Maintaining and Recognition of Tribal Identities


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To accommodate every tribe in the nation building process by giving them equal social and political status is what has not yet been tried. This is proposed because under democratic dispensation, redesigning or artificially constructing tribal identity may rather become a nemesis for undoing tribal unity and it will not augur well for the idea of building nationality that the Nagas are aspiring for. Hence, there is a need to adopt federal approach by recognising diversities that has been manifested in their assertions of interest among them.

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Codification of Customery Laws?

Tribal identity is primarily linked to the land and customary laws. Ethnic and tribal conflicts mainly arose from the contradiction between the community-managed tribal sustenance and the formal law of the state that depends on property and individual ownership. The legal reality of the colonial land laws recognising only private property is in opposition to the social reality of the tribal community-based livelihood.

A way has to be found of modernising tradition in the spirit of the customary law that has kept changing according to need. It can change again to suit the present needs. The Sixth Schedule is the solution many tribes have been demanding all over India. The Naga tribes of Manipur have been demanding it without success. The Sixth Schedule, if understood creatively, can provide a solution both to the question of the modernising the customary law and to the issue of Naga Unification.

The first step in stopping inter-tribal conflicts is to recognise the customary laws for civil administration. Can codification be the answer? The Hindu, Muslim and Christian Personal laws that are codification of their practices seem to have become obstacles to progress. The Christian Marriage Act and the Muslim laws belong to the 19th century. Since the Hindu law is of 1956 it has some elements of gender equity but not adequate. The Parliament amended it in 2005 to give equal succession rights to women.

All the Christian denominations came together in 1990 to draft new marriage, adoption and succession acts for their communities. All their supreme decision-making bodies approved and presented them to the Central Government in 1992. They are gathering dust there. After a long dialogue, only the clause on divorce was amended in 2001 (Agnes 2002). These and other experiences indicate that codification of tribal laws can result in the same type of stagnation and go against pluralism that may exist even within a tribe. For example, there are substantial differences in the customary law of the Kuki living in Manipur and in Assam because a law evolves from one’s life experience.

Also commitment to the tradition changes according to the degree to which it applies to one. Such flexibility can die if a single interpretation is imposed through codification, worse still if the customary laws of several tribes are brought together into a single code. Such a levelling of differences can cut at the very root of diversity and become an attack on their identity.

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