Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Who is indigous? What are the criteria for qualifying to be one?

Population Churning is Natural but Distinction Must be Made Between Colonisation and Indigenisation Processes

It is difficult to do a running commentary on issues with such deep roots as the indigenous people’s movement, of which without doubt the current agitation in the valley districts of Manipur is a part. However, difficult though it is, this is precisely the task journalists cannot escape from. It is for this reason that journalism is often referred to as “literature in a hurry”.

It is again for the same reason that practitioners of this profession are also as often referred to as the “first draft writers of history”. Despite these limitations, nobody will argue the vital role journalism plays in any society’s attempt to understand itself and its problems, with a view finally to resolve them. It is perhaps a vindication of the first of these two assertions that many of the best creators of literary works in the world are former journalists, some even going as far to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are an equal number of examples of journalists who left their profession and turned to academics and excelled.

While on the job however, journalists normally do not have the leisure or the inclination to do scholarly articles needing months of rigorous researches, with referencing and footnotes etc, for they are perpetually chasing very short deadlines.

With this little acknowledgement of limitation of the profession, we want to remind everyone of the need for moderation in the free use of words and concepts such as “indigenous”. The question who is an indigenous person itself has been problematic even for researchers in the field such as Christian Erni.

Is this person somebody belonging to a primitive or pre-modern economy? Is he or she a practitioner of traditional, animistic religion? Is he somebody who lives in the wild and therefore stateless in the modern sense? Is a person indigenous only because she is believed to be the original inhabitant of a land?

Probably the indigenous person has attributes of some or all of these, and is vulnerable precisely because these attributes are pitted against the encroachment of the modern economy and political system into their spiritual and physical spheres. But, it is quite obvious, each of these attributes are also accompanied by unresolved problems?

Take the last postulate that an indigenous person is the original inhabitant of a place. Does this imply he evolved out of the soil and never moved anywhere else? Or is it just a question of his having arrived at his place of settlement earlier than later migrants? What about nomadic people? Do they cease to be indigenous?

This problem, as Erni notes in his introduction to the edited volume “The Concept of Indigenous Peoples in Asia” is compounded in Asia where numerous groups contest to be classed as indigenous, unlike say in Europe or America where the dividing lines are much more distinct. To this we are inclined to add, this contest has been made even more complex in India because of the notion of Schedule Tribe and the incentive structuring that comes along with this.

Interestingly, in the Indian context, a distinction has emerged between “Schedule Tribe” and “Tribe”, for obviously the two are not identical. One is a technical Constitutional categorisation and the other is a sociological condition? Small wonder then there are communities wanting to come under the ST list, and others, though by any sociological standards cannot anymore be considered a “Tribal”, refusing to forgo the ST status. It is for this reason that the understanding of the concept “indigenous” has to be flexible in places like Manipur. Hence Kukis, Nagas and Meiteis all claim to be “indigenous”, and by Erni’s definition, all would qualify regardless of belonging to the Indian Constitution’s ST list or not.

This musing on the volatility of the term “indigenous” is important for one more reason. If a genome study were to be done today, in all likelihood, all Meiteis, all Nagas or all Kukis may not even share the same ancestry even within their communities.

Consider the valley. Many traditions, folklores and also semi-scientific studies by colonial writers have pointed out the valley has been a melting pot where different ethnicities descended and merged into a single identity continuously since prehistoric times. Besides the hill tribes, names of many places in the valley also suggest they were early settlements of Kabaw, Awa, Khagi (Chinese), Kege, Pong, Takhel, Tekhao etc.

Yale professor James C. Scott vouches this population amalgamation was a prominent feature of his and Willem Scheldel’s imaginary landscape of “Zomia” (or the mountain massif of upland SE Asia), to which Manipur and the Northeast obviously would belong. The valley dwellers today probably would have the DNA of all these different peoples. If these happened in the pre and proto-historical times, this indigenisation process continued into the historical period too. If not, the Bamon and Pangal would still be aliens.

This brings in another thought. If settlers come to colonise, as indeed modern settlers do, and instead of seeking to indigenise they try to marginalise or obliterate the existing indigenous cultures, the danger from the standpoint of the original population is obvious. But if the settlers come and seek to sink into the local milieu and ultimately indigenise, it is equally obvious why leniency must meet them. These are some thoughts Manipur today needs desperately to reflect on a learn.

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