In 2015, Texas A&M graduate student DJ Katju used the Student Media Grant to study and photograph ethnic conflict and forest governance in Assam, India.
I am blogging from the state of Assam in northeast India, where I have commenced the second and final phase of field data collection in partial fulfillment of a doctoral degree. The overarching focus of my research is to explore how livelihoods, environmental policy and ethnicity influence the governance of the Manas Tiger and Biosphere Reserve (henceforth “MTBR”, or “Manas”).
The MTBR is located in the northwest corner of Assam and is bordered by the neighboring state of West Bengal to the west and by the sovereign nation of Bhutan along its entire northern boundary. Manas is part of the ‘Eastern Himalayas’ biodiversity hotspot and includes a diversity of forested, grassland, and wetland ecosystems. Forests comprise the predominant habitat type, ranging in diversity from semi-deciduous to broadleaved wet evergreen forests. The ‘core area’ of this sprawling reserve is composed of the Manas National Park, a world heritage site where extractive activities are strictly prohibited by law. The remaining 85% of the land area of Manas consists of three large ‘Reserved Forests’ (RFs) that allow for a very limited degree of human use of forest-based resources, and it is these forests that are the focus of my research.
The RFs of the MTBR are bordered along their entire southern boundary by landscapes of agricultural production, and are home to a diversity of ethnic groups who depend on the RFs for a variety of natural resources. Such resources include those that can be legally extracted with requisite permits from the Forest Department (e.g. fuelwood, plant parts with medicinal value) as well as those whose extraction is illegal (e.g. timber, bushmeat). In addition to natural resource extraction, an ever-present and increasing need for land functions as a significant driver for people to deforest and occupy RF land. The resultant patterns of land-use foment conflict between local communities and the Assam Forest Department (AFD) since they impact the AFD’s two primary mandates –
- biodiversity conservation and ecosystem management under ‘Project Tiger’, and
- legal timber production through the principles of scientific forestry
Mediating the interaction between people, forests and the AFD is a long-standing and ongoing struggle by an indigenous community, the Bodos, for political autonomy. The Bodos view themselves as the earliest inhabitants of much of northeast India and express concern that their culture, language, and territory is threatened by immigrants both from other parts of India as well as foreign nationals (primarily from neighboring Bangladesh). This struggle has frequently taken militant form since the early 1990s, with various insurgent outfits taking violent action against both the government and non-Bodo communities. It has had specific outcomes for patterns of land occupation (specifically encroachment) and use, both in and around the RFs, as well as driving an informal and illegal economy of timber extraction.
This research will explore livelihoods of people living adjacent to the RFs of Manas as well as those who the AFD deems as having illegally appropriated forest land. In addition to detailing local economies through formal quantitative surveys, the life worlds of communities residing in forested landscapes will be brought out through stories that express ideologies, insecurities, challenges, accomplishments, and hopes for the future. Similarly, the history and dominant narratives of the AFD will be explored in light of key environmental legislation relevant to the MTBR, and the manner in which such an interaction of ideology and policy produces actual on-ground practices of management and control will be documented. The processes through which militancy and ethnic conflict arbitrate patterns of land use as well as government function will be documented through interviews and informal discussion with both local people and forest department personnel. Detailed archival research will locate these processes within a historical framework. The outcomes of these processes for biodiversity conservation will be assessed through future sampling of forest bird communities in both forest and agricultural landscapes adjacent to the MTBR.
It is week #2 since my arrival at my research base located in a small village named Rowmari located a few kilometers north of the town of Bongaigaon (Bow-guy-gow). I am staying within the small, picturesque campus of an NGO with a focus on rural development. My tiny study table is perfectly located next to the window of my room, overlooking a large field thick with a crop of ripe mustard. It’s close to 11am on a bright winter morning and I am transcribing hastily scribbled notes from my field diary. The handwriting looks like a herd of wildebeest with ink-dipped hooves rampaged across the open sheet. As I curse silently at yet another piece of penmanship that seems virtually indecipherable, movement to my right pulls my gaze to the field on my right. A group of teenagers ranging in age from around 10 to 18 years, most with sticks in their hands, are running excitedly through the field following a couple of dogs racing through the mustard with quiet, focused intensity.
The distraction is irresistible! I grab my binoculars and peer into the heart of the action as it were. The dogs have zeroed in on and grabbed something as yet hidden by the standing crop. Some of the boys rush up to the struggling dogs and start beating at the ground with their sticks. By this time, I have ditched the binoculars for a camera and am frantically attempting to zoom in on the event-in-motion. The violence ceases after about a minute or so and other boys come rushing in.
One of the boys reaches down and pulls out something from the shrubbery. I hit the zoom as the boy holds up a limp body – it’s a hare, or more precisely an Indian Hare (Lepus nigricollis). There are many smiles and a general air of having been part of a successful hunt. Another boy has a second hare in his grip. The predatory gang, human and canid, make their way to the edge of the field with its spoils.
In a small clearing, the group mills around the dead hares, seemingly processing the successfully procured game, when the bonhomie of the scene is harshly dissipated by the arrival of a man in a purplish shirt and blue jeans. He aggressively snatches the hares from the boys and proceeds to harangue them. I immediately rush down from my room to the edge of the field so as to capture this tense altercation. The man is clearly herding the boys off the field while continuing his tirade.
Meanwhile a small audience composed of NGO staff and visitors to the campus has gathered to take in the unfolding drama. Since the interaction is occurring in a local language (Bodo) that I do not comprehend, I inquire from onlookers.
Apparently the man is the owner of the field and is upset that the boys have ventured on to his property without his permission and hunted the hares. Since he considers the game hunted on his land to be his property as well, he feels justified in having appropriated both animals for himself. He then walks away from the field, hares in hand, still scolding the boys with belligerent gestures. The boys can only look on with a sense of resignation as the fruits of their labor are hauled away.
The interaction served to highlight the significance of control over the quintessential resource of my study area – land. Within this semi-autonomous portion of western Assam informally known as ‘Bodoland’, the Bodo community, an indigenous tribe of Assam underscores its aboriginal roots with a deep connection with the land as well as its non-human inhabitants. Many Bodos that I’ve interviewed have talked about how members of their community prefer residing in the rural/countryside as opposed to urban areas. They also are of the opinion that their ancestral lands have been unfairly occupied by ‘outsiders’, both from within Assam as well as from the rest of India in direct contravention of a key law designed to curb occupation of tribal land. In this regard, particular blame is laid at the feet of the Bengali-speaking Muslim community (or Bengali Muslims), who are often labeled in a blanket manner as ‘Bangladeshis’ or in other words, illegal immigrants from the neighboring nation of Bangladesh. Local Bengali Muslims frequently contest such categorization by counter-claiming that they are legal citizens of India, though their ancestors may have hailed from East Bengal (a section of the colonial province of Bengal) that split away from post-independence India, and subsequently became the independent nation of Bangladesh in 1971.
It is noteworthy in this regard that till a major ethnic clash between the two communities in the early 1990s, the field was in possession of Bengali Muslims who fled the area leaving behind their land that was subsequently occupied by Bodo people. Debate rages on with regard to both the logic of reservation of land exclusively for tribal people, as well as conflicting legal structures that complicate the process of obtaining land within Bodoland for non-tribal communities. My project aims to engage with relevant issues of culture, indigeneity, politics, and livelihoods that determine the circumstances within which various resident communities of Bodoland either maintain control over land or lose access to it.
My doctoral advisor arrived for his first visit to both my study area as well as India. I picked him up from the Guwahati airport and after a day of sightseeing we were off to Bodoland. The first stop in our trip on the morning of February 10, 2015 was the village of Deosri, a mere 15 kilometers south of the international border between India and Bhutan. In the final week of December 2014, ethnic conflict had broken out between the Bodo (see blog post #1 for a brief description) and Adivasi communities. The Adivasis, a tribal group native to parts of central India were brought into Assam during India’s colonial period by the British as a labor force to work in the production of two key commodities – tea and timber.
Within my study area, the Adivasis had primarily worked in logging operations. Legal timber extraction in the area had been halted since the last three decades and since then the Adivasis have depended largely on subsistence farming and the sale of non-timber resources extracted both legally and illegally from the forests of the Manas Tiger Reserve (MTR). They have also occupied forested land under the jurisdictional control of the Forest Department, hence being labeled as ‘encroachers’.
On receiving news that Bodo militants had attacked and killed members of their community in other parts of Bodoland, Adivasis in the Deosri area went on a rampage, destroying dwellings in nearby Bodo villages. They demolished houses whole or in part and burnt down granaries where an entire year’s worth of grain was stored.
Though Bodos did retaliate by similarly attacking and destroying most of an Adivasi village near Deosri, major bloodshed was prevented through the mediation of responsible ‘civil society’ groups of both communities. Fearing further attacks, both Bodos and Adivasis moved into ‘refugee camps’. We first visited an Adivasi camp where conditions were appalling.
Packed into tents of plastic and canvas that barely offered any relief from cold nights, residents lacked access to drinking water and basic sanitation. Women had to trek almost a kilometer to a nearby rivulet to painstakingly collect potable water.
Conditions at a Bodo camp were marginally better, seemingly because there were fewer residents.
We learnt from a local NGO that the government machinery had virtually ignored camp residents in general and had declared the camps ‘closed’ a few days after their formation. Through such denial of on-ground conditions, the administration ended up not being technically responsible for providing relief and could get away with claiming the lack of existence of a problem. However, we did observe a religion-based organization providing a modicum of relief to members of the Adivasi camp.
The roots of current conflict between the Bodos and the Adivasis are particularly interesting. Both fit the traditional description of a ‘tribe’ as being a social group whose existence is external to the purview of a modern State or government, and that follows a largely self-sufficient mode of material existence significantly different from dominant, mainstream society. During the course of my field research, it has become increasingly clear that both communities tend to follow modes of agricultural production that are more subsistence-based, largely organic (minimal use of agro-chemicals), and involve use of locally developed varieties of grain rather than high-yield varieties available in the market. Hence, their agriculture does not typically result in surplus production. However, the Bodos demonstrate various indicators of being a so-called ‘upwardly mobile’ group that is increasingly integrating with dominant modes of development. Armed with both increased political power (through a semi-autonomous Bodoland) and with actual fire-power (the result of decades of militancy that has flooded the countryside with automatic weapons), they can definitely be viewed as a community on the move. The Adivasis on the other hand remain one of the most socio-politically marginalized groups in my study area.
In light of the existing socio-political dynamics, it is interesting that Bodo opinions frequently reflect a perceived threat from the Adivasis, especially with regard to land occupation adjacent to and within the MTR. Such opinions are noteworthy given that a significant measure of incursion into MTR land has been by members of the Bodo community. On a related note, Bodos in general are not in favor of Adivasi attempts to obtain a ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (ST) status within Assam, though the former have such status in the Indian states from where they were brought by the British colonial administration to work the tea and timber plantations of Assam. Under a 2006 piece of legislation, such status enables legal possession of land occupied prior to 2003. Interestingly, many Bodos I spoke to expressed regret at the current state of Adivasi-Bodo relations citing socio-cultural as well as socio-ecological similarities, and in doing so seemed to consider Adivasis as fellow-tribals. In conclusion, this brief blog-post brings out the conflicting, contradictory, and layered relationship between the Bodos and Adivasis that centers around control over land, involves a simultaneous recognition and denial of the latter’s ‘tribal’ nature and is steeped in a history involving both colonial and post-independence government policy and action.
I would like to thank the Howard G. Buffett Foundation Chair on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University Student Media Grants Program for their support in continuing my doctoral research. Additionally, thanks and recognition is due to the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences, the Applied Biodiversity Science Program, Drs. Tom Lacher, Amanda Stronza, Paul Robbins, and Gerard Kyle. – DJ Katju
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