Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


North-East Scan



Contest to be Labeled Primitive


Pradip Phanjoubam*



What a parody. And now Meitei followers of the Sanamahi religion want to be classified as tribals. It is a parody because there is almost a contest today to be backward and primitive, not for anything else, but for the sake of some preferential treatment in the government scheme of things. Pride and dignity in the ability to take the world head on without needing props is becoming a thing of the past.

     True there are situation in which certain sections of the society which have lagged behind because of unfair historical reasons need to be extended the liberal state’s facilities of positive discrimination, but this is a bitter medicine to enable these sections to catch up and be at a par with the rest before open competition becomes the rule again. A very curious twist in the understanding of the terms tribal, tribalism, backwardness etc has happened because of the nature of statutory incentive structuring. Today these terms are no longer a sociological condition but a Constitutional definition.

      Under the circumstance the criteria that make somebody a tribal is not about primitiveness of lifestyles, customs, worships etc, but simply a matter of finding a place in the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. In the Indian context then, we are no longer talking about “tribes” in the real sense of the term, but “Schedule Tribes”. For surely, a Class-I Central government officer from the tribal belt of the northeast for instance, posted in New Delhi, owning a flat, car, mobile phone, bonds in the money market, and for whom credit cards are virtual oxygen for survival in the advance market economy, cannot by any stretch of imagination, be still considered a “tribal” except by the sterile definition given by the Constitution.

     The truth is, the Constitution continues to stick to its definition, hence the mad race to be defined thus, the latest to join in being the followers of the Sanamahi religion. This is close on the heels of


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Adivasis in Assam. Last month, the world witnessed the shocking  incident in Guwahati’s Beltola when Adivasi demonstrators, demanding to be classified as tribals in Assam, were savaged by residents of the area, after, it is reported, the demonstrators started rampaging shops in the vicinity and cars parked on the roadside.

    All of us also watched with horror on the television, an Adivasi woman demonstrator atrociously stripped and physically abused by the mob, even as onlookers did nothing more than click pictures on their mobile phones. Some of these images later found their way into the newsrooms of various newspapers and satellite television channels.

The reprisal was reprehensible and deserves universal condemnation, but having said this, it is essential to go beyond the immediate. What is it that made the Adivasis in Assam, who are the descendants of indentured labours brought from the tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, to the state by the British during colonial days to work on their tea estates, suddenly decide they should be classified as tribals. Should a tribal who has volitionally shifted from his original land and tribal environment be still entitled to be called a tribal, is the million rupees question.

       Well known academic from the region Sanjib Barua in a recent article in The Telegraph tried to tackle the problematic question. The reason why the Adivasis (tea tribes as they are also known as) of Assam landed in Assam’s tea estate and not in the sugar cane plantations in Mauritius, Fiji Islands or the Caribbean, is just a matter of their having signed on different labour contract forms of the then British India government. Descendants of those who went to these other destinations have rose to be Prime Ministers and Presidents or win the Nobel Prize. Would it be appropriate to call Sir Vidya S Naipaul a tribal? Would he like the idea? Doubtful.

   The Meitei Sanamahi followers must reconsider their decision. Reservation would only deepen their addiction to government jobs, and in the process prevent the diversification of the place’s economy. Vietnam’s miracular resurgence after the devastation of 30 years of war, is attributed to such a diversification of economy and consequently human resource, and this often contrasted with the stagnation of the Arab world despite its tremendous natural resources, resulting from the latter’s addiction to doles and easy money.

     It would also split the Meitei society further. Indigenous worship does not always have to equate with tribal status. In any case Sanamahi is still a very important deity of the Hindu Meiteis too. There is something seriously wrong in a community which once prided itself for having evolved into a monarchy politically and economically regressing to the extent of wanting to be called primitive again.


Problems of Heterogeneity


     Quite related to the issue is the problem of heterogeneity. It is patently politically incorrect these days to talk of homogeneity when it comes to law making, but is heterogeneity the panacea for all politics related social discontents? Although there is no denying there is a lot to be had from the heterogeneity proposition, it still needs to be treated sensitively and carefully, for at the end of the other spectrum sits the question of the clash of civilisations. Manipur knows how thin the ice under the issue is as well as, if not more than any other place. Too much of the state’s most vexing problems are indeed on account of irreconcilable differences in the perception of what ideal public administration should be amongst the different communities in the state.

The contradicting pulls and pushes between the hills and valley; the notions of territory and homeland which have resulted in some of the most bitter frictions amongst communities etc have demonstrated how frustrating the problem of heterogeneity can be. Take just two cases directly related to the question fashioning an administrative model in a heterogeneous situation – the demands for a full-fledged Sadar Hills and Jiribam districts. In the first case, the hurdle is precisely because it is seen as a move to carve out a district for an ethnically different community from another district, Senapati, where this community was a minority.

       In the second case, although extremely small in area and population, a separate administrative unit from the adjacent district, Tamenglong, was and is seen as prudent because of disparate land revenue systems followed amongst the tribal and non-tribal populations. While in the tribal areas (mostly hills), the land laws are governed by traditional laws, in the non-tribal areas, the modern land revenue system in which all land is deemed to ultimately belong to the state and citizens pay taxes for its use to the government, is in force. Manipur’s experience has been, any attempt to discover a meeting point on this matter has met with a clash of civilisations situation.

      How exactly must this issue be tackled, is a question that everybody with a stake in the common and larger good of the state must engage in seriously and urgently. While the answer cannot be to steamroll all differences and make a uniform administrative standard everywhere, there must have to be at least a minimal degree of commonality agreed upon in this onerous project of evolving a governable administrative mechanism from which everybody can benefit. It has to be realised that despite all the differences all humans share plenty in common. Even the consideration of homology will demonstrate this.

     The point is, at the basic level, there must have to be a certain degree of standardisation of law and administrative approach. Once a common denominator has been agreed upon, the finer differences that distinguish every man from another, and every community from another, every ethnicity from another, can be explored. If the vegetarian and non-vegetarian man are different in their culinary habits, they both would share many common social ambitions, beginning from the need to have their children educated and fit to face the world, to ensuring their families are free from poverty etc. The job of good laws and good administrative mechanisms hence would be to simultaneously promote the common as well as the heterogeneous elements in a society, especially a multi-ethnic society. Drawing this fine line would not be easy by any chance, but it would have to be drawn.



Biologically Incorrect Sex


Patricia Mukhim*


Is it wrong to be born a woman? Being a woman one cannot but be livid that a biological construct which makes a woman different from a man immediately turns her into an object of sexual desecration. If a group of protesters (I refuse to name the community because public protests are part and parcel of democracy. Ethnic groups are only incidental) went berserk because there was no police bandobast why should a young lady from among the protesters become the target of abuse? What is her crime? Suddenly, all those years of struggle by women to come into their own and be respected for who they are have come to naught.

     What happened in Beltola, Guwahati on November 24 last was an outrage on womanhood, a horrific indignation that is mind-numbing and nauseating. Those in the seat of power should act instead of

indulging in polemics and passing the buck around. The perverts who stripped a young girl and then partied at her expense are actually sick in the head and deserve to be sent to a mental prison if there is one. They deserve exemplary punishment for their barbaric deeds. Enquiries by the CBI or any other agency are only aimed at blurring the issue, delaying the moment of truth and burying the case alive. To call these violators of human dignity ‘animals’ is an insult to the dumb creatures, because even though they have no ability to think like humans they exhibit a far more sensible behaviour towards the female of the species.

      A whole range of intellectual debates have started on Assamnet.org about the Axomiya spirit of assimilation that embraces all who live and breathe on that rarified space called Assam. But this is simply hedging the reality. Why can’t we face it? There is in Assam a mainstream which all are not part of. Assimilation of smaller groups, especially those whom we have learnt to treat with disdain because of their profession, is an only an ideal. It has not happened and will not happen without a struggle. Writers and commentators  who have a way with words will of course deliver their sermons to an audience that is inherently ignorant about the layering of society in Assam.

     Those who live at the fringes of that society know where it hurts. They know how painful it is to be born to a particular class, doing a particular job and having little or no opportunity to move out of that social and economic prototype carved out by the powerful elite. The inherent handicaps, whereby, a whole class of people are enslaved to their situation makes it impossible for them to move out of their predicament. Having taken the rough end of the stick for decades they have now decided to fight back. But this is perceived as audacious by those who believe that (1) Assam can no longer be carved out into three or four states (2) that a community that came to serve in the tea gardens should continue to serve there and be happy with their lot. But all that the tea tribes are asking for is some semblance of positive discrimination, a level playing field of sorts which would better their educational and economic status. But the ‘Axomiyas’, comprising the upper and middle class Hindu settlers and the blue blooded Ahoms feel that is a tall order.

      In a functioning democracy every citizen and group have the right to express their grievances. Like Tarun Gogoi said, “so many groups ranging from the All Assam Students Union to All Bodo Students Union have agitated on different issues but we have never before experienced such inhuman treatment meted out to an agitator, much less a woman”. Mr Gogoi needs to unlearn much of his received wisdom on social philosophy and get into the serious business of understanding the politics of class struggle. A fundamental premise on which socialism is built is that human labour is not just another commodity to be bought and sold. And socialism is not dead and cannot be dead as long as there are severe social and economic fissures in society. Moreover, for card carrying Congressmen, socialism is an intrinsic part of the Nehruvian philosophy, never mind its imperfections.

    Just two days before the horrendous incident, Assam had successfully hosted the International Tea Festival where connoisseurs of tea from across the globe and the country visited Assam for the historic event. It would have blown their minds had the incident happened during that event. But perhaps the high-level discussions about the huge prospects for upgrading the tea business in Assam, of which the Adivasis are the backbone, must have triggered the protest even as they asked themselves what was in it for them. Indeed, for years together the tea tribes have fought a losing battle. Perched precariously at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, most men drink themselves silly to ease out their frustration. Health care is absent and women and children have a raw deal because even the basic social infrastructure like the anganwadi centres are simply not functioning. Opium addiction also takes away a major chunk of the family earnings. Add to all these the despair of dying from tuberculosis, malaria and dysentery when these diseases are treatable by modern medicines, and you have a perfect recipe for a violent protest. That it did not happen earlier reflects the tolerance level of the poor. 

     If the tea industry in Assam is given a boost as promised by the Union Ministry for Commerce, how will that translate into better living conditions for those who give their lives to sustain that industry? Is there a rehabilitation package for the tea garden labourers? Or will the boost only lead to what Joseph Stiglitz refers to as an ‘ideologically driven policy without the broader notion of human values?’. The Ministry of Commerce needs to spell out a development package for tea workers, if it has one. Pumping money into the industry, without taking into account the human elements that sustain the industry, is not only cruel, but inhuman. Commerce goes way beyond profits, and financial transactions. At the core is the human face without which commerce is a dead subject.

     In the next few weeks, Guwahati will witness more protests from various organizations against the sordid incident. But every protest has its life span and protesters reach what is called a ‘compassion fatigue’. Acting on impulse and keen to quell what he believes is an aberration, Mr Tarun Gogoi has promised monetary compensation to the young lady who was stripped to the bones and then assaulted. The State needs to do more than pay money for a crime committed, because, money is no balm for the psychological trauma that the girl (I refuse to call her a victim) suffered. These days it is fashionable to pay off all those who encounter brutalities at the hands of state and non-state actors and hope they remain silent. This pay-off policy needs to be reworked. Civil society, however it is defined, needs to be more inclusive and spread out horizontally. One has hardly heard of an Oxomiya organization where members of the tea tribes and other marginalized groups are included. The more polarized ethnic groups are allowed to become the more difficult it would be for democracy to function. 


Lived Democracy in India’s North East


      Democracy embodies some basic elements such as the enjoyment of certain rights which envisage that a citizen lives with dignity, has the right to dissent and takes active part in decision making. All the above requires that there be a rule of law. Laws are enacted by a legislative body which has been empowered to do so by the people through elections held once in five years. But democracy is easier defined than lived. In many states of India’s North East, democracy has been bludgeoned beyond recognition.

     In Manipur, for instance, laws made by the state are increasingly subverted by militant groups which are too many to list but which are respected depending on the collateral damage they can inflict. While all of them ostensibly aim at checking the growing callousness of the state, in course of time they have themselves imbibed the same characteristics or have tended to be more violent than the state. In fact, the less resistance they face the more fascist they tend to become. Take for instance the ban on all ‘Hindi-speaking’ channels such as Sony or Star Plus on cable televisions and the ban on Hindi movies and songs across the Manipur valley. While the ban is symbolically a protest against the Indian nation-state which is seen as the tyrant here, it is not a referendum by the people. Militant groups decide what is good or not good for them. This takes away a fundamental element of democracy which is the right to choose a medium of entertainment that people want or prefer.

     The media in Manipur is under constant pressure to act within a paradigm dictated by militant groups. With over thirty rebel outfits operating in the valley alone, one can well imagine the tight-rope that media has to walk. A recent directive from the Government prescribing how media should deal with news releases from militant groups had raised the hackles of the press fraternity in Manipur. But, whereas they are relatively free to argue out their case with the Government and to protest what is construed as an attempt to ‘tamper with press freedom’, that space is not afforded them by militant outfits. Cases of newspaper editors receiving death threats and the ensuing diktat to publicly boycott their newspapers make press freedom a big sham in Manipur. But what puzzles onlookers is the studied silence of civil society groups, including prominent human rights organizations, on any issue that involves the militants.

      If you want to see public protests then Manipur is the place to visit. There are activists for any issue under the sun. These protests are, however, all directed against the State as if the state is the only offender. To my mind this greatly undermines the credibility of civil society actors. If the state is an offender in that it has failed to provide for a climate where democracy can be lived and enjoyed equally by all citizens, militants are the real muggers of that democratic ethos. While the state and militants play out their roles, civil society behaves like orthodox Marxists all the time defining paradigms of development not just for their own state but for neighbouring states as well. The attempt by civil society lobbyists is to profile the state as the tyrant from whom people have to be secured. In a democracy the concept of the state is not that of a bull-dozer operating in grand isolation and always going against popular views. So what really is democracy all about?

     If we the people have ceased to matter and our views are trashed, then surely there is a need to retrieve democracy from that trash can. But the alternatives to democracy that we have crafted in our region appear to be more dangerous. Many of the movements that emerge to challenge our current democratic aberrations are more authoritarian and transgress the very rule of law that is a defining character of democracy. Now, while democracy itself allows us the liberty to document its manifold failures, the reality is that  we have no right to do so with the alternatives structures that have emerged to challenge democracy. Maoism, naxalism and all the insurgent movements of the North East believe in the power of the bullet than in public debates and the rule of law.

      In a situation where absolute fear pervades the very air we breathe, is it not a mockery to speak of human rights? Whose rights are we talking about here? Granted that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), allows security forces to act with impunity, using the law to justify their arbitrary actions. But even security forces cannot transgress the rule of law. There are laws to bring them to book. Now, are we in a position to punish criminals who rule through the barrel of the gun? These dichotomies and our own ambivalence about them and also the double-standards we adopt while articulating our own understanding of democracy, compound the problem instead of reducing the ambiguities.

     Upholding democracy is no easy matter. If we are constantly engaging the state we must also muster enough courage to connect with non-state actors either through the media or any other mode of communication. But a methodical analysis of the media in Manipur shows its absolute lack of freedom to articulate the alternative viewpoint. Newspapers are deficient in debates and counterpoints. Militancy has taken away that precious freedom which democracy had enshrined. Ordinary citizens are silenced into acquiescence. Activists and lobbyists are left with a defensiveness that increasingly makes their arguments look shallow and partisan. Even while they attend seminars on democracy, as shrill voices that lynch the already weakened state, they are tacitly silent about the tyranny of gun-toting dissenters (non-state actors). This exposes their lack of conviction in the contemporary discourses on democracy.

    A young, accomplished environmental scientist, a Fulbright scholar who I met at the Imphal airport said something remarkable. Perhaps she articulates the voice of the silent majority. Her take was that if AFSPA were removed would that not lead to complete anarchy in Manipur. Now, with AFSPA, if people are afraid of their own shadows what would happen if this law were removed? Perhaps it is this unspoken argument that got Chief Minister Ibobi Singh his second tenure with an overwhelming majority. Going against popular sentiment, the Congress party’s election stance was that AFSPA should continue. Without going into the politics of the law termed as ‘draconian’ and there are political facets to it which need to be enquired into, the common man’s perception appear to be that if AFSPA is removed, militants will have a free run of the land and extortion and insecurity would increase ten-fold.

      Interestingly, while militants seem to forage from the same corpus as the State Government and it is common knowledge that development funds are shared equitably by both actors, it is the ordinary citizen who is caught in this treacherous undercurrent. If human rights activists spent more time using and promoting others to use the right to information (RTI) it would help bring some transparency in the system. This might better inform us how militants deploy their huge unaccounted income. But does anyone have the temerity to use the RTI? Only free- thinkers might be able to do that. Hence, the urgent need to expand the space for free-thinking, non-partisan activists who can articulate the kind of democracy they want for themselves. As of today, democracy in Manipur is a defeated idea.   


Election Commission and its role in Nagaland


     Democracy as propounded by the Indian state functions only partially in many states of the North East. Traditional institutions with their archaic systems suited only for the  administration of villages with homogenous populations and notorious for their gender biases, continue to be respected by the people for the simple reason that the liberal democratic ethos as enshrined in the Constitution has failed to deliver. Militant groups continue to hand out instant justice through kangaroo courts. In Manipur, those who are caught indulging in corrupt practices are often shot in the legs. People do not protest against such actions because they find the rule of law virtually absent.

       Against this peculiar backdrop we have the unique case of Nagaland where even after forty years of statehood, many citizens have never enjoyed the right to vote. Some may wonder why. When a modern system is imposed on a people without their having imbibed its basic philosophy and culture there are bound to be setbacks arising from lack of compatibility between existing practices and modern ideas. Nagaland has sixteen major tribes and a host of sub-tribes. For a Naga, loyalty to his tribe is an unquestioned characteristic. It is the very core of his existence. A person from one tribe cannot represent people of another tribe in the legislative assembly. This unwritten code violates the fundamental spirit of the Indian Constitution. 

     It is a common occurance that an entire village, inspired by the Goan Bura and his council decides to vote for a particular candidate. Since dissent is equated with contempt to the voice of the village elder and therefore an anathema to the tribal way of life the villagers have no choice but to comply. The concept of universal adult franchise is therefore alien in many parts of Nagaland.

     At a recently concluded conference for women organized by the Nagaland State Women’s Commission in Kohima, one was surprised to hear even educated, articulate women  confessing to the fact that they had never been able to cast their votes because by the time they reached the polling stations their votes had already been cast. Not given to public protestations the women returned home without a demur.

      A key objective of the Election Commission of India is to conduct free and fair elections. To further this objective the Commission set in motion the process of photographing every eligible elector to prevent impersonation. Many states had successfully conducted elections using the elector’s photo identity card (EPIC) for the last parliamentary election and also for the assembly polls. In states like Meghalaya, the second EPIC round is complete and voters have received their photo identification cards. But no such thing has happened in Nagaland even though the State is scheduled to go for the Assembly polls in February 2008. 

     It appears that sometime in the late 1990’s an attempt was made to photograph electors. A couple of crores of rupees were spent in the process. Officials were bribed by interested contractors to get the contract. A certain photographer parked herself at Mon District for months together and managed to photograph all the electors. But the process appears to have been scuttled for reasons best known to the government of the time. Till date no one speaks about the EPIC. It has become a closed chapter in Nagaland. In any case it is now too late to start the process in time for the next Assembly elections. This would mean that yet again, that a good chunk of women voters would not be able to cast their votes and that tradition will bulldoze its way through.

      Ironically, women are also the major campaigners and proxy voters even if the Nagaland legislature has not seen a single woman legislator since its inception. Women are used by political parties to mobilize voters for male candidates. Rano Shaiza, Nagaland’s first woman MP says elections in Nagaland are like a circus. Excited to join the fun and games, women voters use nail polish removers to erase what is ostensibly an indelible ink provided by the election commission to identify those who have already voted. Shaiza said thousands of bottles of nail polish removers are sold in a single day. A single woman would cast thirty, forty and even a hundred votes even as the polling officers watch aghast.

      There are polling booths where the village headman and his cronies literally stamp all the ballot papers in favour of one candidate and push them into the ballot box. Every one is in collusion. This is democracy as practiced in Nagaland. Sadly women do not even know that they are being used. They are happy to earn a few thousand rupees for their proxy votes they cast.

     If the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) is aware of these aberrations, he has done nothing to address them. Not even the circumspect JM Lyngdoh was able to bring electoral accountability in Nagaland. Will the present CEC rise to the occasion and allow electoral politics a fair chance?         




Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati