TODAY -

Understanding Tribal's unique relation to their land

Dr Kongbrailatpam Ratnabali *



India's pluralistic nature of existence entails birth of inevitable multicultural societies with varying degrees of commonality and distinctiveness. Among this diversity, tribal as a group occupies a distinct place in terms of their origin, history, socio-culture, economy and geographical habitation.

The use of a singular term i.e. 'tribal' to connote groups of people belonging to it should not mislead it to be a homogeneous group. In fact, tribals are extremely heterogeneous and any classification based on any criteria will bring forth a range of tribal communities at two extreme poles.

A common feature/characteristic of tribal society is their close ties and attachment to their land, though in varying degrees, as compared to their neighbouring communities. More the primitiveness of a tribe more is their dependency on the natural habitat and its consequential rootedness.

The 75 tribes which are put under the category of PVTG (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) will be much more tied to their land as compared to tribe which are close to modernity. For PVTG, land and its natural bounty is the source of their subsistence and livelihood.

Their imprints of unwritten history and their past are embedded on the very land where their ancestors for generations have experimented and learnt to adapt to that environment through constant interaction between the social organization, ecological considerations and religious complex, which Vidyarthi termed as Nature-Man-Spirit Complex.

Land also forms the basis of the tribal's socio-cultural and religious identity. Certain natural topographic features over land acquire special significance in terms of culture and religion of that tribal group. It may be in the form of a groove, waterfall, hill, lake etc. that has acquired the reverence and veneration of a sacred natural site or has significance of being a cultural space closely connected to a tribe.

For instance, the importance of Niyamgiri hill which the Dongaria Kondh tribe of Odisha considers as their God Niyam Raja, has already been recognized by the Supreme Court of India as vital to their identity, culture and other customary rights. Similarly, the Sacred Banyan Tree and Cheti Bu Kaji (Sacred Wild Pear Tree), at Makhel are considered sacred by the Nagas and venerated till today.

It has also been observed through studies that areas inhabited by communities that believes in protection of religiously significant natural spaces and enforces taboos to avoid destruction of such areas, coincides with those sites with high degree of biodiversity. In other words, protection of sacred natural sites also leads to conservation of rapidly dwindling biodiversity.

The unique relation that tribal have with their land is not specific to this country but it has been pointed out by Quizon that to indigenous peoples of Asia, 'land is more than just an economic asset or commodity. Land is life itself, rooted to a territory and history'.

If land has such bearing on the lives of tribal and PVTG in particular, question arises as to whether importance of the ancestral land/traditional habitat to the tribals and PVTG in particular has been recognized in the law and policies of the government. Whether such perspective of land is taken into account while framing laws and policies which affect PVTG's land.

Whether alternatives are searched before displacing them from their traditional habitat. If in case acquisition of their land is the only viable solution for implementing a State development project, are the sacred natural sites and important cultural spaces avoided or not from acquisition for the same? Do our rehabilitation and resettlement policy for displaced people have some special provision to tackle issues pertaining to protection and conservation of these spaces?

Feeling of attachment to a tangible or intangible thing does fall in the realm of emotions which cannot guide laws and policies of the country. But when the relationship of attachment of a community to its tangible and intangible legacy translates into elements of identity and culture of that community, the same has to be given due respect and preservation.

The adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage 2003 and Convention of the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions 2005 echoes similar line of thought. India being a party to both these Conventions, must take due cognizance of such unique spaces.


* Dr Kongbrailatpam Ratnabali wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao
This article was posted on October 5, 2015.


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