Millennium Post

Heeding the nuances

The ethnic groups of original native inhabitants continue to be associated with and reside in their respective places across the world. These indigenous people are granted rights over land, collectively of individually. The land rights remain a fundamental part of identity of indigenous people for numerous reasons, the most prominent ones being political and economic reasons pertaining to self-determination and system of society and livelihood. Land is a major economic asset given that it is the wellspring of natural resources other than forest, on which the indigenous people are heavily dependent and have their household economy based on it. In modern times when development mushrooms and generally not in a very systematic manner, a greater scope for livelihood is made available to the indigenous people in addition to the provisions pertaining to their ethnic identities; and in spite of this, the security and permanence of the control of indigenous people over their land (and its resource base) is a matter of great significance whether or not they exercise direct ownership of the land. With respect to this, various national level provisions are formalised to address this concern. Land being an instrument of inheritance, it is of crucial significance that laws pertaining to residency take into account this aspect. In the more specific context of the northeastern state of Assam which has been witnessing unrest and agitations against the Union government's decision to implement the new citizenship law in state already grappling with the conflict of ethnic and linguistic indentities with migrants coming from across the national border. The rising protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 have resulted in the death of five people in the state, while the nationwide toll is at least 23. In view of this, Assam announced in reassurance that the new law will protect the 'indigenous' land rights amid Citizenship Act protests. The state's Finance Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma said that sale of land of 'indigenous persons' to 'infiltrators' would be outlawed and the state government announced a number of measures for the protection the land rights of the natives of the state, and for preserving Assamese language and culture. The upcoming Assembly session is announced to be having in discussion two new laws: the first one about securing land rights of indigenous people, the outlines of which have been discussed in the Cabinet ; and after this legislation, the sale and purchase of land of indigenous persons could only be within the community of indigenous people. The second law pertains to preserving land surrounding the heritage sites of Assam—which includes the Vaishnavite monasteries known as Xatras—and thus to preventing any kind of illegal occupation or sale of it.

The government of Assam is faced immediately with the challenge of containing raging anger over the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the measures announced Saturday, would do little to calm down the situation. The state's definition of 'indigenous' people is one that is filled with risk. In the light of this, a committee set up to determine this as part of implementation of an Assam Accord clause is dealing with contesting cut-off dates. The definition of 'indigenous' person brings with it a contentious matter and so, a committee set up is awaited to implement Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. "Otherwise, we have readied a definition of our own… The basic motto of the law is that an indigenous can sell land to an indigenous — a Himanta Biswa Sarma can sell to a Chandan Brahma but a Himanta Biswa Sarma cannot sell to an infiltrator, whether he has come in 1951 or 1971… not even if he has come in 1941. That means our land will be preserved for our people," the Minister said, adding that the state government has asked the Centre to "suitably amend" Article 345 of the Constitution "to make Assamese state language". This move would subsequently make Assamese language a compulsory subject in all English, Hindi and Bengali schools up to class 10. But, this provision, however, will not be applicable in hills districts and Barak Valley which is dominated by Bengali speaking people. The demand for tribal autonomous councils of Mising, Rabha, Sonowal Kachari, Thengal Kachari, Deori and Tiwa communities to get "constitutional status" will qualify them to receive Central grants. According to Clause 6 of the Assam Accord, "Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of Assamese people." A high-level committee is expected to come out with suggestions regarding the implementation of Clause 6 of the Accord, and before that, consonance with stakeholders to reach a consensus on the definition of 'indigenous' people, amidst various contesting cut-off years, is the task ahead for the government. Assam has adequately been the prototype of how the blanket implementation of the new Citizenship law is likely an unreasonabley challenging task, and that the local nuances of regions across the country are critical to this exercise.

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