Quest for Ethnic Identity Amongst the Misings of Assam
Siva Nath Pait
Department of History
‘Ethnicity’ is now a widely prevalent word. It is found operating at international, national, regional and local levels. The North Eastern region of India is no exception. Being the home of several, culturally, linguistically and racially distinguished groups having their own socio-political aspirations, it is perhaps more intense and more complex than any other parts of the country or the world. The rise of an elite group among many of them has further added to complexity of the situation. As Paul R. brass has observed, “In a different context true to the process of ethic formation the dynamic determined by economic and political realities, has made it a dominant factor in the politics of the region.”
In the modern times the identity crisis is inherent in a society undergoing rapid changes as in North- East India particularly among the tribal. The politics of North-East has been increasingly besieged by the movements of various ethnic groups for maintaining distinct ethnic identity. Since the demographic composition of this region is diverse with various ethnic groups, having different languages, cultures and customs, the ethnic assertions of this region are mostly linguistic and cultural in nature. In the post-independence period in a bid to maintain distinct lingo-cultural identity, most of the ethnic groups of this region have been demanding either autonomous or separate state or their demand were conceded creating new states from the original state of composite Assam. However, the demands for either separate or autonomous state on the basis of ethnic identity have not ended yet. After independence the development of communication brought these communities closer to Christianity, Hinduism, and Vaishnavism, and interaction with the alien culture ushered in rapid transformation of these societies. Political domination by the alien people was time to time postured by the tribal. The seeds of feudalism and division of population into classes brought impact on their social structure. It is important to note that Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram have witnessed the rise of a variety of ethnic movements at different stages of its political evolution in the era of independence. However in recent years the situation is seen fast changing and today we find inter-ethnic clashes in many areas. Thus the ethnicism continues to be a major factor in moulding the nature of politics of the North East. This paper however deals with the ethnic assertion of the Misings of Assam.
The Misings a major section of tribal population live in the Brahmaputra Valley with their distinctive identity. The Misings form a part and parcel of what may be called the Assamese main stream. They are ethnically belonged to Tibeto-Burman groups who were originally hill tribes. In the past they inhabited in the range of Miri hills in between the present Siang and Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh. Their folk literature suggests that the Mising had migrated to the plains and began to settle mainly in both the banks of the Brahmaputra River about many hundred years ago. According to 1961 Census of India their population was estimated at 1,63,453 in persons; and according to 1971 Census of India their population was estimated at 2,59,551 and they are found mostly in the district of Dibrugarh, Lakhimpur, Dhemaji, Jorhat, Sibsagar, Golaghat, Sonitpur, Tinsukia and Darrang with the highest concentration of their population in undivided Lakhimpur district. At present total population of the Mising is about 8 lakhs (Exact census figure is not available yet) but it was not so in the beginning. Their population had greatly increased by addition of many runaway families from the hills and assimilation of people.
The Misings have their own traditions, customs, religious beliefs practices and languages. The language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family of Indo-Chinese group which is akin to the Adi language. The tribe that’s the Mising has a rich folk literature which reflects their sentiments and feelings, social norms and values, historical events associated with their migration from the hills to the plains as well as social, political events experienced in their life.
During the colonial regime, like other ethnic groups the Misings remained backward educationally, socially, economically and even politically. Hence, they wanted to develop the community culturally, economically, politically and socially for maintaining their own distinct identity. In fact, they do not like to be submerged by the dominant Assamese caste Hindu culture. It needs to be mentioned that the culture does not necessarily imply the cultures of the Assamese caste Hindu alone. Different ethnic groups of Assam also contributed their respective shares in the formation of a composite Assamese culture. The Misings of Assam also made great deal of contribution towards this process.
So the Misings began to feel that they are markedly different from the rest of the Assamese society. Their attitude towards the dominant section of the Assamese is likely to be governed by mutual suspicion and mistrust. They felt the need of a common platform among them to fight for the upliftment of tribal communities in Assam. Even after independence it appeared to the Mising elite that they are being exploited and neglected by the dominant section of the Assamese society. It appears to them that they are much more backward than other sections of the Assamese society in many respects. Having failed to occupy any prominent place in the society as well as in the governmental structure, they felt humiliated and oppressed by the advanced section of the Assamese society. The growing sense of negligence and deprivations of this community, led them to develop a sense of distinctness and gradually they became articulate in the pursuit of preserving socio-cultural identity which culminated in the formation of the socio-cultural organizations among them such as ‘MISING AGOM KEBANG (1972) ( Mising Sahitya Sabha)’ MISING DIRBI KEBANG (1980) (Mising Cultural Organization) etc. The Mising educated elite very strongly felt the necessity of forming such socio-cultural organizations for the upliftment of the community. Since the beginning, these organizations have been struggling for the preservation of Mising language and culture. The introduction of the Bodo and Karbi languages as medium of instruction, the Misings too have started to demand for recognition of their language as medium of instruction. The language movement of 1972 further reinforced the linguistics demands of the Misings. The Misings Agom Kebang (Mising Sahitya Sabha) formed in April 1972 has since then devoted much of its time to the language affairs. The All Mising Students Union (TMPK) and Bane Kebang (Mising People Conference) contributed greatly in establishing the Mising language as a subject of study in class III and IV of primary schools since 1986 and also extracted a promise from the government to make it a medium of instruction in the schools of the Mising dominated areas of the state.
The existence of Murkongselek area was actually unknown to the Government of Assam till 1912, when the British Government brought it under the administration after the British expedition against the Abors (Adis) in 1911. The administration of the areas was totally based on customary rule. Though the Government was empowered with authority over this frontier tract, it was taken to be exercised not by virtue of the provision applicable to “Excluded Area”of the Government of India Act of 1935, but as the agent of the Governor general under section 123 of the same Act (vide notification no 1-x dated 1st April, 1937 of Government of India in external affairs department.) on the cost burn by the central government and the central government was thus inclined to treat this tract as tribal area within the meaning of section 311 of the Government of India Act. The administration of this tract such as Balipara Frontier Tract is undivided Darrang district and Sadiya Frontier Tract including Murkongselek area was brought under the Assam Frontier administration of justice regulating Act 1945 with effect from 15th of November 1945. The significant feature of this Act was that the political officer posted in this areas were empowered with full power for administration of justice and then local tribal people were asked to deal with their own disputes according to their tribal customary laws except the cases of heinous crimes.
The “Assam Land Revenue Regulation 1886” was amended in 1947 (The Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act (1947) to which the chapter (x), comprising sections from 160 to 171 were added there in the various measures for the protection and preservation of tribal lands. Accordingly, 333 nos. of Tribal Belts and Blocks comprising 122,02,702,00 bighas of land were created in the plains districts of Assam. The leaders of the Misings community complained that the said Belt and Blocks are only in papers. The Govt. of Assam has never been sincere in protecting them. Thus, the question of protecting tribal lands within Tribal Belts and Blocks originally covering 1,09,73,673 bighas seems to be nobody’s business. They are now being driven out from the Tribal Belts and Blocks turning them landless. Now, they are roaming from forest to forest and begging from the Revenue Minister for a plot of land. Perhaps this situation has led to serious stagnation in the development activities of the Mising people.
It is to mention that these tribes subsist primarily on agricultural economy based on production of rice, mustard seeds, pulses and vegetables. Rice is their staple food. The rice is produced mainly for domestic consumption where mustard seeds and pulses are produced for commercial purposes. However, the main source of income for an average Mising family is livestock namely fowls, pigs, goats etc. With the growing process of population employment in various fields other than agriculture is negligible during post-independence period. Moreover, they face the problems like land, employment, flood, education etc, which still remains unsolved. The Mising hoped that the government will look into all problems with sincere and full sympathy for immediate fulfillment of their problems. But the Government and men in power in all times have been neglecting the demands of the Mising people which may create repercussion problems and grievances relating to land, employment, flood, erosion, education, border and property which badly needed prompt initiatives and action of the state government for immediate solution.
Belts and Blocks in the areas of the Mising tribe were not protected and no administrative measures were taken to protect these belts and blocks for which encroachment took place in the tribal belts and blocks. Even permanent land settlement in the tribal areas has not yet done. As a result, most of the Misings do not have land patta though they have possessed a particular plot of land since time immemorial. As such, they cannot receive any loan and any other financial assistance from the government because they have nothing to mortgage in exchange. The recurring visit of the devastating flood and perennial erosion is one of the major problems of Assam. As the Mising people live beside the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries, they are the worst sufferers of the floods and erosions. As a result, Thousands of people lose their lands and property annually and have to move from one place to another in search of land for shelter. Due to recurring on slough of floods and erosions and the resultant landlessness, the Argo-based economy of the Mising people is in a shambles. On the other hand when drought condition prevails, crops fail for want of irrigation. There is no modern irrigation system of any kinds in areas inhabited by the Misings. Because of unscientific method adopted by the government, the river beds have been getting shallower and shallower every year resulting in greater and greater devastation by floods. The embankments that are constructed are often weak and so there are frequent breaches of such embankments in the Mising localities causing untold miseries to the Mising people. It is because of such wrong and half hearted measures that the devastation caused by floods is increasing from year to year. But no governmental initiatives have so far been taken in this regard. So the Mising elite began to feel that all round development of their respective community is not possible without adequate share of political power. Therefore, they have come to realize that in order to politically powerful they must consolidate and organize their communities on the basis of their socio-cultural identity. In view of this the emerging educated elite of the Misings rightly or wrongly became conscious of the fact that their respective communities were deprived and discriminated. It appeared to them that during British rule the caste Hindu Assamese elite became dominant in all spheres of life. Therefore they had developed a sense of alienation from the main stream of the Assamese society. The political and cultural domination of a particular group would naturally annoy and alienate the weaker groups and lead to suspicion, hatred and disintegration. The progress of the Assamese society can be accomplished when the constituent groups are recognized as distinct groups taking into cognizance the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the weaker ethnic groups. This would help the weaker groups to develop a sense of belonging to a larger whole. In fact all groups should have their rightful place in the mainstream to achieve unity of a composite society.
Movement for ethnic identity as a matter of fact, accounts for economic inequality, social injustice and political deprivation. Regarded as vulnerable section of the society, the tribal communities need protection not only in respect of political and economic rights but also in social justice. This is why the Misings are agitating to occupy a rightful place in the composite Assamese society and organized themselves on the basis of their distinct socio-cultural traits in a bid to maintain their respective identity. It is generally assumed that the maintenance of distinct identity would alienate them from the mainstream of Assamese society. But the Misings just want to maintain distinct identity within the greater composite Assamese society through autonomy status only to uplift their socio-economic condition In fact they realized that maintenance of a distinct identity is inextricably linked with the socio-economic development of the community. As a measure of maintaining distinct identity they started to launch various agitations demanding autonomy on the basis of their lingo- cultural identity .
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