Written by: Dr. Ningthoujam Rameshchandra*
This piece of write-up discusses India’s political dispensation toward a ‘region’ called the ‘northeastern region (hereafter NER)’ of the postcolonial Indian State (in general) and Manipur (in particular) that is largely settled by indigenous communities. This region has been plaque by protracted armed conflict, which is regarded to be one of the longest lasting armed conflicts in South Asia if not in Asia. There is divided opinion among the scholars on the root cause of this conflict, arguing that the conflict stems from the backwardness of the region, while the other school of thought argues the controversial merger of this erstwhile princely state (Manipur) to the Union of India in 1949. The Indian State has responded to a local insurgency that began soon after the controversial merger by following a two-pronged strategy, the first informed by militarism and the second by what I identify as developmentalism, which stresses the unilateral nature of India’s nation-building projects. However, both strategies have failed to yield any tangible results in terms of any advance or success in conflict resolution.
On the other hand, this region is situated in such a strategic location where India can expand its economic prowess towards her eastern neighboring countries via land route. By virtue of this significant location, India has step up its national security measures to defend this frontier region against its powerful and influential neighbors. In fact, to cope with the Chinese influence, or to establish firmer control over this region, and to expand its influence over Southeast and East Asian countries, the Central Government began to employ certain economic as well as coercive/militaristic policies over this frontier area. However, these (said) policies have resulted in the escalation of armed/ethnic conflict and civil society dissatisfaction when the indigenous communities of this region have unmasked the disruptive substance of India’s nation-building approach.
So far, the Indian Government did not acknowledge any claim for indigeneity or indigenous peoples that are settled in this part of the country. Rather, it responded that India has its own definition of indigenous peoples that is described as tribal (Xaxa 1999).
There is no fixed definition of the term ‘indigenous people’(1). The United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in its preamble emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to be different, to consider themselves different, and to be respected as such, while referencing the histories of oppression against them. Finally, its operative article 33 affirms the rights of indigenous peoples to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions (see also Cobo 1982).
In this regard, most of the communities of India’s northeastern region will obviously fall in the category of indigenous peoples, because they have distinct culture, territories and histories. In addition, most of their grievances (including armed movement) stems from their distinct cultural identities and deep connection to their traditional territories that are affected by the state developmental projects within their traditional lands. Therefore, the peoples of this region can easily be identified as indigenous.
On the other hand, the violation of basic human rights by the state has been a grave concern in this region. In the worst case, the politics of India’s North-east appears to be unpalatable when the central government imposed the notorious, ever controversial (martial) law: the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (here after the AFSPA or the Act) of 1958 (2). Violations of human rights under AFSPA is rampant; where the Indian armed forces, who are supposed to safeguard the territorial (i.e., international) boundary and defend the external aggressions, are involved in civil issues (3). They are granted with legal impunity under the purview of this Act. Even the educational institutions are not spared (see pictures 1, 2 and 3).
The AFSPA ‘is not only against certain basic normative and institutional norms and practices of the civilized democratic and republic ethos, but it also implies some underlying racist and or paranoid and jingoistic nationalism’ (4). This unlawful, pejorative law is unfortunately and unlikely to be repealed from this troubled periphery, since the central government relies on the method of coercion, i.e., militarism to further their nationalizing mission (Joshi 2013).
Pictures 1 and 2: one of the Indian military camps inside the Manipur University campus. Photo credits: the author.
Picture 3: Indian army personnel who are supposed to safeguard against external threats are seen to be involved in internal civil issues, such as a public meeting/protest held against the construction of Tipaimukh dam in Manipur. Source: Yumnam 2012.
As a result, the rights of the indigenous peoples of the northeastern region are threatened and often violated. In fact, two issues from the state of Manipur are raised here: (i) Extrajudicial execution and (ii) Exploitation of natural resources. These cases are mostly drawn from the UN Special Rapporteurs who visited to North-east India and Manipur in the recent years.
(i) Extrajudicial execution: it may be shocking but extrajudicial killings is not uncommon in northeastern India or Manipur in particular. A recent Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed before the Supreme Court of India by one of the civil societies. The Extra-judicial Execution Victims’ Families Association of Manipur (EEVFAM) through an NGO (Human Rights Alert, HRA), Manipur, alleged that 1,528 people have been killed in the last thirty years, i.e. since 1979 (The Times of India 2012).
Despite all these extra-judicial executions, the government is showing apathy and inaction hitherto. It is nothing but an utter violation of the rights and complete denial of the basic rights guaranteed under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Indeed, the inability to bring any single justice to the victims by prosecuting the perpetrator of the atrocities confirms the indifference of the government.
(ii) Exploitation of natural resources: since the last decades, the government of India has been exploiting the natural resources of northeastern India without much consideration of the social and environmental detriments. This extractivism includes oil and other minerals exploration, construction of mega dams, et al. All these projects greatly affects the indigenous peoples. So far, many civil societies of Manipur have filed PIL or even submitted reports to UN agencies.
Acknowledging the gravity of the issue (Manipur in this case), the UN Special Rapporteur Prof. James Anaya in his letter dated 6th April 2009, called the attention of the Government of India in one of his reports to the Human Rights Council (HRC/12/34/Add.1, paragraph 161-172) – Special Rapporteur’s 2009 Report, that talks about the situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People (Shukhdeba 2013).
The Government of India on the other hand, in its response dated 4th June 2010 denied Anaya’s proposal to comply with the definition of the ‘indigenous people’ at international standard. Government of India, on the other hand, has denied the idea of indigenous people that is being proposed and responded that India has its own definition of indigenous peoples. It further said that ‘a precise definition of indigenous peoples has not been included in the Declaration on Indigenous Peoples that was adopted after 22 years of prolonged negotiations’. The Indian Government further said that any attempt to produce a definition now is ‘neither desirable nor productive’. It continues to reject this way that ‘the UN Special Rapporteur should not attempt to expand the application of the Declaration to unrelated groups, like the tribal peoples in India, through his interpretation of experiences of what he calls other indigenous people’ (Ibid.).
So far, India has ratified the ILO Convention No. 107 that was founded on the assumption that the indigenous and tribal populations (ITPs) would disappear with the advent of the modernization. However, India is yet to ratify the subsequent ILO Convention No. 169 that focused mainly on the rights of the indigenous and tribal people. Perhaps, the Convention No. 169 gives more teeth to the indigenous peoples and that could be a hindrance to India’s zealous groundings of nation-building (5).
The Government of India may denied Anaya’s proposal of ‘indigeneity’ for the people of North-east, but one cannot denied the claim of indigenousness who has developed their territories, community, nation, culture, etc. in the pre-invasion and pre-colonial period and has shown a character of historical continuity that consider themselves distinct from other sections of the societies.
(1) However, the ILO Convention169 established objective and subjective criteria to identify them (Article 1).
(2) Justice Committee headed by the Supreme Court Judge (retd.), Jeevan Reddy, has recommended for the complete repeal of this Act in the year 2005. However, Indian government has neither officially published the report nor it is ready to discuss the issue in the Parliament. For report, see Reddy 2005.
(3) The New Delhi government has been claiming the conflict situation in the North-east as a ‘law and order’ problem or as an issue of economic backwardness.
(4) Excerpted from the conversation with Dr. Akoijam Bimol, Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi on 28th April 2013.
(5) In fact, Article 3, 4 and 7 of the ILO Convention No. 169 affirm the indigenous peoples’ rights to enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms without hindrance or discrimination, that they should enjoy the general rights of citizenship without discrimination, and that they should have the right to decide the priorities for development respectively.
* Dr. Ningthoujam Rameshchandra is a PhD from International and Intercultural Study Program, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain. He is a Research Fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), New Delhi. His research interest areas include, armed conflict, migration, nationalism, among others areas. You may reach him via email@example.com.
Xaxa, V. (1999). Tribes as Indigenous People of India. Economic and Political Weekly , XXXIV (51), 3589-3595.
Cobo, J. M. (1982, June 20). Martinez Cobo Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations.
Reddy, B. J. (2005, June). Report of the Committee, headed by Justice (Retd) B.P. Jeevan Reddy, to Review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act 1958.
Joshi, S. (2013, February 7). Army’s stand makes it hard to amend AFSPA: Chidambaram. The Hindu.
Yumnam, J. (2012, September 3). High Tipaimukh dam negotiations sans peoples. Retrieved September 20, 2014 from Global Water Issues: http://www.w4pn.org/index.php/latest-global-water-issues/26-india/57-high-tipaimukh-dam-negotiations-sans-peoples.html.
The Times of India. (2012, October 2). 1,528 victims of fake encounters in Manipur: PIL.
Shukhdeba, Sharma Hanjabam, U. N. (2013). United Nations and Human Rights in Manipur: Representation to the United Nations System & Concluding Observations/Communiques/Remarks 1991-2012. New Delhi: Forward Books.