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AWAAZ IN FOCUS: Post-conflict reconstruction of the tribal communities

Dr. Samrat Sinha
Associate Professor,
Jindal School of International Affairs

1. How does the term ‘Tribe’ differ from the term ‘Adivasi’? There has been an ongoing debate about the term ‘Adivasi’ and the people who are categorized as being part of the Adivasi community. It is observed that the term ‘Adivasi’ resonates more with the tribal people in Central India (places like Jharkhand) than the people in North East India. Why is this so? Do you think there should be a redefinition and recategorization of who should be considered as belonging to the ‘Adivasi’ community?

The term Adivasi is a term that is still in use and at the same time, an encompassing term. The application of the term Adivasi is more dominant and correlates with the tribes in Central India, in states such as Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, etc. term.

The term has a historic connotation, but it is important to remember that several other sub-tribes are also identified by this term. There is a debate going on vis-a-vis the usage of the term. In the case of Assam, there is a distinction between using the term ‘Adivasi’ and ‘Tribe’. When one is trying to look at those disparities in livelihood, healthcare, etc., there are two competing categorizations.

One is the government’s categorization, for which one must study the work by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and look at the classification of tribes and the specific constitutional protections that were assigned to them.

The term ‘Scheduled Tribe’ is very broad in itself and refers to the tribes in the Northeast as well.

The tribes in the North-East have a slightly different history from the tribes in Central India. The term Adivasi in Assam is used commonly by the community themselves. The same community is present in other states of the North-East such as Nagaland. The key connection between all these communities is the way British Colonialismplayed out in the Indian subcontinent.

In the case of Assam, the community was closely connected with the political economy of British colonialism. Their entry into these areas from Central India (through the indentured labour system) was for enabling forest clearance and providing labour for tea-gardens (in North Bengal and Assam).

When you look at the establishment of colonialism in the Northeast, it was a duality of administration in Hills and Plains districts of undivided Assam- they created institutions and mechanisms by which they had separate forms of governance for the tribal communities (especially in mountainous regions) but weaker forms of protections in plains (example Upper and Western Assam).

The British also attributed the ideas of backwardness to these communities. The term ‘Backwardness’ was coined in terms of access to development, development indicators, education, etc. In the post-independence era, the state tried to take a protectionist approach towards various tribal groups, and for that one has to take a look at the agency of the tribal group.

This was borne out of non-violent and violent agitations. It is interesting to look at Central India because a lot of the tribal movements against British Rule took place there, but were put down very brutally. The developments in North-East frontier had a distinct approach.

.It was seen more as a frontier society, and British intervention was not that deep- in terms of trying to influence the tribes or weaken their social structures. They always maintained some sense of separatism and autonomy from the main colonial bureaucratic machinery.

The British approach towards the areas covered by modern states like Nagaland, Meghalaya, etc was quite distinct in terms of integration into the British empire.

2. How does one demarcate the situation of on-going conflict and the process of post-conflict reconstruction? In other words, is there an end to the conflict, or can it be said that it is never-ending?

The idea of strife itself has a very long history, but that history was always preceded by degrees of peaceful and non-violent movements for self-determination. Most communities only resorted to arms and participation in insurgency due to two or three dimensions.

There were also localized factors that led to strife. When one looks at the armed violence and conflict, one realizes that the Central Government was the weapon of last resort. Looking at undivided Assam there were discrepancies in the development paradigm. The state capacity during those times was also weak, whether it was the state, police, or mechanisms available for accommodating people’s aspirations.

Many tribal communities saw British Colonialism as an empowering force and not necessarily as oppression. This is because the tribes in the North-East wanted to gradually come closer and align themselves with the Centre as a policy of protection.

Interestingly, in the Indian case, regardless of the levels of violence that several regions of the Northeast have seen and witnessed historically, as well as the high levels of suffering that people have endured over the last 50-60 years, the political negotiations have always remained open.

Another ignored aspect is that societies can build back themselves from this intense conflict as well and these local capacities are extremely important. The example of Bodoland is the best to explain this.

heir capacity to start looking ahead in terms of movement and reshaping their key interests stemmed from a negotiations perspective as well as a community perspective. When one looks at tribal movements, it is important to understand that popular narratives focus only on conflict. Underlying that layer of strife is also a layer of pre-existing connections that don’t break down. This is counter-intuitive to what we understand about conflict.

There are a lot of pre-existing relationships that allow seemingly conflicted ethnic communities to build back and there is a need to identify the local capacities for peace. The State’s role in peacebuilding is important but requires alignment with community processes.

n most conflicts, communities themselves have had enough internal, social, economic, and political resources to mobilize and bridge those differences. It only occurs after a lot of effort by the local-level civil society organizations and political leadership. In most cases, the local capacity is the strongest mechanism.

This is being correlated with the literature on humanitarian response and peacebuilding. Regardless of the level of violence in Bodoland, this is one society that has witnessed approaches that sought to bridge ethnic divides. Post-conflict reconstruction has to be done in a way that captures these local level connectors and strengthens them.

3. Since conflict is not a legally recognized situation, what are the various ways in which help is extended by the state (if any) for post-conflict reconstruction – of livelihood, culture, habitat, etc. ?

In the application of international humanitarian law to internal conflicts, the situation is such that it does agree to the application of any international norms as it is a domestic matter. Although these conflicts are looked at from a law and order perspective, there are special schemes in place for providing some kind of assistance to the conflict-affected communities. It a policy space that has not had a lot of work done on it.

However, the government of India, through the Ministry of Home Affairs has separate sets of programs that are implemented specifically for the victims of violence.

There are four or five schemes that require a lot of advocacy work and they require to be improved. This is because, in the case of India, the state is the biggest humanitarian actor (in terms of capacity) and not NGOs. Most of these schemes are implemented at the district level.

There are three sets of schemes. One is the scheme launched in 2010 for the assistance of victims of terrorism and communal and Naxal violence. Recently they have now added cross-border shelling and IED attacks. This provides direct rehabilitation for victims of conflict.

At the state level, there is something known as one-time assistance schemes called ex-gratia, for victims of conflict mainly administered by the state government. Another layer is called Project assist, specifically for children.

This is to create norms and provide rehabilitation for children of victims of conflict. This is done through MHA through the National Foundation for Communal Harmony (NFCH). There are also state-level schemes, border area schemes and there are also development schemes run by the security forces that help in local development work and can be used indirectly to mitigate the costs of conflict. These are called civic action programs.

These schemes are administered separately and have a separate policy space. However, at the local level, there is overlap in the nodal authorities. These schemes are not prioritized often. The last problem is that the victims themselves have to prove their victimhood. This leads to a lot of potential beneficiaries falling off of the scheme due to poor information.

4. We know that there is a huge lacuna when it comes to the State’s response to uniquely positioned tribal conflicts and state administration in remote areas. In that aspect, what is the role that non-state actors play i.e. NGO’s?

When one is talking about conflict, it is very challenging for the communities because most of the time, they are left on their own to rebuild. When the question of what is the role of state and non-state actors comes in, the state can do the work, and it is better that the state does it because the local level institutions will remain and they have a consistent flow of funding.

NGOs are always in a constraint of funding. As a consequence, their programs might be good; but these are independent of what the state is trying to do. Many NGOs have very limited capacities. They might have very good local links but their capacity to rebuild a conflict-affected society over a long period is constrained. Only the state can bear the costs of these long-term rehabilitation projects.

Thus, there is a need for dialogue and cooperation between the state and NGOs. NGOs are especially well-positioned to understand community-level processes and suggest new models of rehabilitation. India has very few post-conflict reconstruction programs through which peace-building and infrastructure-building exercises were well aligned.

Specific to the past situation is Assam. In terms of internal forced displacement despite significant numbers, we do not know the trajectories taken to rebuild their lives, given that minimal support was received from the state.

You also have the problem of having multiple levels of administration in certain post-conflict areas. These are places that come under the Sixth Schedule, which means that there is an autonomous council, the state administration, and the central administration – how you navigate these levels of administration becomes a challenge for these civil society organizations.

One also has to keep in mind that there are a large number of community-based organizations that played a significant role in advocating for and implementing the rehabilitation program. In the end, an outside-based humanitarian organization can only do this much.

It’s either the state or the community that must ultimately develop the solutions that are contextually appropriate.

5. How do the state and non-state actors (NGOs) synergize to work for the betterment of the community and in what ways are the non-state actors able to help such conflict-ridden population, how does their funding work, are they comprised of people from within the conflict areas or foreigners?

In the specific context of Western Assam mentioned earlier, there were three major layers. One is large-scale organizations– either nationally based or international. These organizations have a huge capacity to mitigate in the initial stages of the conflict, especially when it came to sustaining life in relief camps. The second layer is development organizations that are based out of that region and have been working for a long time.

The third is community-based organizations. It is a combination of all these layers. If one is doing a project, you need to know which organization is relevant for what aspect. It is also essential because most humanitarian response organizations don’t necessarily stay for too long. They always work with an exit plan. Community-based organizations and developmental organizations always remain and they have closer links with society.

I’m not saying that NGOs are not important. They do fill a certain gap, but the true success of an NGO is if it can slowly stop working; if the society itself becomes strong enough to monitor the government schemes, encourage accountability, and conduct its own social audits.

If the idea of securing rights and entitlements comes from within the community, and the mechanisms are strong enough to negotiate with the state actors, that is also a vision of sustainability. NGOs play a role of serving as a link between government and society and have developed models that work very well.

One also has to keep in mind that there are a large number of community-based organizations that play a significant role in advocating for and implementing the rehabilitation program. In the end, an outside-based humanitarian organization can only do this much.

It is the government models that also need to be adaptive. They need to have a holistic vision of human security when they are implementing programs and ensure real community consultation. It is a mixed picture, and one has to make a judgment concerning this issue, but there is a serious necessity for cross-sectoral collaboration.

6. We are aware that a post-conflict reconstruction also implies a long-term establishment of the displaced community in the temporary camps that were built for them at the time of the conflict. To that effect – how does the process of their rehabilitation take place (if at all)? If not, how are they rehabilitated at some other place?

It is a very complicated problem. Given the number of people who were displaced, population tracking is very difficult. However, when you study these camps, one thing stands out: the camp management communities collect their data most accurately.

That is because, as they had the largest stake in the rehabilitation process, they depend on it for their daily survival. Also, the costs are multi-dimensional: children’s schooling gets discontinued, access to hospitals is disrupted, there is very little privacy, poor access to water, and food supplies are dwindling.

Within the camp, there is also a high degree of social violence (including domestic violence). There are a lot of mental health issues that occur post the trauma incurred either during the conflict or what they see in these camps. They live with this trauma and that fact always lives within them.

When you are looking at peacebuilding and reconciliation, it is a long-term project. Does the state have the capacity to strengthen the capacity for providing mental health services for the long term? Even though you have frameworks such as the psychosocial responses to conflict how many people (are providing) and can be provided these services?

The key is whether the community leaves the camp stronger or not. The other issue is not only loss of development entitlements, but the fact that you lose your social linkage with the other community and you start to look at them as hostile. How do you build this back? A fascinating development in Bodoland that took place post-2015 was that the local community organization (both Bodos and Adivasis) came together to prevent further outbreaks of violence.

I think that the key is to tap into this pre-existing linkage that already exists. But the issue is also that the humanitarian organizations will not work with these community-based organizations because neutrality and impartiality are their working principles. So you cannot engage in the conflict as actors, as your work is only relief. But if you do want to partake in peacebuilding, you will have to engage in local political processes.

The Bodo conflict is very important because it has given a signal that if the community wants to secure peace, it is possible. A conflict is not an abstract category, there are significant human costs, but also potentialities for social capital to be incorporated into potential structures of peace. You have to understand the role of community organizations and it is only when they come together that anything finally happens. The 2020 Peace Accord is very interesting because you can see these communities’ ability to bridge these intense conflicts. I am actually hopeful for the future and the possibilities of peace if the accord is implemented holistically.

There is work coming out of academic institutions (regarding the Bodoland conflict) that unfortunately have a very deterministic view of human nature.

The use of the word “conflict” is misleading because one cannot label an entire community or a geographical area as a conflict-affected area. There is a high degree of variation. For building peace you have to understand the local level variation, understand the connectors and understand the societies very deeply; and, then make that judgment.

Not all societies want to be conflict-affected; they have an inbuilt mechanism of peace, it is just that these works haven’t documented it. Also, you can have interesting results which might be unforeseen. During the peak of the emergency in 2015, an external humanitarian NGO experimented with unconditional cash transfers.

Cash transfers in emergencies tend to be conditional with restrictions, but they transferred cash to people in the relief camps in their project locations, unconditionally. Interestingly it led to the revival of local markets that had temporarily collapsed.

The local markets in the project areas have a significant Nepali population (who are looked at as neutral) who significantly control the markets. With time both the Bodos and Adivasis from the relief camps started accessing the markets for day-to-day purchases; and, that indirectly worked as a channel for reviving prior linkages that had been disrupted.

Unfortunately, such models do not get documented and a lot of research on the context of Bodoland (also the Northeast) does not seek to study local capacities for peace or examine community solutions and privilege conflict factors.

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