“Indigenous Peoples and the Need for a New Social Contract”: NPMHR’s 22nd Morung Dialogue series

The Naga Peoples Movement for Human Rights (NPMHR) on 9th August 2021 commemorated the International Day of the World Indigenous Peoples (IDWIP) on the theme “Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract”. The IDWIP aimed at raising the voice and demand for inclusion, participation, and approval of indigenous people in the constitution of a system with social and economic benefits for all.

The keynote address was delivered by Gam A.Shimray, Secretary-General of AIPP who dwelled on two key issues affecting the indigenous people i.e. on the reference to the social contract in the context of the Nagas and the question of border. He posed “what does it mean for the Nagas in the new social contract?”. He pointed out the need to contextualize the social contract to achieve its purpose. According to Gam Shimray, “One way to understand the new social contract is to go back to the establishment of the village republic”. Numerous symbols represent the conception of the village republic such as cultural attires, carving on the village gate, etc. which are a symbolic representation of the village republic. He stressed that such conceptions emerged and got established and the meaning is given in the process precisely lays the foundation of our existence as a political society.

In the Naga practice, the altar or stone symbolizes the rooting of the particular community in that particular territory or land. This symbol was chosen by the people, the chief, and the clan representatives. And while doing so the people seek the blessing of the creator, submitting to the creator to give a sign of being already blessed. While doing this, everyone in that community made a collective existential vow. In that existential vow, one is seeking blessing and the other is looking for signs and in the process acknowledges and takes the vow that the land is older than the people and therefore we are to respect and not defile or break such sacred vow. The other aspect is that all the community members are involved and to commemorate such events mithun, bison, or pig were killed depending on the tribe. The process is completed by taking a piece of meat from the head of the buffalo and this is one of the reasons why the buffalo head has become symbolic in the Naga society. He questioned how much the people understand such symbols and underpinning “the need to uncover and recover the meaning attach to those symbols to give a meaningful identity”.

He narrated that in some traditions trees are planted that eventually become the symbol of rooting/ claiming the particular land with that existential vow in the process of giving and attaching meaning to it. Gam stressed on the need to recover and uncover the various meaning attached to collective heritage. In that light, agreements (domestic and international agreements) are made like the setting of human rights standards such as the comprehensive UNHR Declaration. But he argued that such agreement seems to be made for the sake of agreement as far as the state is concerned. This agreement was not given meaning therefore there is nothing good about such agreement. The states are not taking the responsibility to translate this into action in their domestic governance resulting in a ‘meaning crisis’. So, according to him, when we are calling for a new social contract, it is for the uncovering and recovery of meaning. The aim is not just uncovering and recovering but enhancing them because the way we experience things is changing.

He asked, “whether we are upholding the same principle and the same meaning-making process in our community and whether we can make any meaningful agreement”. He further posed “whether we are willing to engage in any meaningful deliberation that helps us to understand and form public opinion that can take us forward be it at the leadership and institutions level”. Gam Shimray cautioned that any leadership or platform that the people create can be without meaning. The institution will be valuable only when we give meaning. Therefore in the struggle for self-determination, it has to be a process of meaning-making and peace-making.

On the question of border, Gam Shimray opined that it has both positive and negative implications. Though border is a sensitive issue, it is fundamental and essential for human civilization and an individual existence/being. He articulated that a person’s skin itself is a border so he/she has to cover parts of the body with clothes. Humans construct houses and fences likewise states create borders. The fact is also that borders can be very conflicting, one’s identity is a border and that’s the reason why people are defending it. Even in that abstract sense, there are many borders.

He illustrated that ‘identity can also be dangerous if we are not careful”. And in the Naga experiences, the village has an open relationship without fences except for the construction of the village gate but now more and more fences are coming up between neighbors which were not practiced by our ancestors. Fences and borders can be intimidating and uncomfortable. It brings about the barrier in human relationships, interfering in the relations between neighbors.

Gam Shimray noted that borders can also give conception to the political ideas or identity and this can differ from one community to the other but the worldview of the indigenous people who is the custodian of whatever is within that boundary both living and inanimate being is shaped by its territory. He concluded by stating that borders can curb human relationships but there has to be a conception where there is penetrating interaction transcending the border universal principle.

The first panelist Roderick Wijunamai, Lecturer, Royal Thimphu College, Bhutan articulated on social contract and economic benefits for all and what it means by leaving no one behind. He narrated how the sacredness of a boulder that was once marked by the ancestors is gone and slowly there was a change in people’s habits, attitudes, and relations with the ecosystem they co-exist. He stated that border has created conflict among the different species. He cited the differences and the increasing contention within the Naga community.

The indigenous people across the world have been fighting for decades for survival and to save the sacred space from any form of intrusion. He opined that “while we have been resisting the entry of human outsiders we have forgotten or sidelined other forms of invasion such as the ideological invasion or entry or non-local or non-indigenous species that have come to us”. According to him, “For indigenous people, the ‘us’ is more than the human population inhabiting the space but it also consists of the bigger us constituting of the soil, insects, animals, plants, etc.

He pointed out that the elders are lamenting the loss of certain birds, insects, crops, animals, or plants. And our forefathers were very conscious about the natural surrounding while gathering food by attaching values and norms which forms the “forest etiquette” (Easterine Kire). Forest etiquettes are a certain behavioral expectation with our interaction with other living and non-living species.

The Nagas have a particular season to plant (i.e jhum cultivation) or hunt or kill animals with certain reasons and its implications and it also has a certain ecological rationale which is giving time to the environment to regenerate and to replenish itself so that peaceful coexistence is achieved. He argued that the soil that we co-inhabit for centuries together has been given time to regenerate and replenish and by doing so we are considering the life of the soil, microbes, bacteria, plants, fungi, insects as an indigenous species.

Wijunamai cautioned that some take more than the world can produce and, in the process, making us see the species as resources to exploit and inanimate things to be harnessed i.e. the incursion of outsiders (neoliberal capitalist) who are taking advantage of the indigenous people and hijack the source of life and way of life.

He stated that while reconsidering and rearticulating the social contract, “the indigenous perspectives have to be accommodated and for that, we have to go back to our roots. And also have to broaden the understanding of community and also expand the way we reimagine what is social and the need to expand our engagement with other indigenous communities while forming this new social contract”. The indigenous people should fight not just against the state but also against certain foreign ideologies (capitalist ideology); the ideology that reduces the indigenous culture and hijack or reconfigure.

Railey Rocky Ziipao, Asst Prof of Sociology, IIT Bombay began his presentation by citing Native American wisdom, “when the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you, it is you who belong to this land”.

He argued that “land is the key to understand our reality, a new social contract between the state and indigenous people and for that matter even the Naga political issue”. For the indigenous peoples, “land is the foundational base that conceived us being alive and not just a mere materiality or assets, not just a mere commodity”. The land is dynamic and alive. Territory which is generally holistic constitutes hills, rivers, natural mineral resources, air, water, and people. Indigenous people have an intrinsic symbiotic connection between their identity land and territory. Ziipao broadly mapped out three perspectives on knowledge production i.e. the perspective from above (Western and Brahmanical worldview), secondly, the perspective from below (the subaltern studies), and the third is the emerging, tribal intellectual collective called perspective from within.

He pointed out that socio-economic-political issues are plaguing tribes in India. And the existing dominant theories do not adequately address the issue of situating as well as explaining the realities. Hence, it is imperative to approach from a different perspective by drawing from the experience of indigenous studies across the globe. He cited various examples of indigenizing the discourse, such as the concept of perspectivism and decolonial thinking in South America and the experiences of the Maoris of New Zealand and indigenous people of Australia.

Ziipao situated the theoretical position in the context of state and development discourse especially that of tribes in India with what Xaxa called “the disempowerment of tribes in India or in other words coercive development”. He stated that Xaxa theorized the power of disempowerment began with the incorporation of tribes into the larger social structure especially the state.

He questioned whether this new social contract is of the indigenous people and state. To illustrate, he quoted the experiences of the Pangsha village chairman who questions the intention of the states (India and Myanmar) for constructing border fencing at the Indo-Naga international border distorting the fore parents’ land and territory. According to Ziipao, “fencing is an issue and not a peace process”.

He argued that “people have lived without borders for ages and the people in the border areas need proper infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and not fencing.  This vividly condenses the experiences and the implication of the international boundary fencing and material politics encounter by border tribes in their everyday life”.

Rocky Ziipao stated that underdevelopment in tribal areas is not merely a by-product of geographical isolation rather tribes or indigenous people were or are experiencing poverty, crumbling of infrastructure, impoverished health system, cultural assimilation, denial of agency, etc. due to the structural domination by the dominant caste/community i.e. society and state. So, displacement of tribal people due to the governmental agenda of the state is not new in India or elsewhere in the world. This trend which began during the British rule continued till today in more pervasive and aggressive forms resulting in a large displacement of the tribal people leading to loss of livelihood, forest, resources among other things. He asserted that tribes in India are always at the receiving and subsume within the larger social political-economic sphere of the dominant caste society and the state.

Accordingly,  “The tribes of India were subjected to penalties of laws, Acts and regulations during the British rule and such acts and regulations subdued their identity, culture, tradition, land, forest, mineral resources. And infrastructure facilities such as roads, electricity, and defense establishment were explicitly built for quick transportation of man and military supplies and to advanced colonial control over the resources, trade, people and territories.”

Rocky opined that the Britishers extended infrastructure to outline tribal territories to serve their military and commercial interests. But they hardly did anything to develop the economy of the tribes. He maintained that colonialism and colonial mindset did not have any genuine interest in developing infrastructure. And in post-independent India, more coercive forms of development were rigorously followed by the Indian state displacing and dislocating tribes from their ancestral land and habitation. This has a bearing on tribal livelihood and their intrinsic relationship with the land, forest, and water. He noted that the tribal areas are rich in mineral resources but it is in this tribal belt that the social infrastructure is crumbling and basic infrastructure is absent such as roads, schools, health centers, portable drinking water, sanitation, etc. Even in the place where there is basic infrastructure, the roads are often not motorable, electricity is irregular, and hospitals are without medical staff or doctors, and schools without teachers. This according to him amounts to “infrastructural injustice”.

He stated that the post-Nehruvian independent state or the Indian developmental state embark on industrialization for a prosperous and modern India with Nehru terming such projects as temples of modern India. The primacy of this vision is to build massive infrastructure projects focus on industries such as irrigation, power generation, and heavy industries which were seen as heralding the arrival of modernity and economic development. On the other hand, these temples of modern India are more often than not a reflection of exclusion, displacement, and marginalization of certain communities.

He pointed out that the Indian state has activated various infrastructure projects among which road construction, hydropower projects, international fencing to secure the northeast. Here the service of the Indian military such as BRO is called in for the construction and other developmental projects. Rocky Ziipao believes that the development project and policies that are initiated in the Northeast by the Indian state are grounded heavily on a security approach or in other words strategy for counter-insurgency and with neo-liberal market-driven motives without a people-centric approach.  So, due to such a fallow approach, there is an eminent contradiction in policies and processes which does not seem to be in consonance with each other. He further argued that there is an asymmetrical underpinning in policies such as Act East policy and Free Movement Regime (FMR), etc. The commitment to building border fencing points to some degree of insecurity of the nation-state (India and Myanmar) although it has stated its vision statement for open trade, free mobility,

and deepening infrastructure development and yet on the ground the actions are still guided by the securitization of development or ‘undevelopmnet’. This has been the unstated policy for the tribal areas in the NE. Thus the vision of this Act East Policy is contradicted fundamentally by the state security and development agenda in which securitization of development or simply securitization of an insecure state in an indigenous nation such as Nagas. He closed the presentation by posing whether we can think of a development with justice that takes into account the historical injustice meted to the indigenous people across the world.

The Morung Dialogue is a talk series organized by NPMHR, Delhi to strengthen the power of conversation, sharpen and share ideas and views on issues that affect our lives, and contribute to democracy, just peace, and social justice. 

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