“The world suffers a lot not because of the violence of the bad people but because of the silence of good people” – Author unknown

Northeast India comprises eight states popularly known as the eight sisters: Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura. The northeastern region is surrounded by the foreign territories of Bhutan, Tibet-China, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. A long narrow piece of land bridges the eight sisters in the west with West Bengal and the rest of India. Northeast India’s official population is 31,547,314, of which the tribal population officially numbers 8,142,624, or 25.81% of the entire population.

I have adopted an activist’s perspective in the writing of this article and focus primarily on accounts of human rights violations by the government and government-affiliated agencies. As such, for many, this article may seem to lack an academic technicality or neutrality. Yet for many others, this will

introduce them to several basic concepts to any discussion of human rights. I intend to break the silence on the terrible theatrics which describes the prevailing conditions tribal peoples in Northeast India face, a subject so morally confronting that it cannot be adequately broached with a completely objective voice. Neither can this topic be fully appreciated by a distant observer. I therefore invite you to join me in pricking our minds and consciences in attempts to understand human rights issues in Northeast India.

Human Rights: a universal concept

Human rights are entitlements inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to these rights without discrimination by the simple virtue of being human. These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible.

Universal human rights are often expressed and guaranteed by law. These guarantees

take the form of national constitutions, common law, treaties and conventions in international law, general principles and other moral or civil codes. International human rights law specifically establishes the obligations of Governments to act, or refrain from acting, in certain ways to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms of individuals and groups.

Nature of Human Rights

Universal and inalienable – The principle of universality of human rights law is the declarations, and resolutions of 1948, and duty of States to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems. This declaration was enshrined in the 1993 Vienna World Conference on Human Rights, which extends equality of entitlement to every human being.

Human rights are also inalienable. This means that on the basis on being a human, an individual already possesses rights. These rights in themselves cannot actually be taken away, but they may be ignored, violated and denied through acts that deprive the human of the objects those rights guarantee (e.g. life, liberty, security of person). This is the foundation upon which rights discourse is built.

It is important to note that rights are not ends in themselves but a guarantee to those ends – right to the freedom of speech, for example, is not the same as freedom of speech itself. In any particular situation, the former (the entitlement to freedom of speech) prescribes, the latter describes (already having freedom of speech). Rights necessarily have coeval duties or obligations, which States are obliged to bear, and rights discourse only makes sense where rights are being denied. We can only talk meaningfully about entitlement

to something if we are unable or do not currently possess that thing. I will return to this later when discussing the rights of tribal communities in Northeast India.

Interdependent and indivisible – All human rights are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent. The improvement of one right facilitates advancement of the others. Likewise, the deprivation of one right adversely affects the others. Respecting and protecting a person’s right to security of person will naturally strengthen a person’s right to life, for instance.

Equal and non-discriminatory – Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This is a normative statement in which no human being’s life and liberty is worth more or less than another person’s life and liberty.

Both Rights and Obligations – Because equality is integral to the exercise and protection of rights, states, communities and individuals have to bear corresponding duties to ensure every individual’s rights are guaranteed. The obligation is both moral and legal – to enjoy your own rights, you must never deprive others from enjoying theirs.

Reflection on general concerns – Amongst the more than 47 Human Rights issues identified by the United Nations, twenty- nine issues address concerns particular to tribal (minority) communities:

‚ Adequate Housing
‚ Civil and Political Rights: Human Rights
Committee (HRC)
‚ Climate Change
‚ Cultural Rights: Independent Expert in
the field of cultural rights
‚ Democracy: Rule of Law – Democracy and
Human Rights

‚ Development (Good Governance and
Debt): Foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States to protect the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social, cultural rights and right to development
‚ Discrimination
‚ Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
‚ Education: Right to education, world
programme for human rights education
‚ Environment: adverse effects of the
movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights
‚ Food: Right to food
‚ Freedom of Opinion and Expression:
combatting advocacy of religious hatred that incites discrimination, hostility or violence. Promoting and protecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression
‚ Freedom of Religion and Belief
‚ Gender: Women’s Rights and Gender
‚ Health: Elimination of discrimination
against persons affected by leprosy and their family members on the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
‚ Human Rights and International
‚ Human Rights Education and Training
‚ Indigenous Peoples: Rights of Indigenous
Peoples , on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples and populations.
‚ Migration: Protection of the Rights of All
Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW) .On the human rights of migrants.
‚ Millennium Development Goals (MDG)
and Human Rights
‚ Minority issues
‚ Poverty: the rights of the poor
‚ Slavery: Working Group on contemporary
forms of slavery
‚ Terrorism: countering terrorism

‚ Torture: on Prevention of Torture
‚ Trafficking in Persons: women and
‚ Water and Sanitation: access to safe
drinking water and sanitation
‚ Women: Elimination of Discrimination
against Women (CEDAW), violence against women, its causes and consequences

Tribal (Minority) Rights – Tribal people form over 8.2% of India’s population, according to the 2001 census. While 27% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line, a disproportionate 50% of the over 93 million indigenous people live below the poverty line according to Planning Commission data of 2004. The indigenous tribal peoples are the unique and precious “children of the land”. Many still live in the swiftly disappearing and degrading forests in the states of Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, and other categorically different north-eastern states. The main objective of publicising the need to protect the human rights of these minorities is not only their socio-economic and cultural development, but also the preservation of their identity as forest people who still claim that the forests, streams and other resources like natural springs belong to them as their inalienable birth-right. Helping these individuals from tribal societies grow freely and naturally in their own, most natural habitat, speaking their native tongues, in their own traditional manner and fully possessed of legal and social equality is the concern of every civilised person.

Cultural rights – Culture is the cornerstone of identity, and comprises a community’s unique language, art, literature, set of beliefs, worldview, mannerisms, customs, history, folklore, diet, dress, music, sport, aspirations, familial networks, architecture, etc. Because culture is integral to the diversity

of humanity and to every individual who necessarily defines and locates himself or herself relative to the rest of society, it deserves to be protected.

Forest rights – The Government has, under the guise of forest conservation, robbed tribal communities of their main, if not only, resource and livelihood i.e. forest lands and water. The government also plans to forcibly evict these tribal communities from forested areas – ostensibly for the sake of forest conservation and the safety of wildlife. There is a glaring lack of transparency with regards to how that bill is relevant to other laws such as the Wildlife (Protection) Amendment Act
2002 (WLPA), the Indian Forest Act 1927 (IFA) and the Forest Conservation Act 1980 (FCA).

Land rights – Many members of tribal communities have been victimised through various projects waged in the name of the country’s economic development. Land grabbing by the government has become a perennial problem.

Mining and other industrial projects irreversibly lay to waste wide swathes of forest. The dispossessed tribal peoples are neither compensated nor consulted in the process, and the government rarely bears the responsibility of relocating these communities and finding them new employment. Families are unable to support themselves and often resort to criminal activities or other degrading forms of “livelihood” (scavenging). Scattered, the community’s culture (language and customs) will be quickly lost. To find themselves poor, hungry, unemployed and discriminated against will create a new bitterness and disillusionment with the state within the displaced peoples. Social unrest, environmental degradation and loss

of natural resources, increase in crime and homelessness in big cities are some of the many resulting problems that will assail the entire country for having made the callous decision to sacrifice human rights to economic imperative.

Water rights – Clean water is crucial to sustaining life; access to water is therefore essential to the right to life. By introducing “noble” schemes of irrigation, hydroelectricity (which necessitates damming projects), cash-crop cultivation, the Government has deprived many tribal communities of water. This artificial “drought” will force communities to move and render previously fertile land and forest barren. This will in turn also affect the fauna in that habitat. Tribal communities deserve to have specifically designated and adequately large and clean water catchment areas inasmuch as they deserve to live, and these minorities have a right to life equal in importance to the right of an official or voting parliamentarian to life.

Socioeconomic problem – Most members of tribal communities, particularly women, are illiterate. They have poor health, lifespans shorter than the national average and children who suffer chronic malnutrition and various related diseases. Such appalling conditions further impoverish and disempower these communities. Displaced tribal people often find themselves dispersed into lands and cities wherein they cannot understand or communicate effectively in the predominant language, adapt to the diet (if they are able to find food at all) or be socially accepted. Their identities and physical survival is at stake in such situations. Many of them are cruelly forced to work as day-labourers in the very lands they have been uprooted from, often at the fringes of almost entirely denuded forests.

Constitutional Rights – The Indian Constitution states that the Indian government is responsible for the lives and safety of its citizens. Yet the government seldom acknowledges the spirit of such a declaration, particularly in relation to tribal rights. One potent example is the special provision in Article 371A to establish a Nagaland state in the northeast so that the rights of this community may be protected. The current situation of tribal communities in Northeast India, however, flies in the face of such weak resolutions and empty promises by a government that superficially accepts its title as duty-bearer but refuses to actually bear the duty of providing for and protecting its people.

Thought-provoking issues: abstract from media report

Human rights were initially conceived of precisely to protect the oppression of minorities by dominant cultures and peoples. Genocide in Nazi Germany, in Rwanda, in Sudan and elsewhere are examples in which morally reprehensible acts sponsored, endorsed and enacted by the majority against minorities outraged the human conscience and gave birth to human rights discourse.

Today, the number of tribal women deceived into concubinage and prostitution by Hindu “plains people” in the name of marriage outnumbers even the large number of land dispute cases. Yet laws permit the violation of tribal women’s rights in northeast India.

Marriage by capture, mutual love and elopement and marriage by service are socially accepted ways of acquiring mates among the tribal peoples, whereas such acts are prohibited in mainstream Hindu society. On the other hand, concubines and prostitutes are part of the Hindu value system but are not permitted in tribal communities.

Such conflicting value systems introduce and exacerbate tension in society, with the dominant culture or group (in this case, the Hindus) imposes its values and worldviews on the minorities and enforces these prejudices, inequalities and customs through law. A legal system constructed on numerical biases is composed of individuals sharing that same cultural bigotry and intolerance, all the fiercer for the opposition mounted by cultural minorities. Many tribal women have been tricked into becoming concubines and prostitutes although they expected to be formally married. The men who wrong these women escape legal responsibility for their atrocious treatment of these unsuspecting tribal women by invoking the Hindu Marriage Act. Should we then conclude that the legalised bulldozing of human dignity and justice is fair and morally acceptable? There is so much more Indian authorities can offer the tribal peoples and the wider Indian nation by actively protecting and providing for these downtrodden individuals, and by offering sufficient legal and financial assistance for victims to seek redress.

In The Hindu, Wednesday, December, 23, 1992, Rajahmundry pointed out that

“Many people from the plains deceive tribal women in the name of marriage. When the tribal women go to court for maintenance, the judgments went against them. While dealing with these cases he wanted the tribal customs to be taken into account. Among tribals, a concubine is treated on par with the legal wife”.

The Hindu, Wednesday July 15, 1992, “PLAIN EXPLOITATION OF TRIBAL WOMEN”

“….The exploitation of tribal women has been going on unabated. They are victims of different value systems. Protectors of the rights of tribal women suggest that a solution

to the problem can be found only by placing the tribal women’s rights to maintenance in the statute book and allowing for tribal panchayats to enforce these payments and represent the tribal women. What is, however, immediately needed is creating awareness among people that such exploitation has been taking place for many decades”.

Surrogacy victims: Mostly tribal women are being targeted for chipper charge and lesser legal work (according to NDTV report).

Effect of climate change – Climate change affects the most vulnerable segments of society. In India, over 70% of the population lives in rural areas and have to cope with the unpredictable natural environment. The government of India has a duty to guarantee the rights of all people affected by the uncontrollable natural elements and take need-specific action to insulate these people against the destruction of their homes and livelihoods. The government has the legal-constitutional and moral obligation to protect land rights of those who lose their lands and other property due to erosion by rivers, drought, floods, cyclones and landslides without discrimination. If it so happens that tribal communities are the main group affected due to their homes being in the affected areas, the government is still obliged to render all possible help. If the communities are relocated, the government has to actively prevent discrimination against them and seek employment in their new homes. Only be being responsible and responsive can the Indian government prove its credibility and noble commitment to its people. Only by acting to protect its people rights can the government be deserving of its mandate.

The stark and gross violation of not only human rights but also their rights to be human

is observed by various research groups. The tribal people have been criminally deprived, displaced and dispossessed of their cultural and traditional rights too under the garb of “national and economic development”. Tribals have been deceived, neglected, robbed, raped, murdered, treated as second class citizens and animals in the very lands that have always belonged to them – this is patently unfair, oppressive and morally repugnant.


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Hesheto Y. Chishi

 Dr. Hesheto Y. Chishi is the founder and Director of Indigenous Cultural Society Nagaland, India. A social activist by profession and a researcher, apart from his academic researches he has published six Research book, Seven Unpublished Research book, 29 Articles on social Issues and 79 Research Papers at International, National and Regional level. He is also associated with different International, national and regional organizations; CHR India Chapter, WNTA, TESPRO (UK)., WMPA and a Study Board member Patkai Christian College (Autonomous) Nagaland.