Contest over 'indigenous' in the Northeast

There is much debate on who falls in this bracket. Many communities want to be recognised as indigenous. This often leads to inter-ethnic conflicts and turmoil.

Published: 21st July 2022 01:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 21st July 2022 07:39 AM   |  A+A-

Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha

Express Illustrations | Soumyadip Sinha

A unidimensional portrayal of deep-rooted issues, like the indigenous people’s movement, is susceptible to unjustified oversimplification. A closer look at the matter is vital both from the standpoint of a more comprehensive understanding of natural justice as well as peace and conflict. Those in the Northeast, exposed as they already are to the complex and competing claims to indigeneity amidst the region’s ethnic milieu, certainly cannot ignore this.

One of the central issues in this debate is, who exactly is indigenous? Given the multiplicity of claims, there can be no easy answer. What can be presumed, however, without much dispute, is the need for moderation of the understanding of the term “indigenous”. This has been acknowledged to be problematic, even by researchers of repute like Christian Erni. Is the indigenous person somebody belonging to a primitive pre-modern economy? Is his or her worldview determined by primal animistic faiths? Is he somebody who lives in the wild under no canopy of a centralised administration, therefore stateless? Or is a person indigenous only for the belief that he is the original inhabitant of a land?

In all probability, the term “indigenous” has attributes of some or all of these and is seen as vulnerable precisely because these unique attributes are pitted against the possibility of encroachment and obliteration by the modern economy and political system. Is it also quite obvious that each of these attributes is loaded with many unanswered questions? Take the last postulate that an indigenous person is the original inhabitant of a place. Does it imply that the person evolved out of the soil, overturning the “out of Africa” theory of human evolution and migration? Or is it just a question of his having arrived at his place of settlement earlier than others? 

Again, what about nomadic people? Are they automatically disqualified to be indigenous just because they have not evolved a stable, sedentary lifestyle and economy? This problem, as Erni notes in his introduction to the edited volume, The Concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia, is compounded in Asia where numerous communities, in different stages of socio-economic formations, contest to be classed as indigenous, making boundaries of indigeneity nebulous, unlike in settler states like America or Australia where these dividing lines are distinct. Likewise, if indigeneity were to be defined by primaeval faiths and cultural norms, should traditional people who have adopted more formal and universal religions and lifestyles be treated as no longer indigenous? If social, economic and political standards are to be seen as following a linear trajectory, and being indigenous or tribal is only a stage in this progression, this argument should hold.

This contest has been made more complex in India because there is a notion of Scheduled Tribe (ST), constitutionally defined, but this definition does not always adhere to the anthropological understanding of a tribe. The incentive structuring that comes with this classification has added more layers to the contest for primitivity, with more and more communities wanting to come under this category. Furthermore, this incentive structuring is also somewhat ensuring the perpetuation of psychology of primitivism, encouraging the false logic that being tribal is a genetic predicament, therefore unalterable by socio-economic status.

The Northeast is a testimony to why moderation of the understanding of “indigenous” is urgent to make it a little more flexible. Manipur’s case is interesting, although this would hold good for other diverse societies like Assam. The state’s traditional communities are Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis. The first two are STs, but in recent times a growing section of Meiteis too are seeking the status. All these communities claim to be “indigenous”, and by Erni’s definition, all would qualify regardless of their inclusion in the Constitution’s ST list. This musing on the volatility of the term “indigenous” is important for one more reason. If a genome study were to be done today, in all likelihood, all Meiteis, Nagas or all Kukis may not even share the same genetics even within their communities. Consider the valley dwellers, Meiteis. Many traditions, folklores and even semi-scientific studies by colonial writers have pointed out the valley has been a melting pot where different ethnicities descended and merged into a single identity since prehistoric times, and it still is. 

Names of places in the valley, and surnames and clan names of Meiteis, also suggest their connections to Pong (Shan), Kabaw (Kachin), Awa (Burmese), Khagi (Yunnan Chinese), Takhel (Tripura), Tekhao (Assam), Bamon (Brahmins mostly from Bengal) and Pangal (Muslims from Bengal), etc. Yale professor James C Scott vouches in his book, Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchic History of Upland South East Asia, that this population amalgamation has always been a prominent feature of “Paddy States” in the region that he and a Dutch scholar Willem Scheldel christened “Zomia”, to which India’s northeast obviously would also belong.

This raises another thought. If new settlers come to colonise, as indeed many migrants do, instead of allowing a gradual and natural merger with the cultures of their host population and thereby indigenise, they create another problem. The fear among the numerically weak host communities of being demographically and culturally marginalised by migrants is a response to be expected. Indeed, xenophobic suspicion of outsiders has been an almost universal character of communities in the Northeast. The inference also is that if new settlers come and seek to sink into the local milieu and ultimately indigenise, leniency and flexibility in the understanding of indigeneity are called for. Amid the upsurge of insider-outsider frictions in recent times in the Northeast, these ideas need to be revisited and re-engaged for the sake of a sense of justice, and consequently peace, in the region.

An insight from a civil servant at the time of Partition, and one who self-professedly was in love with the Northeast, Nari Rustomji, should be valuable. In his book Imperilled Frontiers: India’s North-Eastern Borderlands, he wrote: “While, therefore, no community can remain static and while change is an imperative for a community’s healthy growth and development, it has to be ensured that the pace of change is adjusted to the community’s capacity to absorb such change without detriment to its inherent organism and essential values.”

Pradip Phanjoubam

Editor of Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

(phanjoubam@gmail.com)



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