Documenting the Northeast's tribal laws

Land is central to the tribal identity in the region too easily abbreviated 'northeast'. Jeuti baruah knows this too well. As director of the Law research Centre, Guwahati, she is constantly discovering how friable these identities are in the face of constant change and integration into the 21st century. She is in charge of a huge project: her brief, as per the North East Council -- the nodal Union government body overseeing development in the region -- is nothing less than documenting the customary laws of the region's scheduled tribes, with a special focus on the land-holding system

 
By Nitin Sethi
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Documenting the Northeast's tribal laws

The21st century beckons Land is central to the tribal identity in the region too easily abbreviated 'northeast'. Jeuti baruah knows this too well. As director of the Law research Centre, Guwahati, she is constantly discovering how friable these identities are in the face of constant change and integration into the 21st century. She is in charge of a huge project: her brief, as per the North East Council -- the nodal Union government body overseeing development in the region -- is nothing less than documenting the customary laws of the region's scheduled tribes, with a special focus on the land-holding system.

The project will cover more than 200 tribes in five years. Sitting in a second floor office in Guwahati High Court, she is an anxious bundle of energy. "Between April 1, 2003 and March 31, 2004 we have decided to complete documentation of 31 tribes' customary laws. We will have to complete work on forty or so tribes each of the following four years," she explains. The centre has eight teams of two researchers, each working full time in different states at present. The project is guided by an advisory committee, headed by the chief justice of Guwahati High Court and has the law secretary of each of the seven states and all the judges on board as members. "Each law secretary provided us the list of tribes to document. The onus of listing remained with them. Once that was decided, we picked up the 31 tribes for this year. It included the Apatani and Mishmi in Arunachal Pradesh, Khasi and Jaintia in Meghalaya, Karbi in Assam, Angami and Lotha in Nagaland and Jamatia and Mog in Tripura."

The research teams go to tribal regions with a detailed questionnaire that helps delineate the customary laws and the social context. They hold discussions with the district councils, villagers and village elders to prepare a field report.Then a workshop is held with all the informants, which the deputy commissioner of the region chairs. Once the report has been adopted at the workshop, the Guwahati office sends it to a chosen referee for peer review. "In Arunachal Pradesh we have requested a professor, who is an Apatani himself, to review the report. For Karbi Anglong, a renowned expert on the region, Rong Bong Tarong, will be reviewing our work," Baruah explains. The reports are then presented to the advisory committee for approval.
First time? Baruah was in fact a research officer when, for the first time, the Law Research Centre documented customary laws of 13 tribes in the 1980s. Today as director, she knows of dramatic changes. Many of the societies are no more purely agrarian; they are trying hard to forge an identity in a fast penetrating global economy. Each tribe presents peculiar complexities. The Khasi and Jaintia matrilineal culture, for instance, is in a churn. "There is reluctance on the part of some men to stay in the bride's house after marriage. People's relations are not hinged as strongly to cultivation and land. If we do not document these changes the tribes shall lose their identity and their pride," Baruah warns.

But, she clarifies, the project will only document the laws, not codify them. Only the legislature of each state can do that. Only Mizoram has codified their laws, till date, and is in the process of updating the mizo hmam dam (customary law). The centre tries to keep its documentation flexible, incorporating, as annexure, work done by tribal heads themselves, as in the case of the Karbi.

The documentation process should help the higher levels of the judiciary understand better the social and customary matrix of the tribes, as the increased onset of 'modernity' in the 'northeast' throws up a growing number of cases of litigation.

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