The Politics of Tribal Land in Northeast India

U. A. Shimray Memorial Lecture, JNU, New Delhi, May 14, 2010


Walter Fernandes


"Those whom God loves die young" was my first reaction when I got the shocking news of Umshnining Angkang Shimray's untimely death on May 6, 2009. The book on tribal land alienation in the Northeast that included his paper had come out of the press that day after a long delay. That was reason enough to celebrate. But around 8 p.m. Sanjay Barbora gave me the shocking news that Shimray had left us forever. I took a long time to absorb it because from the time I first met him in mid-2005 I had come to appreciate his personal and professional integrity, his hard work and analytical abilities. He had accomplished much in a short time. His flexible and creative mind could move with ease from land issues to political analysis, ecology and nationalist movements. He had a deep commitment to the welfare of the Nagas but he was not a prisoner of any one school of thought and was not swayed by populism. He combined his commitment to the cause with academic freedom.


When I looked at his work as the first anniversary of his untimely death approached I realized once again that he was a prolific writer and that he expressed this freedom in his books, numerous professional papers and newspaper articles. With admiration I looked at the large number of themes he had written on, with equal confidence. In all of them he had brought together the issues of identity, nationalism and livelihood, particularly ecology and land. That is why I decided to dwell on these themes in this lecture in his memory.


Identity and Power


Land, identity and nationalism came together in Shimray's mind. In his first professional paper (Shimray 2001: 3666-3667) he discusses tribal identity in Manipur and links it to language and power. Language is a tool of domination and mode of assimilating the minority groups. That is the backdrop of his discussion of the Meitei effort to impose the Meiteilon script on the tribal groups though a majority of them cannot read it. One sees it also in the effort of the majority group to increase its numbers and reduce those of the subaltern communities. From this and other instances Shimray concludes that these identity-based social manifestations are expressions of the social and political processes in a region.


Thus, in his first major professional paper Shimray focuses on processes of the "mainstream-sub-stream" relationship or the domination-dependency syndrome within the Northeast as well as in the approach of what is called "Mainland India". That continues to be a crucial issue today. One sees it at the national as well as the regional level. As Lucy Zehol (2008: 64) says, "Ethnic tension in the Northeast follows a clear hierarchical-horizontal pattern, stratified by the number of people, quantity of money, amount of power, attention and privileges that a group is perceived as getting from the government. The overall perception is that on top of those who get the benefits is the Hindu mainstream, followed by the Bengalis. Then come the Assamese, and right at the bottom are the hill tribes."


The Mainstream-Sub-stream Dynamics

What Zehol says about ethnic relations within the Northeast can be termed "mainstream-sub-stream" dynamics that are visible within this region as a whole, inter-community relation in many districts and in the relationship of the Northeast with India as a whole. As Karna (2008: 19) says, "The ethnic identity of the Northeast is invariably viewed in relation to what is called the 'Indian mainstream'. Obviously, the idea of a 'mainstream' essentially implies that there are 'sub-streams' or 'side-streams' which are not part of it. In this context the moment appeals are made for joining the mainstream the Northeast is treated as a side-stream which has to merge with the mainstream for its survival."


This process continues at the regional and local levels. What Shimray studied in Manipur in the context of its many ethnic conflicts, is witnessed also in the remaining states of the region, particularly Assam where there has been much discussion and many struggles around identity and language (Vandekerckhove 2010: 47-48). That has also led to some struggles such as the Mizo Nationalist struggle that began in the early 1960s. It is an example of interaction between legal changes and tribal identity. The Assam Official Language Act of 1960 turned Assamese into the only official language of the State and relegated other languages to the areas where they were spoken. The Mizos considered it an attack on their identity. That added to the discontent caused by the feeling of neglect during the bamboo famine of 1959. Till then, the Mizo Union that was demanding autonomy within Assam had won all three legislative Assembly seats in the Lushai Hills. After the disillusionment with the State because of their perceived or real neglect, the Mizo National Front that demanded sovereignty won all three of them. The nationalist struggle that followed resulted in the formation of Mizoram in 1987 (Sen 1992: 45-51).


The official Languages Act, 1960 was a threat also to the remaining ethnic groups of Assam. In reaction to it all the major tribes of the state formed the All Party Hill Leaders' Conference under the leadership of Willamson Sangma. The Karbi and Dimasa tribal leaders were persuaded to remain within Assam by offering them greater autonomy but the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia tribes joined together to demand a separate State. Meghalaya was formed in 1972 (Sangma 2008: 210).  The Boro who were not included among the hill tribes felt disillusioned by the Assam Accord. All the communities of the state had joined the Assam Movement 1979-1985. However, the Assam Accord of 1985 pledged to protect the Assamese identity alone and all but ignored the rest. That was the basis of the Boro nationalist struggle that lasted for nearly two decades and resulted in the formation of the Boro Territorial Council in 2003 (Vandekerckhove 2010: 209-212).


The Mainstream-Sub-stream dynamics continues also at the local level for example in the 2003 Karbi-Kuki conflict in the Karbi Anglong district of Assam and the Kuki-Paite conflict in the Churchandpur district of Manipur. Land was an issue in Karbi Anglong. The "New Kuki" the Manipur immigrants during the Kuki-Naga conflict of the 1990s had occupied land in the district. They and even some of the Kuki who had come to the district some centuries ago felt that the Karbi thought of the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council as belonging to their own tribe alone. On one side the Karbi felt threatened by the sudden rise in the number of Kukis in the district. On the other, the "New Kuki" in particular felt that they did not have an identity of their own in the district. So their leaders were in the forefront of those who demanded an Autonomous Kuki Council in the district. It was an issue of identity both for the Karbi who thought of the district as belonging to their tribe and the Kuki who did not have an administrative unit of their own anywhere in the Northeast and hoped to get an identity through the autonomous council in Karbi Anglong (Terang 2008: 96-98).


Among the Kuki of Manipur, language became the centre of identity. In 1948 the 21 tribes belonging to the Kuki family formed an association called the Kuki Company. All 21 tribes contributed to the construction of its office but its notices and minutes came to be kept only in the language of the Thadou, the biggest tribe. Some tribes demanded that such records be kept in Manipuri or English which all understood but others wanted all the tribes of the Kuki Company to learn Thadou. With language becoming a source of power the Company broke up. Some tribes belonging to it joined the Naga communities and a few others broke away and formed the Khul Union. Seven of these tribes later formed the Zomi Reunification Organisation (Haokip 2008: 189-191)."


The violent conflict that resulted from some relatively minor incidents in May 1997 symbolized the tendency of one dominant ethnic community to impose its own language and identity on the smaller groups. It was their mode of asserting their own power (Shimray2001: 3676-3677). Shimray has stated repeatedly that numbers too are important component of these dynamics. Every community tries to increase its numbers either by getting adherents from other groups or by inflating the figures. For example, the Naga population in the Indian Union increased from 8,92,356 in 1981 to 14,54,864 in 1991, a growth of 63 percent (Shimray 2007a: 93). According to the census the Poumai population in Manipur was 144,505 in 2001. But the records of the Baptist Church to which more than 70 percent of the population belongs, they were only 35,000 in 2003. The Church records every birth, marriage and death, as such as its records are reliable (Pahrii 2010: 11-12).


Such high growth can be attributed both to new tribes joining the Naga family as it happened in Manipur and to the tendency of each tribe to inflate its figures in order to get privileges from the state as the census data that is the official documents of indicates among the Poumai. As Honray (1981: 29) says, this process is part of ethnic consolidation in which groups "contest keenly (for) jobs, politics etc. This has often aroused mutual jealousy, hostility and thus widened the gap of their relationship."


Identity and Nationalism


Closely linked to identity is sub-nationalism which was one of U. A. Shimray's pet themes. In many of his writings he viewed the growth of a Naga identity among the 37 tribes that come under its umbrella as a nationalist movement. He spoke of 1929 as its turning point though the Naga Club was formed in 1918 (Sanyu 1996: 115-116). Thus he seems to identify the nationalist movement not with the elite that formed the Club but with a majority of the people accepting this common identity. Their coming together under as the Naga Club that received a new impetus in 1929, laid the foundation of the later nationalist movement (Shimray 2007a: 81-87).


What Shimray has not discussed adequately is the link between a nation and a state. In most of his writings he has remained at the issue of the growing Naga identity and the concept of a Naga nation. As a tribute to him one should take the discussion beyond these components to the distinction between a nation and a state. As Paul Brass and others have said, a nation is a people with a culture and an identity while a state is a formal structure with its laws, security and administrative systems. A nation confers an identity on a people and a state confers citizenship. Shimray's creative though should be taken beyond the components he has identified to the issues that he has not been able to deal with in his short life.


In so doing one has also to begin by stating that "The identity politics of the region are a product of the historical experiences of various communities …….. that ethnic identity and its articulation in terms of ethnicity is not pre-determined or given. It is socially constructed …… identity and ethnicity is the product of modern society particularly highlighted by the middle class in most of the developing countries (Karna 2008: 21). The work of Shimray on "Naga Population and Integration Movement" (2007a) was done in the emotional atmosphere of the demand for Nagalim after the 2001 Naga-Meitei tension. Even in this environment, he seems to keep a distinction between the middle class demand and popular acceptance and has begun with the demand of 1929 when the Naga leaders took a stand on the autonomy issue amid the negotiations around independence and not with 1918 when the small minority of educated leaders formed the Naga Club.


Our task is to take the discussion beyond identity and nation to the state and citizenship issues. Such an initiative is important in the Northeast because of the trend to identify a nation with a territory. One sees it, among others, in the demand for Nagalim with territorial integration or in the claim that a district coming under the Sixth Schedule belongs to one tribe alone or the tendency to link the demand for the recognition of tribal customary laws with a territory. These issues have led to conflicts in the past and can lead to more of them in the future if a compromise based on this distinction is not arrived at. For example, one needs to look at the possibility of a Nagalim as a people without necessarily linking it to a territory since the latter solution can result in more conflicts and bloodshed.


Issues around Nation and State


This discussion can go beyond the Northeast to mainland India too because many issues having an import on the identity or nationality of the people are identified with a territory. For example one can see the identification of a territory and the indigenous status being used to obtain privileges like jobs for one group in the demand of "Mumbai for Maharashtrians" or Bangalore for Kannadigas". Those who consider themselves indigenous to these states want all the jobs in that territory for themselves. In the Northeast too privileges are among the components of the demands but much stronger in this region is identity that takes many forms, Nagalim being only one such demand. Among the others are the demand for the recognition of the customary law and the indigenous question or the Sixth Schedule.


While recognizing the commonalities between the Northeast and mainland India, one has also to recognize that the issues of identity and the state are different in the Northeast from those in the rest of India. The commonality is the identification of a people with a territory. One has also to recognize that most such demands are legitimate in themselves but a problem arises when they become exclusive. For example, the indigenous status is limited to the communities that inhabited the region prior to the Yandabu treaty of February 1826. Many others, for example the Adivasi tea garden workers of Assam who have built the tea industry that is the backbone of the economy of Assam, are excluded from this status. Their continuing impoverishment can result in conflicts, so also the possibility of the domination-dependency syndrome overtaking the indigenous status. The tribal as well as the non-tribal dominant communities are included in the indigenous category. There is tension between the two and there is very little debate on what will happen in the competition for resources between groups with unequal power relations (Fernandes, Bharali and Kezo 2008: 38-41).


Moreover, the problem exists on both sides, the powerful and the weak so both need to reflect on the situation. For example, the Adivasi of Assam have remained isolated from the surrounding populations both because the tea garden management has confined them to the "lines" and do not have much contact with the neighbouring population and because they themselves refer back more to their Jharkhand origin than to the achievement of their becoming indigenous to Assam by building up the tea industry, the backbone of its economy. Thus, the two sides of the coin are that the local people consider them outsiders and they confirm the indigenous populations in that thinking by linking themselves more to Jharkhand than to Assam (Fernandes, Bharali and Kezo 2008).


One can ask similar questions about the demands on the customary law, the Sixth Schedule and Nagalim. All these issues are basic to the identity of the people as a nation. But there is very little discussion on the possibility of exclusive claims around these issues becoming sources of conflict. For example, the customary law could be identified with one tribe and one territory in the past when a single tribe inhabited a territory. Today one rarely finds an area with a single ethnic group. Similarly, many people of the region have moved away from their area, either within the Northeast or in mainland India. It may or may not be a positive development but one has to reflect on this issue before demanding the recognition of the customary law (Fernandes, Pereira and Khatso 2007: 207-208).


The Karbi-Kuki conflict discussed above and the situation in the Bodo area indicate the need to ask similar questions in the Sixth Schedule area too because the major tribe of a district tends to claim exclusive rights in the district autonomous council (DAC) and other tribes may feel excluded from it. One has seen it happening in Karbi Anglong. Similar was the situation in the Bodo area in Assam when after the 1993 Accord the Government of Assam excluded from the territory more than 1,000 villages that the Bodo outfits claimed because they did not have a Bodo majority. A "majority' was, therefore, "created" through attacks on Bengali Muslims in 1993, Bengali Hindus in1995 and Santhals in 1996. They caused 350,000 IDPs, 190,000 of them Adivasi and the rest from others including Bodo (Bhaumik 2005). One can add to it the tension around Nagalim, the Reang issue in Mizoram-Tripura, the Chakma in Arunachal Pradesh and others elsewhere (Chakraborty 2002).


The commonality between them is the identification of a territory with a people. Mizoram does not easily provide space to other communities because they won a state after a long struggle (Bhaumik 2005) The Naga have been struggling for a nation for six decades and would like to have all their tribes in it. That is a legitimate aspiration but a problem can arise when this nation is identified with a state. Does a nation which is a people have to go necessarily with a state which is a territory? In today's changed context of every community taking an exclusive view of its rights one needs to study the possibility of keeping a distinction between a people and a territory. For example, when a tribe is dispersed and many tribes live within a territory, one possible option is to separate a nation and a territory. Shimray has made a major contribution to the issue of identity and nation. He would probably have gone to the remaining issues if he had lived longer. I have brought up these questions as a tribute to his creativity in order to continue that discussion.


Land and Power


The major contribution of U. A. Shimray has been on the land issue. He studied it as tribal ecology and identity (Shimray 2007b) and analysed the effort of the dominant communities to alienate tribal land (Shimray 2009). He looked at the attempts of the state in Manipur, Tripura, Assam and elsewhere to change the laws in favour of individual ownership and thus facilitate transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. Land is basic to the traditional tribal identity as well as to their modern economy. Traditionally land has been central to tribal identity and today more than 70 percent of the people depend on it for their sustenance (D'Souza 1999: 14).


On the other side one cannot forget that, immigrants of Bangladeshi and Bihari origin have been encroaching on tribal and other land. Some give this issue a communal slant but the people of the region are concerned less about their origin and religion than about the fact that they encroach on their land with impunity. The immigrants also do low paid jobs such as on construction sites, as rickshaw pullers and others that the local people do not do easily (Baruah 2005: 38-39). Moreover, most of the land they occupy is common property resources (CPR) that are tribal livelihood and the centre of their economy, culture and identity. On the other side, most immigrants of Bangladeshi, Bihari or Nepali origin were landless agricultural labourers before their arrival in the Northeast. They lived in a feudal system of lack of land reforms, low wages and poverty. That was the push factor (Majumdar 2002: 107-108). The legal system that makes encroachment easy and the fact that the land in the Brahmaputra Valley is fertile functions as an additional pull factor. Most CPRs the immigrants occupy belong to the tribes who run their civil affairs according to their community-based customary law but the land laws recognise only individual ownership and treat land without pattas as State property. Such imposition of an individual-based legal system on their community-centred customary law creates a disjunction between their legal and social realities. This ambiguity makes it easy for the immigrants to encroach on tribal and other CPRs without the consent of the communities whose sustenance it has been for centuries (Fernandes, Pereira and Khatso 2005: 19-23). 


Moreover, the immigrants and the local people are products of different histories. The former, being agricultural labourers are familiar with the cultivation techniques. So they prosper by using them on the land they occupy. Most local communities have a history of a single crop. That increases the gap between them and the local people and creates a situation of conflict because the local people feel that the immigrants prosper at their cost. That explains why most killings in Karbi Anglong are of Biharis (Fernandes 2007b).


The legal reality that facilitates land alienation is true both of the tribal and non-tribal areas. But the state had introduced more legal changes in the tribal than in the remaining areas in order to facilitate tribal land alienation to non-tribal land grabbers For example, changes made in the land laws in Assam in 1948 facilitated tribal land alienation. As a result, the number of tribal blocks from which land cannot be alienated to non-tribals has declined from 35 in the 1950s to 25 in 2005 (Shimray 2006: 17-18). The Tripura Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act of 1960 was meant specifically to transfer land to the immigrants from the erstwhile East Pakistan (Deb Barma 2009: 121-121). It recognised only individual ownership while most tribes lived on the CPRs. The state took over their land to resettle the immigrants (most of whom were not 1947 Partition refugees). As a result more than 60 percent of their land was lost to the immigrants in the 1960s (Bhaumik 2003: 83).


Land alienation has been at the basis of most ethnic conflicts, for example those in Bodoland and Karbi Anglong area (Vandekerckhove 2010: 48-52). Land alienation causes shortages and competition for the remaining scarce resources. In that situation every community rewrites its history to declare itself the original indigenous community of a given area, as such entitled to all of its privileges. Such exclusive claims are basic to conflicts around land. An example is the Tripura insurgency. By 1970 the tribes had lost more than 60 percent of their land to the East Bengal immigrants. That is when the state decided to build the Dumbur dam which it did despite tribal protests. Since it recognised only private land, it included 2,611 tribal families among the displaced and excluded around 6,000 CPR dependent families. Tribal insurgency that began in the early 1970s was one of its consequences (Bhaumik 2003: 85).


The land issue has been a major area of Shimray's study. He has studied the Tangkhul ecology and economy of land (Shimray 2009) and has situated it in the context of tribal identity and economy in the Northeast as a whole. He has drawn attention to the causes of its alienation and its impact on their identity. Ethnic conflicts cannot be stopped without solving the land problem. Immigrants are only one of its causes. It is true that they have encroached on much land in the Northeast but it is not possible to drive them out of the region without a massive bloodshed which is not desirable (Zehol 2008: 60-62). Moreover, one cannot limit oneself to the immigrants alone. One has also to look at alienation within a tribe which creates classes in their egalitarian societies and causes shortages (Nongkynrih 2009) Ways have, therefore, to be found of dealing with the legal and social situation of conflicts.




This paper in memory of Dr U. A. Shimray has attempted to delve into the thinking of this creative author who could move with ease from identity, land and nationalism to land and conflicts. In his analysis he substantiates Datta's (1990: 40) contention that in most conflicts in the Northeast the identity, political and economic issues come together since in the context of its social situation it is not possible to separate them. One has seen an understanding of this situation in much of Shimray's work. In it is visible also an understanding of the legal and social situation that can cause conflicts. An attempt to delve further into the discoveries of U. A. Shimray and go beyond them is the best tribute one can pay to this young man who accomplished much in his short life.




Bhaumik, Subir. 2003. "Tripura's Gumti Dam Must Go," The Ecologist Asia 11 (n. 1, Jan.-Mar), pp. 84-89.


Bhaumik, Subir. 2005. "India's North East: Nobody's People in No Man's Land," in Paula Banerjee, Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury and Samir Das (eds). Internal Displacement in South Asia. New Delhi: Sage Publications, pp. 144-174.


Bora, Ajit Kumar. 1986. Pattern of Land Utilization in Assam. Delhi: Manas Publications.


Chakraborty, Sanat. 2002. "Chakma and Hajong Refugees of Arunachal Pradesh: Still a 'No Where People," in C. Joshua Thomas (ed). Dimensions of Displaced People in Northeast India. New Delhi: Regency Publications, pp. 159-178.


Datta, Brijendranath. 1990. "Ethnicity, Nationalism and Sub-Nationalism, with Special Reference to North-East India".  In D. Pakem (ed). Nationality, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity in North-East India. New Delhi: Omsons Publications, pp. 36-44.


Deb Barma, Sukhendu. 2008. "Refugee Rehabilitation and Land Alienation in Tripura," in Walter Fernandes and Sanjay Barbora (ed). Land, People and Politics Contest over Tribal Land in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre and IWGIA,  pp. 88-112.


D'Souza, Alphonsus. 1999. North East India. Jakhama: Kohima Jesuit Region (Mimeo).


Fernandes, Walter. 2007b "Hawks Descend on Assam," Himal Southasian, February 1.


Fernandes, Walter, Melville Pereira and Vizalenu Khatso. 2007. Customary Laws in North East India: Impact on Women. New Delhi: National Commission for Women .


Fernandes, Walter, Melville Pereira and Vizalenu Khatso. 2007. Customary Laws in North East India: Impact on Women. New Delhi: National Commission for Women.


Fernandes, Walter, Gita Bharali and Vemedo Kezo. 2008. The UN Indigenous Decade in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre.


Haokip, Rebecca C. 2008. "Kuki-paite Conflict in the Churchandpur District of Manipur," in Lazar Jeyaseelan (ed). Conflict Mapping and Peace Processes in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre, pp. 185-208.


Karna, M. N. 2008. "Conflicts amid the Historical Experiences of Identity, Nation and the State in North Eastern India," in Walter Fernandes (ed). Search for Peace with Justice: Issues around Conflicts and Peace in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre, pp. 28-35.


Nongkynrih, A. K. 2009. "Privatisation of Communal Land of the Tribes of North East India: A Sociological Viewpoint," op. cit. pp. 16-36.


Pahrii. Z. K. 2010. Viable Education for the Tribals: A Poumai Naga Perspective. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre.


Sangma, Amrit. 2008. "Youth in the Context of the Garo-Khasi Tension in Meghalaya," in Lazar Jeyaseelan (ed). Op. cit. pp. 209-248.


Sanyu, Visier. 1996. A History of Nagas and Nagaland: Dynamics of Traditional Village Formation. New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers.


Sen, Sipra. 1992. Tribes of Mizoram: Description, Ethnology and Bibliography. New Delhi: Gian Publishing House.


Shimray U. A. 2001, "Ethnicity and Socio-Political Assertion: The Manipur Experience," Economic and Political Weekly, September 29-October 5.


Shimray, U. A. 2007a. Naga Population and Integration Movement. Delhi: Mittla Publications.


Shimray, U. A. 2007b. Ecology and Economic Systems: A Case of the Naga Community. New Delhi: Regency Publications.


Shimray, U. A. 2009. "Land Use System in Manipur Hills: A Case Study of the Tangkhul Nagas," in Walter Fernandes and Sanjay Barbora (ed). Op. cit. pp. 88-112.


Terang, Bulu. "Community's Response to the Karbi-Kuki Conflict in Karbi-Anglong," in Lazar Jeyaseelan (ed). Op. cit, pp. 54-93.


Zehol, Lucy. 2008. Ethnic Conflicts and Tension: North Eastern Experience," in Walter Fernandes (ed). Search for Peace with Justice: Issues around Conflicts in Northeast India. Guwahati: North Eastern Social Research Centre, pp. 44-65.