On the politics of the rights of the peoples of North-east India

Apurba K Baruah

I am happy to note that some organizations of North-east India are coming together to protect the rights of the indigenous peoples of the area. There is no doubt that there are now serious threats to the existence of the indigenous peoples, as peoples with socio-cultural, economic and political rights. These threats are coming primarily because of a tendency on the part of certain sections of the state of India to centralise political power, and through that to establish the control of the dominant communities in the market and land all over the country. Such control also requires cultural domination. Such tendencies were there from the very beginning of the present state of India which came in to being on the basis of a political integration of a large number of culturally diverse and politically autonomous communities.  This integration began under the British rule and took the shape of the map of today’s India only in the late forties of the twentieths century. Despite the spread of anti- British struggle led by the Congress, dominated by the Hindi-Hindu- Brahminical traditions to many parts of the territory of the British India it was impossible for the members of the Constituent Assembly to ignore the fact that there existed a distinction between the political and cultural loyalties of the various communities that inhabited India of the period. Therefore the Constitution recognised the territorially organised cultural communities (many of them already organised as provinces and others demanding control over their perceived homelands.)1 The makers of the Constitution recognised the smaller communities of the state of India and there urge to maintain their community identities. That is why they incorporated certain federal provisions and created a political structure where there was a demarcation of authority between the state and the central governments. Despite these provisions certain areas inhabited by some smaller communities have become virtual colonial hinterlands or internal colonies of the state of India. In the case of Assam some of us have argued in the 1980s that the state was a colonial hinterland and the politics of that internal colonization has alienated the Assamese from the state of India. In an article published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Tilottoma Mishra2 argued that there had been a systematic exploitation of the rich resources of Assam. She detailed some of the features of this exploitation in the extractive industries of oil, tea, jute and forest products.  I had myself followed that up with  an article, “Elites in a Colonial Hnterland” in which I showed how in public sector employment and industries like the plywood the Assamese youth were deprived in preference to non-indigenous people, particularly from the Hindi heartland.3 In another article, “Assamese Middle Classes and the Xenophobic Tendencies in Assamese Society”  published in Frontier 4 I had argued that such discriminations in employment had generated a xenophobia in the Assamese middle class. We need to understand that capturing economic opportunities and exploiting natural resources in a manner that adversely affect an indigenous community amounts to internal colonization. This kind of colonization is a part of the capitalist and market oriented economic ( in which concentration of wealth in the hands of the powerful is an essential element) systems and political structures that support and promote such exploitations of areas inhabited by small, non-mainstream, communities in “nation States”. In the context of west Michale Hechter had shown it great details.5 While we have already proved it in the case of Assam, the situation in the other states of North-east India is also the same. I must say that despite the protective provisions of the fifth and the sixth schedules of the Constitution, the control over economic resources of the small tribal communities all over India is slipping out of their hands of the indigenous population.

One aspect that escaped the attention of people like Tilottoma Misra and me in 1098s is the question of land alienation. I believe that happened primarily because we as young scholars were swept away by the issues raised by the regional bourgeois and the educated elites of Assam. Since the issue of illegal migration was taking the center stage at that time and economists like Atul Goswami, Jayanta Gogoi and host of others were showing the pressure on land we did not focus on that issue. It was a common knowledge that land was going away from the hands of the indigenous to the hands of immigrants.6 Alienation of land to non-indigenous has become a major problems for the indigenous peoples of  all the states of north-east India and has become an integral part of the politics of internal colonization by the state of India. There is evidence to show that the community based youth organizations and cultural organizations of indigenous peoples some “regional” parties led and supported by such forces are articulating the economic grievances of their respective communities vis a vis the state of India.

 However, it is necessary also to point out that such exploitation and colonization takes place with the help of indigenous elites that are co-opted to “national” politics. These elites become agents of the ruling sections of the “nation State”. Therefore it is necessary to keep in mind that rights of the indigenous cannot be protected merely through a politics of “xenophobia”. It must be a fight against the politics pursued by the non-indigenous sections that help the “nation state” to exploit the areas inhabited by smaller nationalities or minorities but also the agents of the indigenous population who work for the exploitative processes of the “nation-State”.

The large majority of the indigenous population realises the advantages of being citizens of the state of India governed under the Constitution of India yet, they resent the attempts at taking away their resources by a major section of the Indian ruling sections representing the exploitative corporations and Hindi-Hindu-Brahminical expansionists.

In spite of a constitution that seeks to protect the interests of the smaller nationalities and minorities not only economic but also the cultural rights of the small nationalities, both the economic and cultural rights of these communities are sought to be violated by the corporate and their agents in national politics. This is evident in the way Hindi is sought to be imposed as a “national” language and the attempt at subordinating all other languages to it in day to day functioning of the polity and society. There is a deliberate attempt at corrupting the local languages in the general discourse of all locales! In the case of Assam I have noticed it in the FM radio, television and also in the advertisements in hoardings, say for instance, in the case of cement as a product. Many other marketing efforts deliberately use Hindi, despite being fully aware that a large majority of their customers do not follow Hindi very well.  The attempts at imposing the CBSE curricula by hook and more by crook is another attempt at cultural domination. The western educated elites of all the small communities will fully accept this and therefore raise children who do not learn to protect their own culture. Cultural assimilation is a tool of both external and internal colonisations. It is a process by which a group’s culture comes to resemble those of another group which is dominant. Under internal colonial administration indigenous residents that come to be culturally dominated by the dominant group become culturally assimilated and eventually cease to exist as a cultural identity. This trend has always been there but is now becoming more pronounced. Congress was not a cadre based and fully controlled party and therefore despite the proclivity of its central leadership to control all regions and more often than not the capitulation of many indigenous elites that were members of Congress, it was unable to establish complete control and therefore had to accommodate the groups that resisted assimilation. Moreover, the Congress party could not completely disown the democratic values that its leaders like Gandhi and Nehru preached during the “freedom struggle” and therefore had to allow people criticise its policies, democratically resist them and even to break away from it. It couldf not afford to take very coercive measures to control such people. Therefore during the Congress rule some of the smaller communities could extract concessions on the basis of their ethnic/cultural distinctions. The communities of this region like the Naga, Khasis-Jainita, Bodo, even the Asomiya and many other have experienced this politics within the democratic process though it is altogether a differed issue that many sections of the elites of these communities have unfortunately frittered away opportunities! One clear example of this was the Assam Accord and the politics of AGP which now is on the verge of extinction.  The present establishment has no pretence of cultural tolerance and it does not believe in a soft state that the Congress was ruling. It believes in a strong state and therefore is willing to use coercive measures both for economic and cultural assimilation.   The turnaround of the BJP on the promises made about the big dams, transfer of land to Bangla desh, proposal of citizenship to Bangladeshi Bengali Hindus and the removal of special category states’ relief to the north-eastern states as reflected in the budgets of the central government shows that the current situation is one in which the economic. Social and political rights are under serious threat. The need of the our is an united democratic fight against such attempts and also serious socio-political initiatives to prevent transfer of land to non-indigenous hands, prevention of capture of the market by non-indigenous concerns, prevention of employment of non- indigenous in the public sector and also in private sector where qualified indigenous candidates are available, to prevent imposition of non- indigenous language and culture through imposition of centrally controlled syllabi (Rights of the states in matters of education must be protected), to prevent all efforts at cultural assimilation by so-called nationalist forces and to protect the cultural identity of the indigenous groups. Constitutional provisions to effect the above should be initiated. To ensure prevention of alienation of land in the non-tribal areas inhabited by indigenous communities the same provisions in the matter of land must be granted to other indigenous communities of the area. In fact most of the provisions of the 6th schedule can be used to protect rights of the indigenous communities by enlarging its scope to include all other indigenous communities.

 It is important to note that without ground level social movements none of the above can be achieved. For instance we should note that despite the 6th schedule land alienation in the hill areas has not stopped because of benami transactions.  We must immediately take steps to work out a democratic outfit which will actively mobilise indigenous people to protect their rights in each locality. Local committees for protection of rights of the indigenous people must be formed in all localities. These committees should persuade indigenous people not to become agents of the aggressive internal colonial policies. We must actively encourage people not to sell land to non-indigenous people. It is not a matter of law it is a matter of politics. To pursue this agenda we need a regional political force. However such a force is not possible unless we begin to respect the rights of one another in their own areas, (rights of the indigenous communities) on a reciprocal basis. Each community must be persauaded in an organised manner to respect the rights of the other. Reciprocity must become one of the foundational values for the communities of north east. For this identification of enemies within and spread of democratic politics against such enemies must also be taken care of. I hope the present convention initiates such a process.


  1. The communities covered by the 5thand the 6th schedule fall under the latter category. Many of those, like the tribal peoples of North-east India are now organized as states. The process of this accommodation is not complete as yet as the various movements for homelands show.

2.       See,  Tilottoma Misra, “ Assam: A Colonial Hinterland”, Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 15, No. 32 (Aug. 9, 1980), pp. 1357-1359+1361-1364

  1.   A. K. Baruah ¯ “Elites in a Colonial Hinterland”, in B.L. Abbi (EdNorth-East Region: Problems and Prospects of Development, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, 1984  pp. 322-28
  2. Apurba Baruah, “Assamese Middle Classes and the Xenophobic Tendencies in Assamese Society”, Frontier, Vol. 14, No. 11, pp. 3-6.

5.       Michael Hechter. Internal Colonialism : The Celtic Fringe in British National Development,1536-1966. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.

  1. See, B.L. Abbi (EdNorth-East Region: Problems and Prospects of Development, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh, 1984

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