Inter village boundary disputes are the results of inability to reconcile primitive senses of ethnicity with the postmodern world

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

The perennial border tension between villages along Nagaland-Manipur border needs to be looked at from a different standpoint by both the sides. They can neither be settled with justice from the standpoint of modern jurisprudence of the modern state alone, as much as they cannot be left to the devices of primitive laws of yore which laid a premium on the understanding that might as right. In other words, the eagerness of zealots to portray these issues as Nagaland state versus Manipur state must be restrained, as much as the tendencies of these villagers to take the law into their own hands with bigger villages coercing smaller ones into submission.

These villages have been neighbours for longer than the living memory of most of their inhabitants. They would probably have shared memories of common crises as any neighbours who have shared the same living space for so long would. Care however must be taken not to romanticise these memories of co-existence, for it is also a known fact that they were not always pleasant ones. Indeed, as an elder in Liyai village said during a visit by this author last year, once upon a time, in the days of head hunting, these neighbouring villages were mutual enemies, perpetually devising strategies to either raid the other village or ward off possible murderous raids the other, thereby too preoccupied to leave aside much energy for any other creative pursuits.

Much water has flowed down the many rivers that originate from these mountain ranges since then – the ushering in of democratic modernism and the arrival of Christianity and its gospel of universal brotherhood, being two very important one. But quite interestingly, the elder narrated one more reason. He said in the reconciliation reached between the various villages in his region, one beacon many of the peace makers held up was the prosperity of the valley people because they do not hunt each other down and therefore in the absence of the paralysing insecurity of being killed and beheaded by enemy villages, they could far more easily divert their energy to other activities that brought progress to their society.

Violence does not pay. This lesson so eloquently articulated by the elder, is not contextual at all, and should be appreciated as universal by one and all, most urgently by present day Manipur as a whole, where newer forms of violence and corruption have become unholy partners feeding and fattening on each others’ spoils, and condemning the society to another one hundred years of solitude.

The trouble in these village land disputes seems to be one of an inability to shift land and their ownership related paradigms in tune with the progress in the modern world. The days of the old paradigms have invariably changed irreversibly, but old have not been adequately replaced by appropriate new ones. Indeed, what shows up as new land arbitration mechanisms, have often been dangerous mutants which are neither adhering to the traditional customary codes nor modern jurisprudence. The complaints of Tungjoy villagers, as reported in the press recently, about its long standing land dispute with neighbouring Chakeshang village in Nagaland, Khezhakenoma, and the manner in which Nagaland Armed Police, NAP, posts newly set up in the latter village are openly partisan in the arbitration process, is just one example. While the Manipur government must also instil and ensure confidence to villages on its side of the border that their interest would not be allowed to be hurt, it must however not encourage the build up of a hostile atmosphere by matching up the NAP’s presence and alleged aggression, with its own armed police posts.

The village in question, as well as the two state governments must sit down together and thrash out the issue at their different levels amicably. The heavens are not going to fall if these villages decide to commonly own the disputed lands. These are times where boundaries and borders are melting everywhere. Kineche Ohame’s notion of the region states, predicting in the late 20th Century that the walls of nation states would come down, is beginning to dawn on the most progressive of regions of the world, and here we are continuing to build walls of a past era, now discarded all over the world. The ASEAN and EU in particular have been showing the way. The Russian Federation, SAARC, GMSR etc are also following suit. Regions are becoming the new economic and political reality, so why must we continue to insist on fragmenting further. We cannot continue to battle our present on the basis of 50-60 year old slogans and hope to move forward, can we?

The trouble also is, we place so much faith in colonial cartography parameters introduced by the West during the colonial days. Linear boundaries were virtually unknown to the Eastern universe, whereas, the Western universe was never comfortable without linear boundaries around themselves. The easy way to agree on boundaries in the Western universe was to resort to prominent landmarks, such as the crest of the mountain ranges, water sheds these mountain ranges serve as, rivers, the lines where hills and plains meet etc.

Being the dominant culture, these cartography markers also have come to be universally standardised as most just, pragmatic and reasonable. Much of the boundary disputes in the former colonies in the post-colonial world are legacies of this different worldviews.

In uninhabited stretches of land, these markers may work fine, though not always, as is seen in the Aksai Chin dispute between India and China, but where the landscape is not devoid of demography, problems would understandably and unmistakably arise. Where in the pre-colonial world would values evolve that prohibit villages from one side of a mountain stream to cross the stream and cultivate on the other side of the stream? Or how would a mountain crest inspire a sense of boundary to a traditional village, and inhibit them from going to the mountainside other than where their village is located, to hunt or gather food?

Indeed, if a mountain range runs in the north-south direction, it is quite likely one side gets very little or no sunlight, while the other side gets all the sun, making for totally different ecological environments between the two sides of the same mountain – one side marked by ferny, mossy vegetation, and the other side blessed with a plant kingdom that only abundant sunshine can support. So why would not villages on either side want to have the benefit of both sides of the crest.

My point is, a new paradigm of land and ownership, that fits the modern world, but also filters out the best from past wisdom is the need of the hour. What we don’t need are modern police forces, with modern weapons, sabre rattling and making war cries driven by the primal instincts of the past head hunting era. Let the boundaries where these conflicts exist be softened so the villagers can evolve ways of sharing and mutually benefitting, rather than erect more boundary pillars and state armed police posts ready to wage wars. If such posts are essential, let it be to provide the sense of security that a benevolent administration can provide their citizens, and not to make war with neighbours.

Not too long ago, it was Jessami in Ukhrul where trouble broke out. It will be recalled, trouble broke out when a BSF camp located on the border on the Manipur side of the border was occupied by Nagaland Armed Police, NAP, after the BSF vacated the premises. The interesting fact is, both sides had no issue on the matter as long as a central force was the occupant of the premises perhaps in the understanding that the force belonged to both or to neither as the case may be, and also that its occupation would not be permanent. The minute the NAP moved in, the question of territory arose, initially between adjacent villages on either side of the border, but before long the matter became an interstate issue.

The issue however is not unique and numerous border disputes exists at many different levels not just between states, but also between districts of a state, as the news of the Zeliangrong Students Union, ZSU, protesting a land acquisition move at Kamranga Khasia village by the Jiribam administration for a government project of setting up a Police Training Centre, claiming the village land falls within jurisdiction Zeliangrong tribe dominated Tousem sub-division of Tamenglong district, bears evidence. Such disputes exist even between villages.

If there is any vital lesson to be learnt from these episodes, it is the need not just of the government, but of the people at large, to respect traditional outlooks and at the same time accommodate the demands of modern polity and administration. The consequence of any failure to do this is, among others, a dreary stagnation of the mind which would then be a perennial stumbling block to all modern development projects.

Not any less would be the kind of conflict of interest with potentials for violence as witnessed at Jessami, Tungjoy, Dzuko Valley etc. The skirmishes also manifest in other forms. As for instance, in the manner in which seven Assembly segments in the unreserved valley district of Thoubal have become entrapped in the reserved Outer Manipur Parliamentary constituency where the villagers have only the right to vote but not to contest. It is also there in the resistance of the hill districts of Manipur to the introduction of any modern land tenure system, the Manipur Land Revenue and Reforms Act in particular, or in the de facto existence of a separate district called Sadar Hills with headquarters in Kangpokpi, although de jure it is still part of the Senapati district, not for anything else, but because of objections of Nagas to what they believe is a bifurcation of their traditional homeland by the official creation of a separate Sadar Hills, comprising largely of Kuki majority areas.

Traces of this same contradiction can be seen in the campaign for and against the introduction of the 6th Schedule in Manipur as well, and in fact, it is also evident in the clash of notions of territory between what the NSCN(IM) proposes to be “Greater Nagaland” and those of neighbouring communities.

The hill-valley divide in Manipur, which is today reduced almost to the status of a cliché in journalism and academics, is an apt metaphor of this dichotomy between tradition and modern. On a positive note, perhaps it is in the imaginative resolution to this metaphoric struggle that the difficult frontier between the ethnic world and the inevitable modern world ahead can be gainfully mapped and traversed.

The challenge is to ensure ethnic worldviews are not destroyed, for outside them, ethnic communities have been known to lose their sense of purpose and inner motivations. High rates of alcoholism, drugs abuse, HIV/AIDS prevalence, juvenile delinquency, low self esteem, promiscuity etc in Manipur and many northeast states in modern times may already be an indication of such a depletion of collective morale. The challenge is also equally to usher in the modern at a pace and in idioms that the traditional ethnic societies can comprehend, absorb and internalise without detriment. Both these projects are vital and both must be accommodated into a “post-modern” system in which the two are not mutually exclusive.

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