“They are Taking our Land”: A Comparative Perspective on Indigeneity and Alterity in Meghalaya and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Ellen Bal (VU University Amsterdam) and Eva Gerharz (Ruhr‐University Bochum)

The border region of Bangladesh, India, and Burma has been the scene of dozens of tribal autonomy conflicts since the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 (Baruah 2007). These conflicts have unsettled the whole region, impacted international relations, threatened national stability, and caused a deep sense of insecurity among the locals. The majority of these conflicts pivot on ‘sons‐of‐the-soil’ claims, invoking notions of autochthony to legitimize occupational rights to lands and regional autonomy (Cf. Vandekerckhove 2009). Most conflicts link up to the globalized discourse on indigenous rights, which has been particularly powerful since 1993 (the United Nations’ ‘Year for Indigenous Peoples’).

Our paper addresses the notions of citizenship, indigeneity and alterity (otherness) at work in Meghalaya and the Chittagong Hill Tracts from a comparative perspective. Although a number of similar issues are at stake, the situations in the two regions differ, partly because of different political contexts which frame these discourses. British colonial policies had been geared towards the isolation of the hills from the plains in order to secure the available resources for the colonial state (Van Schendel 1992). Independent India continued such particularistic policies, granting a special position to the so‐called tribal North-east Indian hill states (Vandekerckhove 2009, 53). However, the subsequent governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh (since 1971) moved towards inclusion of the tribal territories. In the Chittagong Hill Tracts this attempt of national inclusion resulted in a vicious war between indigenous insurgents and the state. The Peace Accord of 1997 has not solved the local problems and conflicts, which are mainly related to ‘land‐grabbing’ by Bengali settlers.

The day‐to‐day realities in Bangladesh and India show recurring processes of dispossession and dislocation in favor of the state, rich landowners, large (transnational) corporations, etc. Such processes have not been limited to minorities. Moreover, they are taking place under very different circumstances, taking into account that India’s federal system has resulted in an alteration of minority‐majority relations in Meghalaya, whereas self‐determination of the indigenous population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts has been denied until today. We argue that the ‘sons‐of‐the‐soil’ frame is underpinned by a dichotomous imagination of indigenous people as victims and outsiders/settlers as perpetrators and that it conceals rather than uncovers the complexity of the contemporary situation. Causes for the enduring tensions are the heavy militarization (in the CHT), forced evictions from land, immigration and land‐grabbing, inter‐ and intra ethnic conflicts, the involvement of the army and/or of the national state, unresolved land issues, deforestation and erosion, and increasing conflicts over natural resources. Considering the relative weakness of the state in both contexts, the feeble (local) governments, and the presence of a strong army and/or insurgent groups, it seems likely that tensions will increase. Finding solutions to these problems requires a thorough analysis of minority‐majority‐relations and politics of indigeneity at, and between the different administrative levels.