Tribal Vs Non-Tribal: The Reality of Fragmented Northeast

While much has been written, spoken and analyzed about alleged discrimination against the Northeastern people by the ‘mainland’ India, the tribal-nontribal binary existing within the socio-political milieu of the Northeast,writes Anuraag Baruah, has been always pushed under the carpet.

‘Total Separation from Manipur

The Only Solution”

Location: Tribal Rally at Lamka, Churchandpur (Manipur)

Date: 31.08. 2016

The words written on a white banner in red, black and white speaks volumes of the real situation at Manipur as the hills (tribals) and the valley (non tribals) divide only gets worse by the day. Tribal men and women with black war paint smeared on their young faces took out a rally and celebrated 31st August as a Tribal Unity Day at Lamka in Churchandpur reaffirming their pledge to ‘fight today for a better tomorrow’. It’s been exactly a year since 9 civilians including an 11 year old child were shot dead by the Manipur police at Churchandpur during protests against the controversial Three Bills of Manipur which the tribals claim are against their interests. Though a year has passed, the dead bodies are yet to be buried- a symbolic form of protest that refuses to forget the past and seeks for a permanent solution which according to the tribal organizations is ‘total separation from Manipur.’

“Divide Assam 50-50”

Location: Bodoland demand Rally, Dudhnoi (Assam)

Date: 30.08.2016

Breaking the stillness of the early morning of 30th August, 2016, rows after rows of Bodo men and women donning yellow and blue aronai scarves shouted slogans and blocked the NH37 at Dudhnoi under Goalpara District demanding a separate state- Bodoland. Soon, reports came that they have blocked the National Highways 15, 31 and 37 at multiple places across various districts of the state for 6 long hours leading to a humungous chaos of traffic jams and blockades on Tuesday morning. This is the first such protest after the new BJP government has come to power and marks a significant shift in tactics of pro-Bodoland politics signifying the end of bonhomie between BJP and Bodo organizations seen in the run up to the Assam Assembly Elections, 2016.

“No Twipraland No Rest”

Location: IPFT Rally demanding separate state ‘Twipraland’, Agartala (Tripura)

Date: 23.08.2016

At least 17 people get injured in sporadic clashes between tribal activists and supporters of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and non-tribal Bengali residents in different parts of Tripura on 23rd August, 2016 when the former took out a demonstration to mark the eighth Twipraland Statehood Demand Day. The IPFT has been demanding for a separate state, Twipraland, for the tribal population by carving out the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) from the state of Tripura. Whatever be the reason of the clash, the whole incident points towards a deep rooted chasm in the socio-political narrative of Tripura that has hardly disappeared and after all these years of relative peace, the hills have only gone farther from the valley.

In all the three scenarios, while it’s common to blame the lackadaisical attitude of the central government, it’s also an inherent problem of the Northeastern states and the people. While much has been written, spoken and analyzed about discrimination against the Northeastern people by the ‘mainland’ India, the tribal-nontribal binary existing within the socio-political milieu of the Northeast has been always pushed under the carpet. It’s an open secret that all the above three statehood demands have mostly surfaced out of problems within the states themselves. In Tripura, the indigenous tribals- Tripuris have been discriminated by the ruling Hindu Bengali class for many years now, in Manipur the tribals have been ignored by the Meiteis, the ruling class Hindus, and in Assam, the Bodo community has been neglected by the upper and middle class Assamese Hindus for decades now.

In the recent times, there has been a rise in clashes between the tribals and the non-tribals of the Northeast. There are areas where the clash is also between various tribes.Land alienation, increasing population and factional politics are believed to be some of the reasons behind the cause. It’s interesting to note that while many of the tribal inhabited regions have been brought under the six schedule of the constitution, many others have been given autonomy to a great extent through the formation of autonomous, territorial councils and some states even have the ILP system implemented, but still peace seems to be the most elusive thing for the Northeast region.

In states like Tripura and Manipur, the majority population is non-tribal and lives in a comparatively smaller geographical area in comparison to the tribal population. While the dominant non-tribal population lives in the valleys that have emerged as the commercial and administrative hub over the years, the tribals mostly live in under-developed hilly regions deprived of basic amenities like health, education, transportation and drinking water.For example in Tripura, while the area under TTAADC constitutes two third of the state territory, the tribals who reside there form one third of the state’s total population, the majority being the Hindu Bengalis. Even though the tribal inhabited areas (the hills) come under the purview of the Autonomous Council, a separate statehood demand has been going on for quite some time now, embers of which remains always ready to rise up in flames at any given point of time.

The British government had introduced the Inner Line Permit (ILP) system as the part of a colonial policy to protect its commercial interests. Subsequently post Independence; it became an instrument to protect the indigenous tribal people and their cultures. ILP system is active in states of Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland whereas demands for an ILP system in states like Meghalaya, Manipur and Tripura is nothing new. Many believe that introduction of the ILP system is the much sought after solution in resolving tribal-non tribal clashes in northeastern states. However, the recent clashes in Manipur where the tribals opposed the Three Bills connected with the ILP system show that this is not always the case.

Many stress on the fact that empowerment of the tribal councils and regions by direct funding from the Centre is the solution but large scale corruption and lopsided development approach are the hurdles as seen in the case of Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam. The reality of many Northeastern states is that while more people have access to less land, less people have access to more land. On the other hand the majority have access to all the modern facilities and form the ruling class, the minority are being sidelined and neglected over the years. This has led to tension and suspicion giving rise to factional clashes and politics thus affecting the overall unity of the Northeast, failing to bring it closer to the mainstream India. Until and unless intra-clashes promoting tribal-non tribal binaries existing within the region are not removed, Northeast will only get more fragmented over the years.

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