bhutan

Green and inclusive growth has always been a priority for the kingdom of Bhutan. The country has maintained a holistic approach to development and has sustained an average annual real GDP growth of 7.5%, and as of December 2023, has exited the United Nations list of the least developed countries. Bhutan is also one of only three countries in the world to be net carbon negative, meaning it absorbs more greenhouse gases than it emits [29]. Bhutan is known for being a global leader in forest and biodiversity conservation, with over 70% of its land area being forested. Bhutans forests, agricultural land, and protected areas provide the country with its "natural capital", and when sustainably harvested, can support economic diversification and resilience. Most of the job opportunities in Bhutan exist in the public sector, skilled labourers and rural or agricultural workers making up the majority of that, though, the country is in need of a serious labour market reform. Overwork, defined as working more than 48 hours a week, affects 63% of the labour force, and most private sector employees have no written contract between them and their employer [30]. This is yet another reason for the growing rate of unemployment, and labour shortages within the private sector.

Facilitated by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), slow but steady progress is being made to steer the economy through its next generation of development. Technical assistance and policy advice by UNCTAD is helping to sustain economic momentum, relieve debt distress, and strengthen its business infrastructure past the agricultural sector[31].


Bhutan has made significant progress in recent years towards development, education, financial security, and contributing to the global economy. There is still a long way to go on the path towards GDP growth and more advanced employment opportunities, but Bhutan has all the resources necessary for a prosperous future. Embracing change within the country, expanding into new development sectors, and continuing education will offer great benefits and pave the way towards a thriving future.

Section 4: Understanding Rural Bhutanese Identity: Intersections of Domestic Migration, Rural Life, Family Structures, and Buddhism

Bhutan's culture is deeply influenced by its longstanding traditions and the significant impact of Mahayana Buddhism. Situated in the Himalayas, this nation witnesses a unique interplay of factors like internal migration, changes in family structures, community activities, and religious beliefs that shape the identities of rural Bhutanese communities. This article aims to explore these dynamics, focusing on how modernization and internal migration challenge and transform traditional ways of life. A thorough review of scholarly literature, official reports, and religious analyses offers a complete understanding of life in rural Bhutan.

Internal Migration and Identity Shifts

Internal migration in Bhutan typically involves the movement from rural to urban areas as individuals pursue better educational and job opportunities. This migration has profound effects on both the migrants and the communities they leave behind, reshaping the social and economic frameworks of rural areas. It is important to[32] look at how these shifts force rural migrants to negotiate between their traditional rural identities and new urban lifestyles, often leading to a hybrid identity that incorporates elements from both environments.[33]

Changing Family Structures

Image taken by a tour agency "Bhutan Inbound" of rural Bhutanese people

A major transformation in rural Bhutan is the shift from extended to nuclear family structures, which significantly influences social dynamics. Traditionally, extended families supported agricultural operations and maintained strong community units essential for communal life. Leaming[34] states that as more young people opt for nuclear family setups, influenced by urban migration and Western cultural norms, there is a noticeable trend towards individualism, which threatens the traditional communal practices and collective responsibilities that define rural Bhutanese society.[34] This shift also challenges the effectiveness of cultural transmission, gradually diminishing the prevalence of communal rituals and practices that have long been pivotal to Bhutanese rural life.

Ethno-Nationalist Sentiment and its Impact on Refugees

Ethnic nationalism in Bhutan has also significantly shaped rural societies, particularly through policies aimed at promoting ethnic homogeneity, which severely affected the Lhotshampa (ethnic Nepalis). Hutt[35] explores how these policies led to a massive displacement of Lhotshampa in the 1990s, sparking a refugee crisis that changed the demographic makeup of both rural and urban Bhutan[35]. This exodus not only altered the ethnic composition but also strained the cultural and social frameworks that had previously integrated diverse ethnic groups under a unified Bhutanese identity.

Buddhism and Cultural Adaptability

Buddhism profoundly influences more than just the personal spiritual lives of Bhutanese; it is ingrained in the nation’s social policies and community ethics.[4] This religious framework helps rural communities adapt to rapid changes brought about by globalization and urban migration. Buddhist principles such as the Middle Way, non-harm, and compassion guide communal decisions, providing a stable foundation for confronting modern challenges. Gross[36] argues that this adaptability is crucial for maintaining social harmony and ensuring that transitions do not disrupt the community spirit.[36]

The Influence of Buddhist Practices and Rural Traditions

Rural life in Bhutan is mainly agrarian, with a strong emphasis on religious and community practices centered around local monasteries. Walcott[32] notes that community rituals such as shared labor (wool), village assemblies (tshogdu), and temple worship are crucial for helping to maintain social cohesion and reinforcing collective identity.[32] Buddhism not only shapes these practices but also imparts a philosophical perspective that promotes ethical conduct and overall well-being. Gross[36] highlights how Buddhism's teachings on compassion and tolerance, coupled with its inclusive nature, are essential for uniting communities, especially as they navigate the complexities of modernization and cultural integration[36]


The identity of rural Bhutanese is intricately woven from various factors including migration, family dynamics, religious practices, and national policies. As Bhutan progresses towards modernization, these elements collectively narrate the evolving experiences of rural communities, posing challenges to adapting while preserving their traditions. A profound understanding of these interactions is essential for developing policies that support rural development, cultural preservation, and national integration in Bhutan. Embracing the complexities of rural identity will be key in safeguarding Bhutan's cultural heritage while fostering a resilient and vibrant rural society.

Section 5: National Identity and Contentions of Nation-Making within Northeast India

Map of Northeast India's States

The subject of identity is fluid and relational making it hard to discus are defined. In this section, I attempt to discuss some of the multiplicities and contentions in identity formation for Northeast Indians, specifically in the context of nationalism and nation-making within India. Northeast India is comprised of eight states including Assam, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and Meghalaya. This region is characterized by the nation as a place of great potential for development and is called a “backward area”[37] by the government of India. Karlsson and Kikon (2017) find that “the public in India seems somewhat oblivious to the situation in Northeast India, accepting the state’s centrist position that there is a law and order problem in the region.”[38] The North Eastern Council (NEC) was put in place by the Indian Parliament in 1971 and their website expresses that “the Council has marked the beginning of a new chapter of concerted and planned endeavour for the rapid development of the Region”.[37] This area is known for its nature reserves and tourist attractions as well as being the region in which the Brahmaputra River comes down from Tibet into India and then on to Bangladesh where it meets the sea. The Brahmaputra River is of great significance to the area as it supplies hundreds of millions of people with fresh water and is a part of many rich religious and cultural traditions in the area.


Within the larger context of India, nationalism and mono-culturalist ideologies have been growing in the nation. Since the election of India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in 2014, nationalist, especially Hindu nationalist, sentiments have increased.[39][40] In their piece for The Indian Institute of Advance Study, Udayon Misra finds that “there is a concerted effort on the part of some political outfits and organizations to appropriate the north-eastern region into the fold of a mono-cultural nationalism and a certain version of the nation” (p. 14).[41] Misra (2017) explains that the Northeastern states of India have a long-standing history of resistance to nationalist conceptions of what characterizes “India.” Considering this complex relationship that the Northeastern states have with the rest of the nation, personal and group conceptualizations of identity have been deeply impacted. India is in a state of constant negotiations and renegotiations of identity with itself, especially since the nation contains many diverse peoples and cultures, while simultaneously grappling with rising nationalist ideologies.

Across Cultures Within Borders
Mayudia pass in Arunachal Pradesh

One way that identity for Northeast Indians has been impacted by conceptions of national identity is in their comparison to, and alienation from, India's mainland. In their paper titled, The “Indian Face,” India's Northeast, and “The Idea of India,” Wouters and Subba (2013) explain that the identity of Northeastern Indians “can mean anything and nothing at the same time” (p. 131) as the region is filled with a multitude of ethnic groups, tribes, landscapes, religions, languages, and other characteristics.[42] They also question the title “Northeastern” as this is dependent on where one is in relation to the region. Wouters and Subba find that “the Northeast or Northeasterners appear as unitary they are to be understood as a social category produced and reified vis-a`-vis mainstream India” (2013). For Northeasterners, while they may share a national identity with the rest of the Indian population, they are often not perceived as such in what Wouters and Subba call the ‘face-scape’ of India. In fact, “being misrecognized as a foreigner is a common experience ‘Northeasterners’ share when they leave their own region to travel or reside in India’s ‘Mainland’”.[42] In their analysis of India’s ‘face-scape’ Wouters and Subba find that people from the Northeast are “nonrecognized and misrecognized, mirrored back by the wider Indian society as foreigners” (p. 127) eventually leading to marginalization and discrimination within wider society.[42]

Karlsson and Kikon (2017) describe the marginalization that Northeastern Indians face within the service sector of India in their paper titled, Wayfinding: Indigenous Migrants in the Service Sector of Metropolitan India. Through ethnographic research, Karlsson and Kikon explore the experience of Indigenous Northeastern Indians through their stories of migration and labour within India. Karlsson and Kikon (2017)[38] agree with writer Mcduie-Ra (2012), calling upon a quote in Mcduie-Ra's book, Northeast Migrantsin Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail, saying that “In these global spaces, Northeasterners perform these roles because they look, speak, and act ‘un-Indian’... they are not associated with a particular caste, religious or regional group within the boundaries of mainstream India… [and] are simultaneously neutral and exotic.”[43] The experience of Northeastern Indians cannot be defined in one way, however, the challenges they face within India’s mainland can certainly be better understood through the recognition of their alienation by the state via nationalist ideologies.


To echo Wouters and Subba (2013), being from Northeastern India does not mean any one thing, but rather “Northeastern” as an identity is constructed through its proximity to, or distance from, what has been conceptualized as “Indian.” The construction of the Northeast as one singular people, being “backward”[42][37] has led to their marginalization and discrimination within the country. Along with this, the idea that there exists one national identity brings about the tensions felt by Northeasterners when they are mistaken as foreigners within their own country.

These are just some of the contentions that come about when discussing national identity, nation-making, and mobilities within an extremely diverse nation such as India. In the wake of colonial expansion, dispossession, independence, and current rises in religious nationalist sentiments, identity becomes simultaneously inherent (to the individual) and proximal (to the state).

Section 6: Balancing Modernity and Tradition: Navigating Urbanization and Cultural Preservation in Bhutan

Population Density Map of Bhutan (2022)

As Bhutan navigates urbanization, it confronts the dual challenges of embracing modernity while preserving its unique cultural heritage. The development of urban centers and the aim to enhance socio-economic standards raise questions about the viability of traditional rural lifestyles, which have shaped Bhutanese society for centuries. This dynamic presents a complex interplay between progress and preservation, emphasizing the need for a balanced approach to development.

Bhutan's Urbanization Journey

Thimphu Business District

Historically, Bhutan was predominantly rural, with less than 5 percent of the population residing in urban areas as of the 1960s. By 2018, this figure had risen to over 40 percent, reflecting a significant shift towards urban living.[44] This transition is driven by the search for better education, employment, and living standards.[45] The movement from rural areas to urban centers has considerable impacts on both settings, prompting government interventions guided by the principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Gross National Happiness: A Framework for Development

Introduced by Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s, GNH is a holistic development approach deeply rooted in Buddhist values. Unlike traditional development metrics focused solely on economic growth, GNH prioritizes a balanced progress encompassing material, spiritual, emotional, and cultural well-being. This framework is structured around four pillars: sustainable development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.[46] It proposes that economic activities should not compromise environmental conservation, cultural integrity, or societal well-being, thus weaving the enlightenment path of Buddhism into national development policies.

Challenges of Urbanization

In rural areas, the departure of young, able-bodied individuals to cities searching for better opportunities leads to economic deterioration, primarily due to decreased agricultural production and increased costs. This migration depletes the rural workforce, leaving an aging population to maintain agricultural productivity and community support structures,[45] which in turn raises concerns about the sustainability of rural economies and the well-being of the remaining inhabitants.

The influx of people into urban areas has led to heightened challenges such as housing shortages[44], increased pollution, and greater social and environmental stresses. The shift not only affects infrastructure and services but also impacts social structures, weakening family ties and risking the loss of cultural identity.

Conversely, some urban migrants maintain strong connections to their rural roots, embodying a duality of embracing modern urban life while preserving traditional values. This balance, however, is fraught with internal conflicts about roles and responsibilities within their communities.[47]

Government Strategies for Balanced Urbanization

In response to these challenges, the Bhutanese government has implemented policies aimed at improving rural livelihoods and creating alternative urban centers to alleviate pressure on major cities like Thimphu and Phuntsholing. These policies strive to provide better access to markets, education, and infrastructure in rural areas to deter migration.[46]

In Bhutan, the push for modern infrastructure can sometimes be perceived as a departure from the communal living and spiritual practices that are central to Bhutanese culture. For instance, the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature launched the Clean Bhutan campaign in 2008 to promote Western waste management practices, like the "reduce-reuse-recycle" mantra, which conflicted with local traditional reuse practices and the cultural push to improve living standards.[48]

The government's approach, influenced by ecological modernization theory, prioritized technological solutions for waste management but overlooked the spiritual and cultural dimensions important to the Bhutanese. This included beliefs in landscape-dwelling deities and the concept of "drib" (spiritual pollution), which traditional practices sought to manage through culturally specific actions that prevent spiritual disharmony.[48] The disconnect between modern, technocratic waste management solutions and traditional, spiritual practices led to public indifference and highlighted a broader crisis of modernity.

Preservation of Cultural Identity Amid Modern Influences

Bhutan faces the challenge of preserving its Buddhist traditions while integrating modern educational systems and secular life influences. The advent of modern education, emphasizing secular and scientific knowledge, poses a particular challenge to the monastic education system, traditionally a cornerstone of Bhutanese society.

With more families opting for contemporary education for their children, enrollment in monastic institutions has declined, reflecting a shift in societal values and aspirations. In some cases, however, the secular nature of modern public education has not completely removed Buddhism. Instead, the Dzongkha-language curriculum includes the study of Buddhist texts, and an homage to Manjushri is a required part of morning assemblies.[49]

Furthermore, the proliferation of technology such as the internet and television introduce global cultural dynamics that challenge traditional Bhutanese ways of life. In response, the Bhutanese government actively promotes national values and Buddhist principles through policies such as the national dress code in public places and schools, aiming to maintain a visible connection to Bhutan's cultural heritage.[49]


While the government's strategies to enhance rural livelihoods and develop alternate urban centers are commendable, these initiatives occasionally clash with the deeply rooted traditional values that are synonymous with Bhutanese identity. Such conflicts highlight the inherent tension in fostering a progressive state that still honors its ancestral heritage. The challenge lies not only in adapting to new realities but also in ensuring that these adaptations do not dilute the nation's cultural ethos.

Integrating traditional values with modern advancements presents unique opportunities for Bhutan. By leveraging its rich cultural heritage while embracing contemporary innovations, Bhutan can enhance its socio-economic development without sacrificing its identity. This integration fosters a resilient community, where traditional wisdom enriches modern practices, and technological advancements help preserve cultural expressions. Such a synergy not only strengthens social cohesion but also positions Bhutan as a distinctive example on the global stage, demonstrating how deep-rooted values can coexist with modernity to create a sustainable and harmonious future.

Section 7: Language and Identity within and outside Bhutan

Many things contribute to how someone forms their own identity and how they then choose to express it to the rest of the world. Language is something that can contribute largely to someone’s identity and someone’s sense of belonging to a certain group. [50] In Bhutan, many languages are spoken across the country with many of them being from minority groups. Identity in relation to these minority languages “are often forged because of the struggle and protest in opposition to dominant linguistic ideologies mandated by the state”.[51] Things like this can be seen within Bhutan and outside of it when looking at diaspora.

Use of Social Media  

The rise in use of social media has benefited minority languages in helping to keep them alive. A majority of people in Bhutan are on social media platforms, with WeChat being very popular, allowing people to share their language with others through the voice message function, even if there is no written version of it.[52] This also allows people who have moved to other countries to still be able to speak and learn more about their own languages.[52] This provides a way to stay connected to a language and a part of someone’s culture and identity, even while being physically away from others who do speak the language. Another aspect of this is how these voice messages also act as recordings of these Bhutanese languages that have no written form and is a way of preserving the language for future generations.[52] This makes preserving languages more accessible and something that most people could do themselves and makes sharing and spreading it easier as well. By participating in something like helping to preserve a language, people can learn more about themselves, their culture, and the language they speak. All these things are factors in people’s identities.

Fluid Identities

Places in Bhutan where Dzongkha is spoken as a native language and places where it is not.

           Since so many languages are spoken in Bhutan, many people speak two or more languages. This can create a more fluid sense of identity for people since they are not just part of one language.[53] The idea that one language only belongs to one ethnic group can exclude “some members who identify with ethnic minority groups but do not speak the language.”[53] Someone does not always have to be a part of a certain ethnic group to be able to speak a language. Policies like the One Nation, One People policy in Bhutan banned Nepali from being learned in schools and only the national language, Dzongkha, was allowed in schools.[54] This shows how restricting what languages are spoken in certain environments can extend to a restriction on someone’s identity, especially if they speak Nepali as their first language, for example. Also, when things like government services or health services are only guaranteed in one language, people who do not speak that language can feel disadvantaged.[55] Someone can speak more than language, but if they do not speak the right one, then things can become difficult to navigate. People can learn different languages outside of the one they grew up speaking and that plays a role in how someone identifies themselves with others.[53] This shows how by knowing more than a single language, identity can become fluid. Also, knowing more languages allows people to be able to connect with others. Every experience someone has contributes to a part of a person’s identity.

Migration and Diaspora

           People move and migrate to different places, and they bring their culture and language along with them. Many of these people move to places with smaller Bhutanese populations, making it harder to keep things like traditions and language alive. Often times, children of immigrants struggle with the native languages of their parents, especially as more time passes and more generations grow up outside of the homeland. However, “what matters is the existence, ongoing vitality of, and even belief in the language rather than their ability to speak it.” [51] These things can help to keep a language alive, especially in places where it is not the first language of many people. Many diasporas have interest in the language that their parents speak, for example, and that can be seen as people seeking out a part of their identity that is not as easy to access. Things like language revitalization programmes offered by local organisations created by diaspora can be seen as “identity strengthening”.[55] These kinds of things give diaspora the opportunity to learn the language of their parents or relatives and connect better with a different part of their identity that has been passed down to them. For example, the Bhutanese Community of New Hampshire in Concord, New Hampshire provides a community to diaspora living in the area and run things like language programmes.[54] Also, oftentimes parents try to foster interest in their culture and traditions in their children, while trying to get their own parents to share those things with their grandchildren as well.


Language and identity mix together in many different ways and in many different circumstances. Things like social media allows more people to play a part in preserving their language, and in turn preserving a part of their culture. It also, lets diaspora to connect to their family that is still in Bhutan. Knowing multiple languages can create a fluid identity, where one person can belong to more than one group of people. Diaspora can foster communities in the places that they live outside of Bhutan and play a part in promoting their language and culture to others, while preserving by doing things like teaching the next generation about their language.

Section 8: Shifting Heritages: Indigenous Identity in Northeast India


Tucked away in the northeastern corner of the country is an intriguing area known for its rugged landscape, lush greenery, and a diverse culture. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura are the eight states that make up and are often referred to "Seven Sisters," with Sikkim known as the eighth sister [56]. The population has been impacted by the rough terrain and varied climate of the Himalayas, which have slowed migration and preserved cultural diversity across communities. Mountains serve as barriers, reducing the spread of surrounding migration, but they also offer safety to people who are under political or other pressure, especially those from North India [44]. Historically, communities settled in these areas as a means of escaping past government forces and other historical events, seeking to distance themselves as much as possible from such circumstances [57].

Map illustrating North East India in red, the white lines outlining the state borders

The states that make up North East India (NEI) are rich in ancient cultures that have endured for millennia. A strong sense of connection to their ancestral lands is fostered and a colourful tapestry of traditions, languages, and practices are nurtured by diverse indigenous communities. The Northeast region contains 166 distinct indigenous groups and a rich biodiversity. Its connection to the rest of India is by a narrow corridor of land that is just 20 kilometres in width [58]

What is "Indigenous"?

The term "indigenous" refers to the descendants of people who lived in a country or region before other civilizations arrived. They are acknowledged as the original occupants of the land and have deep ties to their ancestral homelands.

Anthropologically, cultural assimilation and displacement, especially in indigenous cultures, cause identity to become complex. Maintaining a cohesive identity is challenging since social structures, traditional customs, and languages often disappear. Identity reconstruction, renegotiating, and recovery comes in different forms and can take time. Therefore, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples emphasizes self-identification, stating that people of Indigenous descent are entitled to define their identity based on their traditions and customs [59] [60]

Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In India, indigenous communities have a deep emotional bond with the natural world and depend on the preservation of forests for their survival. They see local communities as capable guardians of the environment. Because they support traditional culture and provide material sustenance, forests are essential to indigenous life. The ecological, social, and spiritual dimensions are interconnected and is what creates Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), due to their symbiotic relationship to their natural environment [46]

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is a deeply rooted and eternal source of wisdom that is shared by indigenous peoples throughout the world. It embodies ecocultural insights and values like reciprocity and kinship with nature. It is essential for efforts aimed at restoring ecosystems and is intricately linked to a communities spiritual and social fabric [61]

Lanscape in North East India

Sacred groves in states such as Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh are a prime example of TEK, as they are considered as sanctuaries for local deities and as symbols of the relationship between humanity and environment. When cooperatively managed, they represent resource management based on community and play an essential part in environmental preservation in Northeast India, shaping indigenous identity around ecological consciousness. Sacred groves are vital sources of species with significant medical, scientific, and social importance, protecting threatened plant and animal species and providing ecosystem stability [46].

However, TEK practices like sacred groves face extinction as indigenous people from NEI increasingly migrate away from their ancestral lands in search of new opportunities. The northeastern region of India was historically viewed as a frontier inhabited by what colonial narratives depicted as wild and savage peoples [48]. These ingrained preconceptions and the effects of colonialism have caused movements among communities, leading to migration within India. Current research provides some insights on the historical and contemporary dynamics of indigenous migration in NEI.

Migration from the North East down South

Due to high levels of violence and insecurity, unstable local governments, a lack of education, a declining economy, and a reliance on subsistence farming, indigenous youth from NEI are migrating to the larger cities in the south, in quantities previously unseen [48].

The decision to move from the highlands to the mainland is complicated and often considered as a betrayal by their locals in NEI. The people of India are regarded as agriculturalists, with agriculture being one of the most important parts of their livelihood [44].

As young people move away from agriculture, questions surrounding land ownership come up. Migration contradicts the deeply rooted attachment indigenous peoples have to their land. This is important because the authority of the Indian state has long been contested by indigenous peoples in NEI, who have fought for their right to self-determination and land rights for a long time. An increase in young people leaving the area puts local ethnic tensions and intercommunity violence at risk. Causing conflicts between migration and indigenous peoples' enduring ties to their ancestral lands [48].

Due to their skin colour, indigenous youth are considered as outsiders in other parts of India. Because they look, speak, and behave differently from the conventions of mainstream Indian society, people from the Northeast take on roles that make them desirable for work in other parts of India. In India, they are not associated with any particular caste, religion, or area [48]. These elements allow them to pursue jobs and other opportunities in the bigger cities that might be more appealing to them than staying in NEI, away from any social issues they might be grappling there. Their migration does suggest a move away from agriculture. They no longer hope to work the land or spend their lives in their ancestral homelands (Karlsson and Kikon 2017, 450).

Defining Identity

However, to them, it does not mean they feel any less indigenous. They look for other means of embracing their indigenous identity, by gaining a more inclusive sense of self by seeking recognition as Indian citizens while acknowledging their indigenous roots. They assert that they are also Indian and not outsiders, embracing the wider possibilities outside NIE while also acknowledge the importance of their indigenous histories and collective aspirations [48]


Indigenous identity is intricately tied to their environment, with knowledge passed down through generations to preserve cultural traditions and wisdom. However, migration poses a threat to the enduring connections indigenous peoples have to their land and rights. Larger cities may offer new opportunities, this movement can also risk the loss of traditions. Despite this, indigenous youth are finding new ways to reclaim and redefine their indigeneity, as it is a deeply personal journey. To balance the preservation of indigenous knowledge together with realities of migration is a complex challenge. Though collaboration between indigenous communities, including those who have migrated to larger cities, and other stakeholders committed to preserving these traditions, can a continuation of this knowledge hopefully go on.

Section 9: Intersections Between Political and Ethnic Identity in Sikkim

Sikkim is a small state of India, located in the Eastern Himalayas. It borders both Bhutan and Nepal, and as such is a place of profound diversity on many different scales. Two of the key aspects of diversity in Sikkim include ethnic and political identities, as well as the different ways in which these identities intersect and constitute each other [62]. Here I will provide some explanation of how exactly political and ethnic identities interact, and some examples of how this manifests in Sikkim.

How Political and Ethnic Identity Intersect

Political and ethnic identities are incredibly diverse in all of the different contexts in which they appear [62]. Further, these identities take shape on both individual and collective levels of experience [63]. Both of these identities also define the ways in which different groups relate to the dominant social group, defining majority or minority status in different ways [63]. Thus, the way these two forms of identity interact also take many different forms. In national state politics, it is common to see an attempt to universalize a national ethnic identity, something which is often inaccurate in practice [62]. However, aligning with a certain political identity can also present an opportunity to move away from oppressive systems that may relate to certain ethnic identities [62]. In this way, state politics can both construct and change ethnic identity for individuals [62].

Another key aspect of how political and ethnic identities intersect is citizenship and its politics [63]. Nation-state borders rarely conform to pre-existing ethnic boundaries, and thus political and citizenship-based identity may often be contradictory to ethnic identity [63]. Further, this specific aspect of these two forms of identity is influenced by both internal and external forces, as relations with other nation-states influence border politics and thus the lives of those within or around said borders [63] These identities thus play out on both a local and national scale.

Finally, ethnic nationalism as a political strategy defines both lateral and vertical relationships between individuals under the head of a nation-state. Political and ethnic identities define both lateral and vertical relationships; who you are on the same level as and who is above or below you in terms of a social or economic hierarchy [64]. Ethnic nationalism has also forced displacement of different ethnic groups throughout history, bringing migration and the politics of belonging into the list of effects of the intersections of political and ethnic identity [64].

Political and Ethnic Identity in Sikkim

There are a few key case studies that demonstrate how these different types of intersections between ethnic and political identity have historically played out in Sikkim. First, I will focus on the Limbu as an ethnic group in Sikkim, and their struggle for equal political representation. Next, I will discuss how the political history of Sikkim has impacted current day governmental policies regarding different ethnic groups. Finally, I will discuss resistance to hydropower development by a specific ethnic group within the state.

The Limbu

The Limbu are an ethnic community recognized as a Scheduled Tribe (ST) in India as of 2003. Since their ST designation, the Limbu have experienced considerable difficulties claiming their reserved seats in the Sikkim state assembly, which many members of the community view as ethnic discrimination [65]. Much of the struggle for the Limbu to differentiate themselves from the other members of the state legislature is grounded in ethnicity, and their “uncertain” membership in the Sikkimese state (238).

In the past, seats have been reserved for the Eleven Indigenous Ethnic Communities of Sikkim (EIECOS), a group commonly referred to as the “left out” communities due to their reduced number of seats and the lumping together of many different minority groups under one larger minority heading that ignores ethnic differences that may play out in a political setting [65]. Eventually, these groups were designated ST status, and thus had rights to different, separate seats in the assembly which required membership in a defined ethnic community.

This move is seen by the Limbu community as hindering their access to their reserved seats in the assembly [65]. Members of the community have argued that increasing the amount of seats in the assembly to account for the new ST group requires larger constitutional amendments, and that just simply increasing the number of seats could severely damage the amount of representation the Limbu have in state politics.

Here we see complex ethnic and majority-minority relations playing out in a political setting. Minority groups have high stakes when it comes to ensuring their representation in political arenas, to ensure their interests are not overlooked by the majority. Tensions arise when these minority groups come into conflict as well, with increased representation of one minority group potentially damaging the representation of others.

Policy and Political History

Seal of Sikkim

Ethnicity has been deeply intertwined with politics in Sikkim for centuries. This has become much clearer since Sikkim merged with the nation-state of India, as ethnic identities in the region have undergone a sort of reconfiguration in the process of navigating a new political structure [66]. This has been further complicated by the political debates regarding Indian nationalism, as differing ethnicities present a threat to the ethnostate [66]. Thus, ethnicity here is both a political instrument for and against the nation-state and its political agenda.

Sikkim’s political and ethnic history is also deeply influenced by the effects of British colonization. The British reorganized the entire land ownership system in Sikkim, as well as introducing Nepali settlers to claim unused land, open copper mines, and further develop the road system [66]. This fundamentally changed the ethnic makeup of Sikkim, which still affects its political makeup today [66].

Sikkim also presents a poignant example of the different levels at which ethnicity and political identity interact. The case of the Limbu demonstrates group interactions at the local level in Sikkim, as well as interactions between the local and the state. However, there are also the interactions that play out between the multi-ethnic state of Sikkim and the larger nation-state of India. Further, as Sikkim shares its borders with the countries of Bhutan, Nepal, China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, international state and ethnic politics play out in this region as well.

Hydropower Resistance

Another example of how ethnicity directly influences political identity in Sikkim is in the protests by various ethnic groups to hydropower projects on their lands. Indigenous Bhutia communities in Sikkim have succeeded in halting the hydropower projects in their home territories through collective action, demonstrating the mobilization of collective ethnic identity for a political goal. Ethnic identity for the Bhutia communities is incredibly place-based, as are national politics and the location decisions for hydropower projects [67]. The importance of place in both political and ethnic identity intersects here, and enabled the mobilization of collective action to protest these hydropower development projects.


Sikkim’s multi-ethnic society creates a place for complex interactions between ethnic and political identities. These interactions take on many different forms, and are deeply affected by the political history of both the state of Sikkim and the larger national context of India. The state’s unique location with many different countries along its borders makes it a unique place for international politics to play out as well. All of these different political scenes are affected by the ethnic communities involved in them.


This resource was created by the UBC Wiki Community.

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