Preserving Assam’s indigenous culture: Government’s step for dedicated department felicitous

Greatest danger to Assam’s tribal identity is domination by western influence 

Assam government's felicitous step for indigenous people Photo: iStock

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), on its very first session, requested UN to prepare a report on the state of the world’s indigenous people (SOWIP). 

SOWIP’s first publication in 2021 revealed certain alarming data on the state of the indigenous people’s poverty, health, education, employment, human rights, environment, among others. 

On September 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP). It contains provisions that indigenous people and communities can use to protect and preserve their rights and heritage. As many as 146 countries have adopted the declaration and also have given a commitment to respect the provisions in it.

The indigenous culture of India carries within itself an amalgamation of integration, unification and synthesisation of socio-cultural demonstrations belonging to the Mongoloids, Negritos, Australoids and Nordics. 

In the case of Assam, its culture is a result of the continuous exchange of ideas and practices between the Indo-Aryans and the tribals. But with the advent of globalisation and inflow of intra- and inter-nation cultural migration, there has been an adverse effect on the ethnicity of the region. 

The direct outcome of it is the loss of many ethnic practices ranging from festivals to customs to food habits as well as dressing and living standards. 

Unity in cultural diversity 

The conspicuous fact is that, although Assam consists of many tribes, the major tribes include pre-dominantly Bodo, Karbi, Mising, Sonowal-Kacharis, Deori, Rabha, Dimasa, Tiwa, Tai-Phake, Singpho, Kuki, Khelma and the Tea-tribes. 

Each of these tribes are unique in their own ways and, therefore, it is important to know their basic facets, preserve and protect their cultural heritage. 

Bodos and Karbis depend on agriculture as their primary means of occupation, but the seasonal festivals of Bodos include Baisagu, Domashi and Katrigacha, alongside the religious festival Kherai. 

But the main festivals of Karbis include Rongker and Hacha Kekan. The misings are another major tribe of Assam who are dependent on agriculture. The women of this community are known for their weaving art and they celebrate festivals like Ali-Ai-Ligang and Porag. 

The Sonowal-Kacharis have a common belief that nature is still alive with invisible forces, deities and spirits. The tribe celebrates the three Bihus — Bohag Bihu, Rongali Bihu and Kati Bihu — with great fun and gaiety. 

The Deoris, on the other hand, speak a Tibeto-Burman language — also known as Deori — and they celebrate festivals like Ibaku Bisu, Magiyo Bisu and Joydam. Dance and music are an important part of the lifestyle of rabhas and most of the rituals that they perform are accompanied by dance to please the deity. 

The tribe Dimasa lives on river banks and Bushu is their most important festival. The Tiwas speak a Tibeto-Burman language, but the mother tongue of a majority of the tribe is Assamese.

People of the Tiwa tribe are associated with the Gobha kingdom, and the relevance of the Gobha king can be still found in contemporary times in the form of a fair called Junbeel Mela. 

Kukis are Tibeto-Burman people who are spread throughout the northeastern states of India. An important event in the history of this tribe was the acceptance of Christianity that was influenced by the missionaries. 

The Tea-tribe is also one of the prominent tribes of Assam and they are also known as adivasis. They have different dance forms like Jumur Santhali, Chhau, Karam and Sambalpuria.   

Assam has always displayed immense respect and reverence to all the different kinds of cultural practices and customs of tribes. The denizens of Assam in the contemporary times, however, have been either deliberately forced or willingly influenced by the outflow of a western culture to move away from their practice of respecting cultures and traditions of different tribes. This has resulted in creation of many untoward activities. 

The famous Chandubi festival, which is regarded as a means to celebrate the rich tribal ethnicity, has lost its essence with the introduction of western culture in the form of food items. 

Similarly, while Assam is known for its indigenous celebration of holi, locally called doul utsav, the Indianised version of La Tomatina and rain dance have affected the traditional practices of holi celebrations to a great extent. 

The tribes of Assam are also unique in their dressing styles and the westernised form of wardrobe changes that our people have embraced has also adversely impacted the traditional attires of the tribes.

In reality, a region can thrive in the longer run if its distinctive dialects, culture, traditions, customs and practices are preserved as well as promoted. In order to enhance the longevity of a region's ethno-diversity, it is pivotal to safeguard the tribal aspirations, from which the branches of diversified cultural heritage strengthen. 

Felicitous step

Therefore, understanding the importance of preserving and promoting the rich cultural identity of Assam, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had a dialogue with the representatives of 30 tribal communities in March 2022. 

Earlier, he expressed his desire to introduce a specific department known as Indigenous and Tribal Faith and Culture Department for promoting and preserving the tribal history and heritage. 

Accordingly, after the approval of the Assam Cabinet, the Assam governor ordered July 30, 2021 the introduction of the department with immediate effect. Thus, Assam became the second state in the northeast to introduce such a department.  

This felicitous step of the government needs to be appreciated. But in order to achieve the goals the CM has set, the department needs to take certain prudent steps. 

It first needs to bridge the gap between age-old traditions and customs of Assam and the interest of the younger generation towards it. Only then, can it forward the state's unique culture and tradition at the global level. 

For doing so, the department should focus on recruiting appropriate researchers to extensively study on different tribes of the state. Once the extensive research is completed, the department needs to focus on promoting the unique research details of each tribe by various seminars, exhibitions and practices. 

But the greatest danger the tribal identity of Assam faces is the domination by western influence and that is something the department should administratively handle. 

The department should also timely engage in talks with representatives of each tribe and try to inculcate in them the sense of belongingness alongside other dwellers. 

Such steps, if taken, can definitely uplift the very purpose of establishing the department and can solve the age-old problem of the web of tribal indifference.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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