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Across 19th and 20th century India, numerous communities (now identifying as tribal) narrated aetiological accounts of brothers founding divergent cultural and political orders. Most of these narratives were spoken in languages whose kinship vocabularies ranked siblings by age, a contrast to the condensed kinship vocabularies of English and many Indo-European languages. Contrary to certain forms of European commonsense, more often than not the youngest brother inherited the largest share.

Edward Moon-Little argues that these accounts are vernacular political theories despite being frequently treated as myths. These fraternal narratives more closely echoed the thought of Johann Herder than Thomas Hobbes as the brothers pursued different values rather than descending into ‘the war of all against all’.

A brief survey demonstrates this fraternal thinking among the Ao (Mills 1926, page 311), Anals (Shakespear 1912, page 150), Assamese (Mackenzie 1884, page 215), Birhors (Roy 1925, page 18), Dimasa (Hutton 1921, page 379), Karbis (Mackenzie 1884, page 215), Kharias (Roy 1937, page 420), Lothas (Mills 1922, page xix , 3), Meitei (Shakespear N.D.), Morans (Endle 1911, page 88), Rengma (Mackenzie 1884, page 215), and Tangkhuls (Hodson 1911, page 9). Similar fraternal formulations have been recorded across Southeast Asia.

Fraternité was one of modernity’s most powerful ideas. Its anglicised form was enshrined in the Indian constitution and it has been vernacularised by many South Asian thinkers. Ambedkar, for example, declared his ideas on fraternity came from the Buddha, not the French revolution. 

Edward's Meitei interlocutors spoke of fraternity often and even erected statues celebrating fraternity. They did so to heal the wounds of political violence with their tribal kin. At rituals, the Meitei king located himself as the descendant of the younger brother mentioned in a local aetiological account.

Thinking with Sean Dowdy’s work on Assam, this presentation asks what happens if we put siblingship back at the heart of theorising politics, just as Edward's interlocutors in Manipur tended to do. How do we think of fraternity in contexts where siblingship must be graded? Is this hierarchy or equality? For the Meitei, terms of address must distinguish between the eyemba (older brother) and the enao (younger brother).

About the speaker

Edward Moon-Little is undertaking his PhD at Cambridge University. His research title is 'The Metaphysics of Pakhangba: Kingship and ritual in Manipur.'


This event is part of the 'Fugitive words: India’s political ideas in its vernaculars' seminar series.