Sunday, Nov 27, 2022
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Laws Of Their Land

A bunch of legislation protects tribal territories in the Northeast, but the job isn’t finished with the paperwork

Laws Of Their Land

The Northeast is perceived in much of India only as a land of secessionist conflicts. There certainly are conflicts, but most of them are centred on land. Traditionally, the commun­ity-based customary laws ensured sustainable management and equitable distribution of land within the respective tribes, and protection from encr­oachment by outsiders. The situation changed for some tribes when the British rulers imposed colonial laws in order to acquire their land for tea plantations, petroleum and coal mines. This resulted in much land alie­nation. Most other tribes whose land the colonial rulers did not need were allowed to govern themselves autonomously under their customary laws. That too changed post-1947 when Partition pushed hordes of refugees into such community-owned land. Before that, the British encouraged migrants from East Bengal,  now Bangladesh, to cultivate land in Assam. They continue to migrate to the Northeast in search of land. From the 1930s some leaders of the freedom movement encouraged Bihari peasants to enter Assam for fear that it was becoming a Muslim-majority province.

Most states changed laws in order to enable refugees, migrants as well as non-tribal locals, to occupy land. In Manipur and Tripura, the Land Reforms and Land Revenue Act of 1960 recognised only individual ownership when most tribal land was community managed. As a result, according to journalist-writer Subir Bhaumik, in the 1960s alone Tripura’s indigenous tribes lost 20 to 40 per cent of their land to what they called “illegal East Pakistani migrants”. In 1947, Assam had 35 tribal blocks and belts reserved for tribals. Their number has reduced to 25 and the size of what is left has been reduced drastically. While local non-tribal Assamese occupied land in tribal blocks and belts, migrants from Bangladesh and Bihar encroached on tribal as well as non-tribal land. In Manipur, the tribes—who are 40 per cent of the population living on 90 per cent of the state’s land—felt that the Act was meant to let plains-people encroach on their land. So they did not allow it to be applied to the hill areas.

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