“The Mandailing people do not want to be called Batak because Mandailing is not Batak. There is no relationship between the two groups,” says Paruhuman Sah Alam Lubis, chairman of Himpunan Keluarga Besar Mandailing (HIKMA), or the Association of Mandailing Families, in Medan.

The Mandailing, an indigenous group in North Sumatra, are usually referred to as Batak, an umbrella term for a number of North Sumatran ethnic sub-groups including the Batak Mandailing, Batak Toba, Batak Pakpak, Batak Simalungun, Batak Angkola and Batak Karo. Despite being grouped under the same ethnic label of Batak, these sub-groups speak different dialects, have different cultural traditions and originally come from different parts of the province. Around 44% of the population of North Sumatra are classified as Batak.

It’s a label that HIKMA feels is historically inaccurate. The association hosts events across the province to raise awareness of the differences between “Mandailing” and “Batak”. It’s a cause that some Mandailing have championed since 1922, but is now having its day in the sun thanks to a celebrity wedding involving the President of Indonesia.

 

A celebrity wedding and a murky history

The question of whether the Mandailing should be classified as Batak has been a long-standing topic of discussion for local Mandailing groups, or fodder for gossip in Mandailing coffee shops. But the 2017 wedding of Kahiyang Ayu, daughter of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, to Batak Mandailing Bobby Nasution, though, has now brought the issue to the fore.

The wedding featured a range of traditional Batak customs, from the outfits to the dances performed. It also highlighted the confusion between the use of the terms “Mandailing” and “Batak Mandailing”; even the president himself was nonplussed.

“In the beginning Jokowi did not understand our position, because when he met with our group in preparation for the wedding reception, he kept saying ‘Batak Mandailing’ so he got some complaints from those who know the Mandailing history,” explains Lubis.

“At first he was amazed and confused. But after he was shown some references on the history of Mandailing by officials and traditional leaders, then he understood that the Mandailing are not part of the Batak group.”

Indonesia is built on the national slogan “Unity in Diversity”; there are more than 300 ethnic groups across the archipelago

Indonesia is built on the national slogan “Unity in Diversity”; there are more than 300 ethnic groups across the archipelago. While a sense of national unity is central to Indonesian society, the issue of asserting one’s own ethnic identity is equally significant. And HIKMA has been at it for a long time: the association, founded on May 4, 1986, is made up of families who belong to the Mandailing group and has been at the forefront of separating Batak and Mandailing culture.

“Mandailing will never admit that they are Batak. If some Mandailing don’t mind being called Batak then they only make up a small portion of the population,” Lubis claims. “The fact is [that] we consider Mandailing to be closer to a nationality than an ethnic sub-group”.

Paruhuman Sah Alam Lubis is the chairman of Himpunan Keluarga Besar Mandailing (HIKMA), or the Association of Mandailing Families, in Medan. Teguh Harahap

For HIKMA treasurer Ahmad Raja, the Mandailing’s refusal to be classified as Batak is largely a rejection of the categories imposed by the Dutch colonisers who controlled Indonesia from the 1800s to 1945: “When the Dutch entered Indonesia, they saw people in the Toba region who moved around often so they called them ‘Batak’ or ‘the wild’. The Dutch then used the word Batak to mean a culture or a tribe.”

But things aren’t so clear-cut. While it’s true that the Dutch used the term, the term might have pre-dated their arrival. Other sources, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, say that the term was “likely coined during pre-colonial times by indigenous outsiders (e.g., the Malay) and later adopted by Europeans.” Pre-colonial texts like Zhao Rugua’s 13thcentury Description of the Barbarous People make references to the ‘Ba-ta’ of the Srivijaya Kingdom while the Suma Oriental from the 15thcentury mentions a kingdom known as ‘Bata’.

Disagreements persist, with local experts weighing in. On October 23, 2017, a focus group discussion in Medan on the issue was attended by dozens of participants, including researcher and historian Phil Ichwan Azhari, anthropologist Usman Pelly, and Erron Damanik, a researcher from Medan State University (UNIMED). At the event, Pelly claimed that the word “Batak” can’t be found in ancient Indonesian manuscripts. “For example, in the seal of King Sisingamangaraja XII it is only written Ahu Si King Toba, there is no ‘Batak King’,” he said. “Batak does not exist, especially Mandailing.”

For HIKMA Chairman of Education and Training, Syahian Zukhri Nasution, it’s a matter of perception. “If you look at the traditional Mandailing customs that always used objects made of gold, do you still think that Mandailing should belong to a Batak tribe which means ‘a wild man’?” he asks. “Batak branding is harmful to the Mandailing.”

 

A golden opportunity

HIKMA sees the term “Batak” as a derogatory slur, a term used by the Dutch to paint them as wild, uncivilised natives. It’s a term they want to dissociate with as soon as possible, and Kahiyang Ayu’s nuptials have given them a “direct line” to the president to lobby for their cause. It’s a rare opportunity to put their issue on the map in a large country where smaller ethnic communities often go unheard.

Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of some 13,000 islands containing hundreds of ethnic sub-groups, all speaking different languages and with myriad traditions. Despite this, political power in Indonesia is often perceived as being overly focused on Java or, even more narrowly, as Jakarta-centric. Almost all of Indonesia’s former presidents have been Javanese—even Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, born in Sulawesi, was half-Javanese—contributing to a sense that Javanese interests have always come first in the country. HIKMA now sees the Mandailing as having the chance to stand out and distance themselves from other Batak groups. And all of this comes not a moment too soon.

Video: Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo dancing tor-tor, a traditional Batak dance, at his daughter’s wedding.

The celebrity wedding coincides with a time when money from Jakarta is pouring into North Sumatra at an unprecedented rate. The government has made plans to increase the number of tourists to the Lake Toba region to one million by 2019; a huge jump from the 300,000 who visited in 2017. Silangit Airport in Siborong-Borong was turned into an international airport in October 2017 and effort is also being put into making other parts of the province more attractive to tourists. Jokowi is also the first Indonesian president in the 72-year history of the republic to visit Batak areas like Lake Toba, thus elevating the region’s national visibility.

As the money flows in, the Mandailing are using their history to make a name for themselves—literally. They say they’re simply claiming what’s been rightfully theirs for centuries. HIKMA hopes that all this will bring greater recognition of Mandailing culture (and funds to promote it), which would in turn open up more political opportunities for Mandailing candidates in regional elections. That Jokowi’s daughter has been given the traditional Mandailing family surname, or marga, of Siregar is meant to further cement the relationship between the ethnic sub-group and those at the top of Indonesian politics.

“It is all about mobilising ideas of indigeneity and authenticity as a means to gain things not accessible to others”

According to Ian Wilson, a research fellow at the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University, this is common practice across Indonesia: “There are lots of instances of this. For example, in Jakarta the ‘Betawi’ groups try to use their apparent indigenous status as social and political capital, and many politicians are receptive to this.”

As Wilson explains, if local groups can gain the ear of a sympathetic politician in Indonesia by using their indigenous heritage, then there can be a number of benefits. “Exclusivist rights, representation or access to resources are all things these groups are looking for,” he says. “It is all about mobilising ideas of indigeneity and authenticity as a means to gain things not accessible to others.”

This wouldn’t be the first time local Batak groups have tried to curry favour with politicians for economic and political reasons. One of the current candidates for the 2018 governorship of North Sumatra, Edy Rahmayadi—originally from Sabang in Aceh—was bestowed the traditional Batak surname Ginting when he visited Karo Regency in 2017. This, apparently, was in honour of his love for the Batak Karo and his support for villagers who had been evacuated from around Mount Sinabung, an active volcano. Interestingly, the marga was given to Rahmayadi by Himpunan Masyarakat Karo Indonesia (HIMKI), a sister group of HIKMA set up by the Batak Karo.

Lili Ginting, the head of the women’s branch of HIKMI, was quick to explain the rationale for the happy occasion, which coincided with plans for a Bon Jovi concert in Karo Regency. “We hope that the Bon Jovi concert will open the door for more foreign tourists to visit Berastagi[a town in Karo Regency]which is in line with Edy Rahmayadi’s plans for Berastagi to become a world tourism destination,” she told the press (link in Bahasa Indonesia).

Other high profile gubernatorial candidates from outside the region have also been claimed and given surnames by local Batak groups. Djarot Saiful Hidayat, the former governor of Jakarta, was given the surname Nababan—a typical marga of the Batak Toba—in January 2018 in a traditional ceremony.

 

Plans for the future

HIKMA currently operates on a provincial scale in North Sumatra but has plans to increase its presence to all Indonesian provinces. The group is involved in religious and cultural activities across North Sumatra in order to get their message to as many people as possible. “We have held events such as breaking fast together during Ramadan and have held soccer tournaments, as well as attending cultural events such as participating in the annual celebration of Sumatra Province,” says Lubis. “And, of course, we also attended the wedding of the president’s daughter”.

[T]he Mandailing have rejected the term “Batak” from as far back as 1922, but other groups such as the Batak Toba and Batak Angkola are still comfortable using it

But despite the Mandailing’s objections, there’s no consensus among the other ethnic groups who share the Batak classification. As Erron Damanik explained during the focus group discussion, the Mandailing have rejected the term “Batak” from as far back as 1922, but other groups such as the Batak Toba and Batak Angkola are still comfortable using it, and cite evidence of the term being used in pre-colonial times.

According to former journalist Budi Hutasuhut, who is Batak Angkola, the Mandailing are insisting upon breaking away from the umbrella group while still following traditional Batak customs. He, too, references the wedding, which appears to have become the flashpoint for renewed conflict about this issue.

“From the perspective of traditional customs, the Mandailing can’t say they are not Batak,” he said in an interview (link in Bahasa Indonesia) in November last year. “Look at Jokowi’s daughter’s wedding to Bobby Nasution. Nasution is Mandailing. So why did they wear ulos [traditional scarves] from the Batak Angkola? Angkola clothes. Angkola dances. The Angkola are Batak. If the Mandailing are not Batak then they need to let go of all the traditional Batak customs like clothes and everything else.”

If the Mandailing don’t want to be known as Batak, Hutasuhut adds, then they need to do more research to prove a distinct difference between the two terms; their arguments can’t just revolve around the assumption that the word “Batak” is based on colonial bias.

HIKMA practises ahead of an event in North Sumatra to showcase traditional Mandailing music. Teguh Harahap

It’s criticism that Syahian Zukhri Nasution tends to just brush off. To him, the matter is clear and those who disagree are simply misinformed. “Let them resist this if they want to. They are only saying this because they don’t have any proof or other strong evidence to back them up,” he says.

This tension between the groups just goes to show how convoluted Batak history has become over the years; there are details and specifics that no one can agree on. But the Mandailing aren’t going to let go of their newfound proximity to the country’s leadership; for a small ethnic minority group, this opportunity to be heard on a national political level is simply too good to pass up.

 

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Teguh Harahap

Teguh Harahap is a freelance writer and translator based in Medan, Indonesia. Previously he worked as the editor of Koran Kindo, a weekly newspaper for Indonesian migrant workers based in Hong Kong.

Aisyah Llewellyn

Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia, and New Naratif's Consulting Editor for North Sumatra. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel and food. Reach her at northsumatra.editor@newnaratif.com.