Indigenous people of an internal colony: A North-East India Perspective

Apurba K Baruah

There is now no doubt that the ways of life of the indigenous people of north-east India are under serious threat. It has long been demonstrated by both scholarly and political work that this area has become an internal colony of the British created state of India. Well documented articles and books had shown how the natural resources, and the source of livelihood of the old communities, who had been considering this area as their natural homeland, had been taken away by  the colonial administration and waves of immigrants of recent past, particularly, after the  colonization of the area by the British.[1] We need to keep in mind that the present North-east India and its indigenous communities have by now developed a collective identity. Despite the cultural diversity this collective identity has emerged because of a common history of exploitation by non indigenous political forces.  However, not all those who came to this area in our historical memory came to colonise in any senses of this term. Some of them have come and completely assimilated with the communities here and in fact contributed to the wellbeing of communities that lived.

. The Ahoms came to Assam in 1226 and ruled for 600 years but they were not colonisers because they came in a small number and actually got assimilated with the indigenous communities. It is only under their patronage that the marshy upper Assam was reclaimed, and its innumerable small communities came together to form a culture that came to be called the Asomiya. Because of the resources that were there in the area of that country and enterprising elite that took shape this community became highly influential. There were many other groups who had come settled here and got assimilated. Those did not colonise and hence did not create a threat to the people living here prior to their coming to the area. But there have been invaders who came to colonise. They came only to exploit the area for their benefit. The British colonial administration did precisely that.  Communities who came as their camp followers, assimilated with the local communities when they did not come in large numbers. Those who came in large numbers and had larger communities of their own in their places of previous habitats had their own homelands elsewhere and therefore did not assimilate.  They had larger communities to whom they owed their allegiance. These are the immigrants who threaten the indigenous communities. Most of these communities, of course, have been coming from the rest of the present state of India and later from the areas that were parts of British India but became parts of Pakistan and later became Bangladesh.

The indigenous communities of the pre-British north-east had never been fully integrated to the rest of India, politically, linguistically and religiously. It is true that there were some incursions to the cultural life of those small nationalities even in the British times, by “Hindu” religious practices and some royal families for their own reasons adopted that religion. However, the large majority of people were not politically and culturally integrated or assimilated to what we now call the state of India. We must take note of the fact that if we define Indian culture or the Bharatiiya sanskriti in terms of the thousands of year’s old Vedic Hindu culture, as the Hindutva politics does[2], then these communities that inhabited the pre-British northeast had never been a part of that Hindu culture or the Bharatiya Sanskriti. They have distinct cultures and traditions of governing themselves, though in certain cases in a rudimentary way, without much interference from the others. These characteristics had given each of them identities often close to the idea of nationalities. They cannot be accepted to be part of Indian nationalism or the Bharatiys sanskriti as defined above. They are not part of Indian nationalism as defined above. Amalendu Guha had referred to this kind of nationalism that grew alongside the Indian nationalism of the pan Indian type, among the small communities of the state of India, as little nationalism[3].

 These small nationalities can remain in India develop and strengthen the country as a whole only if India accepts its multi-national character. Despite not being part of Indian nationalism most of them accept the Indian state. They do make a distinction between the state and the nation. India is one state all these communities are parts of that state but India is not one nation. These communities are nationalities in their own right. They call themselves nationalities (Jati). These communities of the pre-British northeast India today are a part of the state of India. They, particularly the new elites or the educated middle classes have come to accept the idea of a secular multicultural Indian state, which respects the identities of small nationalities and guarantees some rights to all its individual citizen based on the democratic Constitution. Though some sections are still talking of seceding from India, yet large majorities of these communities, led by their educate elites/ middle classes, have begun to integrate  with the Republic of India established by the Constitution of India. The modern elite that have developed within these communities are in the process of becoming proud citizens of this state. This trend which is at the growing stage and even now suffers from growing pains will be seriously weekend if the state of India refuses to accept that India is a multinational state. Nationality status of each of the Indigenous communities, particularly the ones among whom the feeling of national pride has become strong must not be sought to be reduced to be mere adjuncts of Hindu-Hindi-Brahminical nationalism. The recent attempts at imposing a Hindi-Hindu- Brahminical culture through events like the Nomami Brahamaputra and celebration of north Indian Hindu festivals in the area with the patronage of the Hindutva establishment, threatens these communities. They see a hegemonic agenda in this. The declared goal of the Hindutva to convert India to a Hindu Rastra threatens them more.

The question that is often raised is about the definitions of indigeneity in this context. There have been controversies over the definition of indigenous people. However, internationally a consensus seems to have emerged after the United nations took the initiative of identifying indigenous people and their rights. Though the original definition adopted by the U.N has undergone changes there indeed are certain constants in this concept of Indigeneity. The original definition adopted by the UN Working Group for Indigenous Peoples in 1972 and was amended in 1983, it stated that,

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.

(a) they are the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there;

(b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country’s population they have almost preserved intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterised as indigenous;

(c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own.

In 1986, it added that any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person.[4]. Under The ILO 169 Convention both tribal peoples whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations, and the peoples who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabit the country at the time of conquest or colonisation. It was a significant development however that the debate over the evolution of this definition has forced the World Bank to say in1991 that,

Indigenous Peoples can be identified in particular geographical areas by the presence in varying degrees of the following characteristics:

  1. a) close attachment to ancestral territories and to the natural resources in these areas;
  2. b) self-identification and identification by others as members of a distinct cultural group;
  3. c) an indigenous language, often different from the national language;
  4. d) presence of customary social and political institutions; and
  5. e) primarily subsistence-oriented production.

          Therefore, now there need not be any confusion as to who are the indigenous people of North-east India. British colonised this area in the 19th Century. Till then there were small kingdoms and tribal chieftainships in which a number of small communities lived their own life. It is justifiable to assume that those were the indigenous people of north-east India. The effort should be to protect their rights over their land, natural resources, and markets and of course culture. We need to ask for constitutional protection for these communities. Though the others who have come to this area after colonial masters conquered these areas or forced them to accept the suzerainty of the colonial administration and have legally settled here should have general rights of Indian citizens, yet, the indigenous communities must have political, economic and cultural protections. Moreover, the state of India should accept these communities as nationalities within the state of India. Only these steps can strengthen the state of India. All exploitative processes associated with internal colonial politics must end. It is possible to do that through negotiations if the communities here stand together for their rights.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that among the middle classes of these indigenous communities too there is competition for resources which has led to competitive identity politics.  While it is important for these communities to stand up to internal colonisation, it is important for them to respect each other’s rights over their traditional homeland. Therefore they must agree to confer rights to lively hood, particularly rights of occupation of land, right to education, jobs, and to do business to members of each other on a reciprocal basis. The communities under the 6th schedule areas must particularly understand this. Otherwise bitter identity politics led by educated middle classes of these communities convert this area to a conflict zone of unprecedented kind. We must therefore work towards a federal India which will protect the small nationalities of this area vis a vis the  forces of internal colonization  in the country but also arrive at a consensus among the indigenous communities that right over land and livelihood will be granted to each other on the basis of reciprocity.

[1]  See for instance, Tilottoma Misra,  Assam A Colonial Hinterland, Economic and Political Weekly,  Vol. 15, Issue No. 32, 09 Aug, 1980, accessed on 5/8/1019;  A. K. Baruah,   “Elites in a Colonial Hinterland”, in B.L. Abbi (Ed) North-East Region: Problems and Prospects of Development, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, 1984  pp. 322-28;  Robert Lalremtluanga Ralte Colonialism in Northeast India: An Environmental History of Forest Conflict in the Frontier of Lushai Hills 1850-1900, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention ISSN (Online): 2319 – 7722, ISSN (Print): 2319 – 7714 Volume 4 Issue 1,  January. 2015 , PP.67-75; Home » Journal » Vol. 15, Issue No. 32, 09 Aug, 1980 »

[2] Even the Congress politics often did this see, for instance, S. Abid Hussain,  The National Culture of India, NBT, New Delhi, 2018.

[3] Amalendu Guha, Great Nationalism, Little Nationalism and Problem of Integration: A Tentative View, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 14, No. 7/8, Annual Number: Class and Caste in India (Feb., 1979), pp. 455+457-458

[4] See, (E/CN.4/Sub.2/1986/7/Add.4.para.381).

Apurba K. Baruah

Former professor and Dean School of Social Sciences, North-eastern Hill University,

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