|Art: Korou Khundrakpam|
The 2005 Arunachal Pradesh Human Development Report narrates the story of one Jamir Ali to illustrate a remarkable economic phenomenon: a quiet agricultural revolution led by migrant sharecroppers. Ali had moved to Arunachal from adjacent Lakhimpur District of Assam, from which he and other migrants from the plains brought with them the technology of wet rice cultivation. The report says that their bullock-driven plough, the main tool for extending permanent cultivation, is symbolic of the strides that the state has made in agricultural modernisation. Huts of migrant sharecroppers can now be seen in many parts of Arunachal, signifying the expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Despite their pioneering role in the state’s economy, the lives of migrant sharecroppers in Arunachal Pradesh are insecure. Ali, for instance, leases five acres of land on a sharecropping arrangement, and his family of seven lives in a thatched hut he built on that land. The family survives on Ali’s share of the crop, coupled with earnings from seasonal labour, including his wages as a rickshaw-puller – though he gets to keep only a part of his wages, as another part goes to the rickshaw owner as rent. He cannot aspire to send his children to school because Jamir Ali does not have the legal right to live and work in Arunachal. Outsiders require the so-called Inner Line Permit (ie, permission to cross into restricted areas), and customary law governs access to most land. Migrant sharecroppers do not have such permits, and thus they lease land from indigenous landowners. But these leases are oral and short-term, and the threat of eviction remains ever-present. For a group of hardworking poor people officially heralded as agricultural modernisers, the insecurity of Jamir Ali and his peers has few parallels elsewhere in the world.
Less than two years after the publication of that Human Development Report, the threat of eviction might have become real. In the summer of 2007, Arunachal Pradesh saw a major drive against ‘suspected Bangladeshis’ – a clumsy term familiar to anyone in the Northeast. In a state where Indian citizens from elsewhere require permits to enter, the chances are high of vigilante groups targeting – in the name of defending indigenous rights – a poor sharecropper with a name like Jamir Ali as an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.
Resource conflicts between ‘indigenes’ (those who are native to a place) and those whom indigenes see as interlopers are ubiquitous in Northeast India. Apart from campaigns such as the six-year Assam Movement against ‘foreigners’ (1979-85), such conflicts provide the backdrop to many controversies in the Northeast that are ostensibly about something else. For example, when a tribal political organisation protests that a state government has failed to protect tribal lands, and demands separate statehood or greater autonomy, there is often a subtext: that territory in the hands of interlopers could be reclaimed as tribal lands under a reformed pro-tribal political dispensation. Not surprisingly, popular movements for tribal autonomy in the Northeast, such as the Bodo movement, have often been accompanied by strong counter-mobilisation by groups that fear being legally marked as interlopers in a new political dispensation.
Resource conflict is often a subtext, even in the Northeast’s multiple inter-state border disputes. If customary law governs land rights, and land rights favour particular Scheduled Tribe communities legally identified as natives in one state and not in the other, the consequences of where the border is drawn can be significant. Since ethnicity marks some claimants as native and others as non-native, the border could make all the difference as to how competing land claims are, ultimately, sorted out. Groups such as ethnic Nepalis or Muslims of Bengali descent are thus at particular disadvantage, and this is the context of the violence that took place against ethnic Nepalison the Meghalaya-Assam border in May. As the decades-old inter-state border dispute flared up, ethnic Khasi organisations – the Khasi being the legal indigenes in Meghalaya – issued ultimatums to ethnic Nepalis, ‘asking’ them to leave. A number of ethnic Nepalis were killed and thousands were forced to flee. EvenNepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs got involved in the dispute, urging the Indian government to ensure ‘the safety and security of the Nepali community in the bordering areas of the Indian states of Assam and Meghalaya’ (see accompanying story by Dinesh Wagle).
So insidious is the anti-interloper theme in parts of the Northeast thatAustralian scholar Duncan McDuie-Ra has shown, in a recent book on Meghalaya, that the apparent vibrancy of civil society in the state is not especially reassuring. In fact, the ‘outsider’ discourse dominates the state’s social and political life. In the meantime, important issues such as gender-based insecurity or the environmental degradation either get co-opted into or are marginalised by that discourse.
A person of almost any ethnicity can be marked as an interloper somewhere in the Northeast. For instance, thanks to the resilience of the colonial-era determination of particular hill tribes being exclusive denizens of particular hill areas, almost anyone not officially classified as a member of one of the officially listed Scheduled Tribes could be an interloper in a state – with fewer rights than the natives and facing significant insecurity in their everyday lives.
The long-term demographic trend that explains the growing incidence of indigene-interloper conflicts in the Northeast is the gradual closing of the ‘population density’ gap in the area with regards to the rest of the Subcontinent. For more than a century, the Northeast has seen one of the highest population spikes in Southasia, in terms of population growth. Writing in 1978, the political scientist Myron Weiner found Assam to be the ‘fastest growing area in the subcontinent’ over the previous seven decades. This is not the product of in-migration resting on the labour demands of a dynamic industrial economy, but rather primarily a story of the expansion of the agricultural frontier – the extension of permanent cultivation into previously uncultivated areas, or into areas that had been under temporary swidden cultivation. During the century leading up to 1980, says historian David Ludden, permanent cultivation expanded in Northeast India ‘faster than almost anywhere else’ in the region. Much of this was the result of lowland agriculturalists moving upland to cultivate land. Indeed, Ludden writes, ‘the physical expansion of cultivated farmland remained the major source of additional increments of agricultural production in South Asia until 1960.’ It is the expansion of the frontier of permanent agriculture that is at the root of the Northeast’s demographic transformation; indigene-interloper conflicts are the result.
Colonial Assam was seen as a frontier – an area with vast tracts of ‘wastelands’ – and it is well known that the story of tea in Assam begins with those ‘wastelands’ being made available to European entrepreneurs. However, apart from land allocated for tea cultivation, the colonial state viewed many other lands as ‘wastelands’. As colonial rule was consolidated, vast tracts, with the significant exception of some relatively remote hills, were settled with lowlanders, mostly from other parts of the Subcontinent. The expansion of the agricultural frontier that began under British colonial auspices continued vigorously following Independence. Given the postcolonial state’s commitment to development and modernisation, this expansion now penetrated the relatively remote hills that were previously somewhat insulated.
Migration in the Northeast takes the form of both internal and international migration, to use the standard jargon of demographers. Despite the international border that was inserted by Partition, the flow of people from eastern Bengal – ie, today’s Bangladesh, one of the Subcontinent’s most densely populated regions – to the sparsely populated Indian Northeast could not suddenly be turned off. In fact, 1947 accelerated the process, for the Partition-induced movement of Hindus was now added to the economically induced flow of poor Muslim peasants in search of land with or without an international frontier.
Internal migration takes multiple forms, including succeeding generations of migrants moving around in search of better lands. Many older-generation migrants from eastern Bengal, for instance, had settled in the low-lying char island areas of the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, where millennia of sedimentation make for very fertile soil. But the hazards of floods, erosion and submergence make most chars unsuitable for round-the-year living. As such, their descendants have continually dispersed to other parts in search of better land and economic opportunities. Jamir Ali’s great grandfather, for instance, according to the account in Arunachal’s Human Development Report, had migrated from Mymensingh District of East Bengal to Assam during the early part of the 20th century, and it is likely that his family’s migration from Assam to Arunachal also followed this mode of internal economic migration.
Multiple legal regimes
British colonial policy did not open all sparsely populated parts of Northeast India for permanent cultivation. Indeed, large tracts were kept strictly out of bounds for settlers. The Inner Line, put in place in 1873, formed the security parameter of the colonial agricultural frontier. While the areas beyond the Inner Line were almost completely out of bounds, lesser levels of prohibition applied to other areas as well, especially as the colonial state began to confront resistance to its colonisation programme. The colonial state also made a fundamental distinction between areas where the customary law of particular tribes governed land relations, and areas where land relations were governed by common law. The distinction shaped the geography and certain other aspects of the expanding agricultural frontier. In areas under customary law, interlopers were less likely to acquire formal land titles, and the expansion of permanent cultivation occurred mostly outside the gaze of the law.
The Line System introduced in 1923 demarcated only certain areas in the Assam plains to be suitable for settlement by East Bengali peasants. This was supposed to put a stop to haphazard land acquisition taking place through squatting, sales or fraudulent land transfer. The goal was to protect tribal lands, forest reserves, grazing reserves, etc, and to discourage settlers from occupying lands near local hamlets. However, faced with the waves of land-hungry peasants coming in, enforcing these exclusionary rules proved extremely difficult. From time to time, governments in the colonial and postcolonial era have had to adapt to the reality of settlements in prohibited areas, and even to legalise them. Thus, forest reserves and grazing reserves have been ‘de-reserved’, and tribal belts and blocks have been turned into un-prohibited spaces. Over time, what were known as the grazing reserves of Assam almost disappeared, as have many forest reserves.
Despite the revisions, many of the colonial era rules persist to this day, in one form or the other. Today they serve multiple goals, besides providing protective discrimination for Scheduled Tribes, including national security. In the case of the Inner Line – still applicable to Arunachal, Mizoram and Nagaland – those living behind this frontier have developed a stake in defending this colonial institution: it becomes a legitimate way of limiting the rights of the interloper, or even grounds for expelling him or her. As we know from Jamir Ali’s story, it pushes the process of expansion of permanent cultivation into a zone of illegality, and creates a class of rights-less and extremely dependent and vulnerable subjects – not citizens.
As the agricultural frontier has continued to expand into more inland areas, its pace and form have varied, depending on the legal regime governing land rights. With or without the Inner Line, in areas where customary law prevails – as in the case in Arunachal, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram – much of the expansion of permanent cultivation has taken place outside the gaze of the law, providing fewer rights to those that the natives view as interlopers. These areas have also seen significant accumulation of land in the hands of the indigenous elites, as a result of both privatisation of community land and intra-indigene land-sale and other forms of land transfer. The result is a move towards large-scale informal landlordism, with the tenants being either migrants or members of poor tribal communities.
The pattern is somewhat different in the plains of Assam, where settlement in most areas has not only been legal, but was once actively encouraged by colonial policy. It was this difference, between the expansion of permanent agriculture in the space of common law and the space of customary law, that the American scholar Leo Rose observed during the 1960s in his travels through the Northeast. In the area that is now Meghalaya, he found ‘virtually every village below 4000 feet to be Nepali-inhabited and Nepali-speaking, with little evidence of tribal authority being exerted in these supposedly tribal areas.’ The nature of the legal dispensation can make a huge difference to the rights of groups that natives see as interlopers, as became apparent in the summer of 2007, when ethnic vigilantes expelled so-called Bangladeshis from Arunachal. Once they crossed the border into Assam, they faced a less hostile – though by no means cordial – atmosphere. There is certainly no shortage of ‘Bangladeshi’-bashing in Assam, but since most of the state is governed by common law, in those areas no one can be easily marked as an interloper.
The political fallout of the exodus into Assam was predictable. Organisations such as the All Assam Students’ Union and the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) urged the state government to ensure that those displaced in Arunachal did not settle in Assam. The Bodo militant political leader Hagrama Mohilary said, ‘No foreigner will be allowed to settle in the BTC [Bodoland Territorial Council] area at any cost.’ However, leaders of the Congress-led state government described those expelled from Arunachal as legitimate residents of Assam. Opposition leader Badruddin Ajmal, on the other hand, called them ‘Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims’, and said that only a judicial authority could determine their citizenship status. Ajmal’s position is not uncontroversial. However, one can hardly quarrel with the fact that given the long history of migration from eastern Bengal/East Pakistan/Bangladesh to the region it is not easy to determine who is a ‘Bangladeshi.’ The ‘Bangladeshi’ discourse can be oblivious of the fact that Indian citizenship laws have been amended and that a major segment of the post-Partition immigrants are now citizens. Furthermore, in much of Southasia proving citizenship status is not an easy matter. A variety of documents routinely pass as proxy for citizenship papers. Very few people have passports. Ration cards and ‘voter slips’ are all that most poor people can produce in order to ‘prove’ citizenship status.
Despite the profound significance in historical terms of the phenomenon of the expanding agricultural frontier, there has been scant attention given to its policy implications, especially how to balance competing values and rights. Policymaking has been mostly incremental and reactive. On the one hand, the postcolonial state’s commitment to development has intensified the process of expanding the agricultural frontier. On the other hand, in managing its political fallout, the government has relied mostly on policy tools inherited from the colonial era, which were shaped by a radically different worldview and with very different goals.
|Art: Korou Khundrakpam|
The Inner Line and the distinction between areas governed by customary law and common law have persisted more or less in their original colonial form. The Indian Constitution’s Sixth Schedule, which deals with the governance of tribal lands in several states in the Northeast, is only a modified version of the colonial regime of Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas. In the words of historian Bodhisattva Kar, the Inner Line was meant ‘not only a territorial exterior of the theater of capital – it was also a temporal outside of the historical pace of development and progress.’ Can such an institution address the challenges of the 21st century? These policies have provided incentives for a style of politics that privileges ethnicity and places indigenes and interlopers in a situation of structural conflict.
Today, the impact of immigration varies widely in different parts of the Northeast. For instance, while in the plains of Assam continuing immigration at this stage adds acute ecological, political and economic stress, additional population is not a problem for places such as Arunachal. Indeed, with acute labour shortage a major obstacle to development, it could only help that state’s economy. As economist Atul Sarma, the former vice-chancellor of the Rajiv Gandhi University in Arunachal, puts it, ‘the functioning of labour market is constrained’ because ‘in a traditional system the concept of wage labour rarely exists.’ In the absence of adequate local labour, projects such as construction of roads and bridges have invariably meant reliance on migrant labour, which has also been an essential requirement in the extension of permanent cultivation. If the economic prosperity of an area requires more hands, can a set of rules severely restricting immigration from the plains, and allowing indigenous entitlements to trump the rights of migrants, be sustained indefinitely?
In recent years, ‘indigenous people’ has become an important concept in international law. Yet in international circles, the Indian government, like many other Asian governments, has long argued that a concept that arose out of the experience of European settlement in North and South America, Australia and New Zealand is fundamentally inapplicable to Indian conditions. At the same time, it has become standard practice in India to assume that the category ‘indigenous people’ more or less corresponds with another colonial-era category, that of Scheduled Tribe.
To simply assume such a correspondence between these two phrases, however, is to avoid coming to terms with some obvious though difficult choices that have to be made by scholars, policymakers and the public at large in the Northeast. The crude indigene-interloper binary cannot address the complex questions of justice in this expanding agricultural frontier. While at the time of Independence there were perhaps good reasons to continue with colonial-era policy tools such as the Sixth Schedule and the Inner Line, one must recognise that some of the unintended consequences have been terrible. Should the laws of a democracy really be allowed to continue the predicament of a sharecropper such as Jamir Ali on the grounds that he is an interloper and his landlord an indigene?
As the agricultural frontier extends further, it is time that we confront the task of balancing competing values and rights.What philosopher Jeremy Waldron calls the principle of proximity is a good way to think of some of the competing values that need consideration. In Waldron’s words,
people have a paramount duty to come to terms with, and to deal justly with, those with whom, they are, in Kant’s phrase, ‘unavoidably side by side’ in a given territory, irrespective of cultural or national affinity, irrespective of issues about whose ancestors were here first, irrespective of any history of injustice that may have attached to the process by which these people came to be side by side in that territory.
The principle of proximity dictates that Indian public policy should aim at providing incentives for constructing political communities based on the shared visions of the future of peoples who live in the region today – not just those based on imagined and real memories of a shared past.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Point of Return, set in a nameless Northeast Indian hill state, is a haunting novel that explores the consequences of Partition. Refugees from eastern Bengal, after leaving ‘their homes forever to try and find themselves within the nation’, discover that their journey is not over. Being seen as interlopers, they find that ‘the hills that appeared beyond the horizon were only another mirage, their destination just another place that would reject them.’ To Deb’s protagonist, a beautiful town in the hills of Northeast India evokes only fear: ‘a lost spot on the map of the nation, its remote beauty and even more remote violence surfacing in the national newspapers only as little single-column reports of ‘disturbances.’
Generations far removed from the original immigrants to this expanding agricultural frontier will continue to share this fate if laws continue to mark them as interlopers, and creating equal citizens does not become an important goal of India’s Northeast policy.
|‘Tribal’ versus ‘Adivasi’
Despite its conceptual problems, it is hard to avoid the term tribe in discussions of Indian politics. This article uses tribe or tribal to refer to officially recognised Scheduled Tribes – communities that are officially entitled to protective discrimination. This article does not use adivasi to refer to these communities. In Northeast India, this term has a very particular meaning and Adivasi identity is
Christianity and an orientation to the West have been central to the way that some Northeast communities such as the Khasi, Mizo and Naga – all Scheduled Tribes – have historically forged their political identities. Many tribal communities in the Northeast are proud of their high levels of literacy and English-language competence, which distinguish them from many in the ‘mainland’ – tribal and non-tribal alike – and are valuable cultural capital in the contemporary global economy. To many of them, the English term tribe is consistent with the assertion of their modernity, as well as their cultural distinctiveness from mainland India. If anything, the Sanskritic term adivasi (literally ‘earliest inhabitant’) has the opposite effect.
Adivasi identity in Northeast India is claimed by a segment of Assam’s ‘tea community’ – descendants of indentured labourers brought to work in the province’s tea plantations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. They trace their roots to Munda, Oraon, Santhal and other peoples of what is today Jharkhand. ‘Adivasi’ activists argue that since their ethnic kin in their places of origin are recognised as Scheduled Tribes, they should have the same status in Assam. However, the region’s indigenous tribal communities strongly oppose this move – indeed, Bodo activists in Assam view the Adivasis as interlopers, and there have been ethnic clashes between Bodo and Adivasi community members in the Bodoland Territorial Council areas. Local newspapers sometimes refer to them as ‘tribal-Adivasi’ conflicts.
Adivasi activists in this area often use the bow and arrow as an ethnic symbol – markers of ‘primitiveness’ that correspond with their self-description as Adivasis, and at odds with their history in the Northeast. In fact, Adivasi forefathers provided the muscle for the 19th-century capitalist transformation of these lands. On the other hand, indigenous Scheduled Tribes of the Northeast typically privilege symbols of modernity as markers of their identity.
– Sanjib Baruah
~ Sanjib Baruah is at Bard college, New York, and the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.