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The challenge of customary laws of indigenous people of North-east

Shekhar Engti
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Raja Devashis Roy has pointed out that challenge for judicial pluralism and customary laws of indigenous people’s apart from other challenges of customary laws today, there are other challenges that need to be met by indigenous society in order to protect its cultural rights and integrity. Among these, the most difficult ones are those that come form indigenous society itself. This is specially the case in the urban and peri-urban indigenous settlements where the influence of customary social rules based upon oral traditions, ritual and customary are relatively weakened than in rural areas. In more and more cases, the former practices of communities responding collectively to challenges facing them are responded to by families and individuals. This is both weakening traditional social ties and making the youth more susceptible to cultural influences coming from outside, while providing no opportunity to them to learn about and practice of their traditional indigenous culture. Rather it influences in terms of packaging, style, fashion and entertainment values.

The basic premise of the Constitution provisions was that the customary law of indigenous communities would be taken seriously in the administration of justice and in the governance of village inhabited by these groups. To a large extent this was policy followed by the British till 1947. Since Independence , the Indian government fine-turned this policy of non interference in the local such government of the indigenous people of north east India and gave it constitutional sanction. In doing this, the framer of the constitution were guided a philosophy , which insisted on preserving the tribal ethos and culture, while at the sametime making to integrate the people belonging to the region in to the Indian mainstream. The intent was to preserve the diverse lifestyles, customs and systems of governance in such away that it did not threaten national interest and security.

Since India attained independence, a plethora of efforts has been made by the government of India to address the demand of autonomy from various tribal communities of North-east India. These demands range from claims for autonomy in various degrees within the constitution of India to outright secession and establishment of sovereign states. Lurking behind these demands for autonomy is apparent the tribal fear of mainstream culture and identity subsuming theirs. Though various constitututional provisions and political packages of these communities were given the hope that their socio-culture practices and self governing institutions would be safeguarded and their region would be allow develop along the line of their own regions. All these constitutional provisions, political arrangement and administrative packages, whether it be fifth and sixth schedule of the constitution or the special article carved out in the constitution for the creation of states like Nagaland or Mizoram have in one way or other engaged the customary laws of tribal communities in the project of state formation. The process by which constitutional provisions have the customary law of tribal communities in formation of state was the proper subject of this study. Two tribal communities of the north-east, namely the Angamis of Nagaland and the Garos of Meghalaya, were compared and contrasted in the interface customary law with constitututional provisions in order to study the process of state formation in North-east India.

In the 21st century, a good number of Indian tribals, particularly the Nagas, are stating to live in urban areas, losing contact with their reservation and other members of their tribes. This makes in harder for these urban Indian to express and reinforce their cultures. Sometimes the closest they come to is at the big city pow wows where dances and customs are reduced to pan Indian and stereotypes. As pow wow announcer Randy Edmonds put it, “Many tribals have lost their own traditions. They have lost their own dances, and pretty must lost their language. So in order to restrain our Naganess one has to borrow from another community to keep that Naganess going.” Not to exaggerate the situation is the same with the case of the other tribals in the North-east India .

The North-eastern States are a melting pot of different racial groups partly segregated from the mainstream by geography and culture. Unlike others, many communities of the North-eastern states have very little by way of recorded history and written literature. In the absence of written records, the mythological accounts, legends and culture to posterity. For ages these customs have been imbibed in their oral tradition and then handed down for one regeneration to the next. For many communities of the North-east still customary law is the most important law in their lives, controlling their areas like marriages, right to inherit property etc. The customary laws are sources of International law hence it is legally binding in the Statute of International Court of Justice.

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