Harmony in the Midst of Social Cacophony
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The contestation for land and resources among the multi-ethnic groups in the Northeast is a natural phenomenon. One such contestation is witnessed in the foothills of Assam-Nagaland as an inter-state border conflict. With the rearrangement of Colonial Assam into different states in 1963, the issue of inter-state boundary disputes becomes one of the nagging issues in Northeast India. 

The basis for the bone of contention between Assam and Nagaland lies in the two notifications notified at different points in time in Colonial Assam. The British 1866 notification was adopted by Nagaland whereas Assam stands by the Notification issued in 1925. The latter finally demarcated the border between Naga Hills district and its neighbouring districts in Assam. However, Nagaland does not adhere to the 1925 notification. This disagreement between Assam and Nagaland led to contestations which turned into a bloody war in 1985, popularly known as the “Merapani War”. After the Merapani War, the foothill border witnessed a new surge of migration patterns. At the same time, Assam was also witnessing one of the biggest student movements of the century to protest against the infiltration of “illegal” immigrant migrants to the state from Bangladesh. 

As such, several atrocities took place against the Bangladeshi-origin Muslim settlers in various parts of Assam. A chunk of the population migrated to the foothill region from various parts of the Brahmaputra valley and sought refuge under Naga cultivators. Apart from immigrant Bangladeshi settlers who were locally known as “Miya”, there are various other groups such as Adivasi and Nepali who migrated towards the forested foothills. These migrated populations cleared the forests and jungles and became sharecroppers with either Naga or Assamese cultivators. 

Both states claim their territoriality in the foothills, patronage the settlement of both native populations from various parts of the states and migrant populations from other parts of India and neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. The existing ethnic cleavages and multiplicity of identities in the foothills also sometimes fuel the arbitrary border conflict. 

Notwithstanding the arbitrary border conflict and ethnic cleavages, we witness the co-existence of different communities. In the whirlpool of ethnic cleavages, there are some working relations between the various ethnic identities. The cross-cutting ties and conflicting loyalties associated with the various ethnic groups promote socio-economic interdependence and enhance locally contextualised forms of cultural adaptation practices necessary for peaceful relations between various groups living in the foothills. 

The economic activities in the foothills of the Assam-Nagaland border affect the social interactions of various communities in the foothills and adjacent areas. Despite militarisation and tensions in the foothills, there exists a vibrant local economy which not only boosts the livelihood of foothill dwellers but even navigates the social interactions among various groups in the foothills. However, the economic activities in the foothills mostly take place in the form of “Shadow Exchanges”. 

This trade sometimes facilitates economic activities and at other times causes arbitrary border conflict. The economic activities whether it is formal or informal accelerate the interactions which lead to both conflict and harmonious co-existence between various communities in the foothills. Informal economic Institutions such as Haats, Reciprocal labour service and Share-Cropping practices (Adhi) promote the growth of kinship ties and socio-cultural bonding among the communities. 

The economic transactions among the various groups in the foothills also lead to the emergence of a hybrid identity like “Semiya” despite the notion of territory and identity being very strong among the native groups. 

Furthermore, the social landscape of the Assam-Nagaland foothill border tries to include a variety of segregated ethnic communities. Despite segregated ethnic identities, there are various cross-cutting ties in the foothill society which help them to co-exist and live together. These cross-cutting ties make the living together of various groups possible while maintaining their distinct identities. 

Various factors such as formal state institutions; informal socio-cultural institutions like Naamghars, Mitu Ashram, etc.; cultural adaptation practices like inter-group marriages and family adoption; using Hybrid language like Nagamese; etc. are ways devised by foothill society to maintain social order and co-existence. However, though these working relations between the various ethnic groups bring about social order in the foothill society such social order may not be very durable and consistent. The people in the foothills are living together but it is a forced collectivity emanating from a crisis of existence. However, the harmony which was visible on the surface was manufactured, mainly for the economic ties.

The assimilation processes in the border towns/villages are, however, not without some latent tensions, leading to hostility among the ethnic groups living in there. Many local people, academicians, and pressure groups are concerned about the looming hybrid identities and some specific communities such as Miyas in the border town/villages. There is an increasing trend of marriages between Naga women and immigrant Bangladeshis (Miya) in the foothill areas of Nagaland. This trend was resisted by the natives of Nagaland, which sometimes leads to violence. 

The Dimapur incident of the mob lynching of Sayed Farid Khan occurred on March 5, 2015. A mob broke into the jail, dragged him out, stripped him naked, beat him up, pelted him with stones and dragged him towards the centre of Dimapur town. Even a section of media houses and intelligentsia reported that the root of this violence could also be traced to Naga’s antipathy towards Immigrant Bangladeshi (Miya) settlers marrying Naga women.

The study “A Study on Illegal Immigration into North-East India: The Case of Nagaland” (2009, IDSA Occasional Paper No.8. New Delhi: Institute of Defence Studies & Analyses) claimed that many interviewees in the study raised concerns about the possibility of the voters’ list in Nagaland being doctored to include the Semiya as well other immigrants. Furthermore, various academicians of the region also raised their concerns about the growing aspirations of immigrants in commercial hubs and foothills of the Assam-Nagaland border. 

Patricia Mukhiem, the editor of Shillong Times in 2003, wrote an open letter to the then Chief Minister of Nagaland Neiphiu Rio, which raised concern about the threat from immigrants carving their niche in Nagaland: “It may not be too long before somebody with the power of numbers (population) demands a Union Territorial status in Dimapur. Its market areas already look like a mini-Bangladesh, albeit more lucrative.” (cited in Singh, 2009, p.25)

It is evident that though segregated communities in the foothill try to maintain their moral and ethnic boundaries, there are many sites where these ethnic groups are forced to confront social and political adversaries. Despite arbitrary state border conflict and binary of hill-valley, indigene-immigrant, outsider-insider in the foothill border, the Miyas tries to raise their social status in the local social hierarchy but encounter several resistances from the indigenous communities leading to an increase of latent tensions. Thus, foothill society is a multi-cultural society where people are living together but separately. 

The author is Assistant Professor, Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development, Guwahati. Views expressed are personal. 

Also read | Rajmukut’s Birikhor Birina: A tryst with Assam’s legendary mobile theatre

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